Friday, February 10, 2012


Making cream puffs is one of my favorite metaphors for life: Every step of the way you'd think this can't possibly work, but somehow it all does.

You start by bringing a cup of water to an enthusiastic boil. You then dump in an equal amount of flour. Obviously, the flour should glop together into an intractable bunch of lumps and defy all attempts to smooth it out. Not so: The flour and water combine nicely into a homogeneous sphere in the middle of the saucepan.

Then you start adding eggs, unbeaten, if you please, to the hot flour-and-water sphere. Oh, really, now -- this certainly would produce poached eggs, bits of hard-cooked white and yolk that can't possibly blend with anything, let alone that sullen lump of paste in the saucepan.

Again, not so. You beat the mixture like hell after every egg (don't, by the way, make a double recipe of cream puffs unless you're stronger than I was in my teens, as chances are you're not) -- but handled firmly, one egg after another slips meekly into the mix.

Then you drop the batter onto a cookie sheet in tablespoon-size lumps and bake them. Please note that the ingredients included no leavening. The eggs do it somehow, as with popovers or Yorkshire pudding. I've never understood those things either. Angel food and sponge cake depend on eggs as well, but that's whipped-up egg white that expands while baking. That at least makes sense; but please note that I've managed exactly one such cake in my life -- the first jelly roll I ever attempted -- and was never able to do it again.

Contrary to expectations, the cream puffs come out of the oven high and round, golden brown and eggy, with a nice hollow in the middle to be filled with vanilla pudding or whatever strikes your fancy.

The first time you make cream puffs you blindly follow the instructions, thinking at every turn, "How can this be right??" It never does come to look any more likely; but it works. What more could anyone want?