Popular in France for weddings and other festive occasions, a croquembouche—a dramatic tower of cream puffs that are stuffed with pastry cream, held together with caramel and wrapped in spun sugar—also makes a showstopping centerpiece for your holiday table. And, although the recipe may seem complex, the cream puffs can be made up to a few weeks in advance and stored in the freezer, and the pastry cream can be made up to 3 days in advance. However, you should assemble the dessert no more than 2 hours before serving it, as the pastry cream will eventually turn the cream puffs soggy.
For the cream puffs:
- 12 Tbs. (1 1/2 sticks) (6 oz./185 g) unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup (6 fl. oz./180 ml) milk
- 3/4 cup (6 fl. oz./180 ml) water
- 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 oz./235 g) all-purpose flour
- 5 eggs
For the pastry cream:
- 2 cups (16 fl. oz./500 ml) milk
- 1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
- 6 egg yolks
- 2/3 cup (5 oz./155 g) sugar
- 1/4 cup (1 oz./30 g) cornstarch
- Pinch of salt
- 1 Tbs. unsalted butter
For the caramel:
- 2 1/2 cups (20 oz./625 g) sugar
- 2/3 cup (5 fl. oz./160 ml) water
Preheat an oven to 400°F (200°C).
To make the cream puffs, in a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the butter, milk, water, sugar and salt and bring to a full boil. When the butter has melted, remove the pan from the heat, add the flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until blended. Return the pan to medium heat and continue stirring until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan, forms a ball and leaves a thin film on the bottom and sides of the pan. Remove from the heat and let cool for 3 to 4 minutes, or until it reads 140°F (60°C) on an instant-read thermometer.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk 1 of the eggs. When the batter has cooled, add the egg to the batter and beat with the spoon until incorporated. Continue whisking one egg at a time and then stirring it into the batter until incorporated before adding the next egg. After each egg is added, the mixture will separate and appear shiny but it will return to a smooth paste after you beat it vigorously. Let the paste cool for about 10 minutes before shaping.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
To shape the pastry puffs, fit a pastry bag with a 3/16-inch (4.5-mm) plain tip and fill the bag with the paste. For each puff, pipe about 2 tsp. of the paste onto one of the prepared baking sheets, forming a mound about 1/2 inch (12 mm) in diameter. Space the mounds at least 2 inches (5 cm) apart to allow them room to expand. Smooth the top of each pastry with your finger, dipping your finger in water first to prevent it from sticking to the dough.
Bake the puffs until they are golden brown, 25 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.
The puffs can be made up to 2 weeks before assembling the croquembouche. To store them, transfer the cooled puffs to sealable plastic bags and store in the freezer. Before assembling the croquembouche, warm the puffs in a 325°F (165°C) oven until crisp, then let cool completely on wire racks.
To make the pastry cream, in a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the milk and vanilla bean and bring to a boil. Once the milk comes to a boil, remove from heat, cover and let the vanilla bean steep in the milk for 10 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean and discard.
In a bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and salt. Whisking constantly, slowly add 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz./125 ml) of the warm milk to the egg yolk mixture. Add the remaining milk and whisk well. Return the milk and egg yolk mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon. Cook until the mixture thickens slightly and coats the back of your spoon, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain the pastry cream through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Stir in the butter until it is melted and thoroughly combined.
Let the pastry cream cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. The pastry cream will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for up to 3 days.
To fill the pastry puffs, fill a pastry bag fitted with a 3/16-inch (4.5-mm) plain tip with the pastry cream. Using a small knife, poke a hole in each puff just large enough to insert the tip of your pastry bag. Fill each pastry puff with cream and set aside while you make the caramel.
To make the caramel, in a heavy 4-quart (4-l) saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and water. Cook until the mixture bubbles vigorously and begins to turn a light amber color, 7 to 9 minutes. Stir the sugar with a wooden spoon during the first 2 to 3 minutes of cooking, but do not stir after this point. Instead, swirl the pan to ensure even cooking. Watch the caramel very carefully, as it will go from amber colored to burned in a few seconds. Remove the caramel from the heat when it is light amber, as it will continue to cook and deepen in color as you assemble the croquembouche.
To assemble the dessert, carefully dip the bottom of a cream puff into the warm caramel, being careful not to burn your fingers. Place the cream puff, caramel side down, along the edge of a 10-inch (25-cm) cake stand. Continue dipping the cream puffs in the caramel and arranging them in a large circle around the edge of the cake plate. Arrange a second circle of cream puffs on top of the first, making the second circle slightly smaller than the first so that you are forming a cone-shaped tower. Continue in this way until the final layer consists of a single puff on top of all the others.
Make spun sugar by warming any remaining caramel over medium-low heat just until it is thin enough to drizzle; watch carefully to avoid burning the caramel. Using a whisk or two forks carefully splatter caramel onto a silicone baking sheet or piece of parchment paper to form thin strands. When the caramel is cool enough to touch but is still warm and flexible, remove the sugar and gently arrange it on top of and around the assembled croquembouche. Serves 8 to 10.
Williams-Sonoma Test Kitchen