2.18.2014

Croquembouche: Caramel-Glazed Cream Puffs


Each week, my husband, two daughters, & I have dinner with my parents in my childhood home, an antique Tudor on the south bank of the Connecticut River. We sit in a dining room my father added on to the house some 40 years ago, everything from the exposed post and beam construction, to a stained glass window my mother designed, was built by my dad. My childhood memories are filled with sounds of the radial arm saw in the garage, scraping of trowels, and using my small hands to help re-route electrical wires through dusty plaster and lathe. We have our meal looking out over sweeping views of the sky and water through large picture windows, as the clouds are set ablaze with sunset, over the gray, serenely lapping water of the river.

My mother is an inventive cook, quickly preparing delicious, creative food, never following a recipe. The dishes she makes are seldom repeated. She is always experimenting, always trying something new, unusual, and inspired. But after 43 years, I have only recently realized, that she has never enjoyed baking. I wonder if I failed to notice because we always had something wonderful for dessert. For birthdays, there were beautiful cakes specially ordered at various local bakeries. My favorite was a French pastry shop in a neighboring town called Fine Bouche, closed many years ago now. From here she brought home delicate Napoleans, my grandmother's favorite, with crisp layers of puff pastry and soft cream, pain de chocolat that shattered into crumbs with the first bite, or individual fruit tarts with kiwi and strawberries glistening with apricot glaze. Beautiful, elegant cakes inscribed with awe-inspiring enchanted chocolate flourishes. As a child, I carefully removed and saved the printed foil stickers from their bakery boxes.

In one of the many ways I am different from my amazing mother, I love to bake. I love to collect cookbooks, I love to make favorite recipes over and over again. So, each week, she asks me to bring the dessert. My daughters happily help. This week we tried choux pastry for the first time, creating a croquembouche, a tower of bite-sized pastry cream-filled puffs, glued together with caramel, spun into luminous golden threads.



The choux pastry itself was surprisingly quick and more easily made than I had imagined. Because I didn't have a tip large enough, I used a small cookie scoop dipped in water for the dough instead of a piping bag.




The caramel set up so quickly during assembly, I singed my fingertips and created a sad lop-sided pile, instead of an elegant tower.  But it seems in the eyes of my daughters, anyway, it was amazing and beautiful.

 As the caramel cooled my girls swirled caramel strings around their fingers making shining amber-colored candy rings. Next time I hope to create a thin coating of caramel on each puff, instead of a thick, jaw breaking mass.


Maybe next time we'll try adorning them with flakes of gold leaf and crystallized violets.




Croquembouche
Makes 16


Choux Pastry adapted from Saveur. Pastry Cream adapted from Epicurious.

FOR THE PÂTE À CHOUX DOUGH

• 12 tbsp. unsalted butter
• ¼ tsp. kosher salt
• 2 cups flour
• 9 eggs

FOR THE PASTRY CREAM

• 2 1/4 cups whole milk
• 6 large egg yolks
• 2/3 cup sugar
• 1/3 cup cornstarch
• 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise


FOR THE CARAMEL

• 4 cups sugar

1. For the pâte à choux:
Heat oven to 425°. Bring butter, salt, and 1½ cups water to a boil in a 4-qt. saucepan over high heat. Remove pan from heat, add flour all at once, and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until mixture forms a thick dough and pulls away from sides of pan, about 2 minutes. Return pan to heat and cook, stirring constantly, until dough is lightly dried, about 2 minutes more. Transfer dough to a bowl, and let cool for 5 minutes; using a wooden spoon, beat in 8 eggs, one at a time, making sure each egg is completely incorporated before adding the next. Dough will come together and be thick, shiny, and smooth.

2. Dip a 2 tablespoon cookie scoop in water, shake off excess, and scoop a generous 2 tablespoons of dough onto parchment-lined baking sheet, setting pieces 1″ apart. Lightly beat remaining egg with pinch of salt and brush each piece of dough with it. Bake until puffed and light brown, about 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350°, and continue to bake until well browned, about 15 minutes. Let cool.

3. For the Pastry Cream:
In medium bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup milk, egg yolks, 1/3 cup sugar, and cornstarch.
Transfer remaining 1 3/4 cups milk to heavy medium saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add pod. Sprinkle remaining 1/3 cup sugar over, letting sugar sink undisturbed to bottom. Set pan over moderate heat and bring to simmer without stirring.

Whisk hot milk mixture, then gradually whisk into egg yolk mixture. Return to saucepan over moderate heat and cook, whisking constantly, until pastry cream simmers and thickens, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, discard vanilla pod, and whisk cream until smooth. Transfer to bowl and press plastic wrap directly onto surface. Chill. (Pastry cream can be made ahead and refrigerated, wrapped well with plastic wrap on surface, up to 3 days.)

Spoon filling into a pastry bag fitted with a plain ¼″ tip. Gently poke a hole in the flat side of each baked, cooled puff with the tip of a paring knife and pipe in filling.

4. For the caramel:
Place 2 cups sugar and ½ cup water in a saucepan and stir to combine. Cover and cook over medium heat until sugar turns light amber, about 15–20 minutes. Quickly remove from heat, the caramel will continue to darken.

5. Assembly:
Using tongs, dip top of each filled puff in hot caramel. Place puffs, glazed side up, on serving platter. Form a base with 10 glazed, cooled puffs, sticking them together with more caramel. Add puffs, layer by layer, to form a hollow cone. (Reheat caramel until liquid again if it becomes too thick; repeat making more caramel with remaining sugar and ½ cup water when first batch of caramel becomes too thick to work with.) Allow caramel to cool until it is the consistency of honey. With a spoon, drizzle thin strings of caramel around cone; let cool until brittle and set. The croquembouche is best served within 4 hours of making.

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