Christmas Cream Puffs

Christmas cream puffs infused with pine and orange zest.

One of the things I like best about this time of year is the scent of a fresh Christmas tree in the house. I was sitting next to our tree the other day, enjoying that woodsy aroma and brainstorming recipe ideas, when I started to wonder if there was a way to capture that tree essence in cooking.

In fact, there is. But before you start ripping off ornaments and chowing down on your tree, there are some disclaimers. While most of our Christmas trees are likely edible, there are some varieties that are not, including the Ponderosa pine, yew and yellow pine. Otherwise, the needles of other pine, spruce and fir trees are edible. Just make sure you can identify your tree.

The other important aspect to know is whether your tree was sprayed with pesticides. Many of the ones that are available for purchase in stores are sprayed, but if you cut yours down from a tree farm or sourced it locally, it doesn’t hurt to ask the growers. Please don’t use your tree in cooking if you’re unsure.

Fortunately, you don’t have to look far to find one of these trees nearby in nature. I didn’t cut branches off of my own tree since I was unsure if it was sprayed, so I just cut a few small branches off a pine tree growing in my parents’ backyard.

Various parts of these trees may be edible, but I was only concerned with the needles. And of course, I didn’t actually want to consume the needles themselves, but use them to impart their flavor. Once I realized I had something edible on my hands, I immediately thought about infusing milk or cream.

I think ice cream would be interesting, though it’s just not that time of year. Pastry cream, on the other hand, would do nicely. Pastry cream is essentially pudding, but it’s used to fill cream puffs, eclairs, fruit tarts and other pastries. I went for the cream puffs, as they’re a perfect holiday dessert.

I steeped pieces of my pine branch in hot milk and added in some orange zest, hoping the two would pair well together. I kept tasting the milk and pastry cream as I went, unsure of what to expect. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised of the fresh, subtle flavor of the pine. It wasn’t deep and woodsy, as I expected, but almost minty. It’s certainly unique, and will be sure to spark a conversation when you bring a plate of these to your next holiday party.

Christmas cream puffs: Makes about 3 dozen

For the cream puffs:

1 stick of butter or four ounces

2 tablespoons sugar

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup water

1 cup flour

4 eggs

For the pastry cream:

2 cups whole milk

3 eight-inch pieces of pine, spruce or fir branch

zest of one orange

¾ cup sugar

¼ cup corn starch

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

4 egg yolks

1 tablespoon butter

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Before starting on the cream puffs, you’ll want to infuse the milk for the pastry cream filling. In a medium-sized saucepan, gently heat the milk over medium low heat until just simmering. Cut the pine branch into pieces and add to the milk, along with the orange zest. Remove from the heat, and set off to the side to cool.

In another medium-sized pot, heat the butter, sugar, salt and water. Stir to incorporate the ingredients while bringing the liquid to a gentle boil. Turn the heat down to low and stir in the flour. Stir until the dough has formed and clings together in a ball. Remove the pot from the heat and let cool for a couple of minutes. Crack the eggs into a bowl while you wait.

One at a time, add the eggs into the dough and stir until incorporated. It will take a little work. The dough will separate into pieces with each egg addition and look like you’re doing something wrong. But just keep stirring and the dough will come back together. I find it helps to cradle the pot in one arm and stir with the other to prevent the pot from moving around.

After you have mixed the last egg into the dough, use a spatula to transfer it into a pastry bag or gallon-sized storage bag with a large plain piping tip. Or you could try using a small cookie or ice cream scooper instead of piping.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Form the dough into 1-inch rounds on the sheets, using about a tablespoon or so for each puff. Continue to form the puffs with the dough, spacing them about 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. If piping, wet your finger and smooth out any pointy tips on the tops of the puff. Otherwise, they will burn. Then place the sheets in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden on top and bottom. Remove from the oven and let cool.

While the puffs bake, make the pastry cream. In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, corn starch and salt. Strain the milk to remove the pine branches and orange zest then wipe any pine needles out of the pot. Return the milk to the pot along with the sugar mixture and butter. Heat over medium-low heat until simmering, whisking often to prevent burning or lumps. Cook for about ten minutes, until the mixture thickens to the consistency of pudding. Transfer to the fridge to cool to room temperature.

When the puffs and cream are both cool, it’s time to fill. You can either make a small hole in the bottom of each puff and pipe the filling into each, or just slice each puff in half across the middle and spoon the filling onto each bottom. Put the tops on top of the cream and gently press down to adhere to the cream.

Serve the puffs chilled and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

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