Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tower 'o cream puffs

I made croquembouche this weekend!!

The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a piece montée, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri.

And what exactly is croquembouche?? It's a giant tower of cream puffs, traditionally made for French weddings.  I can almost image the conversation that took place in France all those years ago.

Jean Francois, how do you think I can create a more delicious dessert than cream puffs filled with sinfully rich pastry cream?
Well Pierre, it's simple. Just make a giant tower of cream puffs filled with sinfully rich pastry cream.


I wanted to mix up the traditional croquembouche just a bit, so I ended up using some recipes from my new cookbook Luscious Creamy Desserts (yes, same author as my Luscious Lemon Desserts book).  In it she has a dessert called Paris Brest, which is a choux pastry filled with a praline flavored cream. I liked the sound of the hazelnut praline and figured that would be the perfect little something to spice my challenge up a bit.

Although making the croquembouche wasn't difficult per se, it did take quite a while to prepare and assemble the damn thing. At least half my Sunday was spent on this little tower.

First I made my pastry cream and chilled it. Then I cooked the sugar to make my hazelnut praline. Then I made the choux pastry (which didn't turn out all that well with the recipe we were given). Then I made another batch of choux pastry (from Cooks Illustrated which worked out much better). Then I crushed the hazelnut praline and mixed it in with my pastry cream. Then I whipped some cream and folded that into the pastry cream (for a super light and extra delicious filling). Then I filled the ~50 cooked (and cooled) cream puffs. Then I had to cook another batch of sugar to use as "glue" to create the tower of puffs. Then I had to assemble the tower. Then I had to try to use my leftover sugar to make spun sugar for the decorations.

Friends were already over so didn't really have time to work on a super pretty sugar topper...
it was fun playing with spun sugar though!

Whew! Just typing that all wore me out. Definitely a bunch of hours start to finish.  But well worth it to try out something new.

My big comments, before I get onto the recipes:

1. The recipe for pastry cream (with or without the extra whipped cream) was super easy and super delicious. Definitely a keeper.

2. The recipe for pate a choux that was given to us by the Daring Baker's challenge was pretty much a failure for me. Choux is very sensitive to the amount of liquid and when I followed the recipe exactly I think it was just too liquidy. I preferred the Cooks Illustrated recipe for a few reasons: (a) it worked and (b) it wasn't quite as eggy in taste as the first recipe. I'll include both, as the choux recipe was part of our required challenge, but I have my reservations about Choux #1.

Choux #1: in which the recipe provided the number of eggs I needed but not a volume amount (as other recipes often provide). The dough was overly wet and didn't form a nice mound when I piped them out...

.... which led to some puffs that never puffed! (And the ones that did had an odd texture to them.)

Choux #2: the Cooks Illustrated recipe. Firm and perfectly easy to pipe...

... yielded a delicious puff.

In the future I'd like to try other choux recipes for comparison, like this one from Not So Humble Pie. The recipe in and of itself is SUPER simple to make, but the proportions of the liquid : dry have to be juuuuuust right. Plus I think mine cooked up a bit too dark so I may have to mess around with the temperature too.

3. Adding the hazelnut praline was an interesting touch. It was a pain to pipe though (with the chunks of sugar that didn't completely and properly grind) but added a nice textural contrast to the soft cream filling. (Note: you MUST read NSHP's blog entry about lollipops and sugar and the science behind it all because it's the most clear and simply thorough explanation I've ever read on sugars and candy making.)

Golden sugar, golden delicious

Now THIS is a lollipop!

4. While it was fun assembling the cream puff tower, it's not the most practical for a few reasons. First, the puffs sometimes break apart when you try to remove them from the tower because the caramel binding them together is like freaking superglue. Plus, I think (personally) I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to cream puffs. Which means I prefer them either nekked or with chocolate on top (i.e. like an eclair), not necessarily coated with a crunchy, caramel-y sugar glaze.  But hey- it all depends on how you like it.

