Why It Works
- Poking holes in the baked puffs allows steam to escape and creates an opening for easy filling.
- Returning puffs to a turned-off oven after they’ve baked helps keep them crisp.
- Dusting with powdered sugar lets the puffs expand evenly in the oven and ensures minimal splitting and cracking.
Light and airy cream puffs, filled with thick pastry cream, fluffy whipped cream, or velvety crème légère (pastry cream lightened with whipped cream), are a classic dessert. Composed of just two versatile elements—pâte à choux and the filling of your choice—they're also cinch to whip up.
We've developed an easy recipe for choux pastry that takes almost all of the guesswork out of the traditional technique, producing puffs that are golden and crispy on the outside and hollow within. The choux can be made with water or milk or combination of the two, and while either option works for these cream puffs, we prefer water. Milk produces puffs that brown faster, thanks to the milk's proteins and sugars, which can be especially helpful when baking smaller choux puffs that need to brown sufficiently in a shorter amount of time. But for larger puffs like these, water allows for a longer baking time without the risk of over-browning, ensuring that the puffs cook up airy and hollow with a crisp golden exterior.
Because this recipe is sweet, we also recommend adding the optional sugar listed in our classic choux recipe, to produce a slightly sweeter puff that pairs well with the dessert filling.
When piping the choux, aim for a two-inch wide base per puff (you can draw circles on your parchment if that helps; see instructions for that in the note below). Once they’re all piped, lightly dust them with powdered sugar. Doing so increases color development, reduces the chance of cracks and splits, and lends crunch and sweetness to the baked puffs.
How to Fill Cream Puffs
There are two ways to fill cream puffs: a “piped-in” option and a “sandwich” option.
We generally prefer the piped technique for its greater ease and consistency. It involves making a small hole in the bottom of each puff and then piping pastry cream inside. This method evenly distributes cream within the puff and keeps it locked inside, similar to a cream-filled doughnut, making it far less messy to eat. As written, our choux and pastry cream recipes are scaled to each other such that one batch of one of our pastry creams (your choice of vanilla, chocolate, or lemon) should be just enough to fill one batch of our choux pastry.
The sandwiched version makes for a more dramatic presentation, but it's also messier to eat, given the propensity for the filling to squish out the sides when you bite down. We begin by carefully slicing each puff in half with a serrated knife, then piping the filling onto the bottom half before closing the "sandwich" with the top half of the puff.
It's worth noting that the sandwiched rendition also requires twice as much filling than the piped method in order to look nice and full. To get the right volume, you can use a double batch of one of the pastry creams, a large batch of whipped cream, or a single recipe of crème légère (a batch of pastry cream that's lightened with whipped cream).
You can enjoy the cream puffs as-is or finish them with a sprinkle of powdered sugar or even a drizzle of chocolate sauce. Whichever option you choose, you’ll be thrilled with the results—decadent cream-filled puffs that will satisfy anyone with a sweet tooth.
Powdered sugar, for dusting
To Make the Choux Puffs: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 400°F (204°C). Line two aluminum half-sheet trays with parchment paper. Pipe a small amount of choux paste under each corner of parchment paper (the dough acts as a glue and keeps the paper in place as you pipe).
To pipe the puffs, hold the filled pastry bag at a 90° angle, apply steady downward pressure, and pipe a 2-inch wide puff onto a tray. To stop piping, cease applying pressure and swirl the pastry tip away. Continue to pipe puffs about 3 inches apart, for a total of 9 puffs. Repeat with the second tray. To smooth the surface of any uneven puffs, dip a finger into cold water and gently pat down any bumps. If using, dust puffs evenly with powdered sugar.
Bake both trays until choux is puffed, golden brown, and hollow feeling, about 25 minutes.
Working quickly while puffs are still hot, gently insert the tip of a paring knife into the underside of each puff and rotate in a circular motion to create a small hole, about 1/4-inch in size.
Return puffs to trays and place in the turned-off oven with the door partially open for 30 minutes.
To Fill Piped-In Cream Puffs: Working one at a time, insert tip of pastry cream–filled bag into hole in each choux puff and begin piping with steady pressure until filled (you can tell because the puff will feel heavy and pastry cream will start to overflow the hole). Wipe away any excess pastry cream. Repeat until all cream puffs are filled. Serve immediately.
Alternatively, to Fill Sandwich-Style Puffs: Using a serrated knife, slice each puff in half to create a top and bottom "bun.” Transfer your choice of filling (see notes section below for filling instructions) to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-closed star tip. Working one at a time, begin piping with steady pressure to generously fill the bottom half of each puff. Cover with the top half of each puff. Repeat until all cream puffs are filled. Serve immediately.
If you want to make sure that each puff is the right size, you can prepare a template ahead of time. Take one sheet of parchment paper and, using a 2-inch round cutter as a guide, trace 9 circles that are 3 inches apart. Flip paper upside down and set it on the baking sheet. Repeat with a second piece of parchment paper.
For Sandwich-Style Puffs
If you're making sandwich-style puffs, you'll need a greater volume of filling than this recipe provides. There are several ways to arrive at the right amount:
- Pastry cream: Make a double batch of any of the pastry cream recipes (or make a batch each of different flavors.
Whipped cream: In a large mixing bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine 2 cups heavy cream, sugar to taste, and a splash of vanilla extract. Whisk by hand or mix at medium speed until thick peaks form (peaks should not be loose or stiff in structure).
Make-Ahead and Storage
Filled cream puffs are best consumed on the day they’re made.
To store unfilled cream puffs, wrap them tightly in plastic and place in an airtight container; they can be kept frozen for up to 1 month. To refresh puffs, preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Transfer frozen puffs to a sheet tray and reheat until crisp, about 5 minutes. Let cool at room temperature before filling.