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Croquembouche


You'll need

To serve: sugar-coated almonds and crystalised violets   Crème pâtissière 590 ml milk ½ vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped 175 gm caster sugar 7 egg yolks 55 gm plain flour sieved with 8gm Dutch-process cocoa 40 ml Cointreau 250 gm double cream   Choux pastry 335 ml milk 270 gm unsalted butter, diced in tiny pieces 1½ tsp caster sugar 335 gm plain flour, sieved onto a sheet of baking paper 9 eggs, lightly beaten, plus 1 extra egg, lightly beaten with a pinch of salt and 2 tsp milk, for eggwash   Caramel 1.125 kg white sugar 150 ml liquid glucose

Method

  • 01
  • For crème pâtissière, bring milk, vanilla bean and seeds and half the sugar to the boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat, then remove from heat. Whisk yolks and remaining sugar in a bowl until pale, then whisk in flour and cocoa mixture. Pour in the hot milk, whisking continuously to combine, then return to pan and whisk over medium heat until thickened (1-2 minutes). Reduce heat to low and whisk continuously until the taste of flour cooks out (2-3 minutes). Transfer to a bowl placed over a large bowl of ice cubes with a handful of salt and a glass of cold water to speed up cooling. Remove vanilla bean, stir occasionally until cooled, then press plastic wrap onto the surface and refrigerate until chilled (40-60 minutes). Whisk until smooth with a whisk (not in a mixer – it may turn watery), working in Cointreau. Whisk cream just until it holds its body, then fold into pastry cream, cover directly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until required. Pastry cream can be made 2 days ahead. Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a 5mm plain nozzle to fill pastries.
  • 02
  • For choux pastry, preheat oven to 220C and line several baking trays with baking paper. Bring milk, butter, sugar, 1½ tsp fine salt and 335ml water slowly to the boil in a saucepan over low heat. Remove from the heat or turn heat off, tip in flour from baking paper and beat with a wooden spoon until smooth.
  • 03
  • Return to the heat and stir continuously over low heat until dough comes away from the sides of pan, forming a ball (2-3 minutes). Remove from heat, press plastic wrap on the surface and cool for 15 minutes at room temperature.
  • 04
  • Beat in the eggs in 4 or 5 additions, holding back a little of the egg and checking the texture of the mixture – it should have a dropping consistency; that is, the pastry should fall very slowly from the spoon when held over the bowl. Only add more egg if the pastry is still stiff.
  • 05
  • Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a 1.2mm plain nozzle, then pipe 2.5cm-diameter balls, leaving a few centimetres between each.
  • 06
  • Use a loosely rolled ball of plastic wrap dipped in eggwash to flatten pastries slightly, then brush lightly with eggwash (don’t let it run down the sides or the pastry won’t rise). Bake in batches for 10-12 minutes, then reduce oven to 170C and bake until golden and dry (8-10 minutes). Set aside to cool while you make the first batch of caramel.
  • 07
  • Combine a third of the sugar (375gm) and a third of the glucose with 125ml water in a saucepan and stir over low heat to dissolve the sugar before it boils. Skim off any whitish foam and brush down sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped in hot water to wash sugar crystals back in. Cook until pale golden and mixture reaches 160C on a sugar thermometer (10-15 minutes).
  • 08
  • Remove caramel from heat and carefully dip the base into a large saucepan filled with iced water to arrest the cooking (it may bubble wildly) and swirl the caramel around to help it cool.
  • 09
  • Use a fork or metal skewer to dip the top two-thirds of each choux bun into caramel, then place them bottom-side down back on the baking trays. Repeat with a second batch of sugar, glucose and water to finish the buns. Stand until set, then pierce a hole in the base of each with a paring knife and fill with crème pâtissière.
  • 10
  • Lightly oil a 26cm croquembouche mould and place on a lightly oiled oven tray. Make the third batch of caramel as before and dip it into iced water to halt the cooking. Working quickly with a choux bun at a time, dip into the caramel and arrange around the base of the mould. Continue working up the mould in a spiral until the mould is covered. Stand for the sugar to harden and set (12-15 minutes), then very gently and carefully twist the mould and slide it off the tower of caramelised buns. Use remaining caramel to attach the almonds and violets. If there’s any left, use a fork to drizzle strands over the croquembouche and serve.

Croquembouche

The art of pastry-making reaches its peak with this awe-inspiring centrepiece, writes Damien Pignolet, but break down the steps and it's an achievable feat.

This majestic French confection, originally called croque en bouche ("crunch in the mouth"), is the centrepiece at celebrations, many of them weddings. A tower of cream puffs built around a cone-shaped mould and held together with caramel, which adds the essential crunch, it's attributed to Antonin Carême, the 19th-century chef famed for the architecture he brought to buffet tables.

Three cooking skills are key here: a mastery of choux pastry, crème pâtissière (or pastry cream), and sugar cooking. For the pastry, water and milk are brought to the boil along with butter and salt so the butter emulsifies in the liquid. Have the sieved flour on a sheet of baking paper ready to shoot into the liquid all at once and, critically, off the heat. Beat the dough until it forms a ball, which will look a bit wet, then return to low heat and beat it until it leaves the sides of the pan. I turn the dough out into a bowl to cool slightly before adding the beaten eggs; do this in several quantities, beating well until smooth before adding more. Watch for the "dropping" test; the dough should fall slowly off the spoon, and once this consistency is reached add no more egg. The buns are baked until they're quite dry, reducing the temperature so they don't get too dark.

Crème pâtissière contains starch, which prevents the egg yolks from curdling, so it's almost foolproof. Don't combine the yolks with the sugar in advance - it "cooks" the eggs, which makes for a thinner texture. I add half the sugar to the milk, so you need to take care that it dissolves before the milk boils. Whisk the hot milk thoroughly into the egg and sugar mixture with a wooden spoon, going right into the corners of the pot, then change to a whisk. Once the mixture is very thick and smooth, tip it into a bowl over another bowl containing a slurry of ice, salt and water, and stir it with the whisk so it cools quickly - the quicker it cools, the fresher the flavour.

The pastry cream may be made up to two days ahead, provided it's refrigerated with a sheet of plastic wrap pressed tightly over the surface and the bowl is sealed. When needed, simply beat it well with a whisk - a mixer would cause the pastry cream to break down. And as long as the pastry cream is really thick, a little liqueur may be added, and finely ground praline makes a welcome variation.

The trickiest part is cooking sugar to the "crack" stage for the caramel. An untinned copper pan is ideal - copper is a good heat conductor. A sugar thermometer is essential to get it exactly at 160C; beyond that and it's hard to coat the buns with the syrup. I make three lots - the first two to dip the buns in, and the last to glue them together. Use a fork or metal skewer to quickly dip the tops of the choux buns into the hot caramel, let the excess run off, then place them on a tray dipped-side up.

To fill the buns, pierce their bases with a paring knife, then pipe in the pastry cream. Once this is done, start the last batch of sugar. When it's ready, start dipping and sticking the buns to the mould, first around the base, then upwards in a spiral, working quickly before the sugar in the pan cools - an extra set of hands helps. Stick on decorative elements, such as sugared almonds or candied violets, as you go. Let the croquembouche stand for the sugar to set and harden, then carefully tip it on its side so it rests on one of your hands and gently twist the mould to remove it, then place the croquembouche on a serving platter.

In a lovely tradition, croquembouches are often served by being struck with a silver hammer to scatter the buns across the table for all to eat in the spirit of celebration. So get cracking for your next party.


At A Glance

  • Serves 12 - 15 people
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At A Glance

  • Serves 12 - 15 people

Featured in

Nov 2015

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