Why It Works
- Preparing a template for your choux puffs ensures that they are uniform in size, which helps with assembly and appearance.
- Dusting with powdered sugar lets the puffs expand evenly in the oven and ensures minimal splitting and cracking.
- Poking holes in the baked puffs allows steam to escape and creates an opening for filling.
- Returning puffs to a turned-off oven after they’ve baked helps keep them crisp.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve made a croquembouche―the celebration cake in France that’s served at weddings, baptisms, and first communions. I made my first croquembouche (which literally translates as “crunch in mouth”) back in culinary school for a demonstration to promote recipes from pastry chef Joanne Chang’s cookbook Flour, Too. Her croquembouche was a towering masterpiece of caramel-covered cream puffs surrounded by golden threads of spun sugar. Although the tall, pointed cone shape is most popular (and the one I adhere to), the puffs can be arranged to resemble churches, wishing wells, and even baby carriages, depending on the occasion. Croquembouches can also be decorated with sugar-coated almonds, sugar flowers, candied fruit, nougatine (caramel mixed with toasted nuts), and macarons, not to mention whatever other decorative flights of fancy one might have for a dessert whose appeal is largely about its presentation.
My later croquembouches, all of which I assembled while developing this recipe, couldn’t compare; one was much too short (I miscounted the number of puffs in my initial layers) while another was so wonky that it looked like it came out of a Dr. Seuss book. The croquembouche you see here was my most recent and one that I’m very proud of. That’s because croquembouche is one of the more difficult pastries to make at home, thanks to its multiple components and the time needed to get it all done. I share a few techniques that make the process as seamless as possible but I want to stress that, in this case, practice makes perfect. This is all to say that your first croquembouche may not look quite like the one pictured here, but it’ll be delicious nonetheless.
Making the Cream Puffs
A croquembouche relies on puffs―a lot of them―made from pâte à choux, which is a cooked paste of flour, butter, water and/or milk, and eggs. My recipe calls for one batch of choux pastry made with equal parts water and milk, which contributes to a crisp well-browned exterior. I also add a small amount of sugar to the choux to lightly sweeten it. When testing this recipe, I mostly played around with the dimensions of the puffs to figure out which size led to a stronger, more aesthetically-pleasing structure. Puffs that were with a template that was one-and-a-half inches in diameter were much too large, giving me a squatter croquembouche that wasn’t very impressive. Meanwhile, puffs that were just an inch round barely held any filling, making for a croquembouche that was all crunch. I found that one-and-a-quarter–inch puffs were the ideal size, striking a good balance between creamy filling and crunchy candy shell. I know that a quarter-inch difference may not seem like much, but when dealing with a towering construction like this, it adds up.
Piping the choux for a croquembouche requires a bit of advance planning. Usually when I pipe puffs, I’ll freehand it but in the case of a croquembouche, you shouldn’t wing it. Better is to make a template for your puffs by drawing circles on parchment paper beforehand. This extra step yields puffs that are more uniform in size, making them easier to stack. One batch of choux makes 50 puffs, enough for 12 servings (about four puffs per person).
Once they’re all piped, I like to dust the puffs with powdered sugar. Doing so reduces the chance of cracks and splits and lends to even color development. Once the puffs are baked, I make a small hole in the bottom of each before sliding them back into a turned-off, but still hot, oven with the door cracked open. This helps dry out the puffs as much as possible so that they retain their crunch. If you decide to bake the puffs ahead of time, you can freeze them for up to a month then refresh them in a warm oven until crisp.
I opt for filling the puffs with crème légère, mostly because I love the marriage of custardy pastry cream and fluffy whipped cream. However, if you’re inclined, you can absolutely fill the puffs with just pastry cream (be it vanilla, chocolate, or lemon) or whipped cream (sweetened, flavored, or plain). Like the puffs, you can make the crème légère ahead of time and keep it in your refrigerator. You should fill your puffs no more than two hours before you plan to serve the croquembouche since filled puffs will soften over time.
Assembling the Croquembouche
The other major component of a croquembouche is the caramel. For this particular croquembouche, you need two batches: one for dipping the tops of the puffs and another for gluing the dipped puffs together. Many recipes advocate for making a single batch of caramel to dip and assemble but since the caramel solidifies as it cools, making it extremely hard to work with no matter how much you rewarm it, I call for two batches of the golden syrup. I follow Stella’s advice and stir the caramel to help the sugar dissolve. Once the sugar syrup reaches a boil, I switch to shaking and swirling the pan to ensure even caramelization. Since sugar syrup caramelizes fast once it takes on color, I rely on eyesight alone to gauge doneness instead of a thermometer. I avoid providing a temperature as a guide, since the volume of caramel produced is too shallow and can lead to an inaccurate reading.
