by Sharon Wee

Every year during Christmas, my extended family gets together for one big pot luck… we all decide on a dish weeks before hand (so that there are no double ups) and then we bring it on the day. We tend to have lunch and then hang out opening presents and playing games until dinner rolls around. Then we just heat up the leftovers and have round two for dinner… because it is always guaranteed that there would have been too much food brought for lunch 🙂 We are Asian after all!

Last year I created this Christmas tree shaped cream puff tree because I was going through a cream puff binge and had just discovered craquelin (the fancy crispy thing on top of the cream puffs that makes it look just like the ones in the cafe). So I thought creating it in the shape of a tree in a croquembouche style would be fun. There are many components to this project but they can all be made on different days leading up to Christmas and then just assembled the night before or the morning of. So don’t get put off by the amount of work, because I promise, the results and the taste is worth it!

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So let’s get started! To make the tree you need to combine three parts: the cream puffs, the filling, and the yummy craquelin (which is optional but so good you shouldn’t skip it! Because, firstly, it gives the cream puffs a delicious crunch and secondly, it’s what makes the puffs green… and you need green to make a tree :P). The following recipes will make enough to cover the tree with some spares. This will be approx 50 cream puffs and should serve around 15-20 people. They can also be kept in the fridge for a couple of days and although they will still be delicious, the craquelin won’t be as crispy as it was on the first day.

Pandan and Coconut Pastry Cream

Adapted from Food Network.

A great filling for the puffs, you can make this a few days ahead, so to save time it’s best to start with this. Pandan is like Asian vanilla. It does not have a strong flavour (it’s much like a vanilla flavour) but it will turn the cream a nice shade of green. You can get pandan essence at any Asian grocery store and it’s relatively inexpensive. You can of course flavour the cream with other flavours like chocolate (using cocoa powder), strawberry (using essence or powders) or vanilla.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups coconut milk (750ml)
  • Seeds of one vanilla bean (or similar amount of paste/essence)
  • 8 egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup sugar (160g)
  • 6 tbsp cornstarch (66g)
  • 2 tbsp butter, softened (1/4 stick or 28g)
  • 3-4 of drops of pandan essence. You can add more to taste (this is optional, but I also wanted my filling to be green)

Steps

Sift the cornstarch onto a piece of wax/baking paper.

In a medium saucepan combine the coconut milk and vanilla.

Fit a stand mixer with a whisk attachment. In the bowl combine the yolks and sugar but don’t whisk yet.

Scald the coconut milk and remove from heat. Meanwhile beat the eggs and sugar until they lighten in colour. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the sifted cornstarch. Whisk continuously while stirring in around 1/3 of the hot milk until incorporated. Whisk this tempered mixture back into the remaining hot milk then place the pot back on the heat.

Cook on medium-high heat, stirring constantly but gently with the whisk until it comes to a boil. Reduce heat and let it boil for 30 seconds still whisking constantly. Remove from heat and gently whisk in the butter and pandan essence. Strain into a bowl (this ensures the pastry cream is nice and silky), place plastic wrap right down to the surface and chill completely. You can make this up to 3 days ahead.

Green Craquelin

Adapted from David Lebovitz.

This needs some time in the freezer so make sure you make it before the puffs. If you have any leftover it can be wrapped and frozen for up to two months.

Ingredients

  • 85g unsalted butter, room temperature and cubed
  • 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar (100g)
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour (100g)
  • Couple of drops of green food colouring (Add until you achieve your desired shade of green, but keep in mind, the colour darkens as it bakes)

Steps

Use a stand mixer with a paddle attachment to cream together the butter, sugar and drops of green colouring. Add the flour and continue to mix the dough until smooth.

Place the dough between two sheets of parchment/baking paper and roll it out until it’s about 3-5mm thick. Slide onto a baking sheet and freeze it for later.

Cream Puff Pastry

Adapted from Food Network.

This is a basic choux pastry recipe ideal for cream puffs.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup water (250ml)
  • 8 tbsp of unsalted butter (1 stick, or 114g)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3-4 eggs

Steps

Preheat your oven to 425 F / 220 C.

In a large saucepan combine water, butter, salt, and sugar and bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Take if off the heat then start stirring with a wooden spoon and add all the flour at once. Continue stirring hard until it’s fully incorporated, which should take 30 to 60 seconds. Return to heat and cook stirring for another 30 seconds to evaporate some moisture.

Scrape the mixture into a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix at medium speed, adding the 3 eggs one at a time while stopping to scrape the bowl after each egg.Mix until dough is smooth and glossy and eggs are fully incorporated. It should be thick and fall slowly and steadily from the paddle when you lift it out. If it’s too stiff add the remaining egg and repeat.

Use a large pastry bag with a plain tip to pipe the dough onto the baking sheet making 1 inch diameter balls. Leave enough room between them so they can expand a little as they bake.

Take the frozen craquelin out of the freezer. Use a circle cookie cutter that’s around the same size as the dough balls to cut circles and place them on top carefully.

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Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 F / 190 C and bake until puffed up and golden brown, which should be about 20 minutes more. Try not to open the oven door during baking or they may deflate.

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Once you remove them from the oven, carefully turn them over and use the end of a chopstick or a piping tip to poke a hole on the bottom (the side without the craquelin). This allows the steam out and also makes filling them a lot easier. Let the puffs cool on the baking sheet.

For the best result, the puffs should be made on the day of consumption. However, if you are pressed for time, you can always make them the day before and then store them in an airtight container once they have cooled down.

Assembly

  • Piping nozzle (approx 0.5-1cm wide or 1/4inch wide)
  • 2 x Piping bags (I prefer the disposable kind)
  • Styrofoam cone – the one I got was approx. 15in tall (can be found at some art stores, cake decorating or specialty cooking stores)
  • 8in round cake board
  • 150g of white chocolate (this will be melted and used for sticking the cream puffs)
  • Spatula
  • 1 cup of shredded coconut
  • Toothpicks
  • Chocolate Lindt Balls in various colours (or similar)
  • Fondant cut stars and snowflakes (optional)

Remove the pastry cream from the fridge and give it a stir. Insert the piping nozzle into the piping bag and secure the end by tying it or clipping it.

Then pipe the pastry cream into the cream puff until you feel some resistance. Try not to overfill the cream puff or the pastry cream will ooze out.

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Once all the cream puffs are filled, melt the white chocolate in 30 second bursts in the microwave.

Prepare the styofoam cone by using the melted chocolate to stick it to the cake board. Then use a spatula to roughly spread melted chocolate all over the styrofoam cone to cover it.

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Note: I did not use a toothpick to hold the cream puffs in place originally and it was fine but in hindsight I think it is better if you do use toothpicks.

Fill a piping bag with melted chocolate and snip the end. Start attaching the cream puffs by inserting a toothpick into the styrofoam. Then pipe the melted chocolate around the back of the creampuff and insert it onto the toothpick.

Continue to do this all around the base of the styrofoam cone and continue to the top. Use the Lindt balls to cover up any gaps between the cream puffs. Attach them with a toothpick.

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Use the melted chocolate to attach the stars and snowflakes.

Spread melted chocolate all over the base of the cake board and sprinkle generously with the shredded coconut.

This cream puff tower is quite secure but please keep it in a cool room. Do not leave it outside or in a hot area for too long or the chocolate that is holding the cream puffs together will start to melt.

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I hope you enjoy making this and wish you a very happy holidays filled with lots of smiles, laughter, friends, family and yummy food 🙂

Some of Sharon's favourite tools

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