Last week found me explaining #FirstOnTheFirst to someone who has never seen our posts before. I began with the sfogliatelle fiasco and the caveat that some things are better left to professionals. When I told her that this month’s challenge was for croquembouche–a tower of cream puffs trapped in a caramel cage–I began to question my sanity. Why have I become such a glutton for punishment?
However, as I prepared each step of the croquembouche–first making the choux paste, then the pastry cream, then using a pastry bag to form the puffs before baking, then filling them with pastry cream with a pastry bag, and then finally, making the caramel and assembling–I felt a sense of peace. Of purpose. Like I was doing what I should be doing; and enjoying the feeling of accomplishment as each step was executed. It took two tries to get the caramel right. Some of the cream puffs’ sides exploded in a pastry cream volcano, clearly not up to snuff with structural integrity. But it didn’t matter. My two hands created this masterpiece; my mind focused on it; and it was my honor to have created what most will never attempt, let alone taste. That is what #FirstOnTheFirst is about–that moment, that feeling.
The cream puffs and pastry cream come from our #FirstOnTheFirst eclairs from March 2012. The techniques are essentially the same; all that changes is the shape of the choux paste. Pipe it out into spirals and smooth over the tip when it inevitably stands on end, a little cream puff cowlick. You can prepare the dough up to 24 hours before you bake it, and the pastry cream up to 48 hours before filling the puffs. This way, you can break down the steps to make them a little more manageable.
For the caramel cage, I used David Lebovitz’s dry caramel method. My first attempt was an abysmal failure. Epic. The second try was a vast improvement, albeit a tad on the dark side. I highly recommend low heat and an attentive gaze. And do not–I repeat, do not–put the pot into an ice bath. Doing so will seize the caramel almost immediately. You will not be able to dip the cream puffs if you do this. You will instead have a clump of caramel stuck in the bottom of your pot, which you will then desperately try to heat back up… You’re better off avoiding this side trip. (By the way–all you need to do is soak your pot in hot water if you do mess up; it may seem like it will never come unstuck, but caramel dissolves quite well in simple water.)
Traditional recipes recommend dipping the tops of the cream puffs as you arrange them, but I had more success with–and preferred the taste of–arranging a layer of cream puffs and then drizzling the caramel over the top before adding the next layer and repeating. The caramel looks much prettier and you don’t end up with an overwhelming mouthful of it.
My last bit of advice–do not refrigerate your croquembouche after you’ve assembled it. The caramel will get soft and the texture will suffer. Try to time assembly as close as possible to when you’ll be presenting it, for best results.
- ½ cup water
- ½ cup whole milk
- ½ cup (8 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut up
- 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1-2 pinches flaky sea salt (Maldon)
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 4 large eggs
- 2 cups whole milk
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 6 large egg yolks (reserving 1 egg white for later)
- 2 Tablespoons cornstarch
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 large egg white (reserved from earlier), beaten
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- In a medium saucepan, combine the water, milk, butter, sugar, and salt, bringing to a boil over medium heat.
- Reduce the heat to low and add the flour, stirring constantly until the dough forms a ball.
- Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed for 3 minutes to cool.
- Add eggs one at a time, thoroughly incorporating each before adding the next. You will probably need to scrape down the bowl between each egg.
- Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least a half hour (and up to 24 hours) before using.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the milk and half of the sugar over medium heat.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, other half of the sugar, cornstarch, and vanilla extract.
- Once the milk is gently boiling, remove from heat and slowly pour a ribbon of about ⅓ of the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture, constantly beating with the whisk to ensure proper tempering of the eggs.
- Pour the eggs into the rest of the hot milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, beating constantly with the whisk.
- Once the mixture has thickened, cook it for another 3 minutes to ensure the starch is cooked off.
- Transfer to a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap touching the surface of the pastry cream to ensure no skin forms.
- Keep in refrigerator until cooled completely, and up to 2 days before using.
- When ready to bake the cream puffs, preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Scoop the dough into a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip.
- Pipe out spirals, overlapping to make little mounds, spacing 1 inch apart on the sheet. You can add layers on top of layers to make them puffier–in fact, I recommend it if they’re a little on the thin side initially.
- With a wet fingertip, press down on the little puff cowlicks, then brush the tops of each with the beaten egg white.
- Bake both sheets for 25 minutes, rotating halfway through, or until golden on top.
- Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
- Transfer the pastry cream to a pastry bag, fitted with a star tip.
- Gently push the tip into the center of the bottom of a puff and fill until it feels full. Try not to overfill, if possible.
- You can refrigerate assembled cream puffs until you’re ready for the caramel.
- Pour the sugar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
- Set the heat to medium/medium-low and resist the urge to stir.
- As the edges start to brown, use a silicone spatula to start slowly moving the sugar across the surface to keep it from burning. You don’t want to be overly-aggressive, or you’ll get clumps (which are a pain to melt down and may have to be strained out after).
- Continue at a slow pace; eventually, it will all melt. Stir as more of it melts to get it to do so evenly.
- Just after it smokes is the point when it’s the most flavorful yet not burned. Undercooked caramel will not have developed the flavor you desire; overcooked cannot be salvaged. Go easy on yourself and be patient.
- Immediately after the caramel has reached the right consistency, start assembly.
- Arrange a circle of cream puffs on your serving plate and, using the spatula, drizzle caramel over the tops of them.
- Working quickly (the caramel sets fast), arrange the next layer. You want the caramel to work like glue, holding the layers together. Repeat drizzling the caramel. Ultimately, you’re looking to make a conical shape.
- You’ll find, as the caramel cools, that it is more conducive to stretching out lines of sugar to create the cage. Go crazy with it. You can also use a fork to get these links of spun sugar.
- Do not refrigerate; serve immediately.
Next month, we’ll be making Eton Mess for First on the First. Eton Mess is a combination of strawberries, meringue, and cream. With June being prime time for strawberries around here, this is a perfect way to make them shine while they last. Please check out the First on the First page for more details on how to participate.
Now… let’s see those croquembouches!