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Happy Sunday Bread Heads!

We are in the trough of the Holiday season, the time between Solstice and New Years. Even though the “eating” holidays are pretty much over there is a still one last chance to rock the world of your friends and neighbors with a New Years Eve dish. One of the best show stoppers you can make is the Croquembouche.

This last hurrah before the winter diets is a tower of cream puffs, filled with either vanilla or chocolate pastry cream, then enmeshed in strands of hard caramelized sugar. Unlike a lot of the things we make, this one is a little harder and requires a little more skill but you don’t have to be closet master baker to whip one of these up, you just have to follow the instructions. This recipe also gives you a good start on making pastry cream (a cream of 1001 uses, don’t cha’ know?) and Pate a Choux dough which is also the basis for Funnel Cakes.

But enough talk! This recipe takes a while so it is time to get started!

Croquembouche

Ingredients:

For Pastry Cream

1 packet (2 ½ teaspoons) gelatin
¼ cup water
4 cups whole milk
2 whole vanilla beans
12 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons corn starch
¼ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons butter (unsalted preferred)
6 oz bitter-sweat chocolate
1 tablespoon instant coffee or espresso powder
1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream

For Pate A Choux Dough

1 ½ cups water
10 tablespoons butter (unsalted preferred)
1 ½ cups sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
6 or 7 eggs

For Caramel Strands

1 ½ cup water
3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons light corn syrup

Equipment:

Two sheet pans
1 ½ inch pastry tip
3 1 gallon plastic zip top bags
Parchment paper

Method for Pastry Cream

In a small bowl sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water and set aside for it to bloom and jell.

Pour the milk into a heavy sauce pan. Slice the vanilla beans lengthwise and point of a pairing knife scrape the seeds out and put both the seeds and the bean pods in the milk. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.

While the milk is coming to a simmer, separate your eggs. Save the egg whites for some other recipe, like meringues.

In a medium bowl whisk the egg yolks, sugar, corn starch, and salt together until thick and smooth. Now we need to temper the yolks. Take one cup of the hot milk and gradually whisk it into the egg mixture.

Remove the pods from the hot milk and then return the pan to medium heat. Gradually whisk the egg mixture into the milk. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the mixture comes to a boil. Do not step away, do not stop whisking or you will have a pan full of sweat soggy scrambled eggs.

When the mixture boils, about six minutes, cook until it is custard like. What you are looking for is a medium thick mixture as it will thicken quite a bit when it cools. You will be able to tell that it is done as the whisk will leave lines along the top of the custard.

Remove from the heat, and slice in the butter. Keep whisking to combine. Then add the gelatin which should be set by now. Whisk until the whole mixture is smooth and shiny. Place half of the mixture in an air tight container. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the cream to keep it from forming a skin and put in the fridge.

To flavor the rest of the cream melt the chocolate in a pan or the microwave. If you are using a microwave the best way is to give it one minute increments until it is just melted then stir to melt the rest of the way.

Mix two tablespoons of water with the instant coffee or espresso and then mix it into the chocolate. Fold the chocolate in to the remaining pastry cream. Pour into an air tight container. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the cream to keep it from forming a skin. Place in the fridge to chill for at least two hours.

Method for Puffed Shells:

Set a rack in the middle of your oven and preheat to 450 degrees.

Now for those of you have made cream puffs before, you’re about to freak out. I am going to break a couple of rules here, but I have found that the recipes all over the internet and in a lot of cook books are overly complicated and hard for first timers. All I can say is my puffs turn out light and fluffy every time and yours will too if you follow this method.

In a heavy sauce pan, combine the water butter, sugar and salt. Place over medium heat and stir occasionally until it comes to a simmer. When the pot is simmering remove from the heat and using a wooden spoon stir in the flour. Return to the heat and keep stirring until the dough pulls away from the sides and is shiny. This can take as little as two minutes and as much as 6 just watch it and you’ll know when it is done.

Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to cool for 10 minutes in the pan. Transfer the dough to large bowl or the work bowl of your stand mixer. Using either the flat paddle attachment or a large wooden spoon stir the dough for one minute to cool it even more.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating them completely into the dough before adding the next. If there is dough sticking to the sides, scrape the bowl down before adding the next egg. When you get to the sixth egg, it is time to check the batter. What we are looking for is batter that is thick but will run off of the spoon or flat paddle. If you have that, then you’re done. If some drops off, then stops running it is too thick and won’t rise in the oven, in this case, add the seventh egg. You really want to be sure on this step, as there is no leavening in the puffs and it is the heat of the oven and the protein from the eggs that give puffs their structure.

When your dough is ready line two sheet pans with parchment paper. Now we are going to pipe the batter onto the sheets. If you have a pastry bag, groovy. I don’t use them anymore because they are a real drag to clean and I only use them a couple of times a year. The best substitute is a 1 gallon zip top bag. Just clip ¼ inch of one corner off with scissors and put your pastry tip (yeah, you have to have a tip) through the corner.

Get someone to hold the bag open while you use a spatula to scrape the batter into the bag. Press out all the air and seal.

To pipe the puffs, hold your tip at a 45 degree angle to the pan and draw a circle that is about 1 ½ inches across. In a spiral motion fill in the center so you have a mound that is about 1 ½ inches tall, this will help you get round puffs. Move over about 2 inches and repeat. You should be able to get 24 or so puffs on each pan, but don’t make the second pan until you have fully baked the first.

Place the pan in the hot oven and bake for 18 minutes (this is where experienced puff makers are going to freak) don’t turn down the oven like you might have been told other recipes, trust me, Bill is good, Bill is wise. At 18 minutes turn the oven off and let the puffs stand for 15 minutes in the cooling oven. They will come out golden brown and fully puffed.

Remove the pan from the oven and let the puffs cool on a wire rack. Reheat the oven to 450 and repeat with the rest of the batter. This should give you about 48 puffs.

When the puffs have all cooled, use a clean ½ pastry tip to puncture the bottom of the puffs. Set aside.

Now it is time to fix up our pastry cream. If you like you could skip this step, but I never do. In a large bowl, whip the heavy whipping cream until it forms soft peaks. Divide in half and fold into the chocolate and vanilla pastry cream. Now set up another zip top bag, by cutting a corner and putting your pastry tip through the cut corner. Choose one of the pastry creams and fill the bag. Fill half of the puff shells by putting the tip in the whole and gently but firmly squeezing. You might hear as small crack, that will indicate that the puff is full. Keep doing this until all the puffs are filled. Repeat with the other pastry cream and a clean bag.

Place the puffs on a sheet pan and chill for 1 hour.

Thirty minutes before the puffs are chilled, make the caramel. Put the water, sugar and corn syrup in a heavy sauce pan and cover. Don’t stir. Place over high heat until it comes to a boil. Remove the lid and cook, without stirring for about 20 minutes, when the sugar mixture will have turned a golden brown.

Make an ice bath in your sink (two ice trays worth of ice and about 4 quarts of water will do the trick. Place the pan directly into the bath and let it sit for 5 minutes.

Now it is time to assemble the tower! Bring out the puffs. On the plate you intend to serve it on, draw a 8 inch circle with hot caramel. Place puffs directly on the caramel. Then fill in the center of the ring with puffs (this will give you more structural integrity). To keep the puffs on the tower, dip just the very bottom of each puff in the hot caramel and then hold it in position on the lower ring for about 30 seconds. Make a smaller ring of puffs on the first ring. Fill in the center of this one too. Keep going until you have made a pyramid of cream puffs.

Now for the spider-web of caramel. Take a fork and dip it in the caramel. Let most of it dribble back into the pan. Using a spiral motion from your elbow make circles over the pyramid, this will leave fine little lines of hard caramel around the pastry. Repeat about 15 times. When you are finished there will be a fine golden cage all around the cream puffs.

Now it can sit out until ready to serve and you can be sure no one will poach one before it is time!

So, there is a lot to this recipe, but you can do it Bread Heads, just don’t panic and follow the instructions and you’ll be fine!

The flour is yours.

Bill Egnor

Bill Egnor

I am a life long Democrat from a political family. Work wise I am a Six Sigma Black Belt (process improvement project manager) and Freelance reporter for Govtrak.org

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