What’s the hardest part of a croquembouche? The photography. I don’t do “across” on this website, I only do “down”. Why is that? It’s not because my photo studio consists entirely of a cutting board that’s twenty inches across, that’s a vicious rumor. It’s because “across” is the direction of evil. Everybody knows that. Still, “across” shots are one of those necessary evils when your finished product is two feet tall sitting on a cake stand.
Ah well. I’ll go to confession later. Right now we’re talking croquembouche. “Crunch in the mouth” as it’s known in lands where people employ French vocabulary. Why is it called that? You’re about to find out.
Begin by assembling a whole lot of cream puff shells. The croquembouche I made consists of about 80 of them (you’d need another 25 or so more to completely fill it up). These are a touch smaller than a standard cream puff, made from 2-teaspoon (or so) dollops of choux batter.
Sort of like these. Two recipes of batter should give you about 85 of them. You don’t want to pipe high and tall blobs, but rather low, almost puddle-like ones so the choux doesn’t bake up into balls. Slightly flatter, more egg-shaped puffs are easier to stack. Pipe those by touching the piping bag collar to the sheet pan and squeezing: one…two…three…and lift.
Tap down any points or peaks with a moistened finger.
Bake 10 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit, then about another 20 at 375 or until they’re nice and brown. Rotate the pans half way through for even browning.
Once done, turn off the oven, prop the door open a touch by sticking a wooden spoon handle into it, and leave the puffs there for a couple of hours or over night. These can be made and frozen well ahead of time, up to a couple of months.
Now we need a mold. I was going to use nothing but parchment, but found some backing was necessary. So I rolled up a little poster board and secured it with cello (Scotch) tape. I prefer a tall, tapering shape as opposed to a wide one. It just looks cooler.
This cone is 4 inches wide at the bottom and tapers to a little less than an inch at the top. It’s about 15 inches high.
I trimmed it so it would stand perfectly straight, then wrapped it in parchment paper (to eliminate sticking).
Then I stood it up on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Ready to roll.
On the day you want to assemble and serve this, fill your cream puffs. Why the same day? Because a croquembouche doesn’t keep well, in part because pastry cream shouldn’t be left at room temperature for more than a day, but also because pastry cream filling softens cream puffs over time and they lose their structural integrity. My suggestion is to make it and serve it a few hours later. Just give the puffs a short shot of pastry cream each using a Bismarck tip.
You can use any sort of plain or flavored pastry cream you like. Stabilized whipped cream also works for something lighter, as does a combination of the two. But go easy regardless. You don’t want them bursting with the stuff.
Actually I should have filled these from the side, not the bottoms. The bottoms, it turned out, made better outward-facing sides when I was building the croquembouche. Ah well. Live and learn.
Now all we need is glue to hold our tower together. That’s the caramel. Though some pastry makers suggest a single large batch of caramel, I prefer a couple of smaller ones made as needed. Why? Because even a small batch needs to be placed on the heat every so often to loosen it. As you do that the caramel cooks a little and gets steadily darker. That’s not a problem per se, however very dark caramel looks a little weird, plus it starts to take on a burnt taste which doesn’t work for me in this context. But do what you prefer. I started with about two cups of sugar in a sauce pan. I poured in about a cup of water (the amount doesn’t matter as long as all the sugar gets wet).
I cooked that over high heat for about 7 minutes until it turned a light amber. You want to take the pan off the heat at this point since it’s going to continue to cook for another minute or two.
So alright. Being extremely careful — because they don’t call caramel “bakery napalm” for nothing — dip the smooth bottom side in.
Bring it up and let it cool a second or two. See how much that caramel down there darkened in about 45 seconds? The stuff cooks fast at this stage! I should point out that you don’t have to coat the outward-facing sides of the puffs if you’d rather not. I think the shiny surfaces look nice, but they do add more caramel and hence more sweetness. Up to you!
Now dip the puff on the edge rocking it back and forth a little to get caramel on the sides as well as the bottom. You can use tongs for all of this if you prefer. I only got one small burn on my knuckle working on this project. Felt kinda good I have to say. I used to wear bakery burns as badges of honor — know true working bakers by their stripey forearms, from many accidental contacts with oven racks and doors. A cool look AND a great conversation starter.
I should say here that if you want to decorate the fronts of the puffs, place them caramel-side down in dishes of pearl sugar and let them sit for a minute or so.
Nice! You can also use chopped nuts. I’ve seen single slices of almond as well. Classy!
Now start your construction. The caramel will harden to brittle candy as it cools (that’s the “crunch” if you were wondering). You’ll find the bottom “course” takes a fair amount of time as you’ll have to hold them in place as they firm. Once you move on to the second course this won’t be as much of a problem as the puffs sort of cradle each other. You want the puffs glued below as well as to the side — both sides if you can manage it as that will give the tower more strength.
After the second course you’ll be a pro. Don’t get too comfortable around that caramel though. It burns confident people too.
Up…up…up, putting decorated puffs where the Muses tell you. Drizzle on some caramel in spots where you’re not making proper contact. As you go you’ll find that gaps are inevitable. You can fill those with candy flowers or candied almonds later if you like.
Once you’re about 80% of the way up the mold, stop and take a break. Let the caramel harden for about ten minutes while you…I dunno, have a quick beer or something. Why the pause in the action? Because this is when you want to remove the mold. Why now? Because even parchment sticks a little and this way you can easily loosen the mold and push it out.
Just tip the whole thing back (you’ll find the croquembouche to be surprisingly light and rigid) and push from the top with the fingers of one hand while you pull gently with the other. Get a friend to help you if you like. This step is really very easy.
If you find that it’s not coming loose, you can gently slide an icing spatula or skewer along the sides (from either end) and…tap-tap-tap…gently knock the stuck spots loose. Should a puff or two come loose for some reason just glue them back with more caramel. No sweat.
Return the croque to the upright locked position and continue the building. I’ll add that if you want to fill the whole thing up with cream puffs so it’s a solid mass, you can do so at this point by just dropping them in the top. I estimate it would take about another 20-25 of them. Of course you’ll need to transfer the croquembouche to a serving platter before you begin that step. If you’re content with just the outer shell, press on to the summit. You’ll have no trouble finishing it off without that sissy mold now, right?
The tip-top will be as time consuming as the very bottom. There’s a fair amount of balancing that needs to happen there, but soon it’s over and your tower of deliciousness is done! Let it cool and harden about twenty minutes or so, then just pick it up from the bottom and put it on a serving device of some sort.
Now’s the time to add any additional decorations. I bought some candy flowers at a cake decorating shop. Someday I’ll learn to make my own.
I sprinkled some candied almonds on the platter at the last minute just for fun.
I thought of that well after I took this photo of course:
A croquembouche of this size will serve about 20-25 people unfilled, 25-30 when filled, assuming three to four puffs each. That’s plenty for a dessert course methinks. All in all I’d suggest budgeting 2-3 hours for the filling and assembly. A good loud radio and a can of your favorite libation helps you from taking it too seriously. Note that there’s little you can do to a croquembouche — short of outright dropping it — that you can’t repair with caramel and puffs or disguise with decorations. Plan in advance, make it fun and you cannot go wrong. Cheerio. – J