Croquembouche is no longer a winter holiday dessert centerpiece. Celebrate the arrival of spring with this whimsical interpretation. The tower of traditional cream puffs is accented with meringues and white chocolate-covered strawberries. Make the puffs (don't fill them) and meringues and dip the strawberries a day ahead so you can just focus on filling the puffs and having fun the day you serve it.
one 3 7/8-by-11 7/8-inch Styrofoam craft cone; 65 wooden toothpicks; a pastry bag fitted with a medium round tip; a pastry bag fitted with a small round tip; a pastry bag fitted with a small star tip; a pastry bag fitted with a leaf tip; a candy thermometer
Put a 3 7/8-by-11 7/8-inch Styrofoam craft cone on a serving platter. Starting at the bottom of the cone and working in an upward spiral, insert a row of wooden toothpicks 2 inches apart. Insert 5 more evenly spaced rows of toothpicks around the cone.
Press a large White Chocolate Strawberry onto one toothpick in the first row (place the large strawberries on the bottom and work up to the smaller strawberries on top). Repeat the process with the Cream Puffs on the next row of toothpicks. Add the Meringue Swirls on the row after that. Repeat with the strawberries, cream puffs and meringues on the remaining 3 rows. Fill in any holes by adding more toothpicks to the cone and pressing on the remaining strawberries, cream puffs and meringues. Slip the Meringue Leaves into any gaps, distributing them evenly around the croquembouche. Gently drape the tower with the Spun Sugar and serve immediately.
White Chocolate Strawberries:
Lightly spray a baking rack with nonstick cooking spray and set in a rimmed baking sheet. Using a paring knife, trim off the tops of the strawberries. Put the strawberries top-side down on the prepared rack and place in the freezer until very cold but not frozen, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, put the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave in 30-second intervals, stirring in between each, until melted, about 3 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes.
Spoon 1 tablespoon of the chocolate over each strawberry and let set, about 30 seconds. Drizzle the chocolate over some of the set strawberries to create stripes; spoon some more of the chocolate over the remaining strawberries and decorate with the sanding sugars and sprinkles. Let set completely, about 30 minutes.
For the pastry: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
Combine the butter, granulated sugar, salt and 1/2 cup water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. When the mixture comes to a boil, add all the flour at once and stir with a wooden spoon until fully incorporated and smooth, about 1 minute. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 30 seconds more. Scrape the mixture into a large bowl. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, add the eggs 1 at a time, mixing well after each addition until they are completely incorporated and the mixture is thick and smooth, about 3 minutes.
Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a medium round tip. Pipe fourteen 2-inch-wide cream puffs onto one of the prepared baking sheets with half the dough, spacing them 1/2 inch apart. Pipe twenty-eight 1-inch-wide cream puffs onto the other baking sheet with the remaining dough. Dip your finger in water and use it to smooth out any bumps or points in the dough.
Bake the cream puffs for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 degrees F; continue to bake until the cream puffs are puffed up and golden brown, about 10 minutes more. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and let cool completely.
For the whipped cream: Combine the cream, granulated sugar and vanilla in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form, about 3 minutes. Transfer the cream to a pastry bag fitted with small round tip.
Set aside all 14 of the 2-inch puffs and 16 of the 1-inch puffs for filling (freeze the extra puffs for later use or fill and eat them separately). Use the pastry tip to gently poke a hole in the bottom of the reserved puffs. Pipe the cream into the puffs until they are just filled (do not overfill).
For the glaze: Put the confectioners' sugar in a medium bowl and whisk in the juice until smooth. Dip the top of each cream puff in the glaze, letting the excess drip off before turning over and placing on a cooling rack. Let rest until the glaze is dry and shiny, about 30 minutes.
Meringue Swirls and Leaves:
Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
Put the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or use an electric hand mixer); beat on medium speed until frothy, about 2 minutes. Add the cream of tartar and increase the speed to medium high; beat in the granulated sugar 1 tablespoon at a time. Continue beating until the meringue is thick, glossy and holds stiff peaks, about 6 minutes more. Remove 1 cup of the meringue to a small bowl and whisk in the green and yellow food coloring. Beat the red food coloring into the remaining meringue.
Fill a pastry bag fitted with a small star tip with the pink meringue. Pipe half the meringue into 2-inch swirls on half of a prepared baking sheet, spacing the swirls about 1/2 inch apart. Pipe the remaining pink meringue into 1-inch swirls on the other half of the baking sheet.
Fill a pastry bag fitted with a leaf tip with the green meringue. Pipe a variety of leaves on the second prepared baking sheet.
Bake the meringues until dry, 30 to 45 minutes; you do not want any color or browning on the swirls. Remove the meringues from the oven and let cool completely, about 20 minutes. Reserve 8 of the larger swirls, 7 of the smaller swirls and 25 of the leaves for the croquembouche. Store any extras in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
Combine the granulated sugar, corn syrup and 1/4 cup water in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Cook to 300 degrees F on a candy thermometer. Let cool to 275 degrees F.
Position 2 wooden spoons 2 feet apart on similar-size bowls with their handles sticking out over the edge by 6 inches. Put newspaper or foil on the counter below the spoons.
Dip a fork in the sugar syrup and flick it back and forth over the spoon handles to create lots of long thin threads. Repeat 3 to 4 times, then gently gather up the threads and put them on a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining sugar until it is all spun.
When measuring flour, we spoon it into a dry measuring cup and level off the excess. (Scooping directly from the bag compacts the flour, resulting in dry baked goods.)
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