The Baking Tool Ina Garten Uses To Make Her Soup More Whimsical

Ina Garten has built a devoted following, showing home cooks how to elevate their favorite comfort food into company-worthy meals. Her laid-back elegance and style suggest serving meatloaf to the boss and that using store-bought ingredients when entertaining is not only acceptable but a great idea.

Although it's seldom considered a fancy meal, soup is always comforting — nothing beats a warm bowl when the temps start to dip or a refreshing chilled soup in the summer heat. There are so many varieties of soup to keep meals interesting (broths, chowders, bisques, consommes), but the garnish often makes that bowl memorable. Creamy soups are traditionally served with bread or crackers to provide a needed contrasting texture — oyster crackers add crunch, and saltines also give a nice dose of sodium. Still, as expected, Garten's addition is simple, elegant, and whimsical.

One of the store-bought ingredients Garten consistently uses in her cookbooks is puff pastry. She's used it for semi-homemade pigs in a blanket (which she calls hot dogs in puff pastry), sticky buns, cheese puffs, and spanikopita, but perhaps the most Instagram-worthy way is as Garten's soup toppers. If you've collected cookie cutters in different shapes and sizes but only pull them out once a year for the holidays, Garten has given us a clever reason to use them year-round when serving soup. 

Cookie cutter soup toppers

Featured in the Barefoot Contessa's "Modern Comfort Food" cookbook and shared on her Instagram account, Garten creates puffy pastry croutons for her chicken pot pie soup recipe using fluted heart and star cookie cutters — and while chicken pot pie soup sounds fab, this trick works for traditional chicken pot pie as well. Garten makes small croutons and places several on each bowl, but the technique works with any size or shape of a cookie cutter.

Available in the frozen food section of the grocery store, plan ahead and place a box of puff pastry, like Pepperidge Farm brand, in the refrigerator overnight to defrost. Each pack contains one sheet, folded in thirds, yielding about a dozen small stars if you use similar-sized cookie cutters. 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and prepare a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Make an egg wash by beating an egg with a bit of heavy cream (better for more color) or plain milk (better for shine) in a small bowl and set aside. Lightly dust a clean countertop with all-purpose flour or work on a silicone mat to prevent the dough from sticking to the surface. Place an unfolded pastry sheet on the prepared surface and lightly dust the top and a rolling pin with more flour.

Puff pastry croutons in every shape

Roll the dough lightly in both directions to remove the folds (but don't stretch it too much), then use the cookie cutters to stamp out desired shapes. The dough should not be rerolled, so place the shapes as closely as possible to avoid waste. 

Evenly space the croutons on the baking sheet and place them in the refrigerator to chill for at least 15 minutes before baking. Puff pastry contains (a lot of) butter, and it's responsible for the dough puffing up in the oven (up to eight times its original thickness), but it must be very cold for them to rise and hold their sharp edges.

The croutons are best served hot, so to prepare the dough ahead of time, place the sheet of cutout shapes in the refrigerator until ten minutes before you are eating. Just before baking, brush the tops with the egg wash and sprinkle with Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper — use a pepper mill to be like Ina. Bake the croutons until puffy and golden brown, about 8-10 minutes.

Puff pastry croutons are a delicious addition to any soup, stew, or salad. Vary the theme of the cutters to add whimsy during the holidays, using pumpkins around Halloween, leaves for Thanksgiving, or hint at the ingredients by stamping out mini apples for butternut squash and apple soup.