Cream Puffs: My Grandmother and The Best Dessert Ever

Dear Reader,

Growing up, my favorite holiday story was “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote. Anyone who has read that book knows how sentimental, sad, and magical it is. A lot of holiday stories are tinted with a bit of melancholy, and I’m sorry to say that this story about cream puffs features a bit of sadness. But that’s just the nature of this time of year, when family, tradition, and memories are at the forefront of our minds.

Like many families, the Sorias place a tremendous amount of importance and meaning onto food. Food is a strange thing, practical and necessary while also having the ability to be a luxury, a glamourous frivolity. One of the most important and storied foods of my Christmas pasts is the cream puff. There has never been a year in my life, aside from one that I note below, that my mother hasn’t prepared beautiful, delicious cream puffs. If you’ve never experienced a homemade cream puff, you’re truly missing out. They are a delectable pastry, filled with vanilla bean custard and topped with hardened dark chocolate.

Because my mother has so many desserts in her repertoire, the cream puff has never been featured as the signature dessert in our house. It’s understated. It’s more the treat you sneak before dinner while everyone is in the living room eating, drinking, and being merry. My mother would always scold us for eating cream puffs before dinner, but secretly we always knew it was totally okay.

One year, when I was 11, my grandmother started eating the cream puffs before they were finished (my mother hadn’t drizzled them in dark chocolate yet). I remember my siblings, cousins, and I all thinking it was the funniest thing in the world. Grandma English eating all the cream puffs before they were ready! It puzzled my mother and her sisters.

It turned out my grandmother had a cancerous brain tumor, and was dying. We wouldn’t have known about it but for the weird behavior with the cream puffs. We lost her four months later and it was the saddest thing in the world. No one had ever died before.

The next year, my mother didn’t make cream puffs. My sister, brother, and I were all outraged. This was a treat we’d been raised with and it made no sense to us because we were young and didn’t understand the connotation it had for our mother, who’d just left her job to take care of her dying mother. I think it was just too much of a reminder of when things went afoul, when my grandmother actually got sick, started to slip away.

I know what you’re thinking. Thanks for telling me this sad-ass story, Orlando! But for me it’s not really a sad story and here’s why. After our harassing and cajoling, my mother made cream puffs again the next year. I guess this was our way of letting her know we loved her, that life was going on, and that we could continue celebrating. There will always be a bit of a sad memory associated with cream puffs, but they also remind us of our (grand)mother, who was dearly loved and who was the only one who knew how to play Christmas songs on our piano, who read us Christmas stories, who snored endlessly on the other twin bed in my room.

Now every time we eat a cream puff we think of my awesome grandmother. Clearly, there’s a little bit of sadness mixed in with these memories, but this time of year is all about remembering everything that is important to us, and not all that is important to us is joyful.

We are lucky to live in a culture where we can give food such meaning, where we are so far beyond depending on it that it can work itself into the conceptual framework of our lives. So this holiday season, if you can look at a dish, a specialty, a dessert and have a memory, you’re a lucky person. The only thing better than food is food that reminds you of the people you love.

Feast your eyes on these glamourous cream puffs:

Some GENIUS decided to make Totoro-Inspired cream puffs. I’m so mad I didn’t think of that.

These are the cream puffs, finally done after my mother slaved for hours (I helped by making the custard filling).

And here is my mother filling the cream puffs with custard. With a nice glass of white wine. I always say the only thing more relaxing than cooking is cooking with a glass of wine. Actually I never say that. But I should.

Thanks for reading this totally long, depressing story about what cream puffs mean to me. I’d love to hear what stories you have to tell about foods that have meaning for you.

Happy Holidays!

Love,
Orlando

14 Comments

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14 responses to “Cream Puffs: My Grandmother and The Best Dessert Ever

  1. ian

    yeah, that’s a sweet story. Capotes ‘a christmas memory’ is my favorite xmas story too. whether it’s cream puffs, or fruitcakes, or a Madeline, food is a powerful memory and emotion trigger. my ex made the most wonderful lemon squares and even now many years later i am reminded of the good times we had whenever i have one.

  2. I enjoyed your story and often find it funny that food can conjure such strong memories. My family’s “cream puff” is my grandparents’ collection of retro Christmas ornaments. The ornaments didn’t come out of the box after my grandparents passed, but they have made an appearance again and it is still a little sad yet decidedly better now that they have returned.
    Love your blog and Happy Holidays!

  3. Dani

    I was all excited for a recipe, is it possible you can add it?

  4. Oh, that was such a sweet story and I really appreciated that! Actually, I love the way you write and I have been reading your site for a few months and loving it.

    Well, what can I say about christmas here in Brazil (where I live):
    I must confess xmas for me is always a little frustrating. Hollywood told us that in the perfect Christmas must have snow, hot food, family all in sweaters inside the house, socks in the fireplace, but guess what? Christmas here is hot as hell and, in the Xmas night, everybody in my family were sweating and my uncles were shirtless. My family has no particular traditions and everybody seems ok with that (sometimes they dont even put the tree together) but the worse thing: my entire family hates christmas songs and they keep on listening a king of country brazilian music.

    I must confess the picture is not the best, but having my cousins, uncles, aunts, family in general together is way too special, once we only see each other all together once in the year (at christmas eve). We have this ~messed~ Christmas year after year, I always get angry with the lack of details and etc, but I always and up understanding that maybe that is the thing that makes the Christmas special to us! And you should see our Tropical Christmas table, with pineapples, watermelon, strawberries and oll the sort of fruits!

    Happy 2012!

  5. Your mother always brings to mind a classic beauty like Meryl Streep.

    At Christmastime, my gran and mother and I always make Italian cookies called pizelles. I am sad we didn’t make them this year because I was away and can only hope the old lady makes it til next year.

  6. Catherine Soria

    Well said, and thank you for reminding me too about Christmas with my mother-it’s almost been 20 years!

  7. lovely, lovely!! to me Christmas is also about memories; my grandmother (my mom’s mom) is the axis around which every wonderful christmas memory revolves…she passed away 10 years ago (a few days before my daughter’s 1st birthday- I THANK GOD that they got to meet!!) and sadly that’s when we found out that she was the ‘glue’ that held the family together, so with her she took so many delicious recipes that at least we remember having helped her prepare for her yearly xmas feast…thank you for sharing this with us…so many grandmas remembered with profound love and respect no matter how long ago they left

  8. Oh, forgot to say that my family tradition is strawberry shortcake. My grandmother used to make it, then my grandfather took over when she wasn’t able to do it any longer. They always used a beautiful white and blue porcelain (?) bowl. Now that both grandparents are gone, the bowl has been passed down to me because I’m the official strawberry shortcake maker.

  9. Our family’s “cream puffs” are my Grandma Judy’s ‘Nuts and Bolts’ (Chex Mix) After she was gone we looked and looked in her house for the recipe. Not surprisingly, it seems she had it memorized. Just this year, a week or so before Christmas I went on a mission to find it. I knew she had given it to me at some point. Well, I found it and made it. I nearly cried when the familiar smell began to fill my house. I am so grateful for this food that reminds my of my grandmother who I loved dearly and miss everyday. Thanks for sharing your story Orlando!

  10. capote’s story inspired me to start writing christmas memoirs, and they’ve been a wonderful experience. your mother is so pretty! cream puffs are too.

  11. Pingback: Food of the Week (6/16/2013) | Another Castle

  12. Thank you Orlando. Your writing is joyful; full of humor, wonder and sadness. I will miss you guys this year, but now I am reminded that we are forever connected. Love you

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