Croquembouche. It’s the bane of many contestants on the Great British Baking Show. It’s a seemingly hard-to-pronounce word that essentially just means “cream puffs arranged in a pile.” So is it really that hard to make?
Well, if you know how to properly make choux pastries, a.k.a cream puffs, then you are in luck. Making an elegant croquembouche is actually a lot easier than it looks. In fact, this croquembouche was my first ever attempt at making one for myself. Was it perfect? No way! But as something that is meant to be disassembled and consumed, ultimately, the overall appearance didn’t matter that much in the end anyways. Choux pastry, if you’ve never made it before, is the base for things like eclairs and cheese puffs because when it bakes, it essentially puffs up and is filled with air instead of more pastry.
The hardest part about croquembouche is stacking it. But as long as you have a hard caramel and a solid base, it can be pretty solidly assured it won’t be toppling over any time soon. You can fill your cream puffs with any filling your heart desires, but for this classical croquembouche, I made a simple custard from scratch. It was definitely the highlight of our party – even though no one knew what it was beforehand (I’ll admit that most of my friends are certainly not foodies!).
It’s best to make croquembouche over the course of a few days – or at the very least, make the cream puffs a day or two ahead but don’t fill them until it’s time to assemble.
FOR CHOUX PASTRY:
- A day ahead of time, make the choux pastries. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 425 F.
- In a medium sauce pot, warm the milk, sugar salt and a half cup of water. Add the butter and stir until the butter has completely melted.
- Add all the flour at once and stir vigorously until a thick batter forms. Stir until it creates a single ball of dough and leaves a film residue on the pot – about 3 minutes.
- Remove the choux from the heat and place in the bowl of a stand mixer (if using) or a medium sized bowl. Rest 5 minutes, or until no longer heavily steaming.
- Beat in 5 of the eggs, one at a time, until a smooth batter forms. Be sure to incorporate each egg entirely before adding the next egg. The final batter should be glossy and hold its shape for a few seconds.
- Scoop the batter into a piping bag or gallon baggie and snip off the corner. Pipe small round balls of dough onto the parchment lined baking sheet, about 2 inches apart. To create a perfect circle, just squeeze the bag without moving the tip and let the dough 'pile' up on itself. Use a wet finger tip to smooth any harsh tips or peaks.
- The remaining egg, beat with a tablespoon of water and then brush it across the tops of the dough. Bake for 15 minutes, remove the pastries from the oven and then lower the temperature to 350 F.
- While the oven cools, use a knife to cut a small hole in the bottom of the pasties. Place back onto the baking sheet and continue to bake for another 5 minutes, until the pastries are golden brown and produce a hollow sound when tapped gently. Cool completely.
- If not using the puffs immediately, store in an airtight container and chill until ready to fill.
- SEVERAL HOURS before assembling the tower, make the custard filling. Bring the milk, butter and vanilla to a simmer in a small pot.
- In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until they are lightly and fluffy, about 3 minutes. SLOWLY pour about a 1/4 cup of the milk mixture into the eggs, while stirring constantly. This is done to bring the raw yolks up to temperature without scrambling – a slow steady stream of the warm milk will prevent the eggs from scrambling when added to the rest of the mixture.
- Transfer the egg and milk mixture back to the small pot on the stove and whisk constantly until the mixture is yellow and thick. It should hold its shape for a few seconds when the whisk is removed. (OPTIONAL: Strain the custard through a sieve for extra smooth custard.)
- Pour the custard into a bowl and cover with plastic. Make sure the plastic wrap is in DIRECT CONTACT with the custard or else it will harden on top. It cannot be exposed to air. Chill until cold, at least 2 hours.
- Transfer the chilled custard to a pastry bag with a piping tip. Gently pipe the custard into the pre-made choux pastries. The pastries should feel heavy and 'puffed up' once they've been filled. Each one should take about 2-4 tablespoons of custard without popping. Chill the filled puffs until ready to assemble the tower.
- When ready to assemble the croquembouche, prepare a small bowl filled with ice water. Then make the caramel. Add the sugar and corn syrup to a pot over medium high heat. DO NOT STIR. Just gently wipe down the sides with a wet pastry brush and swirl the melting sugar until it reaches the "hard crack" stage on a candy thermometer – about 295 F to 305 F.
- Remove the caramel from the heat and place the pot into the bowl of ice water for about 2-3 minutes to further cool the caramel.
- Working quickly – and carefully – dab the tops of each cream puff in the caramel to make a caramel topping. Let the caramel cool completely on each pastry. If you need to, reheat the caramel sauce as needed, to keep it workable and not harden.
- Prepare the serving dish by lining it with parchment paper. Working quickly, dip the edge of each of the largest cream puffs into the caramel and then arrange in a circle to create the base of the croquembouche. Continue with a second layer once the first one has started to harden. Continue to stack the cream puffs until the tower reaches your desired height.
- Spread any remaning caramel in a fun pattern on a bit of parchment and let cool. You can then use this piece as the 'top accent' of the croquembouche. Decorate with edible glitter or let out your inner Great Bristish Baking Show contestant and continue to work with the caramel to make caramel floss decorations.
- Serve the croquembouche as soon as you have it assembled. The cream puffs will start to get soggy after a few hours, so it's best to serve it right away. Enjoy!