A classic French croquembouche is a fixture for weddings, holidays or any festive occasion: a tower of caramel-coated cream puffs with a halo of spun caramel threads. It's definitely a bit of a project, but it's a fun one. Tasha De Serio's Salty Caramel Croquembouche with Ricotta Cream recipe puts a delicious spin on the classic.
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Before you start assembling your croquembouche, make sure everything you need is at hand. You'll need your pâte à choux pastry puffs, sorted into small, medium, and large puffs; sugar and salt to make the caramel; a 12-inch tall styrofoam cone covered in foil; plus plenty of toothpicks to pin the cream puffs to the cone. Finally, you'll need the ricotta pastry cream filling because the first step is to fill the puffs.
To fill the puffs, spoon about half the filling into a pastry bag with a 1/4 inch plain tip. Twist the bag closed. Poke the tip into the bottom of each puff and fill it with pastry cream. Be sure not to overfill the puffs; you can feel as you fill how full they are. When you empty your pastry bag, refill it, and continue filling the puffs.
Once the puffs are filled with cream, it's time to make the caramel. Have a bowl of ice water on the counter; it's important not to overcook the caramel and the ice water will immediately stop the cooking once the caramel reaches the right point. Also, have a small bowl of ice water handy in case you get any caramel on your fingers.
In a saucepan, combine 2-1/2 cups of sugar, 1 Tbs. of sea salt, and 2/3 cup of water. Swirl the pan to moisten the sugar, cover it, and bring it to a boil over high heat. Boil the sugar until it starts to turn golden around the edges, about 5 to 7 minutes. Uncover the pan and continue cooking it, giving it a swirl every so often until all of the caramel turns light golden, about 2 minutes more. After 2 minutes, plunge the pan into the bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.
Stick the first toothpick into the styrofoam cone about an inch above the base. Take a large cream puff and dip it in the caramel to coat one whole side and about a third of the top. Press the cream puff onto the toothpick, with the top facing out. Then stick another toothpick into the cone at the same height, and keep it close enough to the first toothpick that the puffs will be snug up against each other. Dip another large puff in caramel and nestle it up against the first. Keep dipping and spearing the puffs, working your way all around and up the cone. As you work your way up, choose smaller and smaller puffs. Be careful—the caramel is very hot, at least in the beginning. If you get any caramel on your fingers, dip them into the ice water immediately to stop the burn.
As you get closer to the top and your caramel is cooling, you'll notice it starts to trail long threads of caramel. When this happens, just wind the threads around the cone before you attach the puff. When the caramel gets too cool and thick to dip your puffs, put the caramel back over low heat for a few seconds and swirl it to heat it back up—it'll get a little darker each time you do this. You'll probably need to reheat the caramel every 5 minutes or so as you work.
Once you've completely covered the cone with puffs, you may have some leftover. Dip leftover puffs in the caramel and place them on the platter surrounding the croquembouche.
When you've coated all the puffs, your caramel is pretty thick and amber in color. Dip a fork into the caramel and pull threads of caramel around and around the cone to create a caramel halo.
Once you've assembled your croquembouche, you may think it's too pretty to eat—but that's why you made a few extras!