Twenty-five years ago, or so, I found the magic.
I was paging through a cookbook, the seminal “La Methode,” Jacques Pepin’s sequel to his even more seminal “La Technique.” As I was grazing through the pages, I came upon a recipe for croquembouche.
It was the most astonishing recipe I had ever seen: little baked puffs filled with pastry cream and then stuck together with caramel to form a beautifully shaped mound.
It wasn’t just astonishing, it was also the hardest recipe I had ever encountered. It covered most of five large pages – though photos and white space also took up a large part – and required 11 difficult steps.
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They were difficult, but they were not impossible. And that was what was magical. I realized as I read it that I could make this thing.
At the time, I had never attempted pate a choux, the dough that puffs up and becomes hollow as it bakes – it is the same dough that is used in eclairs. Neither, at the time, had I made pastry cream. I hadn’t even made caramel. But I was certain I could do them all.
Since then, of course, I have made pate a choux numerous times, pastry cream and also caramel. But I still had never made a croquembouche.
So I decided to try. How hard can it be?
As it turns out, it is pretty hard. But it is also spectacular, both in appearance and taste. I ended up with a beautiful croquembouche that tasted even better than I thought it would.
Pepin writes in the introduction to the recipe that the dish is typically served at weddings in France. It is certainly the sort of thing you would want to bring out only for a special occasion, both because of the effort and time that it takes to make and also because something this extraordinary should never become commonplace.
In the introduction, Pepin also writes “avoid making it on a humid summer day because the caramel may stick and melt and the cake may collapse.”
Naturally, I made it just after a monsoon. And although I did what I could to dry them out, the choux puffs lost their crispness and some of them deflated a bit.
There was one other major problem, which I can blame only on myself. The way Pepin makes his croquembouche, he dips the top of each puff in caramel (others leave out this step). It is much easier to do this with your hands than with tongs, but you have to remember that caramel is extremely hot and the puffs are rather small.
I don’t think of it as four of my fingers are burned and blistered, I prefer to think that six of my fingers are fine.
And to be honest, two of the burns came when I decided the caramel was so enticing that I would wipe it from the back of a spoon with my finger – two fingers – and lick it off of them. So, really, that one’s all on me.
While croquembouche as a whole is daunting, when broken down into its individual parts it actually goes easily, though it does take time.
First up is the pate a choux, which develops its miraculous ability to become hollow through a couple of intriguing techniques: You dump the flour all at once into a mixture of boiling milk (or water) and melted butter, and you add several eggs one at a time, making sure each one is thoroughly incorporated before adding the next.
If you do these two simple tricks, you have pate a choux.
While the choux are baking and puffing up beautifully, you make the pastry cream, which is also called creme patissiere. This is basically a super-rich custard; this version requires eight egg yolks, plus milk, cream, sugar, vanilla and half a stick of butter. A little more than a teaspoon of unflavored gelatin holds it all together and keeps it from becoming runny.
Unlike other recipes I have seen, Pepin uses two caramel glazes on his croquembouche. One adds a layer of sweetness to each puff (this is the step that is ignored by other cooks) and the other is used to glue the thing together so that it holds its shape.
Pepin uses the same caramel recipe for each. He just cooks the sweetness glaze longer than he cooks the glue one. But don’t worry. You can take my word for it that both are hot.
And other chefs add a step that Pepin does not. After they have assembled the croquembouche around a mold, they weave a gossamer web of spun sugar around it.
I decided to do that part, too. What the heck? At that point, it didn’t really matter.
One word about the mold. Pepin recommends greasing the inside of a mixing bowl and building the croquembouche up against that wall.
Most other chefs use a traditional cone shape. I went with the cone, because the mechanically inclined photographer created one out of cardboard, which we then covered with parchment paper to keep the puffs from sticking to the mold. It also looks better than the mound-shaped result you get from Pepin’s method.
Pepin’s idea is easier. But if you’re going to go to all the trouble to make croquembouche, you may as well go all the way.
Yield: 16 servings
1 1 / 2 cups milk
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 1 / 2 cups all-purpose flour
6 large eggs
2 cups milk
8 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 / 4 cup granulated sugar
1 / 2 envelope (1- 1 / 8 teaspoon) unflavored gelatin
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 / 4 cup heavy cream
1 / 2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 1 / 2-inch slices, at room temperature
4 cups granulated sugar, divided
1 cup water, divided
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1 / 2 teaspoon cream of tartar diluted in 2 tablespoons water, divided
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. To make the cream puff (pate a choux) dough, place the milk, butter and salt in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. As soon as it boils, add the flour all at once and mix rapidly with a wooden spoon. Turn the heat to low and keep cooking and stirring for 1 minute to dry it out (there will be a thin film of dough on the bottom of the pan). Place the mixture in the bowl of a stand mixer and mix with the paddle attachment for 1 minute at medium speed to cool it off slightly.