And although the tower looked great from the direction I was assembling it, turns out my spatial geometry skills in creating a perfect tower from all directions was a bit off...

As Sir Mix-A-Lot would say: croquembouche got back

Buen Provecho,

So you ready for the recipes?!? Clickie for all the details.

Note: For the tower I made you'll need 2 batches of choux pastry for each batch of pastry cream.

Pastry Cream, from Luscious Creamy Desserts


for the custard:
2 cups whole milk
3 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
3 TBSP cornstarch
pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla extract

hazelnut praline, optional (see below)
1 cup heavy cream


1. Heat milk in saucepan over medium high heat until hot. Whisk together egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and salt until blended. Slowly pour in the warm milk, whisking constantly.
2. Return mixture and cook over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until mixture thickens and begins to bubble around the edges. Simmer, whisking for 1 minute.
3. Pour mixture through coarse strainer. Whisk in the vanilla. Cover suface directly with plastic wrap to prevent skin forming and let cool to room temp. Then refrigerate at least 2 hours, or up to one day.

This recipe yields a custard-y pastry cream (like the filling of an eclair). If you want a "lighter" pastry cream, go ahead and continue with the recipe.

4. Break praline into small pieces. Transfer to plastic bag, crush, and then transfer to a food processor and pulse until finely ground.
5. Beat heavy cream + 1 TBSP powdered sugar until stiff peaks form.
6. Remove pastry cream from the fridge and mix well. Fold the finely ground praline into the custard, then fold in the whipped cream. Fill the puffs.

Hazelnut praline, from Luscious Creamy Desserts


1/2 cup nuts
3/4 cups sugar
2 1/2 TBSP water
1/2 TBPS corn syrup

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Spread hazelnuts on baking sheet and toast for 15 minutes. When cool push together in single layer (after removing seed coat)
3. Heat sugar, water, corn syrup and salt in saucepan of medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to high and bring mixture to boil. Boil, without stirring, swirling the pan toward the end to even out the color, until the caramel is a dark amber color. (I did mine to 330 degrees, but I probably could have gone even darker on the sugar.) Immediately pour caramel over nuts to coat evenly. Let stand for 15 minutes to cool and harden.

Note: make sure to NOT walk away from the sugar, especially toward the end. It can very easily go from amber to burnt...

Pate a Choux, from Cooks Illustrated


2 large eggs
1 large egg white
5 tablespoons unsalted butter , cut into 10 pieces
1 ounce whole milk (2 tablespoons)
3 ounces water (6 tablespoons)
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon table salt
2 1/2 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour (1/2 cup), sifted


1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Spray large (12-by 18-inch) baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray and line with parchment paper; set aside. Beat eggs and egg white in measuring cup or small bowl; you should have 1/2 cup (discard excess). Set aside.

2. Bring butter, milk, water, sugar, and salt to boil in small saucepan over medium heat, stirring once or twice. When mixture reaches full boil (butter should be fully melted), immediately remove saucepan from heat and stir in flour with heatproof spatula or wooden spoon until combined and mixture clears sides of pan. Return saucepan to low heat and cook, stirring constantly, using smearing motion, for at least 3 minutes, until mixture is slightly shiny with wet-sand appearance and tiny beads of fat appear on bottom of saucepan (temperature of paste should register 175 to 180 degrees on instant-read thermometer).

3. Immediately transfer mixture to food processor and process with feed tube open for 10 seconds to cool slightly. With machine running, gradually add eggs in steady stream. When all eggs have been added, scrape down sides of bowl, then process for 30 seconds until smooth, thick, sticky paste forms. (If not using immediately, transfer paste to medium bowl, cover surface flush with sheet of plastic wrap sprayed lightly with nonstick cooking spray, and store at room temperature for up to 2 hours.) (Jackie's note: although they don't say this, I'm sure you could easily use a stand mixer, or a wooden spoon, as well. Just make sure to add the eggs in slowly, ~1 at a time)

4. Fold down top 3 or 4 inches of 14- or 16-inch pastry bag fitted with 1/2-inch plain tip to form a cuff. Hold bag open with one hand in cuff and fill bag with paste. Unfold cuff, lay bag on work surface, and, using hands or bench scraper, push paste into lower portion of pastry bag. Twist top of bag and pipe paste into 1 1/4- to 1 1/2-inch mounds on prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 1 to 1 1/4 inches apart (you should be able to fit about 24 mounds on baking sheet).

