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Croquembouche means "crunchy mouth" or "crunch in the mouth" in French. Adapted from a 1974 printing of The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, and from The Microwave Gourmet, by Barbara Kafka.

Please note: This is a family recipe, put together from several sources, and tested only by a forgiving audience of healthy, hungry young men. Use fine ingredients, bring a sense of adventure, and your results will be delicious, even if not perfect. The recipe amounts appear in the original publications. Instructions reflect our family's experiences.

Also note: The recipe in The Joy of Cooking begins with this note, which explains why Croquembouche is a perfect family holiday project:

This spectacular dessert is a mechanical marvel. It needs considerable organization, for it is best when assembled as close to serving time as possible.

A croquembouche is a cone of tiny, filled cream puffs, held together by caramelized sugar. The process involves making the cream puff shells (easy), making a filling (easy to moderately complex), filling the cream puffs (easy) and caramelizing sugar (moderately challenging) at roughly the same time, and assembling the towering cone (challenging).

If you are making this dish with small children, earlier in the day when you plan to assemble and eat the croquembouche, the adults in the house may want to make the pastry cream filling, which needs to be chilled for a few hours, along with the cream puff shells.

Cream Puff Shells

Make the cream puff shells during the day you plan to make Croquembouche, ideally about four hours before you plan to assemble the whole, so the puffs are completely fresh and completely cooled.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

You will need four or five large eggs, and they MUST be at room temperature, or puffing will not happen. Put the eggs out early in the day, or, if you forget, put whole eggs in a bowl and cover with warm water for about 10 minutes, or until a whole egg held in the hand feels neutral in temperature, not cool.

Sift before measuring: 1 cup bread flour or all purpose flour (a higher gluten flour works well in this recipe)

Stir into the flour: 1/8 teaspoon salt 1 Tablespoon sugar

Set aside.

Place in a heavy pan: 1 cup milk 1/3 cup butter (that is 6 Tablespoons, or 2/3 of a stick of butter)

Bring this mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Locate a wooden spoon and be careful not to let the milk-butter mixture burn or boil over. When it boils, dump the flour mixture all at once into the liquid, and stir as quickly as you can with your wooden spoon. It looks like a clunky mess at the outset, and then as you stir more, it miraculously smooths out into a thick paste. Stir faster!

When the mixture stops sticking to the spoon or the sides of the pan, take the pan off the heat for two minutes. Do not overcook, or the puff....won't.

The mixture never returns to the heat, but must still be hot enough to do a magic trick with the room temperature eggs, incorporating them into the paste at just the right temperature.

After the two minute cool-down, add one whole room temperature egg to the pan, and stir like the dickens with your wooden spoon. The paste mixture will come apart and then go back together again after you persist in stirring. Repeat with each egg, beating hard after you add each egg. How do you know whether you need the fifth egg? The Joy says:

Continue to beat each time until the dough no longer looks slippery. The paste is ready to bake whent he last egg has been incorporated, and it has reached proper consistency when a small quantity of the dough will stand erect if scooped up on the end of the spoon. It is best to use the dough at once.

Well of course.

You will need a large, flat baking sheet, and you will need to treat it so the puffs will not stick. Use non-stick spray, or place a sheet of parchment paper or a silicone sheet on your pan. You may, in fact, need two pans. Form rows of small walnut-size shapes with the paste, placing each little blob about 2 inches from its neighbors. You can use a pastry bag if you like, and the shapes will be more regular and perfect. You can also use a kitchen spoon and your fingers. The paste allows you to shape it very slightly with your fingers if you wish, particularly if you moisten your fingers first.

When you have a sheet filled with unbaked puffs, sprinkle the whole sheet lightly with water, and put it in the preheated 400 degree oven. Bake 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake about 25 minutes longer. The puffs should be quite firm to the touch before you remove them - but you don't want them to be browned to the point of adding an unwanted bitter taste.

The Joy says:

Cool the shells away from any draft before filling. For filling, cut them horizontally with a sharp knife. If there are any damp dough filaments inside, be sure to remove them.

One recipe of puff pastry makes 25 - 30 small cream puff shells.

Filling for the Cream Puff Shells: Pastry Cream adapted from The Microwave Gourmet, by Barbara Kafka

You may prefer thick sweetened whipped cream as a filling; we love the custardy, eggy vanilla flavors of pastry cream.

2 cups milk 6 Tablespoons granulated (white) sugar 2 Tablespoons cornstarch 6 egg yolks 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Heat milk uncovered in a 4-cup glass measure in your microwave, at 100% power, for 4 minutes. Remove from the microwave and set aside.

2. Sift together sugar and cornstarch. In a separate bowl, whisk the sugar-cornstarch mixture into the six egg yolks. Gradually whisk in the hot milk. Return the mixture to the 4-cup glass measure and cook in the microwave, uncovered, at 100% for four minutes. (You may want to stop after 2 1/2, 3, and 3 1/2 minutes to stir and make sure you are not over-cooking. Microwaves vary in power and speed.)

3. Remove from the microwave oven and whisk vigorously. Unless it is already very thick, return to the oven and cook for one minute.

4. Remove from oven and strain through a fine sieve into a clean bowl. Stir in the vanilla extract. If you have time, let it cool to room temperature before putting it in the refrigerator. Cover and chill the pastry cream thoroughly, at least two hours.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups, which is plenty for the croquembouche.

The caramel that glues it all together, adapted from The Microwave Gourmet, by Barbara Kafka

Make the caramel just before you are ready to assemble the small puffs into an impressive cone shaped tower.

Stir together 1 cup sugar and 1/3 cup warm water until there are no lumps. Put the mixture in a four cup glass measure. Cover tightly with microwave-safe plastic wrap, using a piece large enough to ensure that the wrap extends at least three inches down the sides of the cup. Wrap the handle as well, making sure the wrap can seal above and below the handle, and below the spout.

Cook at 100% power for 5 minutes. Watch it closely. As soon as the mixture begins to turn color, remove it from the microwave, using a heavy pot holder (the measuring cup will be extremely hot.) Place the measuring cup on a heavy trivet or rack. Prick the plastic carefully with a tooth pick, being careful to avoid ripping the plastic in larger holes (because the steam that escapes from a larger hole will burn your hands.)

Assembly: Put all the pieces together

Cut each cream puff horizontally and place a scant tablespoon of chilled pastry cream inside. Replace the top. (Or you can slit each puff across about 3/4 of its diameter, open the flap slightly, and slide the cream in. The puffs will stay together more easily this way.)

On a cake plate or footed platter, pour out a thin stream of warm caramel to form about a nine inch circle. You can outline the circle, or fill it in with the caramel. You need only the outline portion to hold the foundation row of filled cream puffs.

Working quickly, set filled cream puffs close together around the nine inch circle, bottoms resting in the warm caramel. This step holds the croquembouche steady.

Pour out a little caramel on each remaining cream puff (or dip an edge of the puff in the warm melted caramel) and use the caramel as glue to hold the puffs to each other. Stack the cream puffs in ascending rows that decrease in circumference as they rise, so the overall shape is a cone.

It is important to use as little caramel as possible to get the job done. Large pieces of caramel, hardened, make the dessert hard to eat.

As soon as the last cream puff is placed, the croquembouche is complete. Take a quick picture, and eat it. The Joy advises serving by "pulling apart with 2 forks."

You can vary it to taste. Fill the cream puffs with a chocolate or espresso flavored pastry cream or whipped cream if you prefer. Serve a little favorite chocolate sauce or ganache on the side for chocolate lovers. Although these variations are not classic, the idea is for families to love cooking together. It sometimes helps to have many choices so everyone has a good time and some favorite tastes.

Ganache, adapted from The Microwave Gourmet, by Barbara Kafka

In a 4-cup glass measure, heat 1/2 cup heavy cream in the microwave at 100% power for 90 seconds. Stir in four ounce grated high-quality semi-sweet chocolate. Let stand a few minutes, and then stir gently until thoroughly mixed.

This mixture will become firm in the refrigerator. Use it at room temperature as a sauce. You can refrigerate the leftover ganache until it is firm, roll it in small balls, roll the balls in cocoa powder, and have homemade truffles.

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