Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Inspired by The Chocolate Chip Bandits

the bandits, circa 1954: meet Jell-o & Chocolate

There has to be a special name for someone who opens a Jell-O box, consumes the sugary contents and then glues the flaps back together so it looks like new.  And there certainly is a name for people who eat almost every last morsel of a package and replace it on the shelf looking like it was never touched.  My mom knew that in our house packaged food on the shelf might not actually contain any food by the time she got around to opening it. 
Once in a while my mom bravely brought home bags of chocolate chips.  Eventually, she learned to avoid disaster caused by the ever adorable chocolate chip bandit duo and their nightime pantry raids.  Only phantom chips remained in a bag that looked unopened (read: glued).  Not one to be thwarted, she turned those into nut cookies with extra nuts.  She knew after that to make the cookies right away when she brought the chips home – otherwise she had to tote them into her bedroom overnight to keep the chocolate safe.  
My mother slept with chocolate.  And people wonder where I got my chocolate obsession from?
While she was a master baker when it came to all those heirloom Jewish family recipes that were inside her head, she was not as well versed when it came to reading and executing actual written recipes.   I have little memory of those chocolate chip cookies which means that I didn’t enjoy them or my brothers ate them all before I got a chance to have any.  I’d wager the later.
I was a preteen when a brand new little bakery opened up across the street from school.  The chocolate chips were gooey, and the cookie was soft in the middle and snappy on the edges.  The caramelized brown sugar was probably a little too sweet, but to a kid, that was just fine.  The vanilla was pure unlike the fake stuff my mother used because it was cheaper.  And the abundance of chocolate chips was regal. 
The discovery of these perfect little goodies occurred at the same time I lost my mother.  My home, the house of doom, as I called it, was now a place full of grief and silence.  The Ad Man spent the first part of that year of mourning, literally sitting in the dark with a continuous chain of odiferous cigarettes providing the only light in the room.  He tried to be a good dad and step up, but his depression weighed more than both of us.  Dinner was usually a time of more solitude though we continued to eat together.  He cobbled together meals from Veg-All and some sort of meat, cooked until it dragged itself into the sink for relief.  Veg-All apparently can be served in so many more ways than it ever should. 
At the end of the mourning period, the Ad Man started dating, leaving me alone many nights.  To appease his parenting guilt, he gifted me with all kinds of strange items that he thought a preteen girl might like.  I assume that he was getting these ideas from his dates who had never met his geeky daughter.  Otherwise I might wonder how he ever knew that young girls coveted things like Tiger Magazine, or pony tail/barrettes or troll dolls.  My hair was short, blunt, curly and always barrette-less.  I never read anything but Mad Magazine or books.  Troll dolls, however, were a hit. 
The last gift before he remarried was the baby pink short trench coat that although very trendy for the time, was not my color, type, or size.  I wore it anyway because the pockets were like tiny backpacks.  I could stash almost half a dozen bakery chocolate chip cookies in them and bring them home sight unseen.  Eventually it got to be way too small because I ate too many cookies.  The poor pink trench got retired the day after I loaded it with my cookie treasures and was smacked silly on the way home.  I had a couple of shoe prints on the back of the coat where the angry bullies had kicked me.  Apparently, having spent my spare change on cookies rather than giving it over, made them angry.  I offered the bakery bag but they wanted money rather than freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.  I was seriously mystified at that logic.  The Ad Man just about had a heart attack when he noticed the foot prints and then he found the cookies and had a tiny bit of a stroke.  He had been clueless about how I could possibly be getting chunky on Veg-All, 7500 ways. 
The coat and my daily walk through the bakery on the way home were both retired from that day on.  I had minders watching me long enough that I gave up.  But I never forgot those cookies.  
Those cookies became the ones by which all others are judged.  I spent years trying to get it just right.
