Claire Saffitz Makes Croquembouche, A Cream Puff Tower
Claire Saffitz, author of the new cookbook “Dessert Person,” is in the Munchies Test Kitchen making the Eiffel Tower of pastries: croquembouche. This celebratory dessert is perfect for the holiday season– a tower of individual cream puffs coated in crunchy caramel. Claire breaks down each step of the croquembouche process, like making the cream puffs with choux pastry, topping them with craquelin, and filling them with a dark chocolate and creme fraiche cream. The individual puffs are dipped in caramel, assembled into a cone-shaped tower, and drizzled in caramel threads. The result is a pastry masterpiece.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total time: 2 hours
for the craquelin:
½ cup|4 ounces|113 grams|1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup|5.3 ounces|150 grams packed light brown sugar
1 cup|4.6 ounces|130 grams all-purpose flour
pinch of kosher salt
for the pâte à choux:
½ cup|4.4 ounces|124 grams whole milk
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
7 tablespoons|3.5 ounces|100 grams unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup|4.6 ounces|130 grams all-purpose flour
5 large eggs
for the pastry cream:
2 cups|456 grams whole milk seeds scraped from ½ vanilla bean or 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract or paste
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup|3.5 ounces|100 grams granulated sugar
¼ cup|1 ounce|30 grams cornstarch
5 large egg yolks
6 tablespoons|3 ounces|85 grams unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces, chilled
4 ounces|113 grams finely chopped semisweet chocolate
for the croquembouche:
pâte à choux
1 cup|8.5 ounces|240 grams crème fraîche
3 ¼ cups|23 ounces|650 grams granulated sugar
- Make the craquelin: In a medium bowl, combine the butter and brown sugar and mix with a flexible spatula until you have a smooth, creamy mixture. Add the flour and salt and stir until no floury spots remain and you have a stiff dough. Fold the dough onto itself several times in a light kneading motion to make sure it’s very evenly mixed, then divide it in half.
- Roll out the craquelin and punch out the rounds: Roll out one piece of craquelin dough between two sheets of parchment paper to a ⅛-inch thickness (it helps to periodically peel off and reposition both pieces of parchment paper for wrinkle-free rolling). Slide the parchment onto a baking sheet and refrigerate until the dough is firm, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and peel off the top layer of parchment. Use a 1-inch round cutter to punch out as many rounds of dough as you can fit. Transfer the rounds to a plate, cover, and refrigerate. Repeat the rolling and cutting process with the second half of the dough and any scraps until you have about 70 rounds. Keep them covered and refrigerated until ready to bake (discard any remaining scraps).
- Make the pâte à choux: In a small saucepan, combine the milk, sugar, salt, butter, and ½ cup|125 ml water. Bring the mixture to a lively simmer over medium-low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon to melt the butter.
- Stir in the flour and cook the dough: When you see active bubbling on the surface, add the flour all at once and stir slowly to incorporate it into the liquid. Once all the flour disappears, stir vigorously until all the ingredients come together into a soft dough and a light film forms around the sides and across the bottom of the saucepan. Continue to cook the dough over medium heat, using the spoon to smack it against the sides, until the dough is smooth and firm and holds together in a ball, and the film on the bottom of the saucepan has been reabsorbed into the dough, about 3 minutes. The most important thing here is to make sure the dough has a chance to dry out and the flour loses its raw taste, so don’t rush it.
- Beat in the eggs: Scrape the dough into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or into a large bowl if making by hand). Let it rest for about a minute to cool slightly, then turn the mixer on medium and the eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. It will look separated at first but will smooth out with mixing. (If making the dough by hand, just stir the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon.) After each egg, the dough should look glossier and looser than before. Keep beating in the eggs one at a time until the mixture is very glossy, smooth, and thick enough to hold its shape but loose enough that it leaves a thin V-shaped trail as it falls off the end of the paddle or spoon. You might not need to add all 5 eggs, so stop once the mixture reaches this point.
- Transfer to a pastry bag: Scrape the batter into a large pastry bag or resealable plastic bag. Twist or seal the bag to close, squeezing out as much air as possible. The dough is now ready to use.
- Preheat the oven: Arrange two oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 425°F. Line two large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Trace around a 1-inch-diameter cutter (or bottle cap), making rows of circles spaced about 1½ inches apart. You want about 35 circles per sheet, so arrange the circles in a 5 × 7 grid. Turn the parchment over so the ink side is down (you should still be able to see the circles) and set the baking sheets aside.
- Pipe the puffs: Snip a ½-inch opening in the pastry bag filled with the dough. Working over the prepared baking sheets, center the opening of the bag inside a circle and squeeze gently, without moving the bag, to extrude a mound of dough, filling the circle. Continue piping until you’ve filled all the circles on both sheets.
- Bake the puffs: Transfer the baking sheets to the upper and lower racks and immediately reduce the oven temperature to 375°F. Place a round of craquelin on top of each mound of piped pâte à choux. Bake until the puffs are risen and deep golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes, switching racks and rotating the pans front to back after 20 minutes.
- Cool the puffs and poke holes: Turn off the oven and allow the puffs to cool inside with the door propped open for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and use the tip of a paring knife to poke a small hole in the bottom of each puff to allow steam to escape (trapped steam can sometimes cause the puffs to deflate as they cool). Let the puffs cool completely on the baking sheets.
- Make the chocolate pastry cream: Place a fine-mesh sieve over the top of a large heatproof bowl and set aside.
- Combine the milk, vanilla seeds and pod, and salt in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Set the saucepan over medium-low heat and let the mixture come slowly to a simmer, whisking occasionally, to allow the vanilla to infuse the milk.
