Croquembouche is a French patisserie created by Marie-Antoine Careme. Careme was one of 25 children and his poverty-stricken family abandoned him in Paris to make his own way in life. Despite his underprivileged background, he would end up cooking for Napoleon and the Czar of Russia. Careme was famous for his pièces montées (assembled pieces) which illustrated his belief that pastry cooking was a discipline allied to architecture!
To croquer is to bite or crunch so croquembouche is something that is crunchy in the mouth and the name doesn’t relate to the pastry but the traditional caramel used both to fasten the choux buns together and as a spun sugar construction to decorate the patisserie tower.
For the pastry
- 55g butter
- 70g plain flour with a high gluten content (use half plain white flour and half white bread flour for the best results)
- A pinch of salt
- 2 medium eggs
- 250g caster sugar
- Sunflower oil for greasing
For the crème patisserie filling
- 300ml full-fat milk
- ½ teaspoon vanilla essence
- 2 large egg yolks
- 55g caster sugar
- 30g plain flour
- Icing sugar, for dusting
- 110 grams granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon water
Making croquembouche is a three stage process and it’s important to allow time to complete each stage:
- Dough creation and resting
- Cooking the buns
1. Before making the dough, lay out your baking sheets and cover them with greaseproof paper or, for preference, baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 180°C/ fan160°C/or gas 4 and melt the butter in 150ml water over a medium heat in a pan large enough to take the flour. When the butter has melted and the water is simmering around the edges of the pan, quickly add the flour along with the pinch of salt. The easiest way to do this is to ‘shoot’ the flour into the pan from a large sheet of folded paper or a funnelboard. Remove from heat and mix swiftly to form a thick paste. Return to the heat and continue to stir while the dough dries out. The French name for this process is dessecher and it’s the key step to producing light and airy buns. Continue to beat the dough for around five minutes – a sign that dessecher is taking place is that the dough will begin to adhere and form a skin on the base of the pan. It is better to over desiccate the dough that under-desiccate it as too wet dough will not rise and has a leathery consistency.
2. Remove from the heat and beat in the eggs, one at a time. You may find it easiest to do this by setting the pan on a folded tea towel dipped in hot water and wrung out to give stability to the saucepan base while you work. It also helps to release adhered dough from the base of the pan. This produces thick and glossy dough with a heavy dropping consistency.
3. Put the dough in a piping bag fitted with a plain 1.5cm nozzle and pipe 24 balls, a little smaller than a golf ball, 12 on each sheet. Pour a little oil into a saucer and use a fork to flatten the balls by laying the tines in the oil and then lightly pressing a cross hatch pattern into each ball to enable the buns to rise evenly. Bake for 15 minutes, checking after 12 minutes to ensure they are golden and well-risen.
4. Turn off oven and make a small hole in the underside of each bun with a sharp knife or potato peeler. Put each bun on a wire rack and replace them in the oven for five minutes to ensure the interior of each bun is completely crisp. Take rack out of oven and allow buns to cool completely. 5. While they are cooking, make the crème patisserie filling. Put the milk in a saucepan over medium heat and when it begins to simmer, remove it from the heat.
6. In a large bowl whisk the egg yolks and sugar until pale, then whisk in the vanilla essence and fold the flour into this mixture before adding the hot milk, a small amount at a time, and mixing it slowly together before returning the mixture to the pan and cooking over a low heat for five minutes until the cream thickens and becomes glossy.
7. Allow the cream to cool, but prevent a skin forming by either laying lightly oiled plastic film over the top, in contact with the surface, or sprinkling icing sugar over the top.
8. Once the cream has cooled, and you are ready to assemble the tower, place the cream in a piping bag with a 5 mm nozzle. Insert this nozzle into the hole you made in each bun and fill the bun with cream. Set aside in a cool place.
9. Prepare to make the caramel. Clear all your work surfaces of grease before beginning as caramel doesn’t tolerate any fat. Put the sugar and water in a large heavy-bottomed pan over a low heat. Melt gently, shaking from side to side (don’t stir) to dissolve the sugar and then increase temperature and cook without stirring until golden. Be watchful as it tips over into burning very quickly. Remove from the heat.
10. Dip the base of the first bun into the caramel, taking care not to burn your fingers
11. Build the choux buns into a circle for the base of your tower. It’s good to have a bowl of iced water handy in case you do get caramel on your fingers, but keep building with your other hand, as the caramel will set if left too long. For the next round you must be more careful to remove any excess caramel that could drip down onto the base layer and you may wish to dip one side of the bun too, so that each one sticks to its neighbour on one side, as well as to the bun below. Ensure your tower narrows as you build up the rounds. In France patissiers use large metal cones, building up the tower on either the outside or the inside, after lining the cone with parchment paper.
12. Decorate with sugared almonds, crystallised flowers or even fresh edible flowers for a modern look. If you prefer the traditional French spun sugar, coat two saucepan handles with oil and then, lifting hot caramel with a fork, flick it to and fro between the handles – after some practice you should be able to create hair fine strands of sugar which are malleable.
Hints and tips
To get greaseproof paper to stay attached to the baking sheet, dab the corners of the sheet with butter to get it to ‘stick’. It works better than greasing the whole sheet of paper which can make the buns less likely to crisp up.
Don’t open the oven door before 12 minutes or your buns may crack or rise unevenly. Make a larger quantity of caramel than you think you need – even doubling these quantities, so that you can pour half into a silicone tray, break it up and rewarm it if you run out of time when making your croquembouche tower. If you keep reheating the original caramel it will get darker and your tower will look uneven in colour.
Plan to serve your tower within two hours of finishing it. Any longer than that and the buns become soft as a result of the crème patisserie filling.
Pipe long lines to make the traditional éclair, which in the original French means lightning bolt!
Instead of flattening your buns, pinch them into ovals and then pipe a question mark shape, without the full stop, to make swans’ heads and necks. When they are cooked, cut the bun open at the top to ‘spread the wings’ and fill with cream before inserting the neck. These cygne (swans) are a traditional Easter confection in France.