Photos by Anne Fishbein
A warm, vanilla-scented cream puff from Beard Papa Sweets Café is the thinking foodie’s latest object of desire, a rustic orb, tawny in color, about the size and heft of a regulation baseball, obtainable only at the end of a fairly long queue at the single West Coast outlet of a big Osaka-based chain. You have undoubtedly had other cream puffs in your day — damp, irregular spheroids of pastry split and filled with shelf-stabilized whipped cream — but the Beard Papa model is a different object altogether: crunchy where the standard cream puff tends to be elastic, round where the others are squat, injected to order with amplified doughnut custard flecked with tiny seeds, and dusted with powdered sugar.
There is a distinct aftertaste of browned pie crust in a Papa puff where you usually encounter a vague, sweet smack. But as with a proper bagel, there is a tempered chaw under its thin, friable skin, and a subtly rich jolt of egginess that seems to rush straight to the pleasure center of the brain. Papa puffs are undoubtedly delivery systems for astronomical quantities of saturated fat, but the only thing it is possible to do after inhaling one is to immediately start in on another, until the box is empty, your stomach is full, and your sugar crash can be felt clear to the other side of the Tehachapis. If Papa puffs were any more addictive, they would be illegal in 38 states, the bearded, pipe-smoking mascot would be as suggestive as the Zig-Zag man, and puff-dumping codicils would be the subject of G7 trade negotiations.
Cream puffs, of course, are common in many Asian kitchens. You can find small, dense puffs at Thai dessert shops and cream-cheese-filled puffs at Filipino restaurants, pillowy soft cream puffs at Chinese bakeries and wonderful, doughnut-styled cream puffs at Korean bakeries. At Lee’s Sandwiches, the volume champions of Vietnamese sandwiches, machines behind the counter spit out dense, custard-filled hockey pucks called delimanjoo that have a half-life measured in seconds, but are delicious if you get to them when they are still hot enough to blister the roof of your mouth. Some of the best cream puffs I have ever tasted were at a creaky coffeehouse out in the Joo Chiat neighborhood of Singapore. I’m not quite sure why Asian bakers tend to favor cream puffs and their derivatives over petits fours or strudel, but the eggy pâte choux dough from which they are made tends to work better in tropical climates than the sort of pastry apt to leak butter in hot weather, and the form of the dessert is similar to that of the sweet dumplings you find in practically every country in the East.
Before Beard Papa made it to California a few weeks ago, I had assumed most Japanese cream puffs were like the squishy specimens I had eaten at Little Tokyo bakeries, gummy things that tended to look a lot better than they tasted. I had admired the cream puffs at Angel Maid, conveniently located across the street from one of my favorite taco stands, Taqueria Sanchez. It is always fun to hand an Angel Maid puff — thin-skinned pingpong balls of dough inflated at great pressure — to a neophyte. If the custard doesn’t dribble down the front of his pressed shirt, it is likely to shoot clear across the room. They are tasty, but they are kind of porno puffs.
My favorite alternative Japanese cream puffs are at Chantilly down in Lomita, a gorgeous Japanese bakery that resembles a high-class Tokyo tearoom. Keiko Nojima, the chef, a local South Bay girl, followed a course of study at the California Culinary Academy with a long apprenticeship in Japan, and her delicate concoctions — majestic cheesecake pyramids flavored with fresh orange peel, sesame blancmange with caramel, tiny chestnut-mousse montblancs, green-tea cakes — are marriages of Japanese flavors and Parisian structures, as beautiful as Ken Price ceramics. The cream puffs are especially good — airy, eggy pastries stuffed to order with blackish, sesame-flavored whipped cream and sprinkled with a sweet powder made of caramelized soy, a cream puff that takes full command. Nojima claims that sesame cream puffs are fairly common in Tokyo, but there is nothing remotely like them in Los Angeles. Beard Papa makes a great product, but a Chantilly puff is art.
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Angel Maid Bakery, 4538 Centinela Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 915-2078.
Beard Papa Sweets Café, 6801 Hollywood Blvd. No. 153, Hollywood, (323) 462-6100.
Chantilly, 2383 Lomita Blvd. No. 104, Lomita, (310) 257-9454.
Lee’s Sandwiches, 1289 Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 282-5589.