by Fran Brennan
As kids, my siblings and I spent a lot of time baking and decorating cookies with our mom. We picked apples in the fall and made applesauce, cherries in the summer for jellies and pies. But when I tried something completely on my own, it was, of all things, cream puffs. From scratch. With the wisdom of years now, all I can say is: Who does that?
My mom was not the world’s most accomplished cook. She did her best, but she hadn’t grown up cooking. My parents joked that my mom “couldn’t boil water” when they got married, and my dad had to teach her. But six kids in 10 years (and another some years later) didn’t leave much time for a lot of creativity in the kitchen. Nor did our strained circumstances.
But when she tried, my mom was a great scratch baker. I still dream about her molasses cookies. She used to start baking cookies months before Christmas, a batch at a time, and store them in a chest freezer in our garage. While I can still taste the gingerbread men, pfeffernusse and chocolate chip cookies that came out of her oven, it was the thin, chewy molasses cookies that truly called my name. I pried open those frozen Tupperware containers any chance I could to slip out an ice-cold cookie. I can’t imagine she didn’t notice the lower-than-expected supply come Christmas.
Both my sweet tooth and baking jones were firmly planted. And though my dad’s mother would later teach me to make apple pie practically with my eyes closed, it was cream puffs that first captured my imagination. My dad – a notorious sweet tooth himself – was waxing euphoric about these pastries one day when I was in elementary or middle school, and I rose to the challenge.
I can only assume I used a recipe from the Joy of Cooking, since that was my mom’s go-to book (I still have the one she gave me decades ago when I first moved out on my own). What I remember most about the long process are my mother’s skepticism and my dad’s anticipation. He knew I could do it; and paced the kitchen like an expectant father awaiting buns from the oven. As a parent now, I can only imagine that my mom was mostly worried about the way I would leave her tiny kitchen.
The choux was a challenge. There were tears. Or near tears. And I’m sure my mom wanted to ground me before the pastry cream even got started. When I said I wanted to top them with chocolate, everyone threw up their hands and stormed out of the kitchen.
But the end result was, as I remember, incredible. Maybe not as incredible as you’d find in a Parisienne patisserie, but pretty darn good for an adolescent American with no pastry classes under her belt.
At least my dad thought so. And at the time, that was really all that mattered.