Golden cream puff swans filled with rich, delicious pastry cream are a must-try baking project for kids and adults.
If you haven’t made choux pastry before, it’s easier than you think. And homemade tastes so much better than store-bought. It’s fresher and won’t have that stale flavor, with dried-out or soggy shells you sometimes get from store-bought eclairs and other pastries.
Update: I’ve updated this post with new photos of my cream puff swans, templates, and step-by-step instructions so you can make this elegant dessert at home.
I first made these elegant pastry swans for a Daring Bakers challenge in 2012. Then, I adapted the recipe for my e-cookbook Simple Sweet Dream Puffs. This is one of those stunning pastry recipes that’s as fun to make and present as it is to eat.
There are dozens more delightful cream puff recipes in the Dream Puffs cookbook and on my site linked below! Start with this how-to post, with step-by-step instructions to make cream puffs.
How to Make Cream Puff Swans
I recommend making the pastry swans in the following order:
- First, make the pastry cream base (before the whipped cream) and chill in the refrigerator.
- Next, prepare your cookie sheets with parchment and templates for piping.
- Prepare your piping bag and tip.
- Then make, pipe, and bake the choux pastry. Let the baked pastries cool completely.
- Once the pastry cream base is completely chilled, whip the cream and fold it into the base.
- Cut the cooled cream puffs into the swan bodies and wings.
- Finally, assemble by piping in the pastry cream and affixing the wings and bodies together.
You can print pastry swan templates to help you pipe the perfect shapes. Lay the templates under a piece of parchment paper and trace them with a pencil.
Or, I’ll usually just put the template under the parchment paper, pipe the shapes, and then remove the template before baking.
Making Choux Pastry
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you’re mixing up the choux pastry for your swans:
Start by bringing butter, water, salt, and sugar to a boil. It’s very important that this mixture is evenly combined before continuing with the recipe. Next, mix in all of the flour. Adjust your heat as necessary and stir constantly to avoid burning. The batter will thicken up quickly.
When adding the eggs, you want to be sure the eggs don’t cook from the heat. Let the dough cool a bit first and mix constantly as you add the eggs.
The finished dough should be thick. It should fall slowly and steadily from the beaters when you lift them out of the bowl. The batter should NOT be:
- Slimy. This means the eggs are not fully incorporated––keep mixing.
- So thick it doesn’t stick to the mixing paddle. This means not enough egg––add one more.
- So runny that it oozes from the pastry bag or spreads out when you pipe it. This means too much egg, and you’ll need to make more of the dough.
How to Pipe Choux Batter for Cream Puff Swans
Use a piping bag fitted with a ½-inch tip to pipe the swan heads. Apply even pressure for a steady stream and keep the piping bag moving as you go. Follow the stencil/template.
To pipe the bodies, you can remove the tip. You will apply a little more pressure for the bodies.
The bodies should have a slight taper to them. I like to start at the thinner end. To do so, squeeze the bag lightly at first to stay in the lines of the template. As you move to the wider end of the body, press harder for a thicker stream.
Tip: The great thing about choux dough is that it’s very forgiving. If you mess up a body or swan head, simply scrape the dough off of the parched and back into your pastry bag.
Before baking, gently tap down any bumps with damp fingers.
Making Pastry Cream
You can fill the choux shells with your favorite filling or even lightly sweetened whipped heavy cream. I prefer to fill them with a simple, delicious vanilla pastry cream.
When mixing the pastry cream on the stove, be sure to whisk constantly to avoid burning. As the mixture thickens up, you want to avoid a thin layer that may stick to the bottom of the pan. If you feel this happening, just keep whisking. Do NOT scrape the bottom of the pan with your whisk. Doing so will cause brown bits (scalded/burned milk mixture) to float in your pastry cream.
When the cream is uniformly mixed, transfer it to a bowl to chill in the fridge. Place a layer of plastic directly on the surface of the cream to avoid a film.
Make sure your pastry cream is completely chilled before folding in the whipped cream.
