This Tower of Doughnuts Is the Perfect Centerpiece for Your Holiday Table

Pastry chef Paola Velez makes an Old Fashioned Doughnut Croquembouche in this holiday episode of Pastries with Paola.

Old-Fashioned Donut Croquembouche
Photo: Photo by Sarah Crowder / Food Styling by Drew Aichele

We are celebrating the season with two special holiday episodes of Pastries with Paola before season two launches in the spring. First up is Paola's holiday showstopper, the Old Fashioned Doughnut Croquembouche. Here, Paola riffs on the croquembouche, a classic French celebration dessert, by swapping out traditional choux pastry for crispy and fluffy old fashioned doughnuts flavored with toasty browned butter and warming cinnamon. This tower of doughnuts is held together with amber caramel and adorned with spun sugar and gold leaf– the perfect finishes for this wow-worthy dessert.

Made popular in France in Paris in the late 18th century, and in America in the 1980s, the croquembouche is a testament to the culture of excess and the embrace of the over-the-top. "The croquembouche is the it girl for the holiday season," says Paola. "And you can make them with just about anything you like."

Paola's croquembouche tastes just as good as it looks. By adding Greek yogurt to the doughnut dough, she builds in extra structural support along with a light and tangy flavor that balances out the sweetness of the caramel. Crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, these cinnamon and brown butter-scented doughnuts will make any cozy holiday celebration a little extra.

Read on for Paola's step-by-step method and follow along with the video below.

Start with the Dough

While the oil pre-heats to 350°F in a large pot, heat your butter in a small skillet over medium heat, swirling or stirring regularly until it stops foaming and you start to see browned bits form on the bottom of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the browned butter to a small bowl to cool slightly.

Add your dry ingredients—all-purpose flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and sugar—to the bowl of a stand mixer and mix gently on low speed until blended. Then, add in your yogurt, eggs, and browned butter; mix on medium speed until the dough is just combined and still slightly damp.

Fry Time!

As you saw in Paola's Cherry Empanadilla episode, frying can be a little scary, but with the right preparation and protection, it's easy and safe. Using a 1-3/4" (1 ounce) scoop, portion the doughnut batter and transfer each scoop of dough to the pot of hot oil a few at a time. Fry the doughnuts in batches of five or six so that you don't overcrowd the pot; otherwise they will stick together and the oil will cool down. Fry 'em for 3-5 minutes, until they are golden brown and just beginning to crack open on their surface–these are the iconic characteristics of old fashioned doughnuts. Transfer cooked doughnuts to a wire rack to cool and repeat in batches with the remaining dough.

Make the Caramel Glue

To build her croquembouche, Paola uses warm caramel to act as glue for a sturdy structure. To make the caramel, stir together sugar and water in a medium pot until the texture looks like wet sand; melt on medium heat. Once the sugar has melted, increase the heat and bring the caramel to a boil. Swirl the pot occasionally until the caramel is light amber in color, about 8 minutes.

To avoid overcooking or burning caramel, Paola keeps a large heatproof dish filled with a couple inches of cold water nearby. She dips the base of the pot into the cold water to bring down the temperature if the caramel starts to get too dark. Once the caramel is ready, she rests the pot in the cold water in order to halt the cooking.

Build! That! Tower!

Working quickly but carefully, Paola builds the base of her croquembouche by carefully dipping one side of each doughnut into the warm caramel and attaching it (caramel-side down) to the edge of the base. After you assemble the first layer of doughnuts, continue to build the rings upward by dipping more doughnuts in caramel, using one or two fewer doughnuts for each level until the tower is complete. If your caramel becomes too hard and cool to work with, gently warm it back up over low heat on the stove until it is thin enough to use again.

Decorate and Enjoy

Every queen needs her crown! Paola decorates her croquembouche with spun sugar floss and gold leaf. To make the sugar floss, dip the tines of a fork into the leftover warm caramel and flick the fork back and forth over a clean countertop or cutting board to create strands of cooled sugar. "The key is to keep moving," Paola says. "Don't let it just stream in one particular spot. Just keep going!"

Carefully pick up the pieces of spun sugar and drape them over the croquembouche. If you like, go over-the-top festive and decorate further with edible gold leaf, glitter, or anything that screams celebration.

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