Sometimes, after the holidays, I feel a little low. The build-up to the new year gets so hectic that when it’s all over, it’s not uncommon for me to experience a little post-season funk. Having just spent the last month cooking and decorating and entertaining, I need something to look forward to. While searching around for a reason to get excited, I was reminded that nearly every day of the year is a national holiday! Or rather, a National Day.
There is no federal committee declaring National Days. In fact, there is no official way to get a National Day. You can simply decide to start celebrating something. The key is getting your day to catch on. That’s what friends John Baur and Mark Summers did, after they decided talking like a pirate was super fun and cool. They shared their Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19) idea with humorist Dave Barry, who wrote about it in his syndicated column. Now, all the cool kids talk like a pirate that day.
There are, however, some private enterprises that recognize and publish National Days in a semi-official capacity. Chase’s Calendar of Events is considered the definitive guide to National Days. This almanac was founded in 1957 by two brothers, one of whom was a librarian looking in vain for a single comprehensive listing of annual observances. When none could be found, they created their own. The first Chase Calendar (for 1958) had 364 entries. Today there are 12,500. Also included are special weeks and months as listed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chase Calendar receives 10,000 requests annually for new national days, from which they select about 20. (The most popular request is a day named after really great girlfriends.)
There is also a National Day Calendar, which began publishing in 2013. This group selects 30 new days annually from nearly 20,000 applications. They currently track about 1,500 National Days. If you think the National Day idea has gotten a little crazy, you’d be correct. (Hence, National Crazy Day, Oct. 24.)
What I like best about National Days is that there is always something to celebrate, and you can find a day to celebrate pretty much everything — Kazoo Day, Heimlich Maneuver Day, Harvey Wallbanger Day, Multiple Personality Day, Proofreading Day, Bowling League Day, Mud Pack Day, Clerihew Day (a Clerihew is a funny biographical rhyming poem; e.g. “Sir Humphry Davy, Abominated gravy, He lived in the odium, Of having discovered sodium”).
Of course, as a former chef, I particularly enjoy the food days. What a joy to discover that everything I love has a day — anchovies (Nov. 12), pecan pie (July 12), eggs Benedict (April 16), coffee (Sept. 29). This first month of the year has some doozies, including marzipan (Jan. 12), granola bars (Jan. 21) and croissants (Jan. 30). But the best is Jan. 2: National Cream Puff Day! It is my hope that everyone will partake of a little cream puff action, and to encourage this, I offer you my best pâte à choux recipe. Make a batch for you and yours, and rest easy knowing the holidays are not over, after all. There is so much celebrating still to do!
You don’t actually need a National Day to enjoy these puffs, but it certainly helps with your justification. (The rumor that puffs eaten on their national day are calorie-free has not been authoritatively confirmed.)
Makes about 1 dozen large puffs
2 cups water
5 ounces unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
cup all-purpose flour
1 extra egg
Sweetened whipped cream
1. Combine water, butter, sugar and salt in a large saucepan and bring it to a boil. At the boil, add the flour and stir for 3 minutes over high heat. (This is going to be hard, so just tough it out. Three minutes is crucial, or the flour will not be properly absorbed, the gluten in the flour will not be activated and your puffs will not puff.) The mixture should resemble mashed potatoes when ready. (It’s best not to use wooden spoons — they have a tendency to snap in half during this step. Use metal.)
2. Remove from the heat, cool slightly (about 5 minutes), then add the eggs, one at a time. (I always do this by hand. It is hard, but worth it. Some chefs take it to a mixer for this step, but I find that the mixer overworks the dough and makes it a bit runny, which makes it hard to shape your puffs. Mixing by hand yields better product and puts you [or at least me] into a zen-like oneness with the cooking process.) It’s okay to rest for a minute in between eggs if you must.
3. Preheat the oven to 400° and line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Use an ice cream scooper, or two teaspoons, and scoop large-walnut-size pieces of dough onto the prepared pan, about an inch apart. Fill up the whole pan. You’ll probably need to make several oven batches. Whisk up the extra egg with a pinch of salt and brush it lightly over the puffs, then pop them into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake another 5 to 10 minutes. They should be dark golden brown, firm and well-risen. If they aren’t, reduce the heat to 350° and continue to bake until they look done. If they are not golden and firm, they will deflate once cooled. Repeat with the remaining dough.
4. When cool, cut the puffs in half horizontally, and fill the bottoms with sweetened whipped cream. (Try it using pastry cream or chocolate mousse too!) Replace the top halves, drizzle with chocolate sauce and dust with powdered sugar.
Unfilled puffs freeze really well, and will last for several weeks. To refresh, simply reheat in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes.
P.S. Filled with ice cream, these puffs become profiteroles. When piped 2 to 3 inches long, they become éclairs. Filled and piled into a pyramid they become a croquembouche. You can even use this same recipe to make gougères, my favorite savory cheese puffs. Fold in a cup of grated Gruyère cheese and a couple of tablespoons of chopped chives just before baking. Sadly, gougères don’t have a National Day…yet!