Fortunately, one day, quite by accident I found a recipe that came amazingly close to the real deal.  I was taking a chocolate class (oh, surprise) from Alice Medrich where she was also signing books.  I ran back into the store to buy a couple, and one was her Cookies and Brownies book.  Anything that had cookie in the title was a safe bet.   And to my surprise, there was the answer.  The way to make spectacular chocolate chip cookies is not in the ingredients list, although you ought to use the best ingredients you can find.  It is in the technique.  When I smell them baking in the oven, I am a happy girl again.  At least now I don’t keep cookies in my pockets.  I’ve learned to share.  A little bit.

 Chocolate Chip Espresso Cookies - Gluten Free
(adapted from Alice Medrich’s Cookies and Brownies)
  • 2 ¼ cups gluten free flour or all purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon xanthan gum (if using gluten free flour)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon finely ground espresso (decaf!)
  • ¼ cup of lightly toasted unsweetened coconut shreds (optional)
  • 2 sticks of unsalted butter, cut into chunks
  • ¾ cup white sugar  
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon almond flavoring
  • 2 cups of (bittersweet) chocolate chips
  • ¾ cup of chopped lightly toasted pecans
In a bowl, combine the flour, xanthan gum, salt, baking soda, espresso and mix to incorporate.  Add the (optional) coconut and mix once more. 
Meantime, in a large saucepan over medium low heat, melt the butter.  When completely melted, stir in the brown sugar and mash any lumps until it is smooth.  Then mix in the white sugar and remove from heat.  After thoroughly combining, let it sit for about five minutes without touching the pan.  Mix in the eggs first, one at a time until incorporated.  Then add the flavorings.  Add the dry ingredients and mix well. 
Let the whole thing sit on the counter for about 30 minutes before you mix in the chips and nuts.  If you add the chips too soon, they will just melt into the batter.  Stir in the chips and nuts.  Scoop (large tablespoon size) onto silpat or parchment lined cookie sheets about ½ inch apart.  Flatten slightly with a fork. 
Let them sit for about an hour. 
Preheat oven to 350.   Bake about 7 minutes and rotate the sheets.  Bake about 5 minutes more until very lightly brown.  Keep watching.  Underdone is better than the other option.  Let them cool on the baking sheet.  Store in a tin.  Cookies keep for about 5 days if they last that long! 
 Notes:  Use the best chips you can find.  It makes a huge difference.  Scharffenberger bittersweet chunks are great.  See’s chocolate chips are actually quite good and large.  Ghirardelli bittersweet are very good, too.  Be sure to store them in a tin – the container store has them for a reasonable price.  Tins are mult-use tools for the kitchen and nothing keeps cookies fresher.  To refresh them, just place on a cookie sheet and pop them into a preheated 350 degree oven.  Turn the oven off once you place the cookies in there.  Time it for ten minutes.  They should be perfect once again, and an added bonus: the chocolate will be gooey. 
Bon appétit

Rugelach with Chocolate and Hope

gluten free rugelach, with chocolate and hope
When I tell people that the best rugelach I ever ate was at the Ad Man’s funeral, there is a momentary awkward pause in conversation, until I also mention that they were filled with bittersweet chocolate.   
In fact, the only thing I can recall of my father’s funeral was that fabulous rugelach.   While the rest of my siblings were busy in the kitchen taste-testing and reviewing the platters of food that had arrived as condolence calling cards, I was in the living room, busy stuffing the perfect little rugelach into my pockets and running outside, stashing them in a paper bag I found on the floor of my car.  The platter was emptied in a mere half dozen trips.  All that remained was one broken pastry and a trail of crumbs from the plate sitting on the coffee table. 
Arriving back in the house after my last sojourn to the car, I heard someone exclaim that the dog must have eaten the pastries and was now banished to the back bedroom.  Thankfully no one used any common sense to think about how a 4 pound, 8 inch tall dog could eat over 4 dozen chocolate pastries and not look like the Goodyear blimp or worse.   Back then no one gave any thought to a dog eating chocolate.   I owed that pup some biscuits which I delivered once the coast was clear. 
