Story by David Thompson
Photo by Jack Wolford
Hilo has never been a hotbed of the French pastry arts. But ever since a little patisserie named Puff City opened there last summer, it’s become clear that the 7,500 miles separating Kilauea Avenue from the Champs-Élysées aren’t keeping the town from the pleasures of perfect puff pastry.
Fran Morales, the trim 51-year-old dashing around the kitchen with flour and butter in the pre-dawn hours, is Puff City’s proprietor. She trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and she favors cream puffs because—more than éclairs, croissants or any of the other puff pastries—they have minds of their own. “They all come out of the oven with their own different shapes,” she says. “There’s always an element of surprise.”
Morales originally envisioned Puff City as a place that baked cream puffs, coconut macaroons and nothing more. In reality she’s had to expand the roster, adding sandwiches on fresh-baked minibaguettes, cakes to order and a few other things. But cream puffs rule. The deli case that customers see when they walk in the door is filled with cream puffs and nothing but. The seven regulars include one with liliko‘i cream topped with a chocolate-liliko‘i ganache. The two slots for monthly guest cream puffs have been filled by the likes of a toffee with chocolate ganache and Heath toffee bits and a vanilla cream with chocolate ganache and candy corn.
A cream puff is a marvel of kitchen chemistry. It starts with an unleavened dough called pate a choux, which steam causes to rise, creating a cavity within a light, crisp shell. The cavity is typically filled with whipped cream or custard. “A good cream puff is soft enough to bite into easily but strong enough that all the cream doesn’t moosh out the sides when you do,” says Morales. Cream puffs should not be taken lightly, though. The first one or two might go down like clouds, but eat one too many and the ethereal illusion shatters and the weighty reality of the filling socks you in the gut. It’s good to know your limits. “I recommend,” says Morales, “stopping at two.”