Happy New Years everyone! I’ve gone through a lot of change in my personal life over the past few months, most of which involved a rather sudden decision to return to Los Angeles and depart Vienna after three years happily living the expat life. I may go into more detail in a future post, but for now the important thing was that I got to spend the holiday season with my family in southern California.
Putting my mom and I together on a normal week would result in us cooking and baking up a feast (check out my post about the pistachio panna cotta if you want to see for yourself). So with the holidays here, we rolled up our sleeves and made some extravagant celebratory desserts. For Christmas dinner at my uncles’ house we made a massive trifle with layers of moist homemade gingerbread, pomegranate caramel, and a lemon and white chocolate mousse. Individually these three components were pretty tasty, but together they created a synergy, with the lemony mousse cutting through the bold spices of the gingerbread. I’ll hopefully make another post dedicated to this recipe, but in the meantime, you can make it for yourself by following along here.
But enough about Christmas, this post is really all about the New Years show-stopper that we created: a croquembouche. This is a conical tower made with cream puffs as the bricks and caramel as the mortar or glue holding everything together. The inside of this tower is hollow, so the cream puffs have to be stacked just right so that it doesn’t collapse upon itself.
Croquembouche is french and it means “crack in the mouth.” This is referring to the loud cracking sound that comes from biting into the caramel coated cream puffs as you eat your way through the tower. The tower that I made was so strongly constructed that it took a sharp knife to remove each cream puff from its caramel prison and you’d better believe there was quite a nice CRACK sound with each bite!
A croquembouche is a traditional french wedding cake and for large parties they can be over 6 feet (2 meters) tall! This 13 inch (33 cm) tower of mine was nowhere near that tall, but it was more than enough for our small New Years gathering of five adults. For the record (literally), the tallest croquembouche made was in Dubai. It was over 16 feet (5 meters) tall and contained a whopping 185,000 cream puffs. Wow! So keep that in mind as we embark on making our home-sized version with a mere 100-150 cream puffs.
Before we get started with the recipe, a word of caution. Caramel is hot. Really really hot! I frequently refer to it as ‘molten sugar’ because that’s just what it is. Avoid touching liquid caramel just like you’d avoid touching lava. Caramel burns can be nasty as you can see from my mother’s poor wrist in the photo below. If you get caramel on your skin, not only is it extremely hot, but it is sticky so it won’t just burn you for a second but will continue to burn that spot until you remove it and cool down the skin. When working with caramel, stay focused, avoid distractions outside the cooking area, and keep a large bowl of ice-cold water nearby for you to IMMEDIATELY plunge any burned flesh into. Okay, hopefully I’ve scared you to the point where you’ll truly be careful when working with the caramel.
This is a big project. You’re welcome to try to do it all in one day, but I recommend making the crème pâtissière and the cream puffs a day or two ahead. As I mention in the recipe below, the cream puffs should have a firm exterior and can be re-crunched as it were with just a few minutes back in the oven.
You can change the crème pâtissière’s flavor to another fruit flavor with a simple swap of liquor or extract if you so please. Additionally, let your imagination be your guide when it comes to decorating your stunning tower. I kept it simple with the chocolate stripe and some candy-coated almonds, but I’ve seen croquembouches with flowers, fruit, and fanciful spun sugar decorations, all to great effect. I’d only caution you not to overload on the decorations as it would overshadow the wonder of the cream puff construction.
A traditional French wedding cake, the croquembouche is a spectacular show-stopping centerpiece dessert.
- 4 cups (946 ml) whole milk
- 12 large egg yolks
- 1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar
- 2/3 cup (73 g) cornstarch, sifted
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3-5 teaspoons orange extract or orange-flavored liqueur, to taste
- Zest from 2 navel oranges, finely grated, avoiding any white pith
- 7 tablespoons (100 g) unsalted butter, cut into pieces, at room temperature
- 1 cup (237 ml) whole milk
- 1 cup (237 ml) water
- 16 tablespoons (228 g) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups (280 g) all-purpose flour
- 8 large eggs, at room temperature
- 14 oz. (400g) good quality dark chocolate, finely chopped
- 2.5 cups (500 g) granulated sugar (possibly more)
- 2/3 cup (158 ml) water (possibly more)
- Candy-coated almonds
- Bring the milk to a boil in a small saucepan.
- Meanwhile, in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch until thick and well blended.
- Still whisking, temper the eggs by drizzling in about 1/4 cup (60 ml) of the hot milk. Whisking all the while, slowly pour in the remaining milk.
- Put the pan over medium heat and, whisking vigorously, constantly, and thoroughly (making sure to get to the edges of the pan), bring the mixture to a boil. Keep at a boil, still whisking, for 1 to 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat.
- Whisk in the vanilla extract, orange extract, and orange zest. Let sit for 5 minutes.
- Whisk in the butter, stirring until fully incorporated and the pastry cream is smooth and silky.
- Scrape the pastry cream into a bowl and place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on top of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until chilled. For immediate use, instead place the bowl with the pastry cream over a bowl of ice water, stirring occasionally until it is thoroughly chilled, about 20 minutes.
- Preheat your oven to 425 °F (218 °C) with racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats and set aside.
- In a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan bring the milk, water, butter, sugar, and salt to a rapid boil over high heat.
- Add the flour all at once, lower the heat to medium-low, and immediately start stirring energetically with a wooden spoon or heavy whisk. The dough will come together, and a light crust will form on the bottom of the pan. Keep stirring, with vigor, for another minute or two to dry the dough. The dough should be very smooth.
