Here is a splendid edible centerpiece for your New Year’s table, the croquembouche — row upon row of tiny cream puffs mounted into a conical tower and glittering with caramel. It’s fun to assemble and is guaranteed to bring gasps of delight from your guests.
The Pâte À Choux — Cream-Puff Pastry
For about 70 puffs, for a croquembouche 16 inches high
- 1½ cups water
- 9 Tb (1 stick plus 1 Tb) butter
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 tsp sugar
- A heavy 3-quart saucepan
- 1½ cup all-purpose flour (measure by sifting directly into 1- and ½-cup dry measures; sweep off excess flour)
- 5 to 6 eggs (U.S. graded “large”)
Place water, butter, salt, and sugar in saucepan and bring to the boil. When butter has melted and water is bubbling, remove saucepan from heat; immediately pour in all the flour and beat with a wooden spoon to blend thoroughly. Set over moderate heat and beat with wooden spoon for a minute or two, until mixture leaves sides of pan clean, leaves spoon clean, and begins to film on the bottom of the pan; this is to evaporate all excess moisture. In culinary language, you now have a panade.
Make a depression in the center of the hot panade with your spoon, break an egg into it, and beat thoroughly until the egg is absorbed. Continue with four more eggs one at a time, and beating in each until thoroughly absorbed. (You may use an electric mixer for adding the eggs; if the mixture clogs the beaters, you’ll have to resort again to the spoon.)
Whether or not to add all or part of the sixth egg depends on the consistency of the pastry: if it is too soft, it will spread out when formed. Test by lifting up a mass of the paste in your spoon: it should hold its shape; plop a bit on a plate: it should hold its shape. If it seems too stiff, beat the sixth egg in a small bowl, then beat a tablespoon into the pastry; test again, adding more egg if you think it necessary.
This is now a pâte à choux; use it while still warm, or it becomes too stiff.
Forming the Puffs
- 2 large baking sheets (14x18 inches is a good size)
- Egg glaze (1 egg beaten with ½ tsp cold water)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Lightly butter the two largest baking sheets that will fit into your oven. Either with a soup spoon or with a pastry bag and ½-inch tube, form circular blobs of pâte à choux 1 inch in diameter and 1 inch high, spaced 1½ inches apart on the sheets. With leftover pastry, make a decoration for the top of the croquembouche, such as a 4x2½-inch oval ¼ inch thick, continuing one end of the oval into a 2-inch stem. (You may have to put this on a separate sheet and bake it later.)
Paint the tops of the puffs with egg glaze, pushing them into shape if necessary with the flat of your brush. Be careful not to let glaze dribble down the sides of the puffs onto the baking sheet; this will prevent puffs from rising.
Place the filled baking sheets in the upper- and lower-middle levels of the preheated oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until puffs are a nice golden brown and crisp to the touch; they should double in size. Turn oven down to 350 degrees and bake 10 minutes more, then turn oven off, leave door ajar, and let puffs cool. They must be thoroughly dried out and crisp for the croquembouche. (Baked and cooled puffs may be frozen.)
If you wish to mount the croquembouche hours ahead of time, it is best to use unfilled puffs. Filled puffs may become soggy in 2 hours.
As you can easily transform pâte à choux into a pastry-cream filling, you could make a little extra pâte à choux to begin with, by adding to the original proportions: ½ cup water, 3 tablespoons butter, ½ cup flour, and 1 egg. When you have finished forming your 70 puffs and decoration, beat the extra pastry with 2 to 3 tablespoons of milk in a heavy saucepan over moderate heat. When mixture is simmering, thin out to desired consistency with dribbles of milk, and sweeten to taste with several tablespoons of sugar. Flavor to taste with vanilla and kirsch, rum, or coffee. The easiest way to fill the puffs is with a pastry bag and a ¼-inch tube, plunged into the bottom or sides of the puffs.
Mounting the Croquembouche
When you are ready to assemble, find any type of slant-sided container that is about 8 inches at the top, 7 inches at the bottom, and 4 or more inches deep (a flowerpot lined with heavy aluminum foil would do). Smear the entire interior with tasteless salad oil. You will line this container with caramel-dipped puffs to form the base of the croquembouche; because the container is oiled, you can slip the base out of it.
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2/3 cup water
- 2 Tb corn syrup
- A heavy saucepan
Bring the sugar, water, and corn syrup to the boil over high heat, swirling pan until sugar has completely dissolved and liquid is clear and limpid. Cover pan closely: rising steam will condense on cover, drop down sides of pan, and wash off sugar crystals. Remove cover in 3 to 4 minutes, when bubbles have become large and liquid is a thick syrup. Continue boiling several minutes more until syrup turns amber. Swirl pan slowly as syrup darkens into a golden caramel brown; remove pan from heat just before it is quite as dark as you wish it to be, as the heat of the pan will deepen the color. To prevent caramel from hardening, set pan in another pan of simmering water.
Spearing puffs with a small knife, dip them one by one into the caramel and make a ring of upside-down puffs around the inside of the container, being sure each puff is glued to its neighbor with caramel. Build another ring on top of the first, and continue until the sides of the mold are covered. Let cool 5 minutes, then run a thin knife between puffs and edge of container to loosen the base; unmold onto an upturned cake tin. Build four or more rows of right-side-up caramel-dipped puffs on top of the base, slanting each row slightly inward to make a conical shape. Dip stem of decoration into caramel and set into the center of the top row.
Dip a spoon into the caramel and dribble lines over the entire croquembouche, then dip a fork into the caramel and wave it around and around the croquembouche to surround it with threads of spun caramel. Set on a serving platter.
Tuck sprigs of holly around the base, and decorate with any other items that will make for a Happy New Year!
Excerpted from The French Chef Cookbook by Julia Child. Copyright © 2002 by Julia Child. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.