I was watching the fashion documentary Dior and I on Netflix, and I was reminded of my own time spent in the fashion industry. When I tell people that I used to work in fashion but now work with food and make pastries like this croquembouche, they’re often surprised. For me, however, the transition felt very natural and homogeneous.
In my old job, I used to work with a design team to create various marketing visuals, including look books and digital content that could be shared via social media. Art and creativity were always the basis for my work.
When it comes to food, especially baked goods and pastries, I find the same to be true. Whether I decide to decorate a simple saffron cake with a single pear, or build a tower of choux pastry as I’ve done here with this croquembouche, I’m constantly trying to convey my perspective of design through food.
A croquembouche, also known as croque-en-bouche (literally meaning crunches in the mouth), is composed of small cream puffs, piled high on top of each other in a tree/cone shape, then decorated with spun sugar.
It’s usually a dessert reserved for very special occasions, or in my opinion, a fabulous holiday party. They look very impressive, but they are honestly easier to create than some of the holiday cakes or confectionaries you might see during this time of the year.
I think it’s the spun sugar that really makes a croquembouche look as magical as it does. For me, the spun sugar is the most fun part of creating this dessert. I usually take my whisk and dip it in the prepared caramel sauce, then drape it this way and that way over the tower of pastry balls.
Doing this gives the croquembouche the effect of looking like it has danced in a frenzy, leaving wispy twirls of sugar in its track.
I like to use a decorating tip (like this) on my pastry bag to pipe out the mounds of choux onto the baking sheet because I love the look of the elegant ridges on the cream puffs.
Once the tower of cream puffs has been adorned in spun sugar, the puffs are ready to be enjoyed, all with a nice little crunch from the caramel. The crispy element from the spun sugar really adds some variation to the dessert since cream puffs usually deliver a predominantly tender bite.
The twists and turns of the delicate sugar cage are unique to every baker and every individual experience in which a croquembouche is prepared; you don’t use any perfectly stenciled baking mats or tins to prepare the wisps of sugar. So, the fact that a croquembouche will never look the same as the next one is proof that food is just as much of an art as any other realm of design.
A tower of delicious cream puffs filled with pastry cream and decorated with spun sugar.
for the pate a choux (pastry puffs)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 eggs
for the pastry cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 whole egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
- 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
for the caramel
- 1 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup water
Start the dessert off by making the pastry cream first. Create the pastry cream by first warming the milk in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat until it’s hot, but not boiling.
Meanwhile, whisk the egg, egg yolk, and sugar together until thick and pale. Add the cornstarch and flour, and whisk again to combine. Pour 1/4 cup milk into the egg batter and whisk vigorously to combine. Slowly add the rest of the milk, continuing to whisk the mixture as you do.
Pour the mixture back into the saucepan, and continue to heat this mixture over medium-low heat. Whisk the entire time, and after about 5 to 7 minutes, you should see the cream really thicken up into a pudding-like consistency.
Take the cream off the heat. Add in the vanilla extract and whisk to combine. Place a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the pastry cream to prevent a filmy layer from forming. Refrigerate the pastry cream until chilled.
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat.
To create the pastry puffs, begin by heating the butter, water, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat. Once the butter has melted and the mixture has come to a simmer, remove the saucepan from the heat.
Add in the flour and stir with a wooden spoon. Move the saucepan back over to low heat and continue to stir the mixture until the flour is completely incorporated and the dough no longer sticks to the bottom or sides of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and turn off the stove.
Add in the eggs, stirring very well after each addition. You want to make sure each egg is mixed in well before adding another. The finished result should look like a thick paste.
Transfer the pastry dough to a pastry bag fitted with a star tip or round tip, and pipe the dough into small 1 inch mounds onto the prepared baking sheet.
Bake the pastry puffs for 10 minutes at 425°F, then without opening the oven door, lower the heat to 375°F and bake the puffs for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the puffs are completely golden.
Turn the oven off and leave the oven door slightly open. Let the puffs rest in the turned off oven for about 10 minutes. Then remove and transfer them to a wire cooling rack to cool completely.
Take a small cake board, or create a round 5 to 6 inch cardboard shape and line it with parchment paper. Temporarily set aside.
Once the pastry puffs are cooled, fill a pastry bag with the chilled pastry cream. Poke the bottom of each pastry puff with your pastry tip to create a small hole. Insert the pastry cream into the puff through this hole. Repeat for all the pastry puffs.
Create the caramel by adding the sugar and water to a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Give the sugar and water an initial stir to combine the two together, but then don’t stir the mixture anymore after this point. Instead, give the caramel a a stir by giving the saucepan a brief swirl every now and then.
Let the sugar and water boil until it begins turning a light amber color (about 6 to 8 minutes). Keep your eye on the mixture like a hawk, and don't let it get any darker than pale amber. You don't want it to be darker like traditional caramel sauce; this way the mixture will still crystallize when you drape it over the pastry tower.
Dip the bottoms of the pastry puffs in the caramel, being very careful not to burn your fingers, and place the puffs in a circle on the prepared board. You’ll want to have a circle of 6 cream puffs. Then create another circle of cream puffs on top of this first ring, dipping the cream puffs in caramel first to get them to stick. Continue this until you create a sort of tree-shape or cone-shape with the cream puffs.
If the caramel has somewhat hardened, briefly heat the caramel to loosen it up before using again. Take a whisk or fork and dip it in the caramel before draping the caramel over and around the tower of cream puffs. You can also splash some of the caramel onto a large sheet of parchment paper, and allow the sugar to harden for about 15 to 30 seconds before removing these strands/shards of sugar and carefully placing them around the tower of cream puffs.
Refrigerate if serving the cream puffs later, otherwise serve immediately.