5. Use back of teaspoon dipped in bowl of cold water to smooth shape and surface of piped mounds. Bake 15 minutes (do not open oven door), then reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees and continue to bake until golden brown and fairly firm (puffs should not be soft and squishy), 8 to 10 minutes longer. Remove baking sheet from oven. With paring knife, cut 3/4-inch slit into side of each puff to release steam; return puffs to oven, turn off oven, and prop oven door open with handle of wooden spoon. Dry puffs in turned-off oven until centers are just moist (not wet) and puffs are crisp, about 45 minutes. Transfer puffs to wire rack to cool. (Cooled puffs can be stored at room temperature for up to 24 hours or frozen in zipper-lock plastic bag for up to 1 month. Before serving, crisp room temperature puffs in 300-degree oven 5 to 8 minutes, or 8 to 10 minutes for frozen puffs.)

Hard caramel glaze, adapted from Martha Stewart
(Note: this recipe can also be used for spun sugar. Just google "spun sugar" for some neat tutorials.)


1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice


1. Bring all ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat (you can wash down sides of pan often with a wet pastry brush to prevent crystals from forming but I get lazy and never do this).

2. Cook, without stirring, until sugar dissolves, 5 to 6 minutes. Raise heat to high, and cook, swirling pan to color evenly, until syrup is amber, about 5 minutes (at least 330 degrees). Make sure to watch the sugar very carefully at the end as it can easily burn.

3. Remove caramel from heat, and set bottom of pan in a shallow dish with room temp water to slow down the heating.

4. Dip your puffs in a bit of the caramel and use to assemble your tower.

Note: BE CAREFUL and don't dip your fingers in the caramel- it'll burn like a mofo. If that does happen, have a cool cup of water nearby to dunk your finger.

Pate a Choux (Yield: About 28)
Note: this recipe was the one provided to us by the Daring Bakers. I'd only use this if you've made cream puffs before and "know" what the consistency of the dough should resemble. If not, I'd suggest the Cooks Illustrated one (or another in which the eggs are given in cup, and not number, measurements)


¾ cup (175 ml.) water
6 Tbsp. (85 g.) unsalted butter
¼ Tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 cup (125 g.) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs

For Egg Wash: 1 egg and pinch of salt


Pre-heat oven to 425◦F/220◦C degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Preparing batter:
Combine water, butter, salt and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and stir occasionally. At boil, remove from heat and sift in the flour, stirring to combine completely.

Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly until the batter dries slightly and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. (Stir with wooden spoon until mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan, forming a ball)

Transfer to a bowl and stir with a wooden spoon 1 minute to cool slightly.

Add 1 egg. The batter will appear loose and shiny.

As you stir, the batter will become dry-looking like lightly buttered mashed potatoes.

It is at this point that you will add in the next egg. Repeat until you have incorporated all the eggs. (Beat on medium-high speed for 5-7 minutes until dough is smooth and dry looking and has cooled to room temp.

Transfer batter to a pastry bag fitted with a large open tip (I piped directly from the bag opening without a tip). Pipe choux about 1 inch-part in the baking sheets. Choux should be about 1 inch high about 1 inch wide.

Using a clean finger dipped in hot water, gently press down on any tips that have formed on the top of choux when piping. You want them to retain their ball shape, but be smoothly curved on top.

Brush tops with egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with pinch of salt).


Mara said...

I'm so impressed!!! I agree though, the choux recipe provided isn't a great one... I have another one thats STELLAR from my sister, very similar to Cook's :) GO JACKIE THE DARING BAKER!!!

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