“Diamonds are just coal that did well under pressure.” My astrology app relentlessly reminded me of this bromide seven days in a row, the same seven days that I struggled to tackle the towering pile of dishes in the kitchen and the laundry that I’d washed and then kept… rewashing. I couldn’t seem to move it to the dryer because that would only bring me one step closer to the gargantuan task of folding. I didn’t like that quote before, and now I’d had a week to ruminate on why. Energy and mental health being what it is in these days of COVID-19, simply starting takes me a lot longer. I’d rather be coal, honestly: It has some nurturing, functional use, warming food and our bones as the days get colder, lovingly flaming.
Are we supposed to be the lumps of coal? I don’t want pressure to compress me smaller and smaller, crystallizing my heart. No wonder diamonds are capitalism’s best friend: They’re small, easily transportable, hard with sharp edges, unattainable to most. Metamorphosis is always fascinating and welcome—it’s just that I’d prefer an option to become soft, airy, abundant.
Maybe everyone else can see quotes telling them to become diamonds and brush them off as trite. I didn’t for a long time. When I was having a rough go, I really took little quotes like that to heart. Steeling myself against the blows from the outside world that just seemed to keep coming, I’d compile little lists of quotes that helped me get through. I still do this in the back of my journal, to consult for courage as needed. How we talk about responses to pressure and hardship matter—they affect how we think of ourselves, how we respond, how we treat others. The harder we are on ourselves, the harder we are on others. Life is hard right now; we need all the soft we can get.
In a world of becoming diamonds, may I suggest becoming cream puffs? Cream puffs start with choux pastry, a heady mixture of some of my favourite things: butter, milk, eggs, flour. Heavy, nourishing stuff you might already have in your pantry. Add a sprinkle of sugar, if you’d like. When you mix these ingredients all together, they become so dense and sticky that it seems impossible they’ll come together as soft, puffy, light, tender. A cream puff expands so dramatically in the oven that it creates a cavern inside to hold any number of things—whipped cream, pastry cream, ice cream or savoury fillings like herbed whipped cream or fluffy cream cheese mousse. A cream puff can hold multitudes. So can you.
Heat is what initiates the magical expansion of the dense paste into delicious, pillowy clouds. Steam from the milk and water expands the pastry’s edges, puffing up its capacity until the oven heat provides just enough crispness and structure to hold the puffs’ boundaries. Delicate and sturdy all at once.
One batch of choux pastry makes a small army of buttery lovers—an army that cannot be defeated! The most dramatic expression of their combined power is the towering confection known as a croquembouche. It’s an architectural and culinary feat achieved via melted sugar: New heights are reached when cream puffs are held together with sweetness.
I have a new quote at the back of my journal now: “Cream puffs know that, when the heat is on, we rise.”
Choux Pastry (Pâte à Choux)
1/2 cup milk (ideally whole, but don’t worry if it has less milk fat)
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1 tbsp white sugar (optional)
1 tsp kosher salt
1 cup flour
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F.
2. In a heavy pot, add the milk, water, salt and butter over medium-high heat until the butter is melted and the mixture is at a simmer.
3. Dump the 1 cup of flour into the mixture all at once, and stir enthusiastically with a big wooden spoon. Keep stirring, over medium heat, until the dough is smooth, shiny and does not stick to your spoon. There should be a thin film of cooked flour on the surface of the pot.
4. Remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes to allow the dough to cool a bit (so that it won’t cook your eggs when we add them in the next step).
5. After a short cooling period, add the eggs one at a time, enthusiastically stirring until the egg is completely incorporated before adding the next. Repeat until the 3 eggs are added. Stir a minute or two longer, until the dough falls from the spoon in “sheets”—it’ll hang from the spoon a bit and be partially translucent when it pulls away.
6. Transfer into a piping bag. On a baking sheet lined with parchment, pipe roughly 1.5-inch rounds of dough, at least 2 inches away from each other to allow them to expand. With a finger dipped in water, tap down the pointy tops of each round. Sprinkle a few drops of water onto the sheet pan in between the rounds (this will help create the steam environment the choux needs to rise).
7. Put the tray into the preheated oven for 10 minutes, then—this is very important!—without opening the oven door, reduce the heat to 350°F and bake the rounds for another 20 minutes until they are golden brown.
8. When you remove them from the oven, you can poke a small hole in the bottom with a sharp knife to allow steam to escape. This helps to keep the choux delicately crispy, with the added bonus of creating a hole in which to pipe fillings, if you’d like.
9. Once they are cool, you can either pipe in filling through the bottom, or slice them in half to fill them. You can use whipped cream, pastry cream, whipped ganache, ice cream—whatever you can dream up! One of my go-to uses is treating them like fancy chips and dip, filling (or dunking) the choux in whipped cream, seasoned simply with pepper and salt. It’s also my go-to when I want a delicious (and structurally perfect!) ice cream sandwich.
Don’t be intimidated. You can do cream puffs. Check out our latest video installment of My Queer Kitchen. Jennifer E. Crawford walks you through, step by step. It’s easier than you think.