- Transfer the dough into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Let the dough sit for a minute, then add the eggs one by one and beat until the dough is thick and shiny. Make sure that each egg is completely incorporated before you add the next, and don't be concerned if the dough falls apart. By the time the last egg goes in, the dough will come together again. Once the dough is made, it should be used immediately.
- Place the dough in a pastry bag with a large round tip and pipe out 1-tablespoon size balls of dough onto the prepared baking sheets. Leave about 2 inches (5 cm) of space between each mound of dough. (The dough balls can be frozen as is for up to 2 months.)
- Slide the baking sheets into the oven and immediately turn the oven temperature down to 375 °F (190 °C).
- Bake for 12 minutes, then rotate the pans from front to back and top to bottom.
- Continue baking until the puffs are golden, firm, and puffed, another 12-15 minutes.
- Allow the puffs to cool on the baking sheets.
- Cream puffs can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 2 days. If soft when ready to use, crisp up the puffs in a 300 °F (150 °C) oven for 5 to 8 minutes. Allow to cool before filling.
- Using a chopstick or other clean pointy object, poke a hole in the bottom of each cooled cream puff.
- Fill a pastry bag fitted with a medium round tip with the crème pâtissière. Place the piping bag to the hole in the bottom of a cream puff and gently squeeze the bag until the cream puff is filled (the cream puff will become noticeably heavier). Continue until all of the cream puffs are filled.
- Separate about one quarter of the cream puffs to be covered in chocolate.
- Place three quarters of the chopped chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 30 seconds. Stir the chocolate and microwave for another 30 seconds. Stir and microwave another 15 seconds. Continue stirring and microwaving in 10 second bursts until the chocolate is fully melted. (If you don't have a microwave, melt the three quarters of the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl placed over a pot of simmering water until melted and smooth.)
- Add in the remaining chopped chocolate and stir until melted and smooth.
- Dip the top of a cream puff in the chocolate and set aside. Continue with the other cream puffs designated for the chocolate.
- In a light-colored medium saucepan, add the sugar and water, swirling the pan to wet all of the sugar. Fill a large heatproof bowl with very cold water and set aside. Place a sheet of parchment paper or a silicone baking mat on a baking sheet and set aside. If you burn yourself on the molten caramel at any point, dip the affected area into the cold water immediately to stop the burn.
- Place the saucepan over medium-high heat, brushing down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush to dissolve any sugar crystals that appear. Watch the caramel carefully as it will darken and then burn quickly. Once the caramel reaches a light amber color (5-10 minutes depending on your stove), remove the saucepan from the heat and gently submerge the bottom of the pan in the bowl of cold water. You will hear a loud sizzle as the heat from the pan turns some of the water to steam. Don't leave the pan in the water too long, it's a delicate balance between cooling down the pan enough so that the cooking stops and cooling down the caramel too much so that it hardens in the pan. Dry off the bottom of the pan and return it to the burner over the lowest heat.
- Working quickly, one by one, dip the tops of the remaining cream puffs in the caramel, twirl to collect any strings of caramel hanging off, and set them on the baking sheet, caramel-side down. Keep an eye on the caramel and if it starts to darken, turn off the heat. If at any point the caramel smells burnt, throw it out and make a fresh batch. Burnt caramel cannot be reversed and will have an unpalatable burnt taste.
- Twist a large sheet of posterboard into a cone shape, securing the shape with clear tape. Use a pair of scissors to trim the top and bottom of the cone flat with a length of 12-15 inches (30-38 cm) and a diameter at the base of 5 inches (13 cm). Cover the cone with parchment paper and secure this with more tape.
- Place a sheet of parchment paper or a silicone baking mat on a baking sheet and center the cone mold on top. Fill a bowl with cold water and set aside. If you burn yourself on the molten caramel at any point, dip the affected area into the cold water immediately to stop the burn.
- Using the same caramel as before or making a new batch, dip the side of a cream puff in the caramel and place it at the base of the cone mold with its top facing out. Continue with more cream puffs, "glueing" them to the previous cream puff with the molten caramel, until you have a full ring of cream puffs as your base layer.
- For the rest of the tower, dip two adjacent sides of a cream puff in the caramel, using one of those sides to "glue" the cream puff to the layer below it and the other side to "glue" it to the previous cream puff on its level.
- Switch between using the chocolate-dipped cream puffs and the caramel-dipped cream puffs randomly or make a swirl or other pattern as I did.
- Once you near the top of the tower, carefully lay the tower on its side and remove the cone from inside. This may be tricky if the caramel has a strong grip on the parchment paper-covered cone and I recommend drafting a friend or nearby warm body to help keep the tower whole while removing the cone. With the cone successfully removed, stand the tower back upright on the baking sheet and continue building as before, eventually peaking or doming-over the top of the tower.
- Take the candy-coated almonds, dip one end in the caramel, and wedge them between the cream puffs at random intervals along the tower.
- Transfer the finished croquembouche to a serving platter and store at room temperature in a cool, dry place until ready to serve (up to 5 hours). In a humid environment, the cream puffs will lose their crunch. In a warm environment, the chocolate and caramel will soften and may melt!
- If you've done a good job with your caramel "glueing," you won't be able to simply pull each cream puff off of the tower to eat. In this case, use a small serrated knife to carve off individual cream puffs or entire sections. I prefer to carve off a layer at a time into individual cream puffs, lay them along the bottom of the serving plate, around the tower, and to let my guests pick at them at their leisure.
Seriously, be careful whenever working with caramel.