Culture

Meet the Cream Puffin, Your New Holiday Baking Challenge

“Seabird Sue” Schubel wants your family—and Martha Stewart—to taste these Audubon camp favorites.

Teens, teachers, artists, and others who visit Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine tend to rave about all the experience offers: up-close avian encounters, time afield with some of birding’s biggest names, new friendships forged.

But one of the sweetest perks comes at the end of Hog Island’s six-day programs, between the lobster dinner and the awards presentation. That’s when the cooks carry in trays of Cream Puffins, petite pastries that have become a beloved camp tradition. (For the full recipe, scroll to the bottom of the post.) 

“They’re the perfect combination of cold, sweet filling, chocolate, and pastry,” says Eva Matthews Lark, the camp’s program manager. “They are the best way to end a week at Hog Island.”

The creator of these confections is Susan Schubel, known around camp as Seabird Sue. Schubel works with Project Puffin, Audubon’s program to restore seabird colonies in decline. She heads up a project that produces lifelike seabird decoys that have been used in conservation efforts around the world. She even leads the Puffin Pluckers, a band of ukulele troubadours who give the lyrics of classic songs a seabird-specific makeover. (From the Pluckers’ take on I Will Survive: “Someday I’ll fledge, run out the door/When I weigh 300 grams and have the proper feather score.”)

“Part of my unofficial role here is to create joy and appreciation of seabirds,” Schubel says. And that was the underlying spirit when she and her dad came up with the Cream Puffin concept almost two decades ago, while brainstorming ocean-themed desserts she could bring to Hog Island. The wordplay worked and the species was fitting, since the camp is a short boat ride from Eastern Egg Rock, the first island where, starting in the 1970s, Project Puffin founder Stephen Kress reestablished a breeding population of Atlantic Puffins.

As the instructions below show, this probably isn’t the right project for beginners—there are a lot of steps, and this could easily qualify for a technical challenge on The Great British Bake Off. But Schubel says the recipe builds on a solid foundation familiar to many bakers: The heads and necks are based on the “Rich Roll Cookies” from The Joy of Cooking, while the airy bird bodies follow Julia Child’s recipe for pâte à choux. If you can handle those classics, you can combine them for Cream Puffins.

And don’t sweat it if your batch falls short of puffin perfection. “Even though each individual one might be a little wonky, as a flock they look adorable,” Schubel says.

Along with all those she’s made for Hog Island’s summer campers, she bakes hundreds for Mid-Coast Audubon's yearly lobsterbake, and for the annual Pies on Parade event in Rockland, Maine, home to the Project Puffin Visitor Center. All told, Schubel figures she’s made at least 22,000 of the appetizing alcids over the years.

With so much experience comes confidence. “I think we have the best stop in Pies on Parade,” Schubel says matter-of-factly. It’s not bragging—she’s heard the crowds coo when they see the pastries, heard them moan when they bite into the cool cream filling. She knows what she’s got.

In fact, she wants Maine summer resident Martha Stewart to come bake a batch with her. After all, Kress has already appeared on one of Stewart’s shows. “It would make a really interesting story if she’d come down in her fancy boat to the island,” says Schubel. “She loves birds, and it would have this culinary aspect.”

Sharing these treats with the world while shining a Martha Stewart-sized spotlight on seabird conservation? Sounds to us like a Good Thing.

***

Recipe: Cream Puffins

(Yields about 25 to 30 puffins.)

Cookie heads
1 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
2 ½ cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup extra dark baking cocoa
Yellow, red, blue food coloring

  • Cream butter and sugar. Beat in vanilla and egg. Gradually add flour/salt mixture and mix until smooth.
     
  • Take half the dough and stir in cocoa powder. If desired add blue and red food coloring for greater depth of color. Divide other half of dough into two parts. Keep one part white; add red and yellow food coloring (for orange beaks) to the second part and mix until integrated.
     
  • Refrigerate dough until stiff. Then, roll the white dough into cylinders the diameter of a penny, and about 10 inches long. Roll orange dough into slightly smaller-diameter cylinders, 10 inches long, and then squeeze into a triangular shape. Between sheets of wax paper, roll half the chocolate dough to very thin rectangles, about one-eighth inch thick, two and a half inches wide, and 10 inches long. Roll the other half to a rectangle about a half-inch thick and 10 inches long. Slice lengthwise into strips about five-eights of an inch wide—these will form the necks. (Note: You'll need a little bit of chocolate dough to form the eyes, so set aside any trimmings or leftovers.) Return dough to refrigerator to stiffen up.
     
  • To make the eye, cut out a quarter of the white cylinder along the length, spread a little leftover chocolate dough along all of the L-shaped surface that you just cut, and then replace the missing quarter. For the beak, stick the orange triangle to the side of the head opposite the eye stripe. Wrap the thin (one-eighth-inch) chocolate dough around the rest of the white cylinder, trimming if necessary for smooth fit. It’s best to start at the top side of the beak. Finally, attach a neck piece of the chocolate dough, make sure it is on the correct side based on the eye placement.
     
  • Place rolls in the freezer until hard.  (You may freeze them for several months if wrapped air-tight.)
     
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut frozen cookie dough rolls into quarter-inch-thick pieces. Bake for six to eight minutes. Remove before tops brown.
A fully assembled roll of puffin heads, ready to be sliced into cookies. Photo: Susan Schubel

Pâte à choux bodies
1 cup flour
1 cup water
3/4 stick butter
Dash salt
Dash nutmeg
1 tsp sugar
4 large eggs at room temperature

  • Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
     
  • Bring water, butter, salt, sugar, and nutmeg to a boil. When butter is melted, add in flour all at once and stir quickly with a wooden spoon until dough forms and becomes a cohesive lump. Turn heat down to medium and continue to stir in pan until a skin begins to form on the sides and bottom of pan. Remove from heat. Make a well in the flour mixture and begin to mix in eggs one at a time until absorbed. Put mix into a pastry bag with wide tip, and squeeze roundish ovals (about one and three-quarters of an inch wide and two and a half inches long) onto a greased or parchment-paper-covered baking tray. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes, or until brown and very light in weight. Remove from oven and cut a one-inch slit at one end to receive filling and head. Return to warm oven (now off) for 10 minutes with door slightly ajar.

Creamy filling
1 large box instant vanilla pudding
2 ½ cups light cream, or milk

  • Mix pudding and let set. Using a pastry bag with long tip, generously fill each puff.

Chocolate ganache for back
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup heavy cream

  • Melt chocolate chips with cream over a double-boiler, or in a microwave, and stir until smooth.

Assembly

  • Hold filled cream puff gently by the bottom, and make note of where the head slot is. Dip top of body into the bowl of chocolate and lift out with a gentle swirl, turning upright as you do for a neat coating. Insert a cookie neck into the head slot, and set the completed Cream Puffin onto a small cupcake paper. 
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