Guest blogger Joanne Chang’s long-awaited follow-up to Flour has finally arrived. Check out her appearance on the Today Show from yesterday, and be on the lookout for Joanne at events throughout the summer.
One of the most commonly asked questions (and among the hardest to answer) when I am at a book signing is, “What is your favorite recipe from the book?” I know I should be prepared with a concise decisive answer but it always stumps me. Favorite to eat? Favorite to make? Favorite to teach and share? Can I pick a few? Or maybe a few dozen?? You might think it’s cheating when I start listing off multiple recipes from each chapter but after spending over a year with these recipes—testing them, reworking them, thinking how they will photograph, eating them over and over—it’s pretty hard for me to choose just one. It sounds crazy but I feel like that would be disloyal… as if the recipes would even know or care!
HOWEVER… I will admit that there is one recipe that is especially near and dear to me simply because the first time I ever saw this being made I remember thinking, I could never ever do that. No way ever. I was working with Francois Payard at Payard Patisserie and as a preview of our holiday menu he had been asked by Gourmet Magazine to make a croquembouche for a photo shoot. He and another pastry cook sequestered themselves in the chocolate room, a tiny closet that was temperature controlled to keep the chocolates happy. After about an hour, a 3-foot tall pyramid of puffs and sugar and flowers and birds emerged. It was like an art piece, except it was edible. Francois had pulled out all of the stops and festooned the tower with pulled sugar masterpieces. There were colors and bows and in my memory the whole thing sparkled with lights. (Were there actual lights in there? I doubt it but it sure seemed like it at the time.) I was in charge of chaperoning the whole shebang to the photo studio a few blocks away and with every sidewalk crack and pothole, my heart lurched along with the croquembouche. We finally made it in one piece with only a small trail of broken sugared things in our wake. But it was no worse for the wear and it photographed beautifully. (I on the other hand was a mess.)
Now not only can I do it, and do I do, it but I also am able to teach YOU to do it. Croquembouche, that fancy tower of gossamer spun sugar enclosed cream puffs, is a complete showstopper. I omit the bells and whistles here and focus on just the spun sugar to finish off the tower. You can add flowers and add-ons as you wish. I love it simple with just a shimmering cage of golden threads surrounding it. The French make croquembouche for weddings and at Flour we offer them only at Christmastime. But there is no reason that you shouldn’t make this for a family reunion, a dinner party with close friends, or just because, now that you know how.
Croquembouche (crow-kem-BOOSH) translated from French means “crunch-in-mouth,” and its elaborate name only hints at the full glory that is a croquembouche. Cream puffs filled with vanilla cream and dipped in caramel, piled high into a pyramid, and then swathed in sparkly, glittery strands of golden spun sugar—this is the dessert of fairy tales. Or, if you’re French, the pièce de résistance of weddings and christenings. Break down the recipe into parts so you don’t get overwhelmed. You can make the pâte à choux puffs one day, the pastry cream filling another. You need to fill the puffs and assemble the pyramid no more than about five hours before serving, so give yourself ample time for these finishing steps.
Making spun sugar is like riding a bike or tying a shoe: it’s not hard to do once you know how to do it, but describing it to someone who has never done it before can be tricky. First, don’t frustrate yourself unnecessarily by attempting this dessert on a humid day. Spun sugar melts rapidly in humidity, and the dessert will be an exercise in futility. Practice shaking your wrist back and forth briskly while holding a fork so that you have the general movement down. Wait patiently for the caramel to thicken, so that it will turn to spun sugar when you flick it around; it should have the consistency of thin honey. Dip your fork into the caramel, hold the fork high above the tower of puffs, and then flick firmly and decisively back and forth over the tower. Keep dipping your fork in the caramel and spinning sugar over the tower until the entire croquembouche is covered. Then, to make a spun-sugar topper, you will use the same motion, but you will be dropping the strands onto parchment paper. When you have enough strands, you will gather them up and set them on top of your masterpiece. When the croquembouche is finished, take the time to admire your breathtaking pastry before your guests dig in. Once they start eating it, it’s really hard to stop.
