Vanilla Custard Filling
Position rack in lower third of oven; heat oven to 425°F. Heat water and butter in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat to a rolling boil. Remove from heat and immediately, add flour and salt all at once; beat vigorously until thoroughly blended. Return to medium heat. Cook, stirring vigorously, until mixture pulls away from sides of pan and forms a ball, 1 to 2 minutes.
Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating after each addition by hand or with mixer on medium speed, until smooth. Continue beating, if necessary, until glossy and a small quantity of dough scooped on the end of a spoon stands erect.
Bake in lower third of 425°F oven until lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Reduce oven setting to 375°F. Continue baking until firm and golden brown, about 20 minutes longer. Immediately after baking, pierce side of each puff with tip of sharp knife. Cool on wire rack.
Just before serving, cut off 1/2 inch from top of each puff; pull out and discard any filaments of soft dough from inside. Spoon scant 1/3 cup pastry cream into each puff; replace tops. Sprinkle tops with powdered sugar. Refrigerate leftovers promptly.
Vanilla Custard Filling
Cool quickly: Set pan in larger pan of ice water. Stir occasionally and gently for a few minutes to hasten cooling. Stir in vanilla. Press piece of plastic wrap onto surface of pastry cream to prevent a “skin” from forming. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 1 hour.
This classic favorite can be made ahead; add the filling just before serving.
Cream puffs can be filled with sweetened whipped cream, other flavored custards or lemon curd.
For profiteroles, fill cream puffs with ice cream and serve with chocolate sauce.
In the classic French dessert, Paris-Brest, cream puff pastry is baked in a ring, split horizontally and filled with luscious whipped cream, flavored with caramelized sugar and nuts.
Fill cream puffs right before serving so they do not become soggy.
For medium-size puffs: Drop dough in 2 Tbsp. portions about 2 inches apart onto ungreased baking sheet. Bake in 425°F oven until lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Reduce oven setting to 375°F. Continue baking until firm and golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes longer. Makes about 30.
For small puffs: Drop dough by tablespoonfuls about 1 inch apart onto ungreased baking sheet. Bake in 425°F oven until lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Reduce oven setting to 375°F. Continue baking until firm and golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes longer. Makes about 45.
Pastry bag: For faster, neater filling, press pastry cream into puffs from a pastry bag fitted with plain tip.