Anthony Roth Costanzo
A croqeumbouche will impress anyone. And yet, it’s easier to make than you think. The only things you need are a pastry bag with a two tips (a plain wide tip and a plain narrow tip), a few baking sheets, and a little patience.
Pâte a choux is a classic French pastry, and you can use whichever recipe you like. I find that Martha Stewart’s works very well. If you are planning to make a huge croquembouche, you can double or even triple the recipe, but to serve 4 to 6, a single yield will suffice.
Preheat the oven to 375° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Pipe the dough into balls using a plain wide tip (5/8-inch) onto the prepared sheet, about one and a half tablespoons each and slightly smaller in diameter than that of a condom, spacing them at least an inch apart. Since the dough is very sticky, you will have to sort of pull away quickly as you finish piping, which will leave each ball with a little Hershey’s Kiss-esque point. After you’re finished piping you can smooth these down with a wet finger.
Transfer to the preheated oven and bake for about 25 minutes. You want them to be just turning golden and puffy—it is important not to undercook them, else they won’t hollow correctly.
While the creampuffs cool, make the filling. Traditional recipes use pastry cream, and that is delicious but it’s too much work for me. You can make something equally delectable by mixing a freshly whipped cream with a flavoring. For one recipe of Pâte-a-choux, you need about three cups of heavy cream. Whip it either by hand or in a stand mixer, and then you can fold in anything you want. Here are two of my favorites:
Buy frozen passion fruit purée (Buon Italia always has it), and melt about a cup down in a sauce pan. Add sugar to taste (about 1/2 cup) and 2 tablespoons of corn starch (mixed with a tiny bit of water to make a slurry) and simmer until the sugar is dissolved and the corn starch just starts to thicken the liquid. Let this cool completely and then fold it into the whipped cream. Add the scraped seeds of a vanilla bean, or a splash vanilla extract in a pinch.
Put two pints of blackberries in a saucepan, and add liquor to reach about one-third of the way up the side of the pan. Whatever hard liquor you have lying around the house is good—something fruity is best, but whiskey will do. Add sugar to taste and simmer until the berries start to break down and give up their juice, about 10 minutes. Puree the mixture, then cool completely. Fold it into the whipped cream with a bit more alcohol and a bit more sugar if needed.
Now take either your bright yellow or bright purple filling and transfer it to a piping bag fitted with a plain narrow tip that can easily stab into the cream puff. Get the tip to the hollow center of the puff, and push in the cream until you feel it mostly fill the puff (you’ll get the hang of it after the first few).
You want to assemble your tower directly on your serving platter, as it’s not so easy to move once assembled. If you’re making a small croque, free styling is an acceptable risk, but if you’re making a bigger one, you definitely want to have a structure to build on. Take a thick piece of cardboard, roll it in into a cone, secure it with tape, then cover it in foil. Once you have your platter (with our without scaffolding) and filled cream puff soldiers lined up and ready, it’s time to make the caramel, the glue that keeps everything together.
Combine 2 cups of sugar in a saucepan and then put it on medium-high heat. Watch carefully, occasionally swirling the pan to make sure it cooks evenly. The sugar will melt and liquefy on the bottom first and as you swirl, more and more of the white sugar crystals will be enveloped into the molten sugar. You want to keep the color at amber, and if it starts to get too dark, take it off the heat or lower the heat. Once everything is melted, it’s time transfer the very hot pan to a trivet next to the assembly area. Make sure it is very cool and not too humid wherever you set up. The caramel hardens well (and stays hard) if it’s cool and dry. If you’re crazy enough to try making one on a hot summer day, do it directly in front of an air conditioner. You will also want to keep your croquembouche in this spot until you serve it, and no more than four hours.
Now’s the dangerous part. You’re going to dip each cream puff into the caramel. You must be extremely careful as the caramel will burn your skin, so don’t dip your fingers, just the cream puff. You want the caramel to coat the side, (not the bottom or top) of the puff. The top of the cream puffs should be facing out so that you are affixing lateral edges together, being careful not to get too much caramel on the platter or the cone structure. If “ * ” represents caramel and “ ( ) ” represents a creampuff, you want to achieve a chain of ()*()*()*()*()* going around the circumference of your cone to form a base. You then dip the sides and a bit of the bottom of the cream puffs and for the second row such that they stick to both the creampuffs beside them and below them. The second row should be slightly smaller in diameter so that as you build up, your croquembouche naturally takes a conical shape.
( )*( )
( )*( )*( )
( )*( )*( )*( )
( )*( )*( )*( )*( )
( )*( )*( )*( )*( )*( )
If the caramel in the pan hardens too much, you may have to put it over the heat for a minute until it loosens again. However once you have finished your tower, let the caramel cool a bit, then take a fork and dip it into the warm caramel and spin spider webs of sugar on the entire croquembouche. It makes for a dramatic finish to a melodramatic dessert.