So last weekend it was Katie’s birthday. As I showed you all a couple of weeks ago, I was spoiled rotten when it was my birthday and she baked me the most ridiculously spectacular rainbow layer cake. It was now my turn to come up with something special. Obviously it wasn’t a competition, and anyway, nothing I could do could top what she made, but there was no way that I was going to turn up with a Betty Crocker instant chocolate cake. Not that I have a problem with these; my mum has made me one for every birthday that I can remember and they are always great...
To be honest, I really struggled to make a decision on what I was going to make. I had booked the day before her birthday off work, but as the days got closer I had no clearer idea on this epic baking project that I wanted to plan. On the week of her birthday I had narrowed it down to two things: a selection of miniature cakes, tarts and pastries, or a croquembouche. I really liked the idea of a tiered display of tiny cakes, with eclairs, rhubarb and custard tarts, doughnuts, bitesize sponges and more. But in the end I was ill prepared for such a task, and I’m not sure that I could have pulled it off to the scale that I would have wanted in the time that I had to bake. I may well come back to this idea in the future, but at that point it meant that I was settling for the croqumbouche.
Aside from it being Katie’s birthday, I had wanted to attempt a croquembouche for years. I first saw one being made on a Raymond Blanc programme, where as usual he made it look ridiculously easy. Despite this, the sheer scale of constructing one was obvious and I was under no illusion that it would be a difficult thing to pull off.
The main thing that was going to make the whole thing difficult was the fact that I had never made choux pastry before. I’ve always loved watching it being made, and the way that it seems to burst out of the saucepan when the flour is added. There is a lot that can go wrong though, as I found out on my first attempt. A combination of lack of heat and too much egg left me with less of a pastry batter and more of a runny sludge that was certainly not suitable for the piping bag. I hate messing things up when cooking, and with the limited time I had before Katie returned from work, I was a little bit panicky that Betty might be sneaking back into the kitchen. However, after a bit of patience (and a trip to the shop for more ingredients), my second attempt was much better. A little sneak in the oven half way through cooking confirmed that they had risen and were looking good. That was a relief, because with the scale of the batches that I was making it could have started to get expensive!
Luckily, everything else went smoothly; I didn’t manage to scramble my creme patissiere, and the choux buns and caramel held firm after the tower was constructed and turned over. That was the biggest relief of all, and when food stands nearly two feet off the table then it’s damn exciting.
Technically all of the different elements of a croquembouche are fairly straightforward. It’s just the industrial amounts that you have to make, with over 100 choux balls, nearly two litres of creme patissiere and caramel made from a kilo of sugar. It’s well worth it though. To make the construction easier, I made a cone with craft paper that I then lined with baking parchment. I then built the tower upside down before turning once the caramel had set hard. Although Raymond makes his freestyle, I bow to his talent and then hide behind my paper cone. I think that my efforts would have resulted in a random ruin of choux on the plate. And table. And floor.
For the choux pastry:
I used Delia’s choux recipe for my croquembouche, but increased the batch size for the amount that I needed. If you have a small oven, make the pastry in two batches, making the second batch whilst the first are cooking.
240g 00 flour
600ml cold water
4 tsp caster sugar
200g butter, cubed
8 eggs, beaten
For the creme patissiere:
21 egg yolks
225g caster sugar
75g plain flour
100g ground almonds
12 tsp cornflour
1.5 litres whole milk
2 vanilla pods
For the caramel:
1kg caster sugar
Start by making the choux pastry. Preheat the oven to 190ºC (fan) and grease 3 baking trays before lining with greaseproof paper. Put the water and butter into a medium to large saucepan and slowly bring to the boil, stirring the butter so that it melts. As soon as the liquid reaches boiling point, turn the heat to medium/low and quickly pour in all of the flour whilst beating hard with a spatula. The mixture should transform quickly into a thick paste, and keep beating until it leaves the sides clean. Take the pan off the heat and add the eggs in 5 or 6 stages, stirring well in between until well incorporated before adding the next bit. The paste should still be thick and smooth, if it is runny then you will have to start again like I did on my first attempt. Spoon the mixture into a piping bag and pipe small, teaspoon-sized amounts onto the baking sheets. Put into the oven for 10 minutes before turning up the temperature to 210ºC and baking for another 15 minutes. When the choux buns are crispy and golden brown, remove from the oven and prick the base of each one with a skewer to allow the steam to escape. Place on a rack and allow to cool.
Next make the creme patissiere. Put the egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl and whisk until the mix lightens in colour and they are well combined. Add the flour, almond flour and cornflour and whisk again so that everything is incorporated. Set aside. Put the milk in a large saucepan, scrape the vanilla pods into it and bring to the boil. Once at boiling point, turn the heat off and cool for a few minutes. Slowly pour the hot milk into the bowl with the egg mixture whilst whisking until combined, then tip the whole lot back into the saucepan. Turn the heat onto low, and whisk continuously until the mixture is very thick but not scrambled. It will take a little while to start thickening, but have patience as it will in the end. Once the creme patissiere is really thick, pour it into a bowl, sprinkle with icing sugar and allow to cool.
When the creme patissiere has cooled down, spoon it into a piping bag and you are now ready to fill the choux buns. Poke the nozzle into each pastry ball and gently squeeze the creme patissiere into it until they are full. You will know when they are full when they are heavier and the filling starts to burst out of the hole. Repeat until all are filled.
To make your caramel, tip the sugar into a medium saucepan and turn onto a medium-low heat. As the sugar starts to heat up, swirl the pan gently until all the sugar is melted. Once the caramel has a dark golden colour you are ready to start constructing the tower. Place one of the choux balls at the bottom of the cone, then very carefully dip one side of the next ball into the caramel and join it to the first. Repeat this process, working your way around the side of the cone until all of the choux balls have been used and the bottom of the tower will be even when turned over. Work quickly and carefully when building the croquembouche, and make sure that you don’t push down so hard that the filling escapes.
Once you have finished constructing, allow 5 minutes for the caramel to completely set. Put a board or plate on the base of the tower and in one movement tip it over. Carefully unwrap the cone and baking paper from around the edges.
The basic croquembouche is now complete, and it is now up to you how to decorate it. Due to time constraints I simply added some almonds that had been dipped in the caramel and then spun some of the caramel around the edge. You can take this further by adding praline shapes, fondant icing, fireworks etc etc etc! Savour the moment when it is complete, as as soon as the first choux ball has been ripped from the top it will never look the same!