Serves 8 to 10
Pâte à Choux
3/4 cup/170 g unsalted butter
4 tsp granulated sugar
1/4 tsp kosher salt
12⁄3 cups/230 g all-purpose flour
6 large eggs
3/4 cup/180 ml heavy cream
1 3/4 cups/420 ml Pastry Cream (see below)
2 cups/400 g granulated sugar
Special equipment: two rimmed baking sheets, parchment paper, stand mixer with paddle attachment and whisk attachment (optional), pastry bag and one 1-in/2.5-cm round piping tip and one 1⁄8 – to 1/4-in/3- to 6-mm round piping tip, cardboard cake circle or flat plate 8 to 10 in/20 to 25 cm in diameter
1. To make the pâte à choux: Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C, and place one rack in the center and one rack in the top third of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a medium saucepan, combine the butter, sugar, salt, and 11⁄2 cups/360 ml water over medium heat until the butter has melted. Do not let the mixture come to a boil or some of the water will evaporate. Add the flour all at once, then stir the flour into the liquid with a wooden spoon until it is fully incorporated. The mixture will look like a really stiff pancake batter. Keep stirring vigorously over medium heat until the mixture slowly starts to toughen and looks more like loose dough and less like stiff batter. It will also lose its shine and look more matte. Stir continuously for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the dough starts to leave a film at the bottom of the pan.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the dough to the bowl of the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat the dough on medium-low speed for 1 minute. This will allow some of the steam to escape and the dough to cool slightly. (Or, in a medium bowl, vigorously beat the mixture by hand with a wooden spoon for 2 to 3 minutes.) Crack the eggs into a small pitcher and whisk to break up the yolks. On medium-low add the eggs to the dough. When the eggs have been added, increase the speed to medium and beat for about 20 seconds, or until the dough is glossy and shiny.
4. Fit the pastry bag with the 1-in/2.5-cm round tip and fill the bag with the dough. (If you don’t have a pastry bag and tip, cut 1 in/2.5 cm from one corner of a plastic storage bag and fill the plastic bag with the dough.) Pipe out balls about 11⁄2 in/4 cm in diameter onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 2 in/5 cm apart. If the balls form a peak on top, moisten your fingertip with water and tap down the peaks. You should have enough dough to pipe out eighteen to twenty-two balls per sheet.
5. Place the baking sheets in the oven. The heat of the oven will immediately start turning the liquid in the batter into steam, which will cause the pastries to inflate. After about 10 minutes, when the pastries have puffed up and are starting to turn golden brown, reduce the oven temperature to 325°F/165°C, then switch the baking sheets between the oven racks and rotate the sheets back to front. Continue to bake for another 25 to 28 minutes, or until the pastries are evenly golden brown. Let the pastries cool completely on the baking sheets on wire racks. (The cooled pastries can be stored unfilled in an airtight container in the freezer for up to 2 weeks. Remove from the freezer and refresh in a 325°F/165°C oven for 6 to 8 minutes, or until thawed. Let cool completely before filling. You can also store them unfilled in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days. Refresh them in a 325°F/165°C oven for 2 to 3 minutes, then let cool before filling.)
6. To make the vanilla cream: In the stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment on medium speed or in a medium bowl with a whisk, whip the heavy cream until it holds stiff peaks. Add the pastry cream to the whipped cream and fold together until thoroughly combined. (You should have about 31⁄2 cups/840 ml vanilla cream. Vanilla cream may be made up to a day in advance and stored in the fridge in an airtight container.)
7. Rinse and dry the pastry bag, fit it with the 1⁄8- to 1⁄4-in/3- to 6-mm tip, and fill the bag with the vanilla cream. Using the tip of a small, sharp knife, poke a hole in the bottom of each puff, and then pipe the cream into the puffs. Make sure to fill each puff fully with the cream. Set the filled puffs aside.
8. To make the spun sugar: Put the sugar in the small saucepan and carefully add about 1⁄2 cup/120 ml water, or just enough to moisten all of the sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, making sure that the sugar is evenly moistened and that you don’t splash any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan. When the sugar syrup boils, it will go from bubbling furiously like water to bubbling more languidly as it thickens, which will take 3 to 4 minutes. Once the syrup starts to thicken, watch it carefully, and as soon as you see the syrup begin to turn light golden brown, immediately remove the pan from the heat and gently swirl it to even out the caramelization.
