I love watching cookery programmes. Whether it’s the jaunty Jamie Oliver cruising round Italy in his camper van and crusading against American obesity, a group of stressed out contestants in the latest series of Masterchef, or simply a boozed up Keith Floyd making friends with the locals, there’s just something about food and TV that makes for a great evening’s entertainment. This year I’ve become slightly obsessed with the BBC’s Great British Bake Off.
I didn’t watch it last year, but am a big fan of crowned king of cake The Boy Who Bakes, and an avid reader of the recipes that both he, and his fellow finalist The Pink Whisk, post on their respective blogs. In last night’s episode, five female quarter finalists battled it out to create beautiful baked cheesecakes, perfectly rolled roulades and towers of croquembouche; a pastry traditionally served at French weddings and celebrations consisting of hundreds of crispy choux buns held together with hardened sugar.
I first encountered the towering terror that is croquembouche in an episode of Masterchef earlier this year, when the extremely talented (and slightly scary) Michel Roux tutored the contestants in how to make one. With so many elements which can potentially go wrong – soggy pastry, sagging buns and caramel burns to name just a few – this task is the perfect challenge to set a group of amateur bakers to test their skills and really separate the wheat from the chaff.
As a passionate baker of cakes, I’ve never actually attempted a croquembouche; although they look absolutely incredible, I can’t imagine feeling quite the same sense of celebratory satisfaction pulling off pieces of pastry as I’d get from cutting a cake, blowing out the candles, making a wish. It’s definitely something I’d like to attempt at some point, but without an imminent special occasion to justify it, and largely lacking in fridge space to house one, I can’t see this happening any time soon.
Profiteroles are perhaps the younger sibling of a croquembouche – the same light, crispy pastry and creamy filling but infinitely less work, and a great place to start if you’re new to choux. Despite their impressive appearance, these little buns are actually pretty easy to make as, unlike other pastry, they don’t call for any lightness of hand or perfect rolling out. You cook the pastry twice, first making a roux, then baking in the oven at a high temperature to form delicate balls of crispy puffed perfection. If you follow the directions below, you shouldn’t go wrong, but for totally fool-proof instructions I’d recommend a read of this step by step tutorial from Delia.
I’ve used a whipped cream filling below – rather than a traditional crème pâtissière – which is both lighter and easier to make. My topping is an indulgent take on the classic chocolate sauce, adding double cream, golden syrup and peanut butter to create a rich, glossy river which runs over the buns when hot, or turns to a thick, fudgey layer if left to cool. Feel free to experiment with fillings and flavours too; Helen at Fuss Free Flavours‘ Toblerone profiteroles sound great, and GBBO finalist herself Holly Bell has recently posted a tiramisu version on Recipes From a Normal Mum which I’m definitely going to try. Coffee, white chocolate, strawberry, zabaglione and even green tea are all flavours which work well too.
Are there any flavours you’ve made which I should know about? Have you ever attempted a croquembouche? And most important of all, who do you want to win the Great British Bake Off?!
Profiteroles with hot chocolate peanut butter fudge sauce
For the choux pastry (adapted from Delia Smith’s Book of Cakes)
60g strong plain flour
1 tsp caster sugar
150ml cold water
50g butter, diced
2 large free range eggs, well beaten
Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C. Cut out a square of baking parchment the size of your baking tray. Sift the flour and sugar onto the baking parchment to aerate.
Heat the cold water and butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. As soon as the butter has melted and the mixture comes up to the boil, turn off the heat immediately. Tip in the flour – all in one go – with one hand, while you beat the mixture vigorously with the other. You can do this with a wooden spoon or a whisk.
Beat until you have a smooth ball of paste that has left the sides of the saucepan clean – this will probably take less than a minute. This is the important bit – the dough must have formed a ball of paste which leaves the sides of the pan. Once this texture is achieved, beat in the eggs – a little at a time, mixing in each addition thoroughly before adding the next – until you have a smooth, thick, glossy paste.
To make the choux buns, prepare a piping bag with a medium nozzle, fill with the paste and pipe balls the size of unshelled walnuts onto your baking parchment lined tray. Alternatively use two teaspoons. Leave about 2.5cm between each ball to allow room for expansion.
Bake on a high shelf in the preheated oven for 30 mins, or until crisp, light and a rich golden colour. When done, pierce a small hole in the bottom of each one to let out the steam, then cool them on a wire rack.
For the filling
300ml double cream
10g icing sugar
Whip the cream and sugar to soft peaks using an electric whisk. Be careful not to overwhip.
For the sauce (adapted from this incredible Nigella Lawson recipe)
100ml double cream
50 dark chocolate, chopped
50g peanut butter
1 tbsp golden syrup
Put all your ingredients in a small saucepan and heat over a gentle flame until melted into a thick, glossy sauce. I used chunky peanut butter – hence the grainy look of my sauce – because I love the nutty crunch of little bits of nut against the light creamy profiteroles. If you’re looking for smooth, shiny perfection, use a smooth brand of peanut butter. If you make this ahead of time, the sauce will thicken as it cools – to reheat simply warm again over a gentle flame.
For the profiteroles:
Fill a large piping bag with your whipped cream. Stick the nozzle into the little air hole you created in the bottom of one of the buns and pipe in the cream, making sure your bun is nicely filled but not bursting. Repeat with all the buns and arrange into a big pile, or individual bowls, drenching in the warm chocolate sauce.
This isn’t a dessert that keeps particularly well as the cream can cause the pastry to go soggy. If looking to impress, fill the buns with cream a maximum of 2 hours before you want to eat them to retain the beautiful crisp texture. But if there’s no-one to impress and you’re looking for a naughty sugar fix, a slightly soggy pile the next day still tastes pretty awesome.