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Salty Caramel Croquembouche with Ricotta Cream

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Yields about 70 cream puffs, more than enough for a 12-inch-tall croquembouche

This modern version of the French classic features ricotta cream filling for the puffs and a sea salt caramel coating. Serve this festive dessert the day it’s assembled.

Watch the two-part video series on How to Make Croquembouche to see this centerpiece dessert come together step by step. The videos include detailed instructions along with tips to ensure success—even if it is your first time taking on this recipe. 

For the pastry cream
  • 1-1/2 cups whole-milk ricotta
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • Table salt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 6 Tbs. cornstarch
  • 1 Tbs. pure vanilla extract
  • 2-1/4 oz. (4-1/2 Tbs.) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
For the pâte à choux puffs
  • 7-1/2 oz. (15 Tbs.) unsalted butter
  • 2-1/2 Tbs. granulated sugar
  • Kosher salt
  • 11-1/4 oz. (2-1/2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 10 large eggs
For assembly
  • 2-1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 Tbs. sea salt
  • One 4x12-inch (approximately) foam cone, covered in foil (ideally gold)
  • Toothpicks
Make the pastry cream

Drain the ricotta in a fine sieve set over a small bowl in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 1 day.

Warm the milk in a heavy-duty 3-quart saucepan over medium heat until steaming, 3 to 4 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs, egg yolks, and 1/2 tsp. salt in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in the sugar. Whisk in the cornstarch and vanilla until smooth.

Slowly whisk a little of the hot milk into the egg mixture to warm it, then whisk the mixture into the pot of milk. Whisk in the butter and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the pastry cream is very thick and registers 165°F on an instant-read thermometer, 2 to 3 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve into a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it onto the surface of the cream, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Purée the ricotta in a food processor until very smooth, about 8 minutes. Stir it into the pastry cream and refrigerate until ready to use or for up to 1 day.

Make and fill the pâte à choux puffs

Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and heat the oven to 425°F.

Bring 2-1/2 cups of water and the butter, sugar, and 1-1/4 tsp. salt to a boil in a 4-quart saucepan over medium-low heat. When the butter melts, remove from the heat and add the flour. Set the pan over low heat and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a smooth ball that pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 2 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on low speed until cool to the touch. On medium-low speed, beat in the eggs one by one, mixing until each is fully incorporated before adding the next.

Let the dough cool for about 10 minutes. Transfer half of the dough to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain tip (Ateco #806). Onto 2 parchment-lined rimmed baking sheets, pipe small, 1-1/2-inch-high mounds (like chocolate kisses) at 2-inch intervals. Smooth the surface of the mounds with a wet finger.

Lower the oven temperature to 375°F and bake, rotating the sheets from top to bottom after 10 minutes, until the puffs are evenly golden-brown, 20 to 25 minutes total. Turn off the oven and remove the puffs from the oven. Prick the side of each puff with a paring knife to release the steam. Return the puffs to the turned-off oven with the door ajar to dry them for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the puffs from the baking sheets and transfer to a rack to cool.

Repeat with the remaining dough on freshly lined baking sheets.

Assemble the croquembouche

Sort the puffs according to size: small, medium, and large. Transfer about half of the pastry cream to a piping bag fitted with a 1/4-inch plain tip (Ateco # 802 or #10). Poke the tip into the bottom of each puff and fill with the pastry cream, being careful not to overfill. Refill the pastry bag as needed.

Have a large bowl of ice water ready. Put the sugar and salt in a 3-quart heavy-duty saucepan. Add 2/3 cup water and swirl to moisten the sugar. Cover and boil over high heat until starting to turn golden around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the lid and cook, swirling occasionally, until the caramel is light golden, 1 to 2 minutes more. Immediately put the bottom of the pot in the ice water to stop the cooking. Remove the pot from the water and put it on a heatproof surface.

Have a small bowl of ice water nearby. Put the foil-wrapped cone on a serving platter. Insert a toothpick about 1 inch from the base of the cone. Dip the side of a large cream puff into the hot caramel to coat the side and about a third of the top of the puff. Immediately press the cream puff onto the toothpick, with the top facing out. Insert another toothpick parallel to the first pick, positioning it so that the next puff will fit snugly against its neighbor. Dip another cream puff and nestle it against the first. Repeat, making your way up and around the cone, working from the largest to the smallest puffs. If you get any hot caramel on your fingers, immediately dip them into the ice water to stop the burn.

