Monday, February 09, 2009

The croquembouche project

A croquembouche is a tower of cream puffs held together with caramel. In France it is the traditional cake for weddings, baptisms or communions.

Looking for an excuse to make a croquembouche
I've had good results with choux pastry in the past, and wanted to try my hand at the biggest of all choux cakes, the croquembouche. I seriously considered making one for my youngest daughter's christening, but thank goodness common sense prevailed and I realized the last minute construction of this monument would conflict with my organization duties.

Then when my friend Risa announced she would be celebrating her 40th birthday, I thought, aha, here's a good reason to make the cake!

The day of the party, I defrosted the 160 choux I had baked earlier, and filled them with three different fillings I had prepared the day before. Then I made the caramel, and started dipping the choux and gluing them together. My husband was out of town, but luckily I had the help of a young girl from our neighborhood to keep my daughters out of the hot caramel.

Too impatient to wait for the caramel to harden...
Construction took place inside a large cone I had made out of paper (details below). I was really pressed for time, as I had to drive 15 minutes north to drop off my 1 1/2 year old with friends, then rush back south to get to the party by 5 pm. The caramel showed signs of thickening and crystallizing, but I kept warming it and crossing my fingers. When I placed the last chou, I just had to see the result, so I turned the tower over onto a plate, removed the cone and voilà!

I was delighted with the result. Of course, I should have waited, as the caramel was probably not quite hard enough. I glued on some candied almonds (dragées) I had left-over from our gingerbread house project. Then I placed the cone back on top of the tower, but decided to transport it right side up, rather than inverted in the cone. Again, a mistake I think.

The cone travelled on the passenger seat next to me where I could grab it every time I took a sharp turn, and after dropping off my daughter I arrived 30 minutes late at the party, in time to make a grand entrance with the cake. The steady rain worried me as I knew caramel does not like humidity.

16:08 Ariane whisks Diane away from the tempting cake.

Pictures at the party

17:48 I was so glad the tower made it in one piece to the party, I didn't notice the ominous crack at the bottom of the tower.

20:26 This was my view from the dinner table. Something seemed odd, I decided to investigate

20:26 Seen from another angle. The leaning croquembouche of Pisa. Help!

20:50 Oh no, please don't tell me there's still a cheese course!

22:08 Ah. I feel better. And the silver lining to the story is once the caramel gets soft, it's a lot easier to serve the cream puffs without wrecking them.

Happy birthday Risa!

And so that's the story of my first croquembouche. I had waited months to make it, then spent several days baking choux, making different flavored fillings, filling the choux, and building the cone, and because I was too impatient to wait five minutes for the caramel to harden, it almost turned into a ruin of cream puffs!

Oh, it tasted quite good. If you like croquembouches. Which, by the way, I've never been crazy about (too much sticky caramel on each puff). But no, really, it was good, especially the chocolate-filled puffs.

Pictures from the past
This project reminded me of croquembouches of my past. In particular, the one at our wedding. I don't quite remember our discussion with the caterer, but I believe I voiced some strong reservations about having a croquembouche (again, too much caramel, and I'm not wild about crème pâtissière). But the caterer convinced us we had to have one if only for the esthetics, and that a host of other desserts would be served alongside. I'm glad she convinced us, as it does make for pretty photos.

The desserts arrived with pomp and glory at our wedding. Click to enlarge, and check out the nougatine columns holding up the top half of the croquembouche! Now that's gutsy. No, I did not make this one!

Did he realize just how many pieces of cake I would be feeding him in the years to come?

Process pictures

Lots of choux in my freezer!

I think I made about 160, though not all were used for my tower.

I found the metal tip awkward for piping, and finally used it just to pierce holes in the choux, using the cheapo plastic tip to pipe in the cream

The cone for building the croquembouche. Stiff paper, taped in the shape of a cone, lined with baking paper. The whole thing is set in a vase so I have two hands free for filling it. I lined the walls of the cone with choux, using caramel as cement (as little caramel as possible). The resulting hollow tower of choux is then tipped over onto plate and the cone and baking paper are removed.
Ahem. WAIT for the caramel to harden before doing this...

Et voilà, you can decorate the cake with candied almonds, marzipan flowers, or anything you like. Some of the choux I had dipped in caramel and then in sugar lumps, which is decorative though tooth-achingly sweet, so I didn't use too many.

Goodbye pretty cake. It was fun, but I won't be making too many of you any time soon!

Recipe for croquembouche, sort of!