Assembling Cream Puff Swans
Once your cream puffs and pastry cream elements are cooled, it’s time to assemble your cream puff swans.
I recommend using a sharp, serrated knife to cut the cream puffs. Start by cutting the top third of the pastry bodies off. Next, cut the top third in half to make the wings.
Arrange your pieces (body, two wings, and heads) in groups to build each swan.
On the body pieces, pipe or spoon a dollop of pastry cream. You want enough to fill the length of the body but not too much that it spills over the sides.
Next, slide the base of the swan neck into the pastry cream at the thick end of the body. If needed, add a bit more pastry cream on top of the swan neck base to secure it.
Finally, firmly but gently affix the wings onto the sides of the swan. The pastry cream in the body will act as the glue to hold the wings in place.
There you have it: a stunning, elevated pastry dessert that’s ready to impress.
Serving & Storing Cream Puff Swans
Pate a choux is best the day it’s made, though you can freeze the pastry bodies in an airtight container for up to 3 months. Pastry cream does not freeze well, but you can store it in the fridge for up to three days and assemble the swans just before serving.
Refrigerate swans until ready to serve. Sprinkle on a dusting of powdered sugar just before serving.
Cream Puff Swans
- ½ cup 1 stick unsalted butter
- 1 cup water
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 ½ teaspoons sugar
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 large eggs
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon water
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- ⅓ cup flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 cups milk
- 3 egg yolks beaten
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
- ½ cup whipping cream
- Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Place templates on baking sheets; line with parchment paper. Measure flour and set aside.
- In a large saucepan, bring butter, water, salt, and sugar to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove the pan from the heat and add the flour all at once. Stir quickly until all the flour is incorporated, about a minute. Return to the heat and cook, stirring constantly, for another minute or two.
- Transfer dough to the bowl of an electric mixer, and let cool for 5 minutes.
- Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; beat until the dough loses its “slimy” look, and each egg is incorporated. (You may only need 3 eggs, depending on your climate.) The dough should be thick, but should fall slowly and steadily from the beaters when you lift them out of the bowl.
- Spoon dough into a pastry bag fitted with a coupler. Attach a #10 tip (½-inch) to coupler. Pipe dough to make 12 swan necks on a baking sheet, using template as a guide. Smooth out peaks and round tops with a moistened finger; remove template. (You’re aiming for something between a numeral 2 and a question mark, with a little beak if you’re skilled and/or lucky.)
- Remove the tip from the bag and pipe out 12 swan bodies on a second baking sheet, using template as a guide. These will be about 3” long, and about 2” wide. One end should be a bit narrower than the other. Smooth out peaks and round tops with a moistened finger; remove template.
- Egg wash: Whisk together 1 egg and 1 teaspoon water. Brush tops of dough with egg mixture. Place swan necks on baking sheet in the freezer.
- Bake swan bodies at 425° for 5 minutes; reduce oven temperature to 375°, and bake 30 minutes or until puffy and golden brown. Remove from the baking sheet to a wire rack, and cool completely.
- Bake swan necks at 375° for 15 minutes or until puffy and golden brown. Remove from the baking sheet to a wire rack, and cool completely.
- PASTRY CREAM
- In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, flour, and salt. Gradually whisk in milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture starts to boil. Cook for 2 minutes until thickened.
- Remove from the stove. Slowly whisk ¼ cup of the hot mixture into the beaten egg yolks, and immediately add the egg yolk mixture to the hot mixture in the saucepan. Cook for 2 more minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add butter and vanilla. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl. Cover with plastic and refrigerate until well chilled, about 1 hour or overnight.
- When pudding is chilled, whip cream to form soft peaks. Gently fold the whipped cream into the pudding until evenly mixed. Cover and chill until ready to use.
- Cut swan bodies in half horizontally. Cut the top halves in half to create two wings.
- Dollop or pipe a small amount of pastry cream onto the widest part of the bottom halves. Fix the swan necks in the cream. After you’ve put the neck in place, fill the bottom halves with additional pastry cream. Place wings on each side.
- Chill until ready to serve. Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving if desired.