As soon as the color reaches medium amber, I carefully pour the caramel into a heatproof microwave-safe bowl. It’s worth mentioning that, during testing, I took the caramel to various degrees of caramelization, from a light honey color to one verging on burnt sugar. I prefer a medium amber color both for its visual appearance and depth of flavor, without harboring any bitter notes. If you prefer a different doneness, by all means, pull your caramel once it reaches that shade.
At this point, you’ll want to don latex gloves to avoid getting burned by hot sugar, then dip the top of each puff in the caramel before returning it to the baking sheet caramel-side up. You should try to work as quickly as possible since caramel thickens as it cools, making it harder to coat the tops evenly. However if this happens, simply pop the bowl in the microwave and reheat until the caramel loosens.
Once their caramel coating hardens, I like to sort my puffs, grouping them together by size, which will help create even layers in the tower. (Even though we're using a template to pipe the puffs, it’s unavoidable that some will be slightly larger or smaller than the others). I cluster nine of the largest puffs together―all of which are similar in size―for the initial layer, then do the same for the next layer of eight puffs, and so on and so forth. Although this step isn’t necessary, it helps ensure that I use the correct number of puffs per layer while also speeding up the assembly process.
To make sure I’m ready to assemble my croquembouche, I place a sheet of parchment paper on top of a cake stand or turntable (this will catch any caramel drips) followed by an eight-inch disposable cake round. On top of the cake round, I arrange my pre-selected nine puffs in a circle to help gauge the width of the base.
As soon as that second batch of caramel is ready, it’s time to start assembling the croquembouche. Remove one puff at a time from the arranged circle, dip a rounded edge in the caramel then stick it back in the empty space, angling it slightly inward to promote an even slope and holding it in place for a few seconds until the caramel hardens. Once your bottom layer is glued in place, you’ll repeat this process for the successive layer of eight puffs, dipping each puff in the caramel and positioning it in the gap between the bottom two puffs, while angling it slightly inward and holding it in place.
It’s inevitable that you’ll have spaces here and there in the layers that are too large to leave empty but too small to fit a whole puff. For these spaces, take one of the extra puffs, dip it in caramel, and place it sideways in the empty space. Continue building your croquembouche, layer upon layer, and zapping the caramel in the microwave as necessary to loosen it (keep in mind that you want to keep the caramel as fluid as possible to prevent a thick coating that will make it difficult to break the puffs apart when serving). Once you reach your second-to-last layer, dip the bottom of one puff, stick it to the bottom of another puff, then dip the rounded edge of the conjoined puffs in the caramel and stick it on top before dipping and placing your final puff.
If the caramel hasn’t fully set, dip a fork into the bowl then move it in a circular motion around the croquembouche from top to bottom to form thin, shiny threads. The croquembouche can be kept at room temperature for a couple of hours before serving. Resist the temptation to hold the croquembouche any longer (whether at room temperature or in the refrigerator) as the caramel will become sticky and eventually melt since sugar is hygroscopic, pulling moisture from the cream puffs the longer it sits. When it’s time to serve your croquembouche, take a moment to admire your creation, maybe snap a few pictures with it, then break it to glorious smithereens.
- For the Cream Puffs:
- One recipe choux pastry (made with a combination of milk and water, and the optional sugar), transferred to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain round tip
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
- One recipe crème légère (see note), transferred to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch plain round tip
- For the Caramel:
- 21 ounces sugar (3 cups; 600g), divided
- 6 ounces water (12 tablespoons; 170g), divided
For the Cream Puffs: Adjust oven racks so that one is in upper-middle position, the other is in lower-middle position, and preheat oven to 400°F (205°C). Take one sheet of parchment paper and, using a 1 1/4-inch round cutter, trace 25 circles that are 1 inch apart. Flip paper upside down and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Pipe a small amount of choux paste under each corner of parchment paper (the dough acts as a glue and keeps the paper in place as you pipe). Repeat with a second piece of parchment paper and a rimmed baking sheet.
Holding the filled pastry bag at a 90° angle, apply steady downward pressure to pipe puffs onto a prepared tray, filling each circle completely. To stop piping, cease applying pressure and swirl the pastry tip away. Repeat with second prepared tray. To smooth the surface of any uneven puffs, dip a finger into cold water and gently pat down any bumps. Dust puffs evenly with powdered sugar.
Bake both trays, switching racks and rotating trays front to back after 20 minutes, until puffed, golden brown, and hollow feeling, about 25 minutes total.
Working quickly while puffs are still hot, gently insert the tip of a paring knife into the underside of each puff and rotate in a circular motion to create a small hole, about 1/4 inch in size. Return puffs to trays and place in the turned-off oven with the door partially open and let stand for 30 minutes to allow puffs to dry and fully set.
Insert tip of crème légère–filled bag into hole in each puff and begin piping with steady pressure until filled (you can tell because the puff will feel heavy and cream will start to overflow the hole). Wipe away any excess crème légère. Repeat until all puffs are filled and set aside; reserve leftover crème légère for another use.
Place one sheet of parchment paper on top of a cake turntable or stand followed by an 8-inch disposable cake round or the 8-inch removable bottom of a springform or tart pan wrapped in aluminum foil. Set aside.
For the Caramel: In a 3-quart saucepan or saucier, combine 10 1/2 ounces sugar (1 1/2 cups; 300g) and 3 ounces water (6 tablespoons; 85g) water over medium heat. Stir with a fork until syrup comes to a boil, about 4 minutes, then simmer without stirring until syrup is honey-colored, roughly 5 minutes, shaking and swirling as needed to ensure even caramelization. Continue cooking, without stirring or swirling, until syrup is medium amber, about 1 minute longer. Carefully pour the hot caramel into a small glass bowl.
While wearing latex gloves, hold each puff upside down and carefully dip the top in the caramel, letting any excess drip off. Return dipped puff to the tray caramel-side up. Repeat with remaining puffs. If the caramel starts to thicken, microwave in 10-second increments, stirring after each increment, until caramel is loose in consistency.
Wash and dry the used saucepan. In now-clean saucepan, combine remaining 10 1/2 ounces sugar (1 1/2 cups; 300g) and 3 ounces water (6 tablespoons; 85g) water over medium heat. Stir with a fork until syrup comes to a boil, about 4 minutes, then simmer without stirring until syrup is honey-colored, roughly 5 minutes, shaking and swirling as needed to ensure even caramelization. Continue cooking, without stirring or swirling, until syrup is medium amber, about 1 minute longer. Carefully pour the hot caramel into a separate small glass bowl.
To Assemble and Serve the Croquembouche: Arrange the 9 largest caramel-topped puffs in a circle so they’re touching one another on the prepared cake round (this helps gauge the width of the base). Removing puffs from the circle one at a time, dip one side of the rounded edge of each puff into the caramel then press the dipped side, with the caramel-top facing outward, into its space on the cake round, angling it slightly inward and holding it in place until the caramel hardens, about 3 seconds. Repeat with remaining puffs to form the first layer of the croquembouche.
To build successive layers, repeat the dipping process with the remaining puffs and caramel. As you build, you’ll reduce the number of puffs in each successive layer by one, positioning each puff in the gap between the bottom two puffs. If you have a space that needs to be filled in order to make a full layer, take one puff, dip a rounded edge in the caramel, and position the puff sideways in the empty space to complete the layer. If the caramel starts to thicken, microwave in 10-second increments, stirring after each increment, until caramel is loose in consistency.
Once you reach your second-to-last layer, dip the bottom of one puff, stick it to the bottom of another puff, then dip the rounded edge of the conjoined puffs in the caramel and position it on top. Dip and place your final puff on top of the conjoined puffs. (You may have a couple leftover puffs, which you can eat or share).
At this point the caramel should be quite viscous with a consistency similar to honey (if the caramel is even thicker like rubber cement, microwave in 5-second increments, stirring after each increment, until it loosens a bit). Dip the tines of the fork in the caramel, letting it drip back into the bowl until it falls in a thin thread. Then, move the fork in a circular motion around the croquembouche from top to bottom to form hair-like strands of caramel. Repeat until croquembouche is covered in caramel strands.
Serve croquembouche within 2 hours of being assembled. To serve, guests can break off puffs as desired or you can use scissors to cut apart puffs and transfer to serving plates.
Disposable latex gloves, cake turntable or stand, 8-inch disposable cake round (optional)
If you prefer to fill the puffs with pastry cream or whipped cream, you will need a greater volume of filling (roughly 3 cups).To use pastry cream, make a double batch of any of the pastry cream recipes―vanilla, chocolate, or lemon―or make a batch each of two different flavors. To use whipped cream, make a double batch of whipped cream (sweetened, flavored, or plain).
Make-Ahead and Storage
A croquembouche is best enjoyed immediately, ideally within 2 hours once assembled; left to stand longer and both the caramel and puffs will soften.
To store unfilled cream puffs, wrap them tightly in plastic and place in an airtight container; they can be kept frozen for up to 1 month. To refresh puffs, preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Transfer frozen puffs to a sheet tray and reheat until crisp, about 5 minutes. Let cool at room temperature before filling.
Crème légère can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.