As the caramel cools and thickens, it will begin to spin into long, thin threads as you pull the puffs from the pot. Before attaching the puff, circle the cone with the puff so the spun caramel drapes the croquembouche. When the caramel becomes too thick to dip, swirl it over low heat to thin it—it will darken a little each time you do this.

When the cone is completely covered with puffs, dip a fork into the caramel and continue to pull the caramel threads from the pot and spin them around the croquembouche until you’re happy with its appearance. Serve any extra cream puffs on the side.

Make Ahead Tips

The pastry cream can be made up to one day ahead and refrigerated, covered. The puffs are best used the same day they're made, but they can be made one day ahead and stored (unfilled) in an airtight container at room temperature. You can assemble the croquembouche up to 2 hours ahead provided it’s not too humid; a moist environment will cause the caramel to soften. Don’t refrigerate the croquembouche.

nutrition information (per serving):
Size : per piece; Calories (kcal): 120; Fat (g): fat g 5; Fat Calories (kcal): 50; Saturated Fat (g): sat fat g 3; Protein (g): protein g 3; Monounsaturated Fat (g): 1.5; Carbohydrates (g): carbs g 15; Polyunsaturated Fat (g): 0; Sodium (mg): sodium mg 160; Cholesterol (mg): cholesterol mg 60; Fiber (g): fiber g 0;

Photo: Pernille Pedersen

Made this for a holiday party last night along with the other desserts shown the Dec. 2010 Fine Cooking article. I'm glad I read the various reviews and allowed plenty of time for preparation and assembly. I neglected to watch the "Pate A Choux" video and added the flour slowly to the hot milk mixture instead of all-at-once which probably was the cause for the dough being too wet and needing more flour to stiffen. It worked out eventually and I agree with many reviewers that it is a wonder to behold but still produces problems with the eating. Have some puffs on the side and that will help with actually getting to eat some of it. Also, if anything is left over on the cone at the end of the event then I'd suggest disassembling it as we didn't and there was a puddle of melted caramel on the table the next morning. All in all it was a triumph with lots of compliments.

We must have gone wrong somewhere with the pate a choux. It didn't form a ball until I another 2 cups of flour and then when we piped it on to the sheet it just made a blob that looked more like a cookie then a puff after cooking. Didn't care much for the pastry cream either. If I make it again first I wont use this recipe and second no ricotta. P.S. Why not mix the sugar and cornstarch before adding to pastry cream mixture to cut down on lumps?

Yes, I will make this again, though with modest changes. First, no need to strain the ricotta if you're using the regular commercial variety. Second, you really need to do this over two days, making the filling the first day for sure. Third, I couldn't get the sugar to caramelize (maybe because I used a non-stick pot?). I had no trouble working with the clear, hot sugar, but next time, I'll try either a chocolate or vanilla glaze - maybe both! The cream custard filling alone is worth 5 stars!!! I use vanilla sugar for all my baking, so the flavor was superb. My 10 year-old son helped with everything except the caramelized sugar glaze, and both of us were bursting with pride when our neighbors came over for New Year's Eve and "oooh-ed" and "aaah-ed" over our croquembouche. We'll definitely do this next year!

I would give this recipe 5 stars for appearance and wow-power when you walk in the room with it, but I feel like 4 is a better reflection of the overall recipe. The most challenging part of the croquembouche is eating it! The caramel dries to a very hard sticky, making it difficult to take the individual puffs off the cone and have a conversation within 2 minutes of eating because you're teeth are stuck together. As far as the recipe directions go, there are two things I would suggest regarding the pastry cream and the pate a choux. I originally outsourced the cream-making to my husband who followed the directions and had a similar outcome to one of the other reviewers--cream that didn't thicken--he thought maybe it would thicken up in the fridge. Luckily, I was able to rescue it by reheating and whisking until it reached the proper temperature. As far as the pate a choux goes, I have made this a number of times following Cooks Illustrated's instructions. They give better sensory instructions for the dough and a temperature range for "done" dough. Either way, however, it's crucial to make sure your dough is cool before you start adding eggs. All in all, this is a show-stopper recipe and I will definitely consider making it again. I'll probably skip the dipping in the caramel and just do the spun look at the end.

