By Sara Hayden
Restaurateur Michelle Ko's travels took her across Asia, Europe and North America. Along the way, she sampled desserts wherever she went. In Japan, France, Italy and Canada, one delicate pastry in particular caught her attention: "We are cream puff lovers," Ko says.
"I like to try new things, to be inspired by new ideas." Classic cream puffs with vanilla custard filling, sea salt Oreo and strawberry from Pâte à Choux in San Bruno. Photo courtesy of Michelle Ko.
Now, she and her brother, Jason Li, are purveyors of choux au craquelin at The Shops of Tanforan in San Bruno, baking them fresh throughout the day, starting early. "We make (cream puffs) with love, hand-making everything," Ko says. "We just want to share the dessert."
It's their latest local family business. Ko previously worked at a pastry shop and owned a restaurant, which closed during the pandemic. Since then, she's been taking great care to master the making of the perfect cream puff to serve the Peninsula.
The puff's ingredients aren't complicated, Ko says, "just butter, eggs, flour" — but their freshness plays a tremendous role in the final flavor.
"We try a lot of ingredients. We have every type of butter. We've been searching for the best one," Ko says. It's a pursuit that she doesn't expect to ever end as they seek to continually improve. "If we find better, we'll use that. We're still looking for the best."
"We've been searching for the best one." Fresh butter, eggs and flour make all the difference says Michelle Ko of Pâte à Choux in San Bruno. Photo courtesy of Michelle Ko.
She dedicates the same attention to assembling the ingredients as she does sourcing them. Something that's so effortlessly easy to eat belies the puff's complexity.
"It looks like a simple product, but we spend a lot of effort," Ko says.
When the pastry is ready for the oven, the bake time is especially crucial to creating the perfect puff. Ko uses an oven that lets her fine tune the time, temperature and moisture level.
The result is a puff that's perfectly crispy on top, like a cookie, and airy within. Customers can choose between a classic puff pastry, or one that incorporates chocolate for a flavor that's very rich, just a little bit bitter and not too sweet.
To maintain the puff's delicate texture and crispiness, they fill each puff with smooth custard as customers order. Custard flavors include original, chocolate, matcha, yogurt, black sesame and hojicha. Some have a cream or cupcake-inspired top, others have cookies or fruits. A dusting of powdered sugar completes each puff.
In addition to cream puffs, San Bruno's Pâte à Choux offers limited edition special items, like mochi brûlée. Photo courtesy of Michelle Ko.
There are also limited edition special items on the menu, like mochi brûlée and berry puff cakes. Ko says she expects to continually evolve the menu, introducing new flavors, and perhaps even new puff shapes — venturing beyond a sphere to a square cube.
"Everything we do is a cream puff, but it's more than a cream puff. It's a more creative product...I like to try new things, to be inspired by new ideas," Ko says. "I want to add my own ideas, like cream puff 2.0."
Pâte à Choux // 1150 El Camino Real Suite 205, San Bruno; 650.576.4915
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