Last weekend I made my first Croquembouche in collaboration with my friends Elizabeth and Shana. Over the holidays, I had seen numerous pictures of towers of profiteroles adorned with spun sugar. Beautiful. Decadent. Time consuming. I had it in mind to make one--some day--but gosh that looks like a lot of work, and who would eat it? Not true, if you divide tasks among friends and make it the centerpiece of a 30th birthday party. Shane, Elizabeth's fiancé, took the amazing photos I'm posting here. More from the day can be found on his Flickr page.
The first step was to make the Pâte à Choux, the dough for the pastries.
and baked in the oven until golden and puffed. Meanwhile, a vanilla pastry cream was made. Unfortunately, no photos were taken to document the process.
The profiteroles were slit (slightly) with a knife, and once cool, pastry cream was piped into each.
Having an extra pair of hands made things go smoother.
As the cream puffs were being filled...
a caramel sauce was made.
The caramel was ready for dipping when it reached a golden amber color.
Quickly (being careful not to burn fingers) the cream puffs were dipped in hot caramel,
and layered to form a pyramid.
As the caramel cooled, it formed a crisp sugar coating over each cream puff. This is where the croquembouche gets its name, as it translates: "crunch in the mouth".
The caramel also serves as a natural adhesive, holding the pastries in place.
Once the tower was formed, a modified whisk (with ends snipped straight) was dipped into the remaining caramel and withdrawn slowly and vertically to create delicate wisps of sugar. The modified whisk was a kind gift from my dental hygienist, Cindy. She gave me plenty of useful tips on how to spin the sugar.
To transfer the sugar strands, they were gathered and pinched at the base with one hand and spun around the croquembouche with the other hand holding the whisk. Placing the cake plate on a turntable helped keep the distribution more even. Working quickly was key too. The sugar hardens into shape as it cools.
Here is the finished piece.
A view from the top reveals a degree of order to the messy, haystack appearance of the spun sugar.
Sparklers were a perfect match for this birthday treat. No other candle could quite do justice to this masterpiece.
Pâte à Choux
makes 35-40 profiteroles
adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
½ cup whole milk
½ cup water
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
¼ tsp sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
5 large eggs, at room temperature
In a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan, bring the milk, water, butter, sugar and salt to a boil. Once the mixture is at a rolling boil, add all the flour in at once, reduce the heat to medium and start to stir the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon. The dough will come together quickly. Continue stirring until the dough is smooth, dry and has come away from the pan (2-3 minutes).
Transfer the dough into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (you can also continue by hand). Let the dough cool while mixing on low for a couple of minutes so that the eggs do not scramble.
Once the dough has slightly cooled, begin to add the eggs one at a time. The dough will separate in the beginning, but it should come back together after the 3rd or 4th egg.
While the dough is still slightly warm, scoop it into a piping bag to beginning piping the éclairs or profiteroles.
Pipe choux dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees F for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown and dry. With a serrated knife gently slice open each profiterole to allow steam to escape. Cool completely.
Once the dough is made you need to shape it immediately.
You can pipe the dough and freeze it. Simply pipe the dough onto parchment-lined baking sheets, and freeze. Once the dough is completely frozen, transfer the piped shapes into a freezer bag and store for up to 1 month.
FOR PASTRY CREAM
makes 2½ cups
2 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
6 TBS sugar
3 TBS cornstarch, sifted
2½ TBS unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ of a vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped
In a small saucepan, bring the milk and vanilla bean seeds to a boil.
In the meantime, combine the yolks, sugar and cornstarch together and whisk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
Once the milk has reached a boil, temper the yolks by whisking a couple spoonfuls of the hot milk into the yolk mixture. Continue whisking and slowly pour the rest of the milk into the tempered yolk mixture.
Strain the mixture back into the saucepan to remove any egg that may have scrambled. Place the pan over medium heat and whisk vigorously until the mixture returns to a boil. Continue whisking for 1 to 2 more minutes (still over medium heat).
Scrape the pastry cream into a small bowl and set in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Make sure to continue stirring occasionally so that you end up with a smooth cream.
Once the cream has slightly cooled, slowly begin to add the butter in three or four installments.
Transfer directly to pastry bag fitted with desired tip and chill in the fridge at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.
When ready to fill profiteroles pipe pastry cream into the slit edge of each pastry.
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons corn syrup
In a medium saucepan, combine 2/3 cup water, sugar, and corn syrup, and bring to a boil over high heat. Do not stir. Cover pan, and boil until steam dissolves any crystals. Uncover, and boil 5 more minutes, or until syrup is amber in color. Remove from heat. Dip the bottom of each cream-filled puff into the caramel, and arrange puffs in a pyramid.
To make a spun-sugar web to wrap around the croquembouche:
Cut the looped ends of a wire whisk with wire cutters, or use two forks held side by side, and dip the ends into caramel. Wave the caramel back and forth over the croquembouche, allowing the strands to fall in long, thin threads around it. Wrap any stray strands up and around the croquembouche. Serve within 2 hours.