I just found a great way to make my standard croquembouche (meaning roughly "crunch in the mouth") much better. It's a tower of cream puffs glued together with hard crack caramel. You don't really see it at its best here because I made too little caramel and had almost none to make the gorgeous gold filaments encircling the tower. The dish has great aesthetic potential but before this Christmas, once guests started breaking off cream puffs, it got ugly. Since there's not much in the culinary world harder than hard crack caramel, my cream puffs would break and the half-eaten croquembouche would end up looking more like Miss Havisham's wedding cake.
But now, a simple trick fixes all that, after the cream puffs finish baking, turn the oven off and leave them in for 30 minutes as the oven cools. That's it! Now the puffs crack off whole and the tower gets neatly shorter and shorter until all the puffs are gone.
Here's he recipe:
1 1/4 cups water
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups flour
6 large eggs
PLace the water and butter into a medium-sized, high-sided sauce pan and heat over medium-high until the butter is totally melted. Add the salt and the flour all at once and stir to combine. It will be very lumpy at first but don't worry, as you stir it will smooth out. Keep stirring until the paste ecomes a thick ball and sounds like it's frying. Take off heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Add each egg one-by-one stirring it in until it is totally incorporated before adding the next one. It's the eggs that will make the puffs puff. Once all the eggs have been incorporated, let the dough cool to room temperature while you make the pastry cream.
the pastry cream:
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
4 tbsps flour
1/8 tsp salt
Scald the milk in a medium saucepan. In a medium mixing bowl, whip the sugar, eggs, egg yolk, flour and salt until combined and smooth. Once the milk is scalded, take it off the flame and pour it very slowly into the egg mixture stirring constantly. Pour the egg, milk mixture back into the saucepan and return to the stove at medium heat. Stir constantly until the custard thickly coats the back of your spoon. Take off heat and stir in the vanilla. Set aside and cover with plastic wrap. The plastic wrap should touch the surface of the custard so that it does not form a skin. Refrigerate for 3-4 hours until completely cooled.
Baking the puffs:
Pre-heat oven to 425F. Spoon enough of the cream puf dough to fill a pastry bag halfway. Using the widest tip (or no tip at all, just the screw-top opening of the pastry bag) squeeze out 1 inch diameter balls of dough onto two greased cookie sheets. It is best to hold the tip very close to the cookie sheet as you squeeze out the dough so that the result is an even dome shape. Once all the dough is used up, dip your fingertip in cold water and smooth out any uneven tips on the domes. Bake at 425F for 10 minutes then reduce the oven temperature to 400F and switch the cookie sheets (top goes to bottom, bottom to top for even baking). And bake for another 20 minutes or until the puffs are very round, puffy and golden-brown. Tuen oven off and let puffs rest for 30 more minutes. Remove and let cool.
* Party preparation tip> The puffs and the pastry cream can be made the day before and the croquembouche can be assembled within 1/2 hour on the day of the party!
With a small tip on the cleaned pastry bag, pour in enough pastry cream to fill the bag up halfway, twist the end of the bag and grip firmly. Poke a small hole in each cream puff with the pointy tip of the pastry bag (you can usually see where the puff is thin, and make the hole there.) and fill each puff about halfway.
3/4 cup confectioner's sugar
1 tbsp water
Have all your filled cream puffs and a cake plate to build the croquembouche on ready. Separate the larger creamp puffs from the smaller ones. The larger will go on the bottom of the tower and the smaller on top. In a small-medium saucepan, place the sugar and sprinkle the water over it. Heat over medium-high. You will see the edges begin to melt and eventually turn golden. I think it's ok to stir a bit the get all the sugar to melt, others disagree saying that it can cause the caramel to get grainy in texture. In my experience this doesn't happen with simple burned sugar hard crack caramel. If we were making soft, chewy cream caranmel, it could pose a problem. So, cook until the caramel turns a medium to light brown and take it off the heat. As you are building the croquembouche you may need to reheat the caramel to make it more liquidy and stickier so do not make it too dark in the beginning. Begin immediately to dip a corner of each larger cream puff in the caramel and place firmly on the plate in a circle. I make a 5-cream puff circle with one puff in the center. Then build upwards. Five cream puffs per layer is a good way to start for the first 3-4 layers, then you can taper as you build up. After you have laid on the lart cream puff I suggest you do what I didn't have a chance to this time: decorate the tower with filaments of caramel swirled around its perimeter. Dip an ordinary fork, into the remaining caramel and move it in a circle around the tower. A very thin stream of quickly hardening caramel will stick to each cream puff it touches making a web of golden filaments. Keep this up dipping the fork and encircling the tower until you are satisfied with the result. Once the tower is decorated it shoud NOt be refrigerated; the caramel filaments will get melty and drippy, and should be eaten within the day.