What I had for dinner:
During my undergraduate years in Paris, the high point of the day was pastry and coffee after lunch. Every day, we would walk back from the students' restaurant at the Institut de Physique et Chimie (that's where Madame Curie had her laboratory), stop at a pastry shop where rues Gay-Lussac and St Jacques meet, then cross the street and install ourselves at our table in a little cafe right at the corner.
Overwhelmingly, our favorite indulgence was the chocolate religieuse, a construct of two cream puffs filled with chocolate cream, a small one on top of a large one, frosted with chocolate icing, and with curlicues of chocolate buttercream between the two puffs. In retrospect, that was probably 800 calories right there, but what did we know then?
Thus, it was no wonder that when I started cooking, in graduate school, the cream puff became a mainstay of my dessert repertoire. Over the years, I've given up on the icing and the butter cream, and chocolate tends to be used in more intense fashion than in pastry cream. Instead, since it is the chestnut season, I decided to make a chestnut filling for the two dozen puffs I made for an informal dinner with friends from my former lab.
Cream puff dough is a bit unusual, in that it is somewhat precooked: in a large saucepan, put 1/2 cup of milk, 1/2 stick of butter, 1/2 tsp of salt, and 1/2 tbsp of sugar. The mixture is brought to a boil, making sure that the butter has all melted, then 1 scant cup of flour is added at once and mixed well into the liquid with a wooden spoon. The flour absorbs the liquid rapidly, and must be mixed thoroughly until there are no lumps left. This dough is then placed in a large bowl, and spread out so that it can cool down.
After 15 min, 4 eggs are added, one by one, mixing well with a spatula, so that one egg is completely absorbed by the dough before the addition of the next one. The dough should be soft and a little sticky, but be able to hold its shape.
Little one-inch mounds of dough are spaced on a cookie sheet with at least an inch in between. A pastry bag is most convenient, but in a pinch one can dole out the dough with a couple of teaspoons. If the pastry bag leaves a peak on top of the puffs, flatten it with a wet finger, so as to get a rounded top.
Bake for 20 min at 400 F, then 5 min at 350, or until nicely golden but not brown. Take the puffs from the oven, slit open each top on the side, and return to the turned-off oven to dry for an additional 10 min. Place the puffs on a wire rack and let cool thoroughly.
The chestnut filling is a mixture of chestnut spread and whipped cream, known on its own as Mont Blanc (a brown mountainside capped with white glaciers). The chestnut can be bought ready made, or easily prepared from canned chestnut puree: one 1-lb can of puree is mixed thoroughly with a syrup made from 1 cup of sugar and 1/3 cup of water brought to a boil. When the mixture is homogeneous, it is returned to the stove and cooked with stirring until it begins to thicken, so that the bottom of the pan stays visible behind the stirring spoon. One tsp of vanilla extract is mixed in, and the chestnut is cooled completely in the fridge before use. This can of course be made well in advance.
At the last moment, whip heavy cream (1/2 cup is enough for this) until thick, mix it gently with an equal amount of chestnut, and fill the puffs with a spoon. Depending on how well they have puffed, it may be necessary to remove some dough inside the puff to get a nice cavity. Recap with the top, and keep in a cool place, but not in the fridge.