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December, Day 19: Party Post-Mortem & Croquembouche

19.December 2010

Last night we had a little party. A few dozen of our nearest and dearest came by to toast the end of the semester and the holiday season and, soon, the beginning of a new year (!!).  As you’ve all heard, I did a little bit of baking for this party.  By which I mean to say I went WAY over the top.  We’ve got tons of leftovers.  Not that I’m complaining.

The party was a success, I’d say – we had loads of candles (so many that when we blew them out, we set off the smoke alarm), bud vases with sprigs of rosemary, a Christmas tree fashioned from a rosemary shrub and a little one brought from the wilds of New Hampshire.  And there were cookies, and candy, and pastry.  And punch and Glühwein and all good things.

And there were clutches of our dearest friends gathered around trays of goodies and hovering over the mulling wine chatting whether they knew each other or not.  It was a really warm lovely gathering and it makes me happy to see all of my circles of friends beginning to intersect.

As I told you yesterday, there was an exciting centerpiece dominating the kitchen table’s spread of goodies.  I decided it would be a good idea to make, from scratch, the day of the party, a Croquembouche.  Now, I decided this a while ago so I had time to come up with a game plan and to do a dry run with my mom at Thanksgiving.  That effort was, well, not entirely successful.  At the end, we had a slightly sagging, runny, sad heap of droopy cream puffs and thick, crunchy, cement-like caramel holding the whole of it together.  We had to hack at it and pound on the caramel to detach bites of it.  For all its imperfections, it still tasted pretty special.  So, here’s what I learned from the Thanksgiving try:

  1. If the choux pastry isn’t baked really really done, it won’t hold up.
  2. If the pastry cream isn’t at a really really warm room temperature, it is really, really difficult to pipe into the pastry puffs.
  3. If the caramel cools too much when you’re assembling the beast, it will be thick and gloppy and will cool too thick and too hard to break easily.

At the end of this process and the somewhat dismaying result, my mom asked was I absolutely sure I wanted to do this big ridiculous thing on my own?  Was it really worth it?  I was already sure I wanted to do it, but the fifteen year old in me said YES, MOTHER.  I AM ABSOLUTELY SURE I WANT TO DO THIS BIG RIDICULOUS THING.

And then I got nervous. This was about three or four days ago.  I woke up in the middle of the night worrying about timing and caramel temperatures and the fact my oven door doesn’t have a window in it, so it would be impossible to gauge the progress of the choux without interfering with the oven temperature.  There were nightmares of crumbling pastry and sweats in the middle of the night.  You see, the nature of the pastry and the tendency of caramel to soften with time and exposure to the air makes it less durable than one would hope when it’s being used as an architectural element.   This meant that I had to do it within hours of the party’s start.  That meant very little room for errors.  That’s just asking for trouble.

And I’m not going to lie to you. I had a little trouble.  The first batch of choux pastry?  Quel désastre.  It was one of those things where you know exactly that you’re making a mistake while you’re doing it and you simply can’t stop yourself even though you know it’s wrong.  You see, I added too many eggs.  The puffs didn’t puff.  Flat.  Gummy.  Disgusting.  The paste was so runny I couldn’t even pipe it.  Total mess.

But then our dear friend and neighbor came over with some more eggs so I could start again.  And this time, it was perfect.  Perfect perfect perfect!  Beautiful little mounds and curls and kisses of paste lined up on the parchment and when they came out of the oven, they were sky high, perfect, hollow, airy, gorgeous puffs.

The most exciting part of this process, as you can guess, was assembling it.  It’s exhilarating to dip delicate little puffs of cream filled pastry into nearly-boiling caramel and using it to build a tower of pastry.  Of course, I burned every last one of my fingertips (ouch ouch ouch) while constructing the thing, but it was so beautiful it was worth it.

Just as a warning, the recipe that will follow is long.  It is time consuming.  You will likely burn yourself.  You should be sure to read it all the way through before you start.  This is the time to start measuring everything in advance if you don’t already.  But your guests will be astonished and you will be busting your buttons with pride.

And, although it isn’t a cake in the strictest sense of the word, this is the grand finale of this year’s monthly Cake Craze post.

Excessively Festive Croquembouche

Recipes spackled together from various sources, including, but not limited to the CIA, Fine Cooking, Martha Stewart, My Mother, and My Mistakes.

Part I: Vanilla Pastry Cream

This can be done up to two days in advance.  If you’re making it in advance, do be sure it comes up to room temperature before attempting to pipe it.  Tip: if you find that the cream is not warming up or seems too stiff to pipe, whisk it together with a tablespoon of whipping cream.

  • 8 oz sugar
  • 3 oz cornstarch
  • 4 c milk
  • 6 eggs
  • pinch salt
  • 3 oz. butter
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
  1. Whisk together half of the sugar with the cornstarch in a bowl – this keeps the starch from caking when you mix in the liquid.  Whisk about 1/4 c of milk into the sugar and starch combination.  When incorporated, add the eggs and mix.
  2. In a medium saucepan, combine the remaining milk and sugar with salt.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.
  3. Temper the egg mixture: While whisking the eggs, ladle in about 1/4 cup of the boiling milk mixture.  Continue whisking until fully blended.  Repeat until the egg mixture is warm and you’ve incorporated between 1/2 and 2/3 of the milk volume.  Then stream the egg mixture back into the pan with the remaining milk mixture (about 1/3 of the original volume), whisking constantly.
  4. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook for one minute, whisking constantly.  This will cause the starch to thicken and the mixture to become gelatinized.
  5. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter and vanilla (or whatever other flavorings you’re using – brown butter would be delicious, or booze).
  6. Spread the custard into a rimmed half sheet to cool as quickly as possible.  When it is cool, press plastic wrap into the surface of the custard (this prevents a skin from forming).  Refrigerate until you’re ready to use it.