- Beat the sugar, cornstarch, and yolks: While the milk is heating, combine the sugar, cornstarch, and yolks in a large bowl. Whisk vigorously until the mixture is very pale, light in texture, and thick, about 2 minutes (it will seem too thick to whisk at first but will thin out as you work it). Using a ladle and whisking constantly, slowly stream about half of the hot milk into the bowl with the egg mixture (this gradually raises the temperature of the eggs so they don’t curdle). Whisking constantly, quickly stream the egg mixture back into the saucepan with the remaining warm milk.
- Cook the pastry cream: Increase the heat to medium and continue to cook, whisking constantly, until the foam has subsided and the pastry cream is thick like pudding and easily holds the marks of the whisk, about 3 minutes (but possibly several minutes longer depending on the strength of your stove and the sturdiness of your saucepan). It’s important that the mixture comes to a boil in order to activate the cornstarch, but at the same time you don’t want to overcook the pastry cream—when you pause whisking for about 5 seconds, a few thick bubbles should form beneath the surface and then pop. If this isn’t happening or the cream isn’t thickening, raise the heat slightly and keep whisking, pausing every 30 seconds to check if it’s bubbling.
- Strain and incorporate the butter: Scrape the cooked pastry cream into the mesh sieve and use the whisk to press the mixture through the mesh into the bowl below (discard any solids). Whisk the cold butter into the hot pastry cream one piece at a time until smooth, then whisk in the finely chopped semisweet chocolate into the hot pastry cream until melted and smooth. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pastry cream and refrigerate until it’s cold, at least 4 hours.
- Prepare your base: Cover a 9-inch cake round, the circular bottom of a springform or removable tart pan, or an inverted 9-inch cake pan with foil. Place this on a larger serving plate or cake stand and set it next to you on the work surface.
- Mix the pastry cream and fill the puffs: In a large bowl, combine the chocolate pastry cream and crème fraîche and whisk until smooth. Transfer to a large pastry bag fitted with a ¼-inch round tip. Twist the bag to seal, pressing out air. Insert the pastry tip into the bottom of each puff and squeeze the bag firmly to fill the puff. You want it filled completely, but not to the point where the puff bursts or the filling squeezes back out of the opening. Fill as many puffs as you can with the pastry cream mixture—for a croquembouche with a base ring of 11 cream puffs, you will need around 66, possibly a few more or less. Arrange all the filled puffs across two wire racks. Line two large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper, then set the racks inside the baking sheets.
- Make the first batch of caramel: Place a clean, dry heat proof 2-cup measure or a similarly sized heat proof container next to the stove. In a small saucepan, combine 2 cups of the sugar (14-ounces|400 grams) and ½ cup water (4-ounces|113 grams). Cook over medium heat, stirring with a heatproof spatula until the sugar is dissolved. When the mixture comes to a boil, stop stirring and wash down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush to dissolve any sugar crystals. Cook, swirling the pan often, until the mixture starts to turn golden around the sides. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, swirling, until the caramel is a medium amber color (you don’t want to make it too dark since it will continue to darken off the heat). Immediately remove the pan from the heat and carefully pour the caramel into the measuring cup. Let the caramel sit for a minute so it starts to set and thicken slightly.
- Dip all the puffs: Grasp one puff at a time from the bottom and carefully dip it, rounded-side down, into the caramel so there’s a dome of caramel covering the craquelin-topped surface of the puff. Let the excess drip off, then carefully place the puff caramel-side up back on the rack so it can cool and harden. Repeat with all the puffs. Try to work quickly, because eventually the caramel will thicken and set making it hard to dip, but also work carefully to avoid a sugar burn!
- Make the second batch of caramel: Once you’ve coated all the puffs, rinse the saucepan and measuring cup with lots of hot water to dissolve any remaining caramel. Dry them thoroughly, then repeat the caramel-making process, this time with the remaining 1¼ cups sugar (8.8-ounces|250 grams) and ⅓ cup water (2.7-ounces|76 grams). Pour it into the same clean measuring cup.
- Lay out the first ring of cream puffs and dip: Arrange 11 filled, dipped puffs around the foil-lined base in a ring so they’re touching. One at a time, dip one side of each puff into the fresh caramel and stick it back on the base rounded-side out, pressing the dipped edge into the base. Hold it in place until the caramel hardens, which should only take a few seconds. Repeat with all the puffs on the base to make the first ring of the croquembouche.
- Build the croquembouche: Repeat the dipping process, building successive rings of cream puffs and decreasing the number of puffs in a ring by one with each layer to create a tall, hollow cone. Try to position each puff in the little space between the two below it, angling it slightly inward to create an even slope building to a peak. Set aside some smaller puffs to fill in any small gaps. You may end up using more or fewer puffs in a layer in order to make a full ring. Finish the croquembouche with a single cream puff on top.
- Make caramel threads (optional): If the caramel hasn’t fully set, dip a fork into the measuring cup and let the caramel drip off back into the cup until it falls in a thin thread. Move the fork in a circle around the croquembouche, wrapping the threads around it from top to bottom. Repeat as desired until the caramel is too hardened to drizzle. Arrange any leftover dipped, filled puffs around the base and serve, encouraging everyone to break off the puffs with their hands.
DO AHEAD The croquembouche should be assembled within a couple of hours of serving to ensure the caramel is crunchy and the choux are crisp. Keep it uncovered at room temperature in a cool, dry place. Even though the croquembouche will keep for 1 day, over time the caramel will soften and become sticky. The craquelin dough, covered and refrigerated, will keep up to 3 days. The baked, unfilled puffs, stored airtight at room temperature, will keep for 1 day.
Reprinted from Dessert Person. Copyright © 2020 by Claire Saffitz. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House