The rugelach had arrived with a woman I knew as fake Aunt Hope, a family friend.  I only knew her in one capacity and that was as the lady in a white coat behind the pharmacy counter.  The small drug store, a few blocks from our childhood house, was a family business that she and her husband, Doug owned.  
At age of 5 when I was appointed chief step & fetch it by the Ad Man, it was my job to run to the drugstore whenever he needed something.  Something was usually cigarettes and a giant box of 1960 vintage Kotex for my mother.  I had already tested out smoking behind the garage with my older brothers and knew what the stinky cigarettes were for.  Fake Aunt Hope was the one who usually handed me the step & fetch it items along with my pack of Necco Wafers, payment for the job, but not nearly payment enough for the mortification I felt hauling that giant box of Kotex 5 blocks home.  It was too large for a bag so I had to carry it like a walking advertisement. 
Since that was the only place I ever really saw fake Aunt Hope, I assumed she lived in the drug store.  Until the funeral, I hadn’t realized that she had a real home with a real kitchen, let alone was a fabulous baker.  I wanted to ask her for the recipe, but at the time I was too busy trying to act like the dog was the thief.  I thought if I made a big deal out of it, someone might really figure it out.  So I kept quiet.
I deconstructed those rugelach by eating each one very slowly and carefully over the course of the next few days.  I took mental notes on the character and flavor, but came up with no better explanation on what made them so special.  Years of trying to find a recipe that came even remotely close made me get within postage stamp placement on a note to fake Aunt Hope to ask for the recipe.  Once again, my good intentions were waylaid with a phone call from my in-laws.  
The evening before, they had decided to hop over to the indie theater to catch one of the new art films.  In line, they ran into fake Aunt Hope and her husband, Doug, whom they knew only casually from our wedding the decade previous.  On occasion at the grocery or hardware store they would see one another and chat about the weather.   Fake Aunt Hope and Doug were thrilled to see the in-laws and expressed how pleased they would be to share watching the movie together.  Since they were further up in line, fake Aunt Hope and Doug would save seats.  When the in-laws got close enough to see the movie poster, they couldn’t run out of there fast enough.  I could feel them blushing through the phone two states away.  Somehow they missed the big giant marquee that had a giant red XXX  running across it.   Turns out, the old Indie was no more.  Fake Aunt Hope and Doug were very disappointed when the in-laws remembered sudden prior headaches and hastily took their leave.  
With that fine mental picture in my mind, I never did mail that note.  Rugelach making took a back seat to raising kids and jobs.  Once in a while I’d have a moment when I thought about how I could duplicate it and yet something was always not quite right.  I thought about sending that note years later, but by then Doug was gone and Fake Aunt Hope had advanced Alzheimer's. After more than two decades I'd missed all the windows of opportunity.
Not long ago I took another look at what might have made her rugelach so special, aside from the chocolate.  I read recipes, stories, and searched for old Eastern European recipes since that is where Fake Aunt Hope’s family was from.  Most Jewish women of her age would have gotten the recipe from watching their mother or grandmother.  No one ever wrote anything down, so it was a matter of collecting common themes.
And there was the additional challenge in making it gluten free.  Recently I made several batches in a matter of days.  I was beginning to give up when the mental light bulb flipped on and delivered me from total failure.
The last batch annoyed me to no end.  I was tired and had run out of patience.  The perky cream cheese and butter were still in the refrigerator and I had forgotten to take them out to soften.  Annoyed at my own bad judgment, I took my frustration out on the ingredients.  Instead of treating them like fragile, delicate ingredients, I slammed them around a bit.  I tossed the unsoftened mess into the food processor, barely measuring and weighing the ingredients.  If the measurement came close and it looked right, in it went.  I whizzed it less than usual and dumped it unceremoniously on the counter and banged it around a couple of turns to get all the flour mixed in.  I split it in two, bopped them into two disks with my fist, dropped it on parchment, folded it up and practically tossed it into the refrigerator.