Part II: Choux Pastry

This recipe yields about 60 puffs and a ring for the base of the Croquembouche).  These should be done the day of, so that they don’t go soft or stale.

  • 1 c water
  • 1 c whole milk
  • 2 sticks butter
  • pinch salt
  • 8 oz flour
  • 16 oz eggs
  1. In a medium saucepan, slowly bring water, milk, butter and salt to a rolling boil.
  2. Remove from heat and add the flour all at once.  Whisk together until the mixture comes together in a ball and pulls away from the sides.  If you’re using a non-nonstick pan, it will leave a thin film on the bottom of the pan.
  3. Add the flour mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer and mix on a slow speed with the paddle attachment for about two minutes, to cool it off a bit.
  4. Add one egg and increase to a medium-low speed.  Beat the rest of the eggs together in a bowl and add the eggs a little bit at a time, mixing each time until well incorporated. Important: YOU MAY NOT NEED ALL OF THE EGGS.  It all depends on the humidity and so forth.  You need to add the eggs a bit at a time until the mixture is homogeneous and looks like a thick paste.  When you pull the paddle out of the mixture it should form the shape of a V hanging from the paddle.  It should not FLOW like a liquid off of the paddle.  It should be stiff enough that it holds its shape after being piped.  I also read somewhere that the paste is the right texture when, if you dip your finger into it and then point toward the ceiling, the paste should form a point that droops over, but doesn’t drip.  If it stands up, you should add a little more eggs.  If it’s dripping, it’s too late.  (In the end, I used about six eggs instead of the whole 10-11 eggs called for.)
  5. Pipe the paste into a ring slightly larger than you would like the base of your Croqueembouche to be.  I used the bottom of a 9″ springform pan as a guide.  Then pipe the remaining paste into mounds about 3/4 inch in diameter – on a half sheet, you should be able to fit about 30 (six rows of five puffs).  You can smooth the surface with a wet finger.
  6. Bake at 425 for fifteen minutes without opening the oven.  After those fifteen minutes, check the progress of the puffs.  They should have puffed up nicely and begin to be brown.
  7. Turn the temperature down to 375 and check about every five minutes until they are golden brown all over.
  8. Pierce the side of each puff with a sharp knife to release the steam.  Prop the oven door open with a wooden spoon and leave the puffs to dry for about five more minutes.  At this point, sacrifice one puff – tear it in half and see if the inside is done.  The inside of the puff should be slightly moist, but definitely not wet or squishy and the outside of the puff should be brown, crisp, and quite sturdy.
  9. Cool the puffs on a rack.  When cool, pipe filling into the puffs through the hole you made when venting them.  Pipe the puffs as full as you can.  They should feel heavy, but not be overflowing or bursting at the seams.

Part III: Caramel for assembling

This part should be done within hours of the event, lest the caramel soften and the whole thing collapse.

  • 2 1/2 c sugar
  • 2/3 c water
  • 1/2 T salt
  1. Have a large bowl of col water handy.
  2. In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, salt, and water and swirl to moisten the sugar.
  3. Heat until the sugar has melted, come to a boil and is beginning to caramelize.  You’ll see the liquid begin to turn yellowish around the edges, then begin to go golden brown.
  4. When the color has spread throughout the pan and is beginning to darken to brown, remove the pan from the heat and slowly lower the bottom of the pan into the bowl of ice water.  Hold it there for about 15 seconds, then place the pan on a trivet or hotpad next the surface on which you plan to assemble your Croquembouche.
  5. Carefully dip each puff into the caramel and place it onto the surface.  Create a tightly packed circle of puffs inside the choux ring you’ve baked (the piped ring will give you a guide and provide support at the base of the structure).  Try not to dip the surface with the piping vent into the caramel – this clouds the caramel and makes it cool less solidly.
  6. Once your first layer is complete, add another layer – after dipping in caramel, nestle cream puffs into the spaces between the puffs in the first layer.  Again, try to pack them as closely together as you can.  Continue up, slowly decreasing the diameter of the circle as you reach the top.
  7. You can decorate the Croquembouche with sanding sugar, powdered sugar, candied flower petals, or other decorations.  I used gold dragees.  Then decorate the whole structure with spun sugar.  To do this, use a fork or other multi-tined tool (I used a silicone pastry brush) to draw threads of caramel around the structure.  This takes a little getting used to, but really isn’t as difficult as it sounds.  I found a lazy Susan a useful surface to construct on, as it allowed me to turn the whole of the Croquembouche while holding the pastry brush stationary.
  8. Finally, if at any point the caramel cools to where you find the puffs sticking to the pan or so that you can’t get a thin layer of caramel, simply reheat, being careful not to burn the caramel.
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6 Comments leave one →
  1. JLJ permalink
    19.December 2010 19:08

    Amazing recipe, and I can testify to the AMAZING results. I think it was only fitting that the whole party stopped and everyone applauded when you finally broke into it and started serving.

  2. 19.December 2010 22:51

    Okay, that does it. You’re going to have to make another. Pretty please?

    • Darby O'Shea permalink*
      1.January 2011 15:19

      You come up with a really special occasion and we’ll make one to celebrate. :)

  3. huntfortheverybest permalink
    24.December 2010 09:29

    this is why you should never give up! you did a great job!

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