Though I hate to be picky, I guess I still can be. Almost every week, my mother buys bolo buns, or ‘pineapple buns’, for my sisters. These are sweet buns filled with sticky red char siu (sweet barbecued meat) filling, covered in a yellow tortoiseshell of crackly sugary goodness. It’s those charming cracks, glistening coats of crisp comprising pull-apart little tiles on each little bun, that get to me, more so than any other part. As I picked childishly at the top once, I was reminded of my first try of choux au craquelin, or crispy cream puffs with a similar sort of topping. Remembering I had some leftover custard that I used to make salted custard lava french toast earlier on in the week, the idea of custard puffs ossified.
Cutting into a crispy, sugary coat to be greeted by voluptuous spillage of vanilla-speckled, slightly salty custard is one of the most lascivious but gratifying actions one can do. Hear the crackle, wade deep. The salt plays up the sweet, giving the drag of thick and cream a bit of angle, an edge. The craquelin itself may have been enough to satisfy me, but it’s a bite that makes the experience whole.
The last time I played with choux was probably more than a year ago, and a repeat this time reminded me of the requisite care in perfecting the robust dough which is easy to let fall apart if you overlook the temperature and timing of each ingredient addition.
Salted Vanilla Crispy Custard Puffs (makes 6-7 medium puffs)
For the choux buns:
75g plain flour
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp salt
For the craquelin (crispy top):
85g butter, softened
100g white caster sugar
100g plain flour
For the salted vanilla custard:
110g white sugar
3 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp salt
4 egg yolks
beans of one vanilla pod or 1 tbsp vanilla bean paste
First, make the custard. In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring the sugar, cornstarch, salt, egg yolks and milk to a boil. Add the vanilla, then let the mixture continue to boil for 15-18 minutes. Use a wooden spoon to stir the mixture occasionally. Take off the heat when you see that the custard has thickened and readily coats the back of your spoon. Add in the butter and stir to mix. Pour the custard into a bowl, cover with cling film and let this rest in the fridge while you make the remaining components.
Preheat your oven to 177C (350F) and prepare a baking tray lined with parchment paper for the choux buns. Make the craquelin: in a bowl, mix the ingredients for the craquelin together until you get a buttery dough. Roll the dough into a ball and put into a plastic ziploc bag, sealing it. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out till it’s 2-3mm thick in the bag. Put this in the freezer.
Next, make the choux buns. In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the butter, water and salt to a boil. Once you see that the butter has all melted, add the flour. Use a wooden spoon or whisk to incorporate until you get a dry-looking dough. Take off the heat and let the mixture rest for 2 minutes. Then, slowly whisk or beat in the eggs. It’s the eggs that provide the lift to the batter, readying it for the perfect little pocket in the middle. I like to do this in 3 additions. It’s important to keep whisking here and to do this slowly, as sudden contact between the hot dough and eggs and cause the eggs to scramble. The dough should be stiff enough to hold a peak when you lift up your spoon or whisk. Put the choux bun paste into a piping bag and pipe circles that are 3cm in diameter onto the baking tray, doing a little swirl at the top. Wet your finger with a little water and press down ever so slightly on top, so you get a more aesthetically pleasing puff.
Take your craquelin out of the freezer and cut out circles 3cm in diameter from the frozen, buttery block. Despite freezing, the slab is still relatively easy to break. You can use a metal cutter or knife to cut out the circles. Place the circles on the choux paste, and then bake in your preheated oven for 20 minutes.
After baking, let the buns cool for 15 minutes on the tray. Take your cooled custard out of the fridge and put into a piping bag. Poke the tip of the piping nozzle into the bottom of a puff, and pipe until you feel some resistance at the point of contact between nozzle and puff. There is quite a bit of weight difference. Repeat for the other puffs. These buns can be stored in the fridge for 2 days or frozen for longer storage. If they have gone all soft after a while, you can re-crisp them in an oven, just bake them at 160C for 5 minutes.