Later, realizing I had forgotten about them, and running short on time, I pulled one disk at a time from the refrigerator, opened the parchment, grabbed another piece for the top and hit it with the rolling pin to make it pliable and rolled it out to about a ten inch disk.  I tossed the filling on top and in my haste rolled the whole thing up like a big cigar and sliced off pieces for the baking sheets.  It took about five minutes from the first rolling pin smash to finishing. 
The second disk got the same treatment, but instead of the cigar tube, I began to cut it into the traditional wedges to make the crescents – the point at which the dough falls apart and makes me crazy.  Instead, without any hesitation I made the circle into a square with a cutting tool and banged out several 1.5 inch squares.  I dropped the filling on the whole thing and took each square at a corner and rolled it up.  It worked easily and took a few minutes longer than the first cigar tube disk. 
I placed those on the cookie sheet and they all went back into the refrigerator for more time cooling their heels.  Again, worrying about time, I practically threw them into the oven even before it had finished preheating. When they emerged, they looked splendid and tasted even better than I had hoped.
I learned two things.  They will never be exactly like fake Aunt Hope’s beauties.  But they will always make me remember her quirkiness with fondness and affection.   And second, they are hearty and appear to taste much better if you treat them like the peasant pastry they are.  Less handling, less fuss.   Like a good pie dough, they benefit from as little work as possible.  Fake Aunt Hope would be proud.

 Gluten Free Chocolate Nut Rugelach
  • 2 cups of classic blend gluten free flour (authentic brands is my choice)
  • 2 sticks of unsalted butter (chilled)
  • 8 ounces of cream cheese (full fat and chilled)
  • Pinch of guar gum and xanthan gum (for gluten free version only)
  • ¼  cup white or brown sugar
  • ½ cup chopped nuts
  • ¼ cup chopped bittersweet chocolate
  • ½  cup dried fruit (raisins, currents, cherries) optional
  • ½ teaspoon of cinnamon
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 egg or melted butter for brushing the tops
  • Pinch of brown or turbinado sugar for sprinkling on top
  • Cinnamon for sprinkling on top

Place all the filling ingredients in one bowl and mix well.  Or conversely, set up several small prep bowls for each filling ingredient and add what you feel like when the dough is rolled out.  Set the bowl(s) aside.  
Place the flour, guar and xanthan gum in a food processor and whiz up with one pulse.  Chunk up the cold butter, cold cream cheese and drop into the processor on top of the flour.  Pulse just until it comes together, but before it turns into a ball.  It will take under ten pulses.  Drop it onto a floured piece of parchment paper and incorporate the remainder of the flour by kneading it just once or twice.  Handle it as little as possible. Break into two even chunks and smash into a ball-like disk.  Wrap in parchment and set in the refrigerator for at least an hour and up to a day.
Remove one disk at a time.  Open the parchment and place another piece of parchment over the top of the cold disk.  Smash it with a good sized rolling pin and roll it into about a 10 inch disk.  You want it to be thin, not thick, but thick enough to roll easily.  Make sure it stays cold.  If you have to leave it for any reason, toss it back in the refrigerator.
For the big cigar roll up version:  take a handful of the filling and scatter it around the disk, all the way to the edge.  Dorie Greenspan has a great suggestion that I will use next time.  Put the parchment over the filling on the rolled out disk and give it once over with the rolling pin to secure the filling to the pastry.   Remove the top parchment.  Using the bottom parchment, grab it and help the dough start rolling.  Like rolling up a tee shirt for the suitcase, keep it going using the parchment as necessary to keep it tight and unbroken.  You can pinch the dough together wherever it might crack. 
Finish with the seam side down.  It helps to refrigerate it before cutting.  When chilled again, using a very sharp paring knife, or a serrated edge, and cut them into one inch pieces and place on a silpat lined baking sheet.  Refrigerate for another hour at minimum.
Do the same with the second disk or follow these directions for baby cigar rolls:  Get it rolled into a 10 inch or so disk following the directions above.  Try to make the circle more square as you finish off.  Keep it cold!  Take a butter knife or other cutter (I use a pizza cutter or a pastry scraper) square off the edges of the circle.  Now cut even sized squares so that each one measures about 1.5 inches.   You can actually make them any size you want, but if your goal is to have them all look the same when finished, make each square the same size.   Do the same with the filling, but even more gently because you don’t want to smash the cuts you made.  Roll each square from one corner to the other.  They will look like little cigars with points.  Place them seam side down on the silpat lined baking sheet.  Refrigerate for at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 
If you want, quickly brush the tops of each cold batch with a beaten egg or melted butter and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon.  Bake for about a total of 25 minutes.  Rotate and turn half way through for best browning. They are done when the pastry looks set.  Remember that gluten free dough never browns up like regular flour.   Leave on the silpat to cool.   Once stone cold, store in a tin separating the layers with parchment.  The rugelach will keep for about 4 days, although you won’t have any left by the second day.
Makes 2 to 3 dozen.
Notes:  The biggest lesson here is to not fuss with the dough and to keep it cold.  The directions took longer to write than it would take to make the whole thing aside from the chilling and baking time.  Once you have it down, the labor part goes quickly.  Work the dough as little as possible.  Obviously bakers made rugelach long before food processors were in our kitchens, so you can mix the dough by hand.  Do it as quickly as you can without handling it very much.  A food processor only means that you can create the dough base in under five minutes from start to finish.   Create your own fillings.  Jam, nuts, chocolate, dried fruits, spices are all possibilities.  To make this recipe not gluten free, use all purpose flour and leave out the guar and xanthan gums.  Different unsalted butters have different fat and liquid contents, so find one that works for you and stick with it. 
Bon appétit!
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The Tart Will be Lemon

groom & bride, grinning in-laws, and not lemon cake
After the wedding, when I was officially the 17 year old bride and newly installed daughter-in-law, I learned the holy grail of in-law 101.
We were being driven by my father-in-law to the bus for our destination honeymoon.  Rochester, N.Y.  By Greyhound.  Stopped at a red-light, he turned to face us in the backseat of the old Volvo.  In his most serious Professor voice, he warned us to never forget my mother-in-law’s birthday and that he loves lemon pie.   Long after the light turned green he continued to stare until we mutely nodded. 
Little did I know that day, but retaining that in-law-101-trivia would land me in the favorite’s column for decades to come.
But at the moment, since I was a little bit scared of him, I thought it prudent to memorize the information.  And the only way I could do that over the next 30 minutes without anything to write with, was to make up rhymes in my head that went with birthday and lemons.  Not an easy task at all, and certainly not something you should be thinking about on the way to your honeymoon, even if it is Rochester by Greyhound.  When we got our tickets for the bus I asked for a pen and wrote it on my hand.   At 17, that was my version of a daytimer.
Our little tiny honeymoon was uneventful and not one lemon made an appearance either.  We took the bus back to our hometown and no mention was ever made of that brief conversation.  But I am happy to report that over the next few decades we have not missed one mother-in-law birthday.  The lemon pie is a different story.
I had married into a family of lemon lovers.  They apply lemon to anything that seems sensible to them.  To me, it seems beyond reason that one would put lemon in, let’s say, vanilla frosting, but they do.  
Fortunately, their fixation is almost always limited to lemons that are visibly baked in something.  I consider that fair warning. But more times than I can count, there's been some mystery ingredient in dinner that ends up being produced from a lemon.  It could be lemon peel in spaghetti sauce (um, wrong) , or a splash of lemon in mayonnaise (not bad) or lemon slices under  the bottom layer of chicken pot pie (not all that good) or my favorite, lemon wedges baked inside an apple (a very bad surprise).   Thankfully, the lemon desserts are much more appealing, though relatively scarce.
My father-in-law loves lemon pie more than anything.  My mother-in-law rarely makes lemon pie.   But almost daily, he will ask if she made lemon pie for dessert.  Frankly, if anyone asked me that on a regular basis I would probably learn how to put a bunch of lemons in a crust and hand it to them with a knife and fork.  But that would just be me.  My mother in law is much more kind.
She grew up in California farm country and they had lemon trees.   I am guessing that the lemon harvest was generously supplying her family with bushels of the fruit annually.  Apparently this lemon pie thing is genetic.  Every member of the family seems to find more uses for lemon than is reasonable.  And the son thinks lemon pie is just as heavenly as chocolate pie.   And I still married him.
When Meyer lemons debuted at the market I actually began to pay attention.  Somehow those little Meyer gems made lemon creations worthy.   It took a little bit of work, but there a few lemon desserts that make the effort worthwhile as a change from the chocolate moments.  I cannot believe I said that aloud.
When they come to visit, I will sometimes make my father-in-law lemon pie-like things.   And once in a while because it might be Meyer Lemon season at the market, I will indulge in a lemon tart.  
The best lemon tart filling is adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking Book.  The crust is made with  Fake Aunt Hope's rugelach dough.  Something about the combination of cream cheese/butter dough with a lemon filling made with more butter not only sounds perfect, it is sublime.   This is not the dessert to eat if you are thinking lemon light.  

 Gluten Free Meyer Lemon Tart
Tart Shell (Fake Aunt Hope's Rugelach Dough)
  • 2 cups gluten free flour (or regular flour)
  • pinch of xanthan & guar gum (leave out if using regular flour)
  • 8 oz. cream cheese
  • 2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter
Mix the flour and xanthan gum in the food processor.  Add chunks of  the chilled butter and cream cheese and pulse just until it comes together.  Turn out on a board and knead once or twice to fully incorporate ingredients and cut in half.  Place each in a wrapped parchment paper package and refrigerate for at least one hour.  Roll into a circle slightly larger than your tart pan.  Place in tart pan and refrigerate for another hour.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes or until lightly brown.  About 15 minutes in, prick the bottom with a fork to keep it from bubbling up.  Cool completely before filling.
Meyer Lemon Filling (adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking book)
  • 3/4 to 1 cup sugar (less if you like it pucker worthy)
  • Grated zest of three Meyer lemons
  • 4 large eggs
  • ¾ cup fresh Meyer lemon juice
  • 10 ounces of unsalted butter, room temperature cut into pieces (about 2.5 sticks)
You will need a blender for this variation.  I burned out my Williams Sonoma Waring, so make sure you are careful with your blender.  You will need an instant read thermometer and a strainer.
Put the sugar in a heat proof bowl (you are going to set it over simmering water) and add the zest.  Mix it thoroughly with your fingers to blend it together.  It looks like coarse sand when you’ve done it well enough.  Leave it to sit for 30 minutes to flavor the sugar.  Whisk in the eggs and lemon juice until fully incorporated.  Set over the simmering water and stir.  Keep stirring until it reaches 180 degrees and is thick.  It will get foamy and form some bubbles, but don’t stop stirring.  The end comes quickly so keep an eye on the temperature.  It does take some juggling to stir, take the temperature and make sure the bowl stays where you want it, but believe me, if I can do it, anyone can. 
As soon as it reaches 180 degrees, remove it from the heat, and using the mesh strainer, push the cream through into the blender.  Let it set for about 5 minutes and stir a couple of times.  Get the temp to about 140 degrees.  Start up the blender on high and as it is going, drop in the room temp butter pieces a few at a time until it is all in there.  If your blender is overheating (as mine was) turn it off for a minute to cool it down and start it up again on high.  Try to get three minutes of high speed blending going before you quit entirely after the butter is in there.  Dorie says that is the secret of Pierre Herme's  fine lemon cream – adding and blending the butter on high after cooking the cream. 
When it is light and airy (you will see be able to see it) pour it into a container and cover it with plastic wrap on the surface before you cover the container with a lid.  That keeps a skin from forming.  Chill for at least 4 hours or overnight. 
Don’t stir it up if you are putting it into the tart shell unless you have time to let it set again.  I found that whisking it again before putting it in the tart shell made it too loose. 
Tart Assembly Spoon the chilled lemon filling into the cooled tart shell.  Top with freshly whipped cream, or cream fraiche and your favorite berries.  Serve immediately.  Refrigerate leftovers.  Like there will be any (not).
Bon Appétit.

Date Night Cream Puffs- Gluten Free

The reason for date night
The reason for married date night was about 25 inches tall and 22 pounds.  It didn't take but a year to sign up.
And we have those lemon loving in-laws to thank for that.  For the in-laws, Friday date night was sacrosanct.  None of their children were sure of where they went or what they did on Friday nights.  Don't ask.  Don't tell.
We adopted Friday-night-date-night after a short time into parenthood.  Our humble beginnings were the best dates.  We were not yet starving students, just merely starving.  The impetus for those first Friday date nights came from the simple coincidence that it was payday and we splurged.
But when we moved to starving student status and had the growing princess to consider and one more unknown (princess-to-be turns out) on the way, we started a new tradition of date night at home after the child went to bed.
We cooked something affordable but decadent.  And for years, Friday date night included a third wheel named James Garner.   We were addicted to The Rockford Files and planned the entire food festival around the show.  In the days before VCRs or DVRs, you watched in real time.  Courses were timed for commercial breaks. 
Our perch was the bed on the floor with the tiny black and white television at the edge of the mattress.  The picnic seemed more real than not because our bedroom was actually a converted porch with a wall of windows that didn’t seal.  It was more like a skinny freezing porch than a room, but we were young and hearty enough.  The down side to Friday picnics in the winter was the fact that we’d have to wear hats, scarves and jackets.  If it snowed (and it did snow in Buffalo a lot) with the wind howling, one of us would have to shovel out the snow drifts that blew in through the gaps.   The glass at least, frosted on both sides giving us privacy, but the shades would have icicles hanging from it by morning.
Dessert was served halfway through the Rockford Files.  Sometimes the thought of waiting for dessert made the main dish seem less important, so we established a little thing called eat-dessert-first.  Who really cared?  One might think that after eating an entire platter of dessert pastries, we would not want dinner.  As long as there were food courses to consume, we would eat.  We could probably have eaten dessert, the entrée and dessert again if there were anything left. 
It was in that tiny little apartment with the one radiator, a two burner stove and the company of critters that we eventually gave names, that I made the first cream puffs that would become favorites over the years.  The very first time I tackled them it was my biggest accomplishment in pastry making to date.   The only hard part is that they take time to make.  The puffs have to cool, the custard has to chill, and the chocolate tops must set.  Other than that, it was easier than I had imagined.  The first batch was magnificent. 
We filled a platter with cream puffs filled with custard and topped with perfect chocolate.  Before the days of artisanal chocolate and European butter, and my ability to pipe pastry (still a challenge), these were very rustic.  But for two 19 year olds they were an accomplishment.  They were a date night stand out – even more than James Garner.  And after countless batches over the years, the very first cream puffs are still the most special.
Along with the princesses who eventually grew up and left home, Friday night is still devoted to date night.  And we still make a platter of pastries, but at least we have a DVR to pause the action if we wish, for far longer than a commercial break. 
Use your imagination.
Gluten Free Custard Filled Cream Puffs
Dough for cream puffs
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 stick unsalted butter cut up into 8 pieces
  • teaspoon of sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 cup gluten free flour or all purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if using regular flour)
  • 3 large eggs
Vanilla Custard Filling
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup half/half
  • Large (moist) vanilla bean scraped, or teaspoon pure vanilla
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar (a matter of taste)
  • 1/4 (scant!) cup cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons butter cut into pieces
Chocolate Glaze or Ganache
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 8-9 oz. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips (Scharffenberger is best)
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon light corn syrup
Directions - Dough
Preheat oven to 375.
