Recently, when I needed to prepare a particularly special birthday dessert, this elaborate confection came to mind and I decided I simply had to master it. It had been at least 20 years since I learned the technique in culinary school, but I figured it was an endeavor worth tackling. And it was.
This French confection, translated as “crisp in the mouth,” is literally a pyramid of profiteroles (custard- or cream-filled cream puffs prepared with traditional choux paste, a.k.a. pate a choux), dipped in and assembled with hot caramel, and then draped in delicate swags of caramel or wispy buntings of spun sugar.
There are many good recipes available on-line and in pastry cookbooks for all of the components: pate a choux, pastry cream, and caramel. I have decided to formally share the recipe I used for the cream puffs, based in part on one of Martha Stewart’s recipes. You can pipe the puffs as large as you desire, although I prefer petite puffs, as they are the proper proportion to prettily cover a 10- or 12-inch Styrofoam cone (available in the flower section of most craft stores).
As for the filling, use your favorite pastry cream or even whipped cream or buttercream. For about 45 puffs (enough to cover a moderate-size cone), you will need about 2 ½ cups of filling. Fill all the puffs (piping into the flat sides) before preparing the caramel.
To make the caramel, simply stir together 2 cups of sugar, ¾ cup of water, and 2 tablespoons of light corn syrup in a medium straight-sided saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium low, refrain from stirring further, and cover, simmering for about 3 minutes. Uncover and, again without stirring, cook until the caramel is light amber in color. Remove from the stove and set the pan briefly in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Place the pan on a kitchen towel or heatproof surface while assembling the pyramid.
To assemble the croquembouche, I covered the cone and a round base with gold cellophane paper (yes, it actually withstands the heat of the caramel). Carefully dip the piped sides of the puffs into the caramel and beginning at the base, arrange them around the cone. Continue until the cone is completely covered.
For a final flourish, dip a fork in the caramel and swirl thin strands around the croquembouche, cloaking it in elegant golden swags. Reheat the caramel as needed if it becomes too thick as it cools.
Makes about 65
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter
1 ½ cups water
Generous ¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
6 large or extra-large eggs at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line 3 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
Melt together the butter, water, salt, and sugar in a medium straight-sided saucepan over medium-low heat. Remove from the heat and stir in the flour. Set over low heat and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a firm paste and possibly leaves a film on the bottom of the pan, about 2 minutes. Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and begin mixing on medium-high speed. Drop in the eggs, one at a time, beating each time until the batter is smooth.
Fit a pastry bag with a round tip about 1/2 inch in diameter (I use the Ateco no. 6 round tip) and fill about half-full with the batter. Pipe rounds about 1 inch in diameter and 1 ½ inches apart onto the prepared baking sheets. Using a wet finger or pastry brush, tap down the points on the tops of the discs.
Bake until the puffs have risen and are light golden brown, about 20 minutes. If baking multiple pans, you might want to reposition them halfway through baking to ensure they bake evenly. (If you don’t have enough racks in your oven, you can set the prepared baking sheet of raw dough rounds aside until the oven is free.) Pierce each puff gently with a skewer and return to the oven to bake for another 7 to 10 minutes (this will help the puffs dry out completely).
Remove from the oven and transfer the puffs to wire racks to cool completely. Use immediately or store in freezer-safe airtight bags for about 2 months. To use, thaw in the refrigerator and crisp briefly on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for several minutes.