I made this gorgeous desert for Christmas Day but unfortunately the pastry cream and the spun sugar didn't work out. I was hoping there would be a video on the pastry cream but you had nothing. The puffs came out beautifully. I followed step by step on the pastry cream but when it came time to thicken it didn't. It reached the prescribed temp but didn't get thick. I am thinking it needed longer than 2-3 minutes for this to occur, and when I added the ricotta it only got soupier. So I abandoned that when I couldn't salvage it and filled the puffs with whipped cream that was very stiff and I added vanilla and Grand Marnier to the cream. With the spun sugar I dont know if I cooked it enough or if it was humid in my home. We were getting ready for a bad storm the next day so that may have had something to do with it. I do understand that making spun sugar is a bit tricky. All in all it came out OK and I will make it again. It was actually fun. I hope in the future that you will have a video for all the steps in a recipe, especially something as delicate and time consuming as this. Regards, LeslieGee

I am going to make the Croquembouche for Christmas dinner dessert. I am glad I watched the video, and I am doing as much advance preparation as I can. I am not put off by the negative comments. I have wanted to make a croquembouche for years, and you have inspired me to try it! My 4-star rating is based on the recipe and directions in the magazine and on the video, not on experience. I'll let you know how it works out. Wish me luck! Reader, I made it. I made some chocolate filling and used it for half the puffs and the ricotta filling for the other half. For the assembly, I got help from my nephew's wife, who is a pediatric surgeon and very dextrous. It is easier to fill the puffs if one person holds them while another person fills them. We burned the first batch of sugar but got the second one right. We tried to make it look Christmasy by putting green or red sprinkles on the puffs as they came out of the caramel, but that proved too time consuming. Don't skip the little bowl of ice water for your fingers. We needed it! The hardest part was getting the puffs close together while they were dripping finger-burning caramel. Our finished product looked like a first effort but tasted good. We didn't finish eating the whole thing on Christmas Eve, and the puffs tasted good and the caramel was still crunchy the following day. I think I have figured out a way to make individual "croques" that do not require the foam core and toothpicks. I'll try that next time. I stick with my original four stars. This recipe is fun to make, especially with another person or two and makes a great presentation. I bet little kids would love eating it.

I wouldn't call this recipe easy, but I am by no means an advanced or even intermediate pastry chef and was able to do this without completely failing -- definitely give it a try if you want a gorgeous centerpiece (and have several hours to kill!). The hardest part for me was getting the caramel correct. Definitely watch the video -- I wish I had. We overcooked it the first time. I also found the constant need to re-heat the caramel frustrating and quickly decided that dipping each puff individually was a complete waste of time -- it is hard to coat it thoroughly without burning yourself anyway and you can achieve pretty much the same thing just by drizzling. Next time I will stick the creme puffs on the cone first, make the caramel and drizzle it on the assembled cone. All in all I thought the croquembouche was an exciting new challenge for me and will definitely do it again!

Definitely a fun recipe to make. Stunning presentation. I was disappointed in the taste, however. Next time, I will flavor the creme filling with almond extract or Grand Marnier or something. Sort of insipid taste. Also, the caramel, while beautiful to look at, is nearly impossible to eat. My guests were afraid they would loose fillings and possibly teeth!

This was a great challenge for me. It came out beautifully and would recommend to any of my intermediate cooks. It is a tedious process and I will make the puffs one day ahead next time. I tilted the pot to get to my sugar mixture better and barely had any burns.Don't know why it got some bad reviews. Cook on!

This is a time consuming recipe that produces a delicious, gorgeous, dessert. BUT it is dangerous and awkward to make the way it was presented. It is almost impossible not to burn fingers. The Styrofoam cone is difficult to deal with, and it is so unnecessary! It can be made to be beautiful using many more of the puffs if it is built as a towering cone. The salted caramel is drizzled between the layers and around it as it is built. Tooth picks are used temporarily to hold it together until the caramel sets between layers. This can be a great dessert but not the way it was presented.

Very, Very difficult to make. I tried 4 times this week and my final product looked horrible! On the flip side it tasted wonderful.

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