The other day, the Chef and I were driving toward his restaurant, ready for another day at the office (as he would say). It was the day after Thanksgiving, the day of feasting and overeating, so you would think we would be sated on food talk. Oh no. Not us.
He had printed off that week’s menu from Chez Panisse, and he was reading it to me as I drove. As is true for most chefs, I’m sure, my Chef is obsessed with other people’s menus. He stops at the front window of any restaurant we pass, even the ones we know are mediocre, and studies the specials and lists of entrees. We look up our favorite restaurants online and see what they are serving. The Chef would never copy a dish directly, but this studying does inspire some fabulous ideas of his own. (It’s much like me reading novels and MFK Fisher and other people’s blogs.) It’s an essential part of what we do. We never work alone.
So there it was, the day after Thanksgiving, and he is reading me one inspired dish after dessert after meal. Neither one of us has ever been to Chez Panisse, but both of us have always wanted to go. (Oh, perhaps the honeymoon?) As soon as I came to know the world of good food, I knew of Alice Waters and her endeavors. Of course, as soon as I started reading David Lebovitz’s wonderful, snarky blog (and then met him!), I knew that I wanted to go where he used to be the pastry even more. The Chef? It is one of his biggest dreams, to eat within that home.
He read fish dishes and local vegetables and inspired choices, all of which sounded fantastic. But I don’t remember them, because I heard something that made my gut twinge open. Meyer lemon cream puffs.
“Meyer lemon cream puffs?” I said, as we slowed to a stop light.
“Yep,” he said, intending to go on.
I didn’t hear anything else after that. Inside my head, I just heard, Meyer lemon cream puffs. Meyer lemon cream puffs.
The Chef saw my face and laughed. He knows me well now. He knows when some idea has taken hold.
I love Meyer lemons. Last year, I invented a Meyer lemon sorbet, which I have made many times since. I made simple syrups with Meyer lemons, lemon meringue pie with Meyer lemons, and sprayed their juices over meats and salads. When they were gone, I missed them. But now, it’s Meyer lemon season again. I’m in heaven.
Now, I have never made cream puffs before. I have only eaten them on special occasions. They always seemed like confections that only master bakers could make, even before I could eat gluten.
But in a continuing series of explorations in yes since I was diagnosed with celiac, I knew that I could not go the rest of my life without making cream puffs. Paradoxically, because they would be gluten-free, I did not feel any compulsion for these to be any good. No one expects that much of gluten-free baked goods anyway, right?
Last night, the Chef looked over my shoulder as I stirred a påte a choux, or a warm pastry dough, to form into puff pastry [oops! that should read cream puffs. thanks, lee]. Just the phrase påte a choux would have intimidated me before my celiac diagnosis. But now, I just know it’s water, butter, a bit of sugar, and salt, plus gluten-free flours, heated in a pot. That’s it. He helped me to know when it was done, how to cook the flour a bit more. And when I had finished the pastry dough with the eggs, he helped me shape the pastry into little dollops and slip them on the silpat. And then we watched them rise in the oven, hot puffs rising golden and warm, like little pockets of hot air amidst the cold.
And with the meyer-lemon ricotta, slipped between the cooled pastries? There they were — Meyer lemon cream puffs. I’m sure they were not nearly as good as the ones they served at Chez Panisse. But you know what? They were good. I could eat them, and I made them. That’s a damned fine feeling.
GLUTEN-FREE CREAM PUFFS WITH MEYER LEMON RICOTTA FILLING, adapted from Rebecca Reilly’s Gluten-Free Baking
½ cup water
1/2 stick unsalted butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ cup white rice flour
1/8 cup sweet rice flour
1/8 cup tapioca flour
2 large eggs (or perhaps 3; see notes)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg yolk mixed with 2 tablespoons milk
Preheat the oven to 400°.
Spoon the water, butter, sugar, and salt into a medium-sized pot. Bring the mixture to a boil. As soon as the butter is melted, add the gluten-free flours. Stir and stir until the ingredients are incorporated together. A crust will immediately develop on the bottom of the pan. Don’t worry — this is what is supposed to happen. That crust is a sign you are on the right track. When the mixture is complete, and has become a ball of dough, keep stirring and cooking for a minute, so that you can cook the flours in the ball of dough. Set the pot aside.
Move the ball of dough to a stand mixer. (I’m sure this will work if you mix it by hand, but we have a KitchenAid.) With the mixer running, drop one egg into the pastry dough and let it run until the egg has become incorporated. Drop the next egg into the dough, and continue to mix until the second egg has incorporated. (If it still doesn’t look right, add a little of the third egg.) Add the vanilla and stir.
The dough will be soft, but not runny. Ideally, you would spoon the dough into a pastry bag and push out little cream puff shapes on the baking sheet. However, two spoons will also do. Take a spoonful in one spoon, then scoop under it with the other spoon, shaping and molding, back and forth between the spoons until you have formed a soft, rounded shape. Drop it carefully onto the baking sheet. (Ideally, you’d use a silpat here. If you don’t own one, be sure to butter that baking sheet.)
Mix the remaining egg and milk together, beating lightly. Carefully, brush this over the tops of the cream puff dough.
Put the baking sheet into the oven and bake the puffs for twenty to twenty-five minutes. You will know they are done when they have puffed up and out, and the tops will be golden brown. Also, you should be able to tap the bottom of one and hear a hollow sound. Pull them out of the oven and set them aside to cool.
Fill with your favorite filling. For the Meyer lemon filling, see the ancillary recipe below.
Makes about ten cream puffs.
MEYER LEMON RICOTTA
12 ounces fresh ricotta cheese
juice of three Meyer lemons
zest of three Meyer lemons
½ cup sugar
Combine all the ingredients together. When they have mixed well, put the ricotta mixture into a fine-mesh sieve and set it over a bowl. Let the ricotta sit in the refrigerator overnight. By the next morning, all the water will have drained from the ricotta, leaving a firm, lemony ricotta. Spoon this mixture into the cream puffs to make Meyer lemon cream puffs.