Note: This post contains affiliate links.
I know, I said my last post was the final recipe of the year. But…croquembouche!
Making one of these iconic cream puff towers held together with caramel has been on my to-bake list for years. My kids have actually been begging me to make one after witnessing croquembouche construction on the Cupcake Jemma channel. But for obvious reasons we haven’t had a large gathering since then (AKA an excuse for croquembouche).
On Christmas, we finally had plans to see my family (first time in two years). If ever there was an opportunity for croquembouche, this was it. We are at my parents’ place so I didn’t have my normal arsenal of baking equipment. But after looking at a few tutorials online I was pretty certain we’d survive. Here’s how it went down.
(Note: this is less of a formal recipe and more thoughts and tips from the experience, which I wanted to jot down before I forget. However, I have included the chocolate creme legere recipe because yuuuuuuuum!)
I tried not to buy much special equipment for this bake, but I did get some piping bags and tips at a local craft store as well as a 12″ cake round for presentation. I also recommend the following tools:
- A digital scale
- At least 2 large baking sheets for piping and baking choux buns
- A 1″ round cutter (or something similar; I used a bottle cap) for cutting craquelin and tracing guides
- Rolling pin for craquelin
- Parchment paper for rolling craquelin and baking choux
- Electric hand or stand mixer for making choux and whipping cream (I used an electric hand mixer. You could potentially do this all by hand with a wooden spoon, whisk, and a bit of elbow grease.)
- Medium saucepan for making pastry cream and caramel
- Whisk for pastry cream
- Silicone spatulas for pastry cream and filling piping bags
- Chopstick or paring knife to make holes to fill choux
- Protective gloves for working with caramel
- Skewer or fork for spinning sugar
Step 1: Choux au Craquelin
I made the croquembouche over two days. On day one, I made the choux and pastry cream base; and on the second I finished the pastry cream with whipped cream, filled the puffs, and assembled the tower.
I didn’t have a mold to aid construction, so for structural stability I knew it was especially important to make my choux all the same size. Adding craquelin topping helps choux rise evenly (and tastes delicious), so that seemed like a step worth taking.
My goal was to make ~70 cream puffs. I was aiming to make the bottom of the croquembouche 11 cream puffs round, then decrease each successive round by 1 puff to form the cone shape. Mathematically, this requires 66 puffs, but it’s always prudent to have a few extras.
I made the craquelin topping first, as it needs time to chill so you can cut out the rounds. Once chilled down, I used a 1″ bottle cap to cut out the rounds, then froze them until ready to bake the choux.
To ensure the choux were all about the same size, I used the same bottle cap to trace 70 rounds on parchment paper (35 per sheet). All in all, I ended up having enough choux paste for about 85 small/medium puffs.
Once all my puffs were baked and cooled, I picked out 11 and arranged them in a round so I could estimate the size of the base, then marked out a circle in the center of my cake board for reference. (You definitely don’t want to be fiddling around with this when working with hot caramel, so do as much architectural planning as you can beforehand!)
Step 2: Chocolate Crème Légère
You could fill your choux with anything, but I was in the mood for something creamy and chocolate-y. Enter: chocolate crème légère — or chocolate pastry cream “lightened” with whipped cream. I thought that in addition to tasting delicious, the chocolate would help create an extra-stable pastry cream that would hold up at room temperature (it worked). I would definitely make this filling again — it was delicious and almost mousse-like, and the bitterness from the chocolate helped temper the sweetness of the caramel.
To fill the cream puffs, I used a chopstick to make a hole on the bottom of each puff. Then I used a piping bag fitted with a bismarck tip to fill each puff until heavy, then cleaned up any overflow with a small knife. I definitely overfilled my pastry bag the first time which made it harder than necessary to fill the puffs. So word to the wise: don’t fill the bag more than halfway to make life easier and less messy!
Chocolate Crème Légère
Makes enough to fill 70+ small cream puffs, plus some extra for snacking
For the chocolate pastry cream:
- 600g whole milk
- 125g granulated sugar
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 40g cornstarch
- 20g Dutch-processed cocoa powder
- 4 large egg yolks + 1 large egg
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 42g unsalted butter, cold and cubed
- 170g chopped bittersweet (~70%) chocolate
- 500g heavy cream (35%), chilled
- 25g icing sugar
Place a strainer over a large heat-safe bowl.
Off heat, combine the milk, 50g of the sugar and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 75g sugar, cornstarch, and cocoa powder. Pour in about 2 tbsp of the milk mixture and whisk to form a smooth paste. Add the egg yolks and whole egg and whisk until smooth.
Heat the milk over medium heat until steaming. Remove from the heat. Pour the milk in a slow, steady stream into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Scrape the custard mixture back into the saucepan and return to medium heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and large bubbles appear on the surface. Once the bubbles appear, turn the heat down to medium-low and continue whisking on the heat for 2 minutes.
Remove the custard from the heat and whisk in the vanilla extract, butter, and chocolate. Strain the pastry cream into the prepared bowl. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the pastry cream and cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until set (at least two hours, or up to 3 days).
When ready to fill the puffs, whip the heavy cream and icing sugar to soft peaks. Whisk the pastry cream to loosen, then use a flexible spatula to gently fold the whipped cream into the pastry cream in three additions. Fold just until homogenous and no streaks of cream remain.
Transfer the cream légère to a piping bag fitted with a plain round or bismarck tip. Use immediately. Leftovers make a great mousse-like dessert; enjoy plain or with a sprinkle of crushed cookies!
Step 3: Caramel
Caramel is the glue that holds a croquembuche together. I decided to also dip the tops (craquelin side) in caramel, which is optional but gives the whole thing an extra pretty shine. If you go this route, I definitely recommend making your caramel in two batches — one for the dipping the tops, and one for gluing the puffs together and spinning around the tower. I thought I could just reheat the caramel as needed to reliquefy it, but you can only do that so much before the caramel just gets too thick to work with.
For this sized croquembuche I ended up caramelizing ~600g granulated sugar in two 300g batches. I used the wet method as it’s more hands-off, but dry works too.
The assembly was fairly straightforward. Slightly tip the puffs in so you get a nice cone shape, and decrease by one puff each layer so the shape forms naturally. As you move up, place the puffs in the divot between the two below it. When you get to the last puff for each round, take an extra few seconds to find the puff that fits best.
It definitely helps to have an extra set of hands to help with assembly — one person can hold together puffs as the caramel sets while the other dips and arranges the next. And as always, caramel is HOT so wear gloves and keep kids and pets in a different room. Gently stir the caramel with a skewer every few dips to redistribute the heat and keep it liquid as long as possible.
I ended up building the tower as planned starting with 11 puffs at the bottom and decreasing each round until I reached 4 cream puffs. Then I just finished it off on the top with a single, slightly-larger puff.
Once constructed, I used a skewer to spin leftover caramel in threads around the entire tower. This was definitely my favorite part of the entire project!
And that’s it!
Thanks to my sister-in-law Janelle for helping with the photos!