3. With the mixer still on medium, add the eggs one at a time, allowing each one to become thoroughly incorporated before adding the next. Mix until smooth. Place this dough into a pastry bag or plastic bag fitted with a 1 / 2-inch (or smaller) nozzle with a plain opening.
4. Hold the pastry bag straight down over the prepared baking sheets and squeeze out a small amount without lifting your hand; then stop squeezing and lift up the bag in a sudden, short upswing. Repeat about 80 times until you are out of the dough, spacing the piles at least 1 inch away from one another. Moisten your fingertips with water and make each ball more or less evenly round on top.
5. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, rotating the trays about halfway through. Keep the door of the oven slightly ajar during the last 10 minutes of baking so the choux dry out and don’t collapse. If the weather is humid, let cool in the turned-off oven with the door open.
6. For the pastry cream, place the milk in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Combine the yolks, vanilla, sugar and gelatin in a bowl and work with a whisk until pale yellow and foamy, about 1 to 2 minutes. Pour a very little amount – perhaps 1 tablespoon or so – of the boiling milk into the yolk mixture, and stir to mix. Keep repeating until you have added at least 1/3 of the milk. Add the yolk mixture into the saucepan with the milk and stir constantly with the whisk until it boils and thickens. Let boil for 15 to 20 seconds, then stir in the cream. Strain into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand or refrigerate until it reaches room temperature. Then add the softened butter with a whisk, piece by piece, and let cool.
7. Fit a pastry bag with a small fluted or starred tube and fill with the cream. Twist the flat bottom of the puff on the tube to make a hole and squeeze the cream inside. If the tube is plain it will not pierce the puff; in that case, use the point of a knife to make a hole in the bottom of each one before filling.
8. Make the first batch of caramel by mixing together 2 cups of the sugar with 1 / 2 cup of the water, stirring just enough to moisten the sugar. Place on heat and bring to a boil. After 3 minutes, add 1 / 4 teaspoon of the cream of tartar that has been diluted in 1 tablespoon of the water. Cook until it turns into a light caramel color, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat; (it will continue to cook and darken for a few minutes). If it darkens too much, place the saucepan in lukewarm water to stop the cooking. If it gets too thick, remelt it on top of the stove.
9. Holding the chou by the bottom, dip the top of each one into the hot caramel, being careful not to touch the caramel with your fingers. Slide the top of each chou against the side of the pan to remove the excess caramel. Glaze all the choux on top.
10. Prepare a mold. Use any type of mold you wish, including bottles, the inside of a metal mixing bowl or a cone. Whichever mold you use, completely coat the part of it you will be using to build the croquembouche with oil or parchment paper.
11. Make a second batch of caramel as in step No. 8, only this time it should be light in color. As soon as the sugar mixture gets slightly blond, remove from heat.
12. If using the inside of a mixing bowl to form your croquembouche, begin by making a crown or ring for the top of the cake: Dip a side of a chou into the caramel, then stick it to another chou. Repeat to form a crown about 6 to 7 choux around. Place this crown in the bottom of the bowl so that the caramelized top of the choux touch the bowl. Then start building up the sides of the mold, stacking the choux tightly, with the least space possible between each. Dip each chou into the caramel and fit it into the space. Try to end up at the same height all the way around; remember, the croquembouche will be turned upside down. If too high on one side or another, cut a chou in half to even it out. Retain the remaining caramel.
13. Alternatively, if using the exterior of a mold such as a bottle or a cone, begin on the bottom. Dip the side of a choux into the caramel and stick it to another to make one layer all the way around the mold. For higher layers, dip each chou on the bottom and one side. Try to stack them tightly, leaving the least space possible between each. Retain the remaining caramel.
14. Unmold the croquembouche by turning it upside down on a platter (if using the inside of a mixing bowl) or carefully removing the mold from the bottom (if using a bottle or cone. If the croquembouche is stuck to the side of the metal mixing bowl, it can be loosened by passing the bowl over a flame a few times.
15. Hold two forks side by side and dip them into the remaining caramel. Allow the caramel to drizzle off them onto the croquembouche, waving the forks back and forth across it to form delicate threads around the croquembouche.
16. To serve, start at the top and work down, breaking off the choux with your hands or two spoons, a few at a time.
Per serving: 498 calories; 19 g fat; 10 g saturated fat; 203 mg cholesterol; 8 g protein; 76 g carbohydrate; 63 g sugar; no fiber; 96 mg sodium; 205 mg calcium.
Adapted from “La Methode,” by Jacques Pepin