Croquembouche, a spun sugar tower of cream puffs, is French for "crunch in the mouth." Of course it's French - who else would concoct such a perilous pile of pastries?
Traditionally served at weddings and holidays, it's made of cream-filled pâte à choux pastry and anchored with caramel. And, along with most things having to do with weddings or French pastry, I have always considered cream puffs firmly outside my area of expertise.
I come from a long line of excellent cooks and terrible bakers. For years, my mother has dreaded her annual holiday cookie exchange; she discreetly slides her asymmetric offerings behind the gingerbread spires and hopes to go unnoticed. So when I called her just days after her most recent cookie confab and informed her that I was attempting a cream puff tower for a holiday cookie competition, I got a dispirited "good luck."
To my surprise and hers, I found that making pâte à choux is not actually that hard. I wouldn't go so far as easy - anything that requires purchasing a pastry bag is a little more involved than average - but I made the same recipe three times in a row with consistently gratifying results. In fact, once you get the ingredients set out, the entire active time for the pastry is only about 10 minutes.
What's more, though most recipes on the web predict doughy disaster without a stand mixer, a food processor worked fine. A dramatic 1987 Times article recommends "a keen sense of balance and hard-to-fray-nerves." Nonsense.
The trick is in the baking. This is where the religiously-tested Cooks Illustrated recipes are worth their weight in gold. Instead of chancing the moisture that makes otherwise perfect pastries collapse, you cut a tiny slit in the side of the golden-brown puffs to let the steam escape, turn off the oven and let them cool inside. Perfectly crisp, every time.
Oh, and one more thing. When you pipe out dollops of dough on the cookie sheet, they're topped with peaks like Hershey's kisses. If you leave them that way, they bake with little beaks; my first batch looked like pastry Peeps. Just wet your finger and gently push them down for professional-looking puffs.
Once they're cool, pipe them full of your favorite creamy filling. Either a pastry bag or a plastic squeeze bottle works well - just poke the tip right through the bottom of the pastry, and squeeze away. I went with a decadent dark chocolate-orange custard since it could be made in advance.
Then, if you're going for grandeur, make a quick caramel (10 minutes). Dip the bottoms of the pastries in the caramel and arrange in a cone, layering on top of each other. The caramel will harden quickly, creating a solid structure. Decorate with flowers and fruit, or drench in chocolate sauce and serve immediately to awestruck guests.
Cream Puff Pastry (Pâte à Choux)
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated. Makes about 24 two-inch puffs.
2 large eggs
1 large egg white
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces
1 ounce whole milk (2 tablespoons)
3 ounces water (6 tablespoons)
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon table salt
2 1/2 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour (1/2 cup), sifted
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Spray large (12-by 18-inch) baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray and line with parchment paper; set aside. Beat eggs and egg white in measuring cup or small bowl; you should have 1/2 cup (discard excess). Set aside.
Bring butter, milk, water, sugar, and salt to boil in small saucepan over medium heat, stirring once or twice. When mixture reaches full boil (butter should be fully melted), immediately remove saucepan from heat and stir in flour with heatproof spatula or wooden spoon until combined and mixture clears sides of pan. Return saucepan to low heat and cook, stirring constantly, using smearing motion, for 3 minutes, until mixture is slightly shiny with wet-sand appearance and tiny beads of fat appear on bottom of saucepan (temperature of paste should register 175 to 180 degrees on instant-read thermometer).
Immediately transfer mixture to food processor and process with feed tube open for 10 seconds to cool slightly. With machine running, gradually add eggs in steady stream. When all eggs have been added, scrape down sides of bowl, then process for 30 seconds until smooth, thick, sticky paste forms. (If not using immediately, transfer paste to medium bowl, cover surface flush with sheet of plastic wrap sprayed lightly with nonstick cooking spray, and store at room temperature for up to 2 hours.)
Fold down top 3 or 4 inches of 14- or 16-inch pastry bag fitted with 1/2-inch plain tip to form a cuff. Hold bag open with one hand in cuff and fill bag with paste. Unfold cuff, lay bag on work surface, and, using hands or spatula, push paste into lower portion of pastry bag. Twist top of bag and pipe paste into 1 1/4- to 1 1/2-inch mounds on prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 1 to 1 1/4 inches apart (you should be able to fit about 24 mounds on baking sheet).
Using a wet finger, gently push down the tips of the dough until you are left with smooth, round mounds. Bake 15 minutes (do not open oven door), then reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees and continue to bake until golden brown and fairly firm (puffs should not be soft and squishy), 8 to 10 minutes longer. Remove baking sheet from oven. With paring knife, cut 3/4-inch slit into side of each puff to release steam; return puffs to oven, turn off oven, and prop oven door open with handle of wooden spoon. Dry puffs in turned-off oven until centers are just moist (not wet) and puffs are crisp, about 45 minutes. Transfer puffs to wire rack to cool.
Cooled puffs can be stored at room temperature for up to 24 hours or frozen in zipper-lock plastic bag for up to 1 month. (If storing at room temperature, leave on the wire rack and cover with a clean, completely dry dish towel for best results.) Before serving, crisp room temperature puffs in 300-degree oven 5 to 8 minutes, or 8 to 10 minutes for frozen puffs.
Dark Chocolate-Orange Custard Filling
Loosely adapted from Epicurious.com
4 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons sugar (for a semi-sweet custard; add 4-5 if you like it sweeter)
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 cup whole milk
5 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (70% cacao-not unsweetened), finely chopped
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
zest of two oranges
Beat together yolks, sugar, cornstarch, and a generous pinch of salt in a deep bowl with an electric mixer until thick and pale, about 1 minute, wiping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as necessary. Set mixer aside.
Heat milk in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat until hot but not boiling. Add one third of hot milk to yolk mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Pour remainder of milk into yolk mixture, whisking, then transfer to saucepan over medium heat.
Simmer, whisking constantly, until very thick, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. It will come together all of a sudden - the minute it begins to thicken, turn off the heat. Add chocolate, liqueur, butter, and zest powder. Let stand until chocolate is melted, about 1 minute, then whisk until smooth.
Force custard through a fine sieve into a bowl. (This is a bit painstaking, but results in smoother custard). Cover surface of custard with wax paper and chill until cold, at least 4 hours.
Caramel and Croquembouche Assembly
Martha Stewart (recipe link includes helpful video on making the pastry)
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Place custard or pastry cream in a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch plain tip; pipe cream into puffs, inserting the tip into the bottom of each. Set aside.
Prepare an ice water bath. In a small saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons water; bring to a boil over medium heat. Wash down the sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to prevent crystals from forming. Continue cooking without stirring until sugar has dissolved, 5 to 6 minutes. Raise heat to high, and cook until syrup is amber-colored, about 5 minutes, swirling pan to brown evenly. Remove from heat, and dip bottom of pan in the ice bath 3 seconds to stop the cooking. Transfer pan to a heatproof surface.
Dip bottom half of each filled puff into caramel, letting excess drip back into pan. Place puffs, dipped side down, on a serving platter. Make sure the puffs are touching and adhere to one another. Once ring is complete, make another one on top of the first ring, forming a pyramid shape. If at any point the caramel begins to harden in the pan, reheat briefly over a low flame.