Croquembouche: May 2010 Daring Baker Challenge

The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a piece montée, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri.

This challenge was another in the long line of things I've always wanted to make. Pate a choux is one of the simplest yet most rewarding examples of kitchen alchemy. I remember my Mom making chocolate eclairs, filled with cream and I remember GOP making cream puffs cut in half and piled amazingly high with whipped cream. People I admire have piped out or dolloped this sticky "dough" and created beautiful and tasty desserts, yet I never have myself. And this is why I love the Daring Baker Challenge.

If there could be a downside to this dessert, it would be that it is best eaten straight away. We kept a bit leftover in the fridge and still ate every last morsel, but it was most satisfying as soon as it was completed. The great news about this, is that if you have the pastry cream made the day before, which I did, and make the puffs early in the day, which I did, the filling and assembly really takes very little time.

Another bonus for me this month is that my Husband loved it! I will surely be making this again when I have a dessert occasion, with more than just me and my boys here to clobber it.

Now, I'm not saying that I advocate eating little pate a choux puffs every day, mind you. They are laden with eggs and butter, and in general, are probably not very good for you. But just a bite of eggy, custardy puff would win over the staunchest of the health-conscious, and the ability to produce something so professional in a home kitchen makes this recipe all the more worthwhile.

I filled a squeeze bottle with the pastry cream, and over-filled for a plump middle. I was reminded of the time I made homemade "hostess cupcakes" for my Husband and Maeckel. I went through all the trouble of making a delicious marshmallowy filling, only to find that when I thought I was filling the chocolaty cupcake, no filling was going in. Of course, I didn't know this until after the little buggers were finished and glazed and the three of us were sadly looking for the cream in the centers. There was telltale cream in the bottom of the cupcakes, but it didn't occur to me that there was nowhere for the cream to go since it was, after all, a dense cupcake. (It was quickly remedied when I shook huge spoonfuls alongside them...we managed.)

That was a good lesson, and one that didn't really apply here, since the cavernous bellies of the puffs are by design happy homes for fat amounts of pastry cream:

With a nod to the chocolate eclairs of my youth, I dipped the tops in chocolate - gilding the lily so to say, since there certainly was enough sugar involved to do without it. When I made the hard caramel, and dipped the bottoms into it when it was still in a molten state, I thought that the chocolate would melt all over. I was pleasantly disproved, and the combination of crunchy caramel, dense bittersweet chocolate and creamy middles made for the closest thing to textural perfection in a dessert.

The only thing I can think of to make mention, is when making hard caramel (which is basically just sugar and a touch of lemon juice) resist at all costs stirring with a spoon. I did this time, and was rewarded whereas in the past, I was met with a lump of rock hard sugar. I cooled the caramel pan in another pan of ice water after it reached it's amber state, but should have removed it after it cooled enough to stop sizzling, since the caramel started to harden too quickly when I was assembling. I was able to reheat it over low heat and get the job done, but next time I will remember this.

It is more than fun to play with hard caramel, which hardens as soon as it threads out into the air. It kind of makes a mess of the kitchen, if you are anything like me, but sometimes I chalk that up to par for the course. It was a little humid that day, and in the 30 minutes or so I spent taking pictures of my creation, dewdrops started forming on the caramel threads that I spun around the entire tower. I imagine that the next time I make this will be close to Halloween when spider-webbed desserts are welcome.

I transcribed the recipes below, since I had to enable my future publisher because I am not at home today (the 27th) and I am nowhere near a computer (except for my iPhone) - the wonders of technology! After the posting date of the Daring Baker Challenge, you may also go to the Daring Kitchen website to find the recipes.

Pate a Choux (Yield: About 28)
  • ¾ cup (175 ml.) water
  • 6 Tbsp. (85 g.) unsalted butter
  • ¼ Tsp. salt
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 cup (125 g.) all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • For Egg Wash: 1 egg and pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 425◦F/220◦C degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Combine water, butter, salt and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and stir occasionally. At boil, remove from heat and sift in the flour, stirring to combine completely.

Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly until the batter dries slightly and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.

Transfer to a bowl and stir with a wooden spoon 1 minute to cool slightly.

Add 1 egg. The batter will appear loose and shiny. As you stir, the batter will become dry-looking like lightly buttered mashed potatoes.

It is at this point that you will add in the next egg. Repeat until you have incorporated all the eggs.


Transfer batter to a pastry bag fitted with a large open tip (I piped directly from the bag opening without a tip). Pipe choux about 1 inch-part in the baking sheets. Choux should be about 1 inch high about 1 inch wide.

Using a clean finger dipped in hot water, gently press down on any tips that have formed on the top of choux when piping. You want them to retain their ball shape, but be smoothly curved on top.

Brush tops with egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with pinch of salt).

Bake the choux at 425◦F/220◦C degrees until well-puffed and turning lightly golden in color, about 10 minutes.

Lower the temperature to 350◦F/180◦C degrees and continue baking until well-colored and dry, about 20 minutes more. Remove to a rack and cool.

Hard Caramel Glaze:

  • 1 cup (225 g.) sugar
  • ½ teaspoon lemon juice

Combine sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan with a metal kitchen spoon stirring until the sugar resembles wet sand. Place on medium heat; heat without stirring until sugar starts to melt around the sides of the pan and the center begins to smoke. Begin to stir sugar. Continue heating, stirring occasionally until the sugar is a clear, amber color. Remove from heat immediately; place bottom of pan in ice water to stop the cooking. Use immediately.

Assembly of your Piece Montée or Croquembouche:

You may want to lay out your unfilled, unglazed choux in a practice design to get a feel for how to assemble the final dessert. For example, if making a conical shape, trace a circle (no bigger than 8 inches) on a piece of parchment to use as a pattern. Then take some of the larger choux and assemble them in the circle for the bottom layer. Practice seeing which pieces fit together best.

Once you are ready to assemble your piece montée, dip the top of each choux in your glaze (careful it may be still hot!), and start assembling on your cake board/plate/sheet. Continue dipping and adding choux in levels using the glaze to hold them together as you build up.

When you have finished the design of your piece montée, you may drizzle with remaining glaze or use ribbons, sugar cookie cut-outs, almonds, flowers, etc. to decorate.

I researched my project by watching Martha Stewart Assemble a Croquembouche, and I was glad I did. You can use a number of different fillings to fill the pate a choux puffs, but the caramel holding it together is what makes it the Croquembouch (crunch in the mouth).

Thank you to Little Miss Cupcake for a great challenge!