I'm feeling a bit lazy about posting a recipe for this cake. Is anyone out there planning to make one? If you are, let me know, I'll post detailed info (update: I've added links to the choux and pastry cream recipes, as well as the recipe for the chocolate pastry cream below). Otherwise, here is the summary: you make fairly small choux (recipe here), bake them a little longer than usual so they are nice and crisp and can hold their shape well, you fill them with pastry cream (recipe here) or diplomat cream -- pastry cream lightened with whipped cream and gelatine (I used three different flavors: chocolate pastry cream (recipe below) and vanilla and praliné diplomat cream) -- and you can chill the filled choux for a few hours in the fridge, but not too long. Then you make loads of caramel, not too dark, using a little glucose or corn syrup to avoid crystallization, and you dip and build within the cone. Don't first coat the choux with caramel, as that will be really sickeningly sweet and sticky. Keep warming the caramel if it gets too thick, though careful, you don't want it to get darker. When the caramel has hardened, tip the whole thing over onto a plate. Do not store in fridge -- as if you have room -- as the caramel will weep. Serve asap!

Recipe: Chocolate Pastry Cream (or crème pâtissière with chocolate)
Source: Pierre Hermé, Secrets Gourmands

Make a double batch of the pastry cream as described here. Before the cream cools off, in three or four additions stir in 200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa) that has been chopped very fine or even grated.

Update March 2010

I made another croquembouche, see post here.


May said...

Wow!! Your croquembouche is beautiful and truely impressive! Well done! :)

Snooky doodle said...

what a nice post! the croquembouche looks fantastic. you made a fine job. qish to make one too :)

The Food Librarian said...

Oh my gosh! So beautiful! I have dreams of making this, but I know mine could never be as beautiful and perfect as yours. What a lovely celebration it was too!

Laura said...

Just lovely! Thank you so much for posting this, I am feeling very inspired to tackle some of my 'scary' recipes now!

Tanya said...

You are the best! It's beautiful and so fun. I'm totally inspired. I'm excited to see what amazingly complicated thing you'll try next.

Anonymous said...

Plz post the recipes for the choux and cream fillings. I saw a series on tele recently where the chef made a croquembouche, but i missed the recipe!
It looks amazing :)

ossi said...

Great story. Thanks

Gay said...

That looked amazing!! And here I was impressed by Kai's efforts at bolognese sauce!
When I come to visit again, this is what I want. ;-D

Aran said...


larissatoday said...

Wow! What a great idea !!!

linda said...

So pretty! Wondered how you made it so perfect looking, the cone!
Good thing the leaning croqembouche of Pisa made it without falling over.
Love the addition of the almonds and sugar lumps, makes it look even prettier.

Astrid said...

Thank you everyone for your kind comments!

Gay, you know I'm always happy to take requests when guests come, but a croquembouche? I don't think so, sorry!

Anonymous: I added some links to choux and pastry cream recipes. Hope this helps! (I can't remember what proportions I used for the diplomat cream, but I'm sure you can find recipes on the internet. Anyway the chocolate pastry cream was the best...)

Vivian Teixeira said...

I loved your post! Congratulations on your tower!
I hope you don't mind, you don't know me, but I included your blog in my Favorites!

Vera said...

Astrid, what an amazing job you've done! Wow! It looks spectacular! Risa is so lucky to have such friend :)

Thank yo very much, Astrid , for your
kind comments you left on my blog. I'm deeply touched.

Anonymous said...

Astrid, tu m'impressionnes ! J'aime beaucoup les choux mais comme toi le caramel collant un peu moins, en revanche la nougatine j'adore. Quand est ce que tu nous fait la base en nougatine ???

Raspberry Riot said...

Wow!it seems so difficult to make!
You made it really tall!
I had it like 10 years ago as wedding cake of some relatives in Paris

Anonymous said...

Fabulous, Astrid, we are proud of you!
But did you say how to make the loads of caramel?

signorina said...

it's so beautiful! really great! now, i want to have a croquembouche for my wedding!

niagaragirl said...

Oh how funny, the leaning tower of croquembouche ;-) I have not done one of these in a long time. Will maybe do a small version just for fun while the weather is still cool. Your blog is great!

Jackie said...

I'm in awe. It's such a wonderful structure. I could have the whole whole all by myself :)

indi-princess said...

Wow! Astrid, I hadn't checked your blog in a while and now this! What a beautiful surprise. Completely inspiring!

The photos and lay-out of the blog have come so far. It's absolutely beautiful and uplifting to look at. I love, love, LOVE the wedding photos and the desert table shot w/fire works makes me want to make croquembouche also...though I'm sure it'd be a leaning tour croque craquee in no time:)Ariana

Astrid said...

Sorry for the late response!

Vivian - Thanks for adding me to your favorites!

Claire - La nougatine, ah non, je ne sais pas faire, et j'avoue que je manque de courage... Mais c'est vrai que c'est bon!

Maman - Euh, tu veux te lancer dans un croquembouche?!! Le caramel, bah, c'est du sucre fondu (avec une pointe de glucose si possible pour éviter la cristalisation)

Ariana - Thanks for your visit! How are you? It makes me want to post again to have such enthusiastic responses. Sadly at the moment I'm going through a dry spell, but I'm sure I'll get into the blogging swing again soon.

Soma Watson said...

I clearly remember a baker who got married in Russia who created a wedding gown for his bride using these piled cream puffs! Though I really appreciate his artistry, I would've appreciated these cream puffs more if they were in my mouth yummy!

BIO said...

It's endearing how some of those towers lean somewhat somewhere. The more it is less perfect, the better.

Irina said...

Hmmmm!! Truly impressive. I am very lazy to do all these you know….But it impressed me a lot and I am planning to do this in coming weekend. My Husband wants to thanks you for this.

But I want to thanks you for your effort. It’s just lovely and excellent.

Ruth Gyuse said...

Bless your heart, I'm so glad that you posted this because I am making a croquembouche this weekend for a friend's 40th birthday party. Question 1: how many cream puffs did you use eventually? Looks like you made them small which suits me well.
Question 2: how long can the croquembouche sit out? I'm worried that it will sit in a corner and get soggy before the dinner is over. I was going to deliver at 7.00 when the party stars but we won't get to it till 8.30 or 9ish. Will it hold up? Store in a cool dry place?
Would appreciate suggestions-- am baking this on Saturday!

Astrid said...

Soma Watson - Wow, a dress out of cream puffs? Sounds a little kinky!

Bio - Thanks, I know what you mean that small flaws make a pastry more endearing, but a falling cake is kind of a big flaw, I hope the next one will be more structurally sound!

Irina - I don't think it's a sign of laziness if you don't make your own croquembouche. Rather a proof of sanity!

Ruth - Sorry for the late response! I'm sorry I can't remember how many cream puffs I ended up using. I think there were about 20 left-over that didn't make it into the tower... Definitely the cake can hold up for an hour or two. Beyond four or five, I don't know though. It depends on the weather.

Lynn said...

I love your cone idea (I've used a plastic-lined flower pot, then unmolded it and continued to build to the top). I'll let you in on a little secret - the frozen cream puffs from Costco work just fine in a pinch!

Alisa said...

This is one of the best croquembouche post Ive read and I just love how you made a wonderful job making this.If you won't mind I'd love to guide foodista readers to your site.Just add your choice of Foodista widget at the end of this blog post and it's good to go.Thanks!

Jules said...

I think your croquembouche is amazing. Thank you so much for posting this. All the recipes that I have state that it needs to be eaten within 2 hours. How long did your croquembouche stand up before they devour it? I'm trying to make it but if it won't stand up for more than 2 hours, I need to have a contingency plan.

Thank you.

Astrid said...

Hi Jules, thanks for the comment. If you look at the subtitles under the photos, it looks like I made this one around 4:00 pm, and it was eaten around 10:00 pm. Of course it was the month of February in Switzerland. I think up to 6 hours is OK if it's not too hot out.

Anonymous said...

Your croquembouche is probably the best looking one I have seen around!!!

Did you line up the puffs inside the hollow of the cone shape?
That seems like a very difficult thing to do! Have you tried to line up the puff around the cone shape before? I just wonder which method did you find to be a little bit less challenging for a novice baker!

Thanks for the wonderful post!

Astrid said...

Thanks anonymous! Yes, inside the cone. If you look among the process photos, there's one with the cone, turned upside down (that's key), and balanced in a vase. I lined it with parchment paper so the choux wouldn't stick to the cardboard. Then it's just a matter of starting at the tip with one puff, then building a row around it, then another getting wider, etc. Except mine were more haphazard than rows. Also, make sure the wide part of your cone is nice and regular. Mine wasn't, and I think that led to an off-balance croquembouche.

leigh said...

This is so cool! I'm actually taking a class to learn how to make this tomorrow and I'm so excited after seeing this post. What a cool idea.


Annapet said...

Thank you for your post! I am going to attempt making one, and my first batch of profiteroles are done.

brigette said...

thank you so much for your post.
your croquembouche are beautiful!! the first one i attempted was a horrible disaster, so i can't wait to try it again. thanks for the inspiration!

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