The croquembouche is one of the great extravagant show-stoppers to come out of Antoine Carême's culinary career. This tower of choux buns was traditionally piped full of savoury pâtés, but a sweeter version was soon developed which is filled with pastry cream and held together with caramel. Croquembouche literally means 'crunch in the mouth' and has become a favourite at French weddings. To make this croquembouche really festive we've sprayed it with edible gold spray, so it'll light up the table just like a Christmas tree!
To achieve a good shape, a croquembouche mould is a must. This one has a metal base and tip, but the body is made out of a flexible, non-stick cone. This makes it easier to release the croquembouche from the mould at the end.
To make really plump choux buns it's important to put the piped buns in the oven as soon as possible after the batter is made. If the choux pastry batter goes cold it won't rise as much. We've tried out two flavoured fillings - pistachio pastry cream and vanilla pastry cream, both of which work especially well with fresh fruit.
Be extremely careful with the caramel, it's very hot. To avoid burning your fingertips, try using a toothpick to dip the buns into the caramel. Also don't let the caramel become too dark - you will need to heat it up multiple times and it will end up tasting bitter if it goes too far. Start with just a very pale golden caramel. The croquembouche is best served within 5 hours of assembly.
For the choux buns Serves: 15
- 375ml water
- 150g unsalted butter, in cubes (plus a little extra for greasing)
- 6g fine salt
- 12g caster sugar
- 175g flour, sifted
- 5 medium eggs (300g of egg), cracked into a bowl and mixed with a fork
For the pastry cream
For the caramel
- 330g caster sugar
- 85g water
To make the choux buns
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C /Gas Mark 4. Grease 4 baking trays.
- Heat the water, butter, salt and caster sugar together in a pan. When the butter has melted, remove from heat. Do not allow it to boil.
- Immediately tip in the sifted flour and stir quickly to combine.
- Move the pan back over a low heat, and stir the mixture (known as a ‘panade’) until it comes away easily from the sides of the pan.
- Remove from the heat, tip into a bowl and stir for 5 minutes until the mixture cools enough to add the egg.
- Add half the eggs in one go and stir vigorously to combine. Then slowly add the remaining egg, little by little – you may not need to use all of it! Keep checking the consistency. The mixture is ready when it looks very silky, and will drop from a spoon held at an angle above the mixture – ‘dropping consistency’. It shouldn’t be runny.
- Place a round-tipped nozzle in the piping bag and fill with the mixture. Pipe small circles onto the greased baking trays around 3cm in diameter.
- Bake for 20 minutes, rotating the baking trays after 12 minutes. Be sure not to open the oven for the first ten minutes as the choux buns may deflate.
- Remove from the oven and pierce the base of each choux bun with a skewer. Return to the oven for 3 minutes to dry the insides of the choux buns.
- Transfer to a cooling rack.
To make the pastry cream
- Place the milk and roughly half the sugar in a pan and bring to the boil. If making vanilla custard also add the vanilla pod, cut in half with seeds scraped out and added to the pan.
- Meanwhile mix together the remaining the sugar with the custard powder. Add the egg yolk and mix with a whisk to make a thick paste.
- Pour a small amount of the boiling milk over the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Add it to the rest of the milk and return to the hob over a medium flame, whisking constantly.
- When it starts to boil reduce the heat whilst continuing to whisk for a minute. Off the heat add the butter, chopped into small pieces. Whisk to combine.
- Pour it onto a baking tray or plate covered in cling film. Cover with another layer of cling film. Place in the freezer for 20 minutes, until cool, then transfer to the fridge.
- If flavouring the choux with pistachio cream, mix the cooled pastry cream with the pistachio paste using a whisk until silky and unctuous. Return to the fridge until ready to assemble the choux buns.
- Place the pastry cream in a piping bag fitted with a round-tipped nozzle.
- Hold each choux in 1 hand and use the other hand to pipe the pastry cream inside. Scrape any excess away from the hole. Place in the fridge until ready to construct the croquembouche.
To assemble the croquembouche
- Begin by constructing the croquembouche mould.
- Place a large bowl of cold water in the sink.
- For the caramel, heat the caster sugar and water in a pan to 165°C. Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature. The caramel is ready when it starts to turn a very light golden colour. Don't be tempted to go darker as the caramel may need to be reheated during the construction process several times and may become too dark.
- Carefully plunge the base of the pan into the cold water for a few seconds. This will cool the caramel so that is isn't too runny when you try to use it.
- Holding each choux bun on its side, dip it into the hot caramel, covering roughly 2/3rd of its side. Arrange the buns around the base of the croquembouche mould. Continue in this way, building up each later until you reach the top. If the caramel is too thick you may need to reheat it on the hob.
- Leave the caramel to set for 30 minutes before removing it from the mould. The structure will be strong but if you're worried about breaking it the croquembouche can also be served on the mould.
- Spray the finished croquembouche with the gold spray (be sure to shake the can well first.) You may also like to place a protective cloth or piece of cardboard behind the croquembouche before spraying - otherwise gold Christmas dust may settle in every inch of your kitchen! Best served within 5 hours of assembly.