In a good size saucepan heat the milk, water, sugar, salt and butter.   Bring to a light boil.  While that heats up, mix the flour with the xanthan gum.  As soon as it boils add the flour all at once and stir with a wooden spoon like crazy, and keep stirring until the dough comes together and is shiny.  The bottom of the pan will develop a crust, but keep stirring over low heat for about a minute more.
Dump the ball of dough into a large bowl or stand mixer.   Let it sit for no more than 5 minutes to cool slightly.  Add the eggs while mixing on medium speed one at a time, incorporating the egg fully before adding another one.  The dough will look like it is falling apart but by the time you finish it will look fine.   Keep mixing for about another 30 seconds after the last egg is added until the dough comes together.  It will look shiny and sticky, but won't form a ball.
If you can pipe, use a 1/2 inch tip and pipe the dough onto parchment or silpat covered baking sheets into little mounds for puffs.  Depending on how big you want to make them, you can get anywhere from 4 to 6.
You can also use an ice cream scoop for the dough, or two spoons and form them into little round mounds.
Immediately place in the oven until they are lightly brown.   That should take about 25 minutes, but check after 15 minutes.
Remove them from the oven and slice a little slit into each one to let the steam escape and place it back in the oven which is now turned off, but still warm.  Leave them in there for another 30 minutes to continue drying.   
Remove and let the puff shells cool.  Once cool, use a serrated knife and slice the tops off so that they can be filled.   Remove any inner dough until you have a nice little cavity to fill with custard.  Leave them out to dry a little while you prepare the custard.
You can keep them for a few days stored in a tin at room temperature (but not filled). 
Directions – vanilla custard
Heat up the milk and half/half until warm and add the vanilla and the beans.  Turn the heat off and cover.  Leave it for about 15 minutes to infuse the milk with vanilla.
 Prepare two bowls, one slightly bigger than the other.  In the larger one add some ice and set the smaller bowl on the ice.  It should be large enough to hold the pastry cream mixture.  Add to that bowl, a mesh strainer which you will use to push the cream through to eliminate any lumps. 
Meantime, mix the sugar and cornstarch together and add the egg yolks and mix with a whisk until smooth.  Add some of the hot vanilla milk to the sugar/egg mixture to temper the eggs and warm them up.   Then add that to the warm vanilla milk and turn the heat up to medium.  Keep whisking the mixture until it comes to a boil.  Simmer at a low boil for a minute or two as the mixture thickens, and remove from the heat.  
Immediately turn the custard into the mesh strainer and stir and push it through into the bowl that is sitting on the ice.  Once all the pastry cream is in the bowl, stir to cool the mixture a bit.  Remove the bowl from the ice and add the butter and whisk to incorporate as it melts.  Then return the bowl to the ice and let it sit for about 15 minutes, stirring often until the pastry cream is chilled.
You can also chill the custard in the refrigerator with a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the custard, and then with a lid on the bowl.  Wait until it is very chilled, at least a few hours or overnight.
Using a small spoon, fill each cream puff and place the top back on.  Line them up on a wire rack on the baking sheet for the chocolate topping fun.
 Directions - Chocolate Topping
Place the chocolate in a bowl and heat the cream in a small saucepan until it simmers to a low boil.  Pour that over the chocolate and leave it alone for a minute.  Then begin stirring until the cream and chocolate are totally smooth.  Add the butter and the light corn syrup and stir until incorporated.
Let the mixture sit for a minute or two until warm but not hot.  Using a spoon pour chocolate over each pastry.   Let them set for a few minutes.  Or if you are in a hurry, just refrigerate them until set.
Serve immediately or refrigerate.  Best the same day.  And just in case you have any leftovers (which you will not) store them in a tightly sealed container.  Warning: they will get a bit soggy overnight.
Bon appétit