Croquembouche: The Bliss (and Blister) of It All

Croquemboche900Last week Sharon noted that my years of accumulated culinary scars are so numerous I don’t even remember how I got them. But here’s what I do remember. It was the croquembouche era that toughened me up.

I hadn’t thought about a croquemebouche—a caramelized sugar-glued cream puff tree—since the last time I made one as a young, eager (naïve!) caterer nearly twenty-five years ago. What was I thinking when I said yes to making my first—a one hundred-puff tree—for a wedding? Since a botched job could wreck someone’s special day, I spent a lot of time researching and perfecting. (That first job I figured I made a dollar an hour.)

To construct a stunning cream puff tree of that size I quickly discovered I needed a form to build around. So David made a poster board cone with tabs at the base, which we foil covered and greased with each use. After building layer after layer of custard-filled puffs around the cone, we’d wait to make sure the sugar was super-glue set. Then—abra cadabra—we’d pull the cone out from under this stunning puff tree.

David could build me a form, but he couldn’t save me from my caramelized sugar burns—what a friend on Facebook recently called croquemblisters. I tried gloves and tweezers when dipping the puffs in the molten sugar, but they’d just stick, and I’d still end up burning myself trying to pull them off. Although I still ended up with at least one blister per project, I found four things helped: fingernails, caramelizing the sugar in batches, staying calm, and a construction buddy.

About now some of you are thinking, Why the hell would I ever want to do this?  Here’s why. There aren’t many desserts as stunning as a croquembouche (and I promise it doesn’t have to be perfect for guests to be impressed). The recipe is crazy efficient. You use the same pot to make the puff dough, the custard, and the caramelized sugar, and all the leftover yolks from the puffs get used in the custard.

A croquembouche is made with inexpensive pantry ingredients—eggs butter, flour, cornstarch, sugar, milk, and vanilla. Except for the optional Jordon almonds, I’ll bet you don’t even have to go to the grocery store to make one.

And finally, if you want to call yourself a veteran cook, you need this one on your resume.

Tips from a seasoned croquembouche maker:

The Puffs

  • Making the cream puffs with mostly egg whites means two things: the puffs will be crisper and the yolks can be used for the custard filling.
  • If you’ve got a convection oven option, use it—the puffs will be crisper.
  • Make a small hole on the bottom of each puff with a small sharp paring knife to help them dry out and facilitate filling.
  • Consolidate puffs on one baking sheet and set them back in the turned-off oven to dry.

The Custard:

  • Microwave the milk before adding it to the saucepan. The custard thickens almost immediately, saving valuable time.
  • Fill some of the puffs with optional raspberry or lemon whipped cream by beating 3 tablespoons of seedless raspberry jam or lemon curