When I bake, it’s kind of like therapy (don’t worry, I also have an actual therapist). I get to escape into a ball of dough, and my only objective is to make something sweet and delicious. This time of year is perfect for putting that coping mechanism to the test, but I’ve never exactly found it fun to hover over too many sugar cookies, trying to ice each one in a way that makes them look like their intended shapes and not a bunch of colorful blobs all running together. Gingerbread houses are a little less stressful to decorate, but they’re harder to eat, and constructing them has reduced reality TV contestants to tears. Why do that to yourself? I prefer to entertain a different option, and I suggest you do, too: the croquembouche.
A croquembouche is a French dessert constructed by piling choux pastry puffs on top of each other into the shape of a cone, binding the puffs together with delicate caramel threads, and decorating the whole thing basically however you want. It’s traditionally served on special occasions, and even its name sounds very cool and fancy. I love it for many reasons, but mostly because it combines two of my favorite things: desserts and showing off. Even the worst croquembouche will still look pretty impressive, and whether you burn the caramel or your cream puffs go soggy, it’ll be delicious no matter what. This edible decoration has the power to temporarily transform the 10-year-old Ikea table in your cluttered one-bedroom apartment into a beautiful midcentury dining table at the center of a chic open-concept house with a marble kitchen island and a pool in the backyard that isn’t too big or too small (my domestic fantasies revealed).
Before you begin, you should know that this is definitely a bit of a technical challenge—I mean, it’s a French dessert. You’re making pâte à choux, pastry cream, and caramel, and each of those recipes are somewhat touch and go for me. But in the spirit of croquembouche, my advice is to put on your Great British Baking Show hat and embrace it, baby! I make each element from scratch because that keeps me from feeling like a failure, but that’s just me. If you are emotionally secure and don’t carry that baggage, then you should just buy whichever parts you want pre-made from the store and assemble it like a gingerbread house kit—except the caramel. You actually do have to make the caramel.
The base of this dessert, the choux pastry, is made up of seven ingredients: butter, water, milk, sugar, salt, flour, and eggs. Not too bad. It does involve adding raw eggs to hot dough, so your biggest risk here is scrambling the eggs and making your puffs taste like breakfast. I have done this, and it is not the end of the world. I like breakfast. Keep in mind, they’re covered in caramel and therefore do not need to be perfect; it’s like how we use presents to cover up our dysfunctional family dynamics. (If you get your sibling a gift card, It makes up for the time that you crashed their car.)
Anyway! When baking the puffs, slight changes in humidity, heat, and cooking time can cause the pastry to deflate. The good news? This also doesn’t matter. No one is grading you on your French pastry skills. It will still probably taste fine. Just focus on making a vehicle for some sort of cream filling and move on with your life. If you burn them, you can make more, or go to the store and buy them. I promise you, it’s fine.
I like to fill the puffs with pastry cream because it tastes like perfection, but you can literally get frosting in a can and stuff the cream puffs with that—no one is going to arrest you. Experiment with flavors! Without altering the science of how pastry cream cooks, you can use browned butter, add spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, etc.), and try different extracts. Let your sister make a suggestion. Then, disregard whatever she says and do what you want because this is your croquembouche, not hers.
The final technical challenge lies in your key decoration and structural glue: caramel. You can’t get around making this yourself because you need it to harden and hold the cone of cream puffs together. Dip the puffs into the caramel while it’s still hot and build up your tower as high as you want. Then, take caramel and spin it into sugar strings that sit on top like a halo or your crown chakra (whichever makes you happy to imagine). You might have to try stringing the caramel a couple of times to get it right (I did), but it still won’t be as difficult as trying to hold four walls of a gingerbread house together with only two hands and not enough royal icing.
After your croquembouche is all glued and crowned with caramel, you can do whatever your heart desires. Drizzle chocolate, dump edible glitter on it, or use sprinkles. Be free. Go wild.
In a season with a strong emphasis on appearing like you have it together, embrace the chaos of reality by making a croquembouche. If you happen to nail all the technical aspects, you can pat yourself on the back and make everyone compliment you. If you didn’t nail it, who cares. Eat it anyway. Make it at your Ikea table, make it with your friends, kill four hours making it at your parents’ house. If you need permission this December to try a baking project that you might ruin, consider this your green light and hit the gas. It’ll be your delicious, beautiful, perfectly imperfect creation. If anyone tries to question it, you can always just reply, “It’s French.”