Season: All | Active Time: 3 hours 15 minutes (not including making the Pâte à Choux or Pastry Cream, Chocolate Variation) | Total Time: 4 hours | Difficulty: 5 (Very Challenging)
My sister likes to tell the story of when I made my first croquembouche. It was pre-culinary school, pre-working in a restaurant, and pre-understanding of just how much work it requires. I burned the caramel while assembling it in her kitchen, and—as she recalls—had to frantically send her out to buy more sugar. I have since improved my croquembouche skills and collected a few strategies for making the process as smooth as possible, but just know it’s a colossal amount of work and you’ll need to set aside a block of several hours to get it all done. And for your own sake, make the pastry cream and pâte à choux in advance. This recipe also has you make something called craquelin, a simple cookie-like dough that’s cut into rounds and baked onto each puff, giving them a round, even, lightly textured appearance. I like to use the craquelin because it makes the puffs more uniform overall, which means they’re easier to stack. If you want to skip the craquelin, that’s fine, too, just brush the puffs with a bit of beaten egg before baking. Godspeed to all the brave bakers who go for this one.
Special Equipment: Pastry bag fitted with ¼-inch round tip, 1-inch round cutter
1 stick unsalted butter (4 oz / 113g), at room temperature
¾ cup packed light brown sugar (5.3 oz / 150g)
1 cup all-purpose flour (4.6 oz / 130g)
Pinch of kosher salt
Pâte à Choux (this page), transferred to a pastry bag
Pastry Cream, Chocolate Variation (this page) ①
1 cup crème fraîche (8.5 oz / 240g)
3¼ cups granulated sugar (23 oz / 650g)
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).
Bake the puffs: Follow the directions in the pâte à choux recipe (this page) for piping out plain cream puffs, omitting the egg wash and instead placing a round of craquelin on top of each mound of piped pâte à choux. Transfer to the oven and bake and cool as directed.
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 heatproof 2-cup measure or a similarly sized heatproof container next to the stove. In a small saucepan, combine 2 cups of the sugar (14 oz / 400g) and ½ cup water (4 oz / 113g). 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: ② 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 oz / 250g) and ⅓ cup water (2.7 oz /76g). 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. ③ 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.
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.
① Instead of chocolate, use plain vanilla pastry cream or the black sesame variation to fill the cream puffs. The flavor is up to you!
② Be very careful while working with the caramel to avoid sugar burns (I usually get one or two minor ones every time I make a croquembouche). Minimize the risk by wearing a double layer of powder-free latex gloves or a dishwashing glove on your dipping hand.
③ Stand back to take a look at your progress as you build the croquembouche to make sure you’re working evenly. And don’t worry if it’s not a perfect cone—the end result will impress no matter what!