MITCH GEROW, chef/owner of The East Ender on Middle Street, likes to tell the story of the first time he made a croquembouche.
He was interviewing for a job where a wedding was taking place. The sous chef walked out. There was a huge storm and branches fell on the bridal party’s cars. Gerow was asked to step in and make the wedding cake — a croquembouche.
A croquembouche is a tower of profiteroles, or cream puffs, surrounded with spun sugar. It’s a traditional French dessert often used as a wedding cake. The name comes from “croque en bouche,” or “crunch in the mouth.”
It also makes a fantastic showy dessert for the holidays.
Gerow has shared his instructions for making a rustic Christmas croquembouche with clementine-flavored pastry cream. (See page C4.)
The traditional croquembouche is a collection of cream-filled profiteroles held together with caramel, spun sugar, or pastry cream. It’s typically decorated with honeyed almonds, flowers or ribbons.
It looks too difficult to try at home, but on a scale of one to five, Gerow gives it a three. The trickiest part is the cage of spun sugar that goes on at the last minute, as the chef can attest. The sugar is ultra sensitive to heat and moisture.
Remember that wedding? When Gerow wheeled out the croquembouche wedding cake, “the photographer set up a little studio around the display and melted the cage. And it literally looked like a little kid licked every single cream puff.”
So he made another batch and covered the croquembouche in spun sugar again, this time giving a live “performance” that impressed the guests.
But don’t let that little story scare you away from trying it yourself.
“It’s kind of a cool project to do,” says Tiffany White, production supervisor in the bakery at Whole Foods Market, who made a croquembouche last week for a special event. “And it’s inspiring too. It looks more difficult than it actually is.”
White suggests practicing making the spun sugar ahead of time until you get comfortable with it. Make the profiteroles a day ahead not only to save time, but to give the pastry puffs some time to dry out a little.
“They’re a little bit easier to stack and a little bit easier to work with,” she said.
The tower can be constructed a variety of ways. Gerow uses a skewer to get his started, stacking profiteroles on it kind if like a spine. White makes a cone out of cardboard, then covers it in wax paper.
White held her profiteroles together with caramel, while Gerow’s more rustic croquembouche simply used extra pastry cream like spackle. White used vanilla pastry cream, Gerow flavored his with clementine zest.
If there are children at the table or you don’t want to go through the work of making spun sugar, make a chocolate ganache to pour over the tower. Whatever choices you make, a croquembouche is made to be eaten. It will start sagging about an hour or two after the sugar or chocolate is added, so save that step until just before presentation.
After the spun sugar is flecked onto the tower of profiteroles, add more decorations to dress up the croquembouche a little. Dip raspberries and strawberries in egg whites and sugar, then place them around the base of the tower.
Gerow added some lavendar buds he saved from last summer to the tower itself and then placed traditional Christmas greenery around the base of the tower.
Merry Christmas, and have fun making your own croquembouche!
MITCH GEROW’S CLEMENTINE CROQUEMBOUCHE
1 cup water
6 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon sugar
Pinch of salt
6 ounces flour
2 egg whites
Bring water, butter, sugar and salt to a boil in a heavy sauce pan. Add flour all at once at boil. Reduce heat and continue to beat with a wooden spoon until a firm ball of dough is formed, approximately 5 minutes.
Transfer dough to a stand mixer and let cool for 5 minutes.
On low speed with a paddle, incorporate eggs slowly. When dough is homogenized and glossy, spoon or pipe 1-inch balls onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Bake at 420 degrees for 5 minutes. Rotate and bake 5 minutes. Rotate and reduce heat to 325 degrees. Cook until golden. Test by checking for airy center.
Pierce each puff to release steam.
FOR THE CLEMENTINE PASTRY CREAM:
2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup corn starch
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-1/2 teaspoons clementine zest
In a thick-bottomed sauce pan, stir together 1/4 cup sugar and milk. Bring to a simmer. In separate bowl, whisk together yolks, egg, sugar and cornstarch. Slowly incorporate into simmering milk and sugar, being careful not to curdle eggs. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in butter one pat at a time. Finish with vanilla and zest.
Cool with a butter wrapper directly on top to prevent a “skin” from forming.
Fill puffs with cream and assemble into a pyramid. A skewer stacked with puffs is a good starting point.
Whip a sugar cage over the pyramid.
TO MAKE THE SPUN SUGAR:
Heat 1-1/2 cups sugar and a splash (about a tablespoon) of water to 307 degrees. Use a wet pastry brush to remove crystals from the side of the pan. Remove from heat and cool on an ice bath. When sugar turns hard when stretched, whip strands over the puffs to complete the croquembouche.
Decorate the cage with lavender buds from last summer’s garden.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: