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A foolproof dessert for the ooh-la-la effect

Marialisa Calta
United Feature Syndicate

Some people don’t cook – they bake. They can pipe rosettes in their sleep, weave a lattice crust with one hand tied behind their back and whip up a seven-layer cake before breakfast. But there are those of us who don’t bake – we cook. And while we can happily confit a duck leg, reduce a sauce or stuff a mushroom, our blood runs cold when we are required to produce a baked dessert. We may strive for something that says “ooh la la,” but whatever we make comes out looking more like “ouch.”

For everyone in the nonbaking boat, here is a foolproof dessert guaranteed to make your guests happy and you look like a hero. Cream puffs may seem old school, but they are glamorous little bites that will make it seem as if you know your way around a pastry kitchen when you bring them to the table.

The pastry part of a cream puff is a classic French recipe called “pate a choux,” or “cabbage pastry,” for the way the baked product resembles (work with me here) a tiny cabbage. Historians can’t pin the date or place of its creation, but by the 18th century, it was extremely popular in France, Germany and England. My bet is that it was popular because it is so hard to mess up. The pastry has only four ingredients (water, butter, flour, eggs) and can be filled with nothing more elaborate than whipped cream.

The recipe here is from “River Run Cookbook” by Jimmy and Maya Kennedy and me (HarperCollins 2001). I usually choose to fill them with a mixture of chocolate, cream and cream cheese, but when raspberries are in season, I’ve used the berry filling, too. The key is to drizzle the finished puffs liberally with melted chocolate – this is the finishing touch that makes you look like a pro. Ooh-la-la: You’ve got it covered.

CREAM PUFFS

For the cream puffs:

1 cup water

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 eggs, at room temperature

For the chocolate filling:

6 ounces semisweet chocolate

6 ounces cream cheese, at room

temperature

1⁄2 cup confectioners’ sugar

3⁄4 cup heavy (whipping) cream

For the berry filling:

2 cups heavy (whipping) cream

2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1 cup fresh berries, hulled and chopped (if necessary), or more, to taste

For serving:

2 ounces semisweet or bittersweet

chocolate, chopped

Center a rack in the oven, and preheat the oven to 400 F. Line 2 cookie sheets with baking parchment.

In a saucepan, combine the water and butter, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low, slowly add the flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture begins to clear the sides of the pan. Remove from heat, and add the eggs, one at a time, beating quickly and continuously so they don’t scramble. Wait until 1 egg is fully incorporated before adding another.

Form the dough into about 16 rounded mounds on the prepared baking sheets. (Each puff will take about 1 tablespoon dough.) Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden brown all over. Allow them to cool. The pastry is best made the day it is to be served, but it can be made up to a day in advance and kept in an airtight container until needed, or frozen for up to 1 month.

To make the chocolate filling: Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler over very hot water or in a microwave (1 minute on high, then stir vigorously and check every 10 seconds) or in a pot set over low heat (stir constantly). Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese and sugar together until very creamy. Beat in the melted chocolate. In another bowl, whip the cream until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold the whipping cream into the chocolate mixture, mixing well until the filling is all one color, with no streaks.

To make the berry filling: Beat the heavy cream and sugar until stiff peaks form. Gently stir in the fruit until evenly distributed.

To serve: Slice the cream puffs in half horizontally, and heap the bottom half with filling. Put the top on, and pile them on a serving platter.

Chop the 2 ounces of chocolate and melt it. Drizzle it generously over the tops of the cream puffs. If some gets on the platter, just consider it “artistic.” Serve within a couple of hours of assembling.

Yield: 16 cream puffs

Recipe from “River Run Cookbook” by Jimmy and Maya Kennedy and Marialisa Calta (HarperCollins, 2001)

• Marialisa Calta is the author of “Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the American Family” (Perigee, 2005). For more information, go to http://www.marialisacalta.com.