This evening I went to my BFF Ness' house for tea, and I decided that today was the day to pull out the big guns and mark another one off my 101 Things list by making croquembouche for dessert.
First up, I just want to say that I have no idea what all the fuss is about. It might be because I'm starting to get the hang of various cooking techniques or because I am comparing it to some much more complicated recipes that I have attempted in the last year (like consumme for the Daring Cooks), but, whilst time consuming, there was nothing particularly mind-bendingly complicated about the recipe. Croquembouche is not difficult to make.
Secondly, I acknowledge that the croquembouche I made was quite small because that was the yield of the recipe, but I have no idea how the Master Chef contestants bollocksed it up so badly last year! Maybe it's because I have a bit of a grasp on how to build stuff that doesn't fall over, but I made it without the assistance of any sort of mould at all. I just stacked it like a pyramid and glued it with toffee. Seemed like a no-brainer to me...
To the recipe! From AWW Cook - Makes 24 quite small profiteroles, i.e., nowhere near as big as the ones you would get from a professional bakery
1/4c (60mL) water
1/4c (35g) plain flour
1. Preheat oven to 220oC. Lightly grease 2 trays/line with baking paper
2. Place butter and water in small saucepan; bring to boil. Add flour, beat with wooden spoon over heat until mixture comes away from base and sides of saucepan and forms a smooth ball.
Transfer to small bowl; beat in egg with electric mixer until glossy.
Spoon into piping bag fitted with 1cm tube.
3. Pipe small dollops of pastry 5cm apart onto tray (these dollops were ever so slightly too big, because they were much smaller on the second tray, and I didn't get the full 24 out of it. On the plus side, having some smaller ones made it easier to fit them all together).
Bake, uncovered, 7mins. Reduce oven temperature to 180oC; bake, uncovered, 10mins or until profiteroles are crisp. Cut small opening in side of each profiterole; bake further 5mins or until dried out. Cool. (They will be quite obviously light and dry when they're ready.)
PASTRY CREAM (creme patisserie):
1c (250mL) milk
1/2 vanilla bean, split (I used 1/2tsp vanilla bean paste instead)
3 egg yolks
1/3c (75g) castor sugar
Combine milk and vanilla bean in small saucepan; bring to boil (I kept stirring mine as vanilla bean paste has a little sugar in it (I think!) and I didn't want a blob of it to stick to the bottom of the saucepan and burn). Discard vanilla bean (if used). Beat egg yolks, sugar and cornflour until thick.
With motor operating, gradually beat in hot milk mixture. Return custard to saucepan; stir over heat until mixture boils and thickens. Cover with plastic wrap (on surface of custard) and cool to room temperature.
1c (220g) castor sugar
1/2c (125mL) water
Combine sugar and water in medium heavy based frypan/saucepan (I imagine using a frypan causes it to caramelise much more quickly). Stir over heat, without boiling, until sugar dissolves; bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, without stirring, until mixture is golden brown in colour. (You may need to clean the sides of the saucepan of sugar crystals from time to time using a pastry brush and some water. That wasn't in the recipe but it's something I've picked up. Just don't use too much water or your syrup will come off the boil.)
Fill piping bag fitted with large plain/star tip/whatever will fit into the slits you made in the profiteroles with the pastry creme. Pipe pastry cream into slits in profiteroles until filled. If possible do this while toffee is boiling, otherwise it will be quite time consuming... but keep a close eye on the toffee!
(This part is terribly scientific) Dip profiteroles into toffee so that they are at least half covered and arrange on serving plate. Note that the toffee is VERY hot and WILL burn you if you accidentally dip your finger in it (and for once, I didn't injure myself. Hurrah!). I suppose it would be wise to use a skewer or a fork to do that but I just used my fingers (bearing in mind that my nails are long enough to grip the little piece of undipped pastry and retrieve it!).
The first layer I made a square, 3 profiteroles wide with a gap in the middle (thereby using 8). The second layer I intended to use 2 on each side, but ended up using fewer because they wouldn't fit. Anyway, just keep layering them and glueing them together with toffee, ensuring that each layer is at least half overlapping the one below to ensure it is stable (mind you, the toffee is like araldyte so there is little risk of collapse!).
Finish by drizzling the remaining toffee over the croquembouche, then use a spoon to drag stringy bits around the place. I belive the official method is using two forks, back to back, to "spin" the toffee, but I didn't want the totally spun look.
Things you should know about croquembouche:
1. There is no need to freak out about choux pastry, pastry creme, profiteroles or croquembouche. All they require is a little patience and a will to follow the recipe. This is not normally something I do well, but the recipe was so simple and uses only ingredients that I would consider to be household staples (although I concede my pantry is better stocked than many).
2. The recipe said 10mins prep time and 30mins cooking time, plus cooling time. The recipe lied to me through song! I hate when people do that... By which I mean, it's true that the profiteroles themselves take that period of time to make, but unless you're crazy-prepared it's going to take a darned site longer than that to assemble the entire croquembouche.
You have to cool not just the profiteroles (which is a relatively quick process), but also the pastry creme, which holds its heat for quite some time. If you were more organised than I, you would probably get onto making it the second the profiteroles went in the oven. But because I followed the original recipe which said to cool the profiteroles and then went on to talk about the pastry creme, it didn't occur to me to start it any sooner.
The toffee took longer to reach that golden-brown colour than I expected it to (more than ten minutes, I think, although I was tired and bored so it may not have been so long!), so I probably could have started that before I even got to the point of filling the profiteroles.
3. The original recipe specified using a 1cm tip to pipe the pastry creme. Using a tip that size will cause your profiteroles to explode/collapse/implode/disintegrate. I used a large-ish star tip, and feel that it may have still been too big as you have to poke it into the slits you cut, and slits are, by nature, quite narrow. Your largest plain writing tip would probaby do the job (provided it is actually quite large, and that your pastry creme isn't too lumpy). If not, try a smaller star tip.
4. This recipe makes 24 very small profiteroles. Next time I will probably double the recipe and make bigger ones. I'm not sure what that will do to the cooking time but I guess I can wing it!
5. I believe it would be relatively simple to make a chocolate custard filling - one assumes that you would add some good quality drinking chocolate powder to the milk, or some cocoa and maybe sugar. You could also dip the profiteroles in ganache instead of toffee. I think there may be a chocolate croquembouche in my future...
Anyway, I hope I've inspired you to try something that's a little outside of your comfort zone. It will be well worth your effort, as, now that I've eaten super-fresh profiteroles, I realise what an inferior product the ones a couple of days old are! The new ones are crispy and firm, not chewy, which offsets the custard wonderfully. Yum.