9. Immediately and carefully dip the bottoms of the filled puffs, one by one, into the caramel and quickly arrange them in a circle about 8 in/20 cm in diameter on the cake circle. If you see cream leaking out of the bottom of a puff, wipe it off before dipping the puff into the caramel. You want to keep the caramel as clean as possible; that is, free of any cream filling. Once you have arranged the first circle, continue dipping puffs and arranging them in concentric circles inside the first circle. The caramel will harden pretty quickly and act as glue as you are building your croquembouche. I find that once I dip and put the puff where I want it, I have to hold it in place for only 2 to 3 seconds before it hardens and I can move on to the next puff. Keep building circles on top of the circles, making them smaller as the pyramid gets taller, until you have one last puff for the top of the tower. You’ll use thirty-four to thirty-eight puffs total.
10. At this point, the caramel should be a thick viscous mass similar in consistency to honey. While the caramel is at this temperature, you have only 5 to 8 minutes to make your spun sugar garnish. If it is too thick, like rubber cement, you will want to rewarm the caramel carefully over medium-low heat for a few minutes until it melts a little and thins out.
11. Holding a fork by the edge of the handle, dip the tines into the caramel and lift the fork straight up so that the dripping caramel starts to fall back into the pan. Before it all drips in, position the fork about 3 ft/1 m above the pastry pyramid and, using a quick, sharp, flinging wrist motion, flick the fork back and forth over the pyramid so that the dripping caramel strands spin into spun sugar, covering the croquembouche. Continue dipping the fork in the caramel and covering the puffs with sugar strands, spinning the croquembouche as you work so that you get all sides, until the pyramid is covered with caramel strands.
12. Place a sheet of parchment on a clean, dry work surface (for easy cleanup) and make more spun sugar the same way, dipping the fork into the pan, lifting it straight up, allowing most of the caramel to drip back into the pan, and then flicking your wrist back and forth about 3 feet/1 m above the parchment so that the strands fall onto the paper. After five or six dips and flicks, you should have enough spun sugar on the parchment to gather together into a ball and place on top of the pyramid.
13. To serve, pluck puffs off one by one with your hands and put them on individual plates. Or, for neater serving, use a set of tongs to pluck the puffs off and transfer them to the plates. The croquembouche should be served the day it is made, because the spun sugar will start to melt after 5 to 8 hours. Do not refrigerate the croquembouche, as the sugar will melt in the fridge.
Makes about 1 3/4 cups/420 ml
1 1/4 cups/300 g milk
1/2 cup/100 g granulated sugar
1/4 cup/30 g cake flour
1/2 tsp kosher salt
4 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla extract
Special equipment: sieve
1. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk over medium-high heat until scalded; that is, until small bubbles form along the sides of the pan. While the milk is heating, in a small bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, and salt. (Mixing the flour with the sugar will prevent the flour from clumping when you add it to the egg yolks.) In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks until blended, then slowly whisk in the flour mixture. The mixture will be thick and pasty.
2. Remove the milk from the heat and slowly add it to the egg-flour mixture, a little at a time, while whisking constantly. When all of the milk has been incorporated, return the contents of the bowl to the saucepan and heat over medium heat, whisk continuously and vigorously, for about 3 minutes, or until the mixture thickens and comes to a boil. At first, the mixture will be very frothy and liquid; as it cooks longer, it will slowly start to thicken until the frothy bubbles disappear and it becomes more viscous. Once it thickens, stop whisking every few seconds to see if the mixture has come to a boil. If it has not, keep whisking vigorously. As soon as you see it bubbling, immediately go back to whisking for just 10 seconds, and then remove the pan from the heat. Boiling the mixture will thicken it and cook out the flour taste, but if you let it boil for longer than 10 seconds, the mixture can become grainy.
3. Pour, push, and scrape the mixture through the sieve into a small, heatproof bowl. Stir in the vanilla and then cover with plastic wrap, placing it directly on the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or until cold, before using. The cream can be stored for up to 3 days in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
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