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one/twenty six: croquembouche

Croquembouche

The Croquembouche is the first of 26 French recipes I’m endeavoring to make before my next birthday. Here you can find my complete list and each recipe I’ve completed so far.

I have to admit that I felt a tad bit silly tackling a croquembouche as my first 26 before 27 installation.    It is, after all, a tower of cream puffs.  I have never made pate a choux, or crème pâtissière. There were a thousand ways this could go wrong (like melting my hand off in boiling sugar) but somehow, everything went smoothly come December 24th. (Did I mention this was the dessert I was preparing for Christmas Eve?)

Croquembouche translates to “crunch in the mouth” and it is characterized by the crunchy caramel that adheres puff to puff and the threads that encircle the tower in a spindly sugar halo.

The first thing I’ll say about a croquembouche is that it is crazy beautiful, and a total conversation starter. However, with its awesomeness comes a certain level of fussiness when it comes to actually eating it. But don’t let that deter you–it was a blast to make (my husband even had fun!) and was far easier to create than I expected!

Here’s the run down on everything I used and everything I learned:

Supplies:

Besides your typical tools (mixing bowls, wooden spoon, etc.) you will also need a large baking sheet, parchment paper or a Silpat, a cake stand or other display, and a pastry bag. You’ll use a 1/2 inch tip to pipe 3/4 inch rounds of choux pastry, and a 1/4 inch tip to fill the puffs. If you’re uncomfortable with a pastry bag, a 1/2 inch cookie dropper works fantastically for forming uniform puffs, and a condiment bottle can be used to pipe the pastry cream. Optional supplies include an oven thermometer (crucial for my oven that runs anywhere from 25 to 50 degrees hot), and a candy thermometer to reference while making the caramel.

Recipes:

The first batch of puffs I made were far to eggy and not sweet at all. I decided to try out another recipe that used fewer eggs and more sugar, but still found the puffs too savory. For the third and fourth batches, I modified the recipe to up the sweetness.

Pate a Choux
Adapted from Martha Stewart
makes 24 puffs

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 6 eggs plus 1 egg white for wash

Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a saucepan, heat the butter, water, milk, sugar and salt over medium heat. After the butter melts, and just when the mixture starts to boil, remove from heat and add the flour. Mix until incorporated, and return to heat. With a wooden spoon, mix until the dough begins to form a ball and pull away from the sides of the saucepan. Allow the dough to cool until you can handle it with your fingers. Crack six eggs into a separate bowl and give them a mix. Add the equivalent of one egg to the dough and beat. The dough will separate a bit and get slimy, but eventually the egg will incorporate. Continue adding eggs, one at a time, incorporating fully before adding another. If you’re arm feels like it’s going to fall off, you’re doing it right!

After piping (or spooning, if you’re using a cookie dropper) the dough into 3/4 in rounds, mix together one egg white and one teaspoon of water. Smooth the pastry by dipping the back of a spoon into the egg white mixture and lightly coating the tops. Bake on the top rack for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 30 to 35 minutes, or until the puffs are a golden brown. At this point, turn off the oven and crack the door. After five minutes, open the oven completely and allow the puffs to continue to cool slowly. When the oven is mostly cool, remove the puffs and let them cool completely before filling.

For the pastry cream, I whipped up the Chocolate Pastry Cream from Joy the Baker and a vanilla version from The Kitchn. I followed Joy’s technique for both, though. Both were delicious.

Things I Learned:

1. Vary the Shape and Size of Puffs: Don’t fret if some of your puffs are a little oblong rather than round. While assembling the croquembouche, I found that the occasional ellipse was helpful in filling certain spaces. You will also need to have plenty of smaller puffs. Before filling and assembling, I sorted my puffs into large (for the bottom), medium (for the middle) and small (for the top). Unfortunately, I ran out of pastry cream and only got to fill about 1/4 of the smaller puffs. I thought I’d have enough puffs, so I went ahead and began assembling the croquembouche. Along with the misshapen puffs, tiny puffs would’ve also been handy to help fill gaps after the first level was created and the tower began to take shape. So, make sure you have enough pastry creme to fill all of your puffs before putting the croquembouche together, or fill about the same amount of medium and small puffs.

2. Oven Temperatures are Important: My first two batches kept deflating after removing them from the oven, or would be dreadfully crispy on the bottom and uncooked on top. I learned from this guy that the puffs need a super hot oven at first, and a cooling period. His recommendation for oven temps and times was spot on.

3. You’ll Need a Lot of Puffs: I had exactly 48 puffs, and I deemed about 6 of them unworthy. I got about 3/4 of the way up the cone (just one that I made from poster board) and was out! I had to bring the flat ones and funky shaped ones back in. This was when I learned that funky shapes can be helpful.  The short of it: 48 puffs, using approximately 3/4″ scoop/piping diameter, barely fills a cone that is 11″ tall.

4. A Croquembouche Has a Short Shelf Life: I assembled the croquembouche in about an hour, then photographed it, and then put in on display until dessert. By the time we cracked into it, the caramel had started to melt in the humidity. The time between completion and dessert was 5 hours, but I’m not sure when the sugar started to weep. I certainly would not wait beyond 5 hours, in moderate humidity, to dive in. 

5. Cleaning Up Hardened Caramel is…Hard: Luckily, my husband took on the task while I bustled around prepping the rest of the food for our Christmas Eve dinner. His system: add water to your pot and throw in any sticky utensils, and bring to a boil. Pour out the water and continue the process, melting and diluting the sugar with each round.

For Next Time:

Next time I make choux pastry I’m definitely going to try making it well in advance. I stored my puffs in an airtight container for about a day and a half, letting them get some air to dry out periodically. I would like to try freezing them for a longer period of time.

Croquembouche

Can you squeeze a little room into your New Year’s resolutions for one of these delicious pastries?!

–Cat