Chou for Shavuot
Profiteroles (Courtesy Pixabay)
In the Jewish culinary world, we usually associate Shavuot with blintzes and cheesecake. It’s the “dairy holiday.”
But Shavuot is also the “wheat holiday.”
The story of Ruth, which is read each year on Shavuot, happens throughout the wheat and barley harvests on Boaz’s fields. Its central plot discusses the harvest of wheat. Its characters are busy with the harvest of wheat and the practice of gleaning after the reapers. The story’s pivotal moment, where Ruth visits Boaz at night, happens in the wheat thrashing place.
In ancient times, Shavuot marked the beginning of the wheat harvest. The Torah directs us to offer the first fruits of this new harvest to the Holy Temple and it was the custom back then to bring two loaves of bread.
But in the 21st century, when there is no Holy Temple and we are all more or less stuck at home because of a deadly pandemic, we can still celebrate the meaning of Shavuot and also feast on the special foods that honor the day.
Of the many fabulous recipes that combine both dairy and wheat, one that I think is most useful, tasty, and impressive enough for a holiday menu is choux pastry, otherwise known as cream puffs. The dough has only four basic ingredients: water, butter, flour, and eggs but is amazingly versatile because you can do so much with it. Here are some familiar items made with choux pastry:
- cream puffs (shape the dough into 12-15 3” balls)
- profiteroles (made from smaller balls of dough)
- eclairs (shape the dough into cylinders)
- gougeres (with added grated cheese and/or herbs)
- swans (shape the dough into ovals instead of balls)
- doughnuts (fry the dough instead of baking it)
- several fancy desserts such as Gateau St. Honore and Croquembouche
The recipe is simple, but, like so many simple recipes, it can be tricky (I’ve offered some tried and true tips at the end).
Beyond the shape and size, among the best things about baked choux is that you can fill the puffs with all sorts of sweet, cold goodies like whipped cream, custard, ice cream, pudding, sweetened mascarpone cheese, and so on. And that’s fine as is, but you can make it even more sumptuous by mixing in things like chopped fresh fruit, crystallized ginger, toasted nuts or shaved chocolate.
And more. Some people frost cream puffs with chocolate glaze (but really, I find that a sprinkle or two of sifted confectioners’ sugar is glamorous enough). If you make the smaller size, few desserts are more luscious and exciting than profiteroles (filled or not) drizzled with chocolate sauce. And for an ultra sensational version, make the swans (instructions in the recipe). Fill the body and place the bird atop a lake of melted chocolate.
Savory choux puffs (gougeres) are usually smaller than cream puffs and are either served hot without a filling (you can reheat frozen ones in a 400 degree oven for a few minutes), or cooled and filled with stuffings ranging from crumbled goat cheese to egg/tuna salad to mushroom ragout to smoked salmon/white fish spread.
Of course it is also possible for you to make choux pastry dough and divide it in half, add cheese and herbs to one half for gougeres and use the other half for dessert. A lovely beginning and finale to a joyful yom tov, which begins at sundown on May 28.
Six Pointers for Perfect Cream Puffs
1. Be sure to preheat the oven.
2. The water and butter should be cooked together fast, on moderately high heat, so that the butter melts quickly, before the water evaporates. To help reduce water evaporation, cut the butter into tablespoon size pieces so they will melt faster as the water heats.
3. Let the water-butter-flour mixture cool for 2-3 minutes before you add the eggs so that the egg proteins won't cook or curdle.
4. Use the dough within 2 hours of preparation (cold dough does not puff properly).
5. Always add the eggs one at a time because it makes the dough easier to mix. Best mixing tool is a sturdy wooden spoon.
6. When the puffs come out of the oven, pierce them with the tip of a sharp knife, then return them to a turned-off oven to dry out for several minutes (the amount of time depends on the size of the puffs). Slit the larger cream puffs in half; scoop out any uncooked dough.
7. Don’t fill the puffs until relatively close to when you’ll be serving them (the dough can become soggy)