Merry belated Christmas! (Can you say that? Or do you just say “I hope you had a merry Christmas”? Hm.) Anyway… after seeing croquembouche on Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship and on Fox’s MasterChef Junior, I decided to take a try at making this Christmas tree-resembling, fancy French dessert. (Did you know that croquembouche literally means “cracks in the mouth” because of the crunchy, delicious caramel?) I love profiteroles, I love eclairs, and I love anything cream puff-like, so I decided croquembouche would be the perfect dessert to present as the last course of our fancy Christmas feast. It was surprisingly easy to make, and extremely delicious! Next year during the holidays, I urge to make this show-stopping, stunning dessert that I like to call, the leaning tower of cream puffs!
Okay, so when making this recipe, I would recommend making the pastry cream, filling, custard, or whatever you call it the day before the big reveal. So for me, I made the custard on Christmas Eve since I was presenting the croquembouche on Christmas day. This is a standard custard, rich and luscious, full of vanilla flavor. In order for the custard to taste extraordinary, you really have to use vanilla beans, don’t use ordinary vanilla extract. Keep in mind that it takes a while for the custard to thicken up, so be patient! (And also, don’t eat too much of it at this stage. I know it’s super tempting, but you need to reserve it in order to fill up all of those yummy cream puffs.)
Now that it’s the day of, I would recommend making the cream puffs. Making pate à choux is not difficult like many believe. All you have to do is melt your butter, water, sugar and salt in a saucepan until boiling. Dump in your flour and stir it until well incorporated with a wooden spoon. The dough goes into a stand mixer and eggs are incorporated one at a time. Ta-da! Extremely easy. In my opinion, I feel that if anything was hard in this recipe, piping this dough would probably be it. Since the dough is pretty thick, it takes some umph to get perfect little circles. Don’t forget to brush with egg wash as well (this makes each puff perfectly golden brown and shiny). I also piped a star out of the pate à choux to put at the top of the croquembouche tree.
To get the hollow center of each puff, start with the oven at a high temperature and then part way through baking, lower the temperature. After they are baked, they will be golden brown. You must make sure that the cream puffs aren’t under baked because they won’t be strong enough to support the other puffs once staked to create a croquembouche.
When filling each puff, first make a hole at the bottom with the piping tip. Once every puff has a hole, fill up a piping bag and generously pipe cream, filling up the hollow inside. I love to completely fill each puff up with cream, almost overflowing each one! The cream is so delicious, why hold back?
As a nice surprise, I made a couple of my puffs stuffed with candy (M&Ms are especially nice!) instead of cream.
Now on to make the caramel. Like the pastry cream, you have to be extremely patient when making it. Keep a close eye on the color and be sure to use a large saucepan so you don’t burn yourself. Never stir, just swirl the pan periodically and eventually the color will turn from this –
to this –
At this point, plunge the saucepan in an ice bath to ensure your caramel doesn’t burn. Since this caramel hardens quickly, take the pan out of the ice bath once the temperature has gone down a bit before returning the pan to low heat. You don’t want the caramel to harden before you get the chance to finish assembling your croquembouche! When assembling, start by dipping the bottom of the cream puffs into the caramel (be careful; it’s really easy to burn yourself) and place the cream puffs in a circle on your serving dish, caramel side down. After that ring is complete, build up the croquembouche with the top of each cream puff facing outwards and the bottom of each cream puff facing inwards. Instead of dipping the bottom of these puffs in caramel, dip the side that will stick to the puff below them. Because this was my largest serving plate, I could only make a very small croquembouche (I had A TON of extra cream puffs not included in my croquembouche). Regarding caramel, once the entire structure is secure, drip and drizzle caramel all over the croqembouche. For added decoration, I included some caramel shards at the top of my tree. Yum!
Adapted from Food Network
- 2 c. water
- 16 Tbsp (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- 1 tsp salt
- 3 tsp granulated sugar
- 2 c. flour
- 8-10 eggs
- 4 c. whole, 2% fat, or 1% fat milk
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- 12 egg yolks
- 1 1/3 c. granulated sugar
- 1/2 c. cornstarch
- 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 1/2 c. sugar
- 2/3 c. water
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a large saucepan, bring the water, butter, salt, and sugar to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. When it boils, immediately take the pan off the heat. Stirring with a wooden spoon, add all the flour at once and stir hard until all the flour is incorporated, 30 to 60 seconds. Return the pan to the heat and cook, stirring, 30 seconds to evaporate some of the moisture.
- Scrape the mixture into a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or use a hand mixer). Mix at medium speed. With the mixer running, and working 1 egg at a time, add 6 of the eggs, stopping after each addition to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Mix until the dough is smooth and glossy and the eggs are completely incorporated. The dough should be thick, but should fall slowly and steadily from the beaters when you lift them out of the bowl. If the dough is still clinging to the beaters, add 1 or 2 more eggs, and mix until incorporated.
- Using a pastry bag fitted with a large plain tip, pipe the dough in big kisses onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Whisk 2 eggs with 3 teaspoons of water. Brush the surface of the dough with the egg wash to knock down the points (do not use all the egg wash.) Bake 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375-degrees and bake until puffed up and light golden brown, about 20 minutes more. Try not to open the oven door too often during the baking. Let cool on the baking sheet. The recipe can be made up to this point and frozen in plastic bags.
- Filling: In a medium saucepan, heat the milk and vanilla bean to a boil over medium heat. Immediately turn off the heat and set aside to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cornstarch and whisk vigorously until no lumps remain. Whisk in 1/4 cup of the hot milk mixture until incorporated. Whisk in the remaining hot milk mixture, reserving the empty saucepan.
- Pour the mixture through a strainer back into the saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until thickened and slowly boiling. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter and any flavorings if you want to make a different flavor like chocolate or coffee. Let cool slightly. Cover with plastic wrap, lightly pressing the plastic against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Chill at least 2 hours or until ready to serve. The custard can be made up to 24 hours in advance. Poke a hole with a plain pastry tip in the bottom of each cream puff and pipe it full of the custard.
- Caramel: Dissolve the sugar in a saucepan with the water, making an “X” through the sugar with your finger to allow the water to slowly soak into the sugar. Boil to make a light golden caramel then dip the bottom of the pan in an ice bath to stop the cooking. Dip the sides of the puffs in the caramel and stick them together (approximately 20 cream puffs) in a circle, tops facing out. Make a second row on top of the first but a bit smaller to draw the circle in and create a tower of cream puffs. Check it from all sides occasionally to make sure it’s straight. When it’s finished, drizzle it with caramel all over. You can also stick on decorative elements with the caramel in the crevices, like candied violets, gold balls, gum paste flowers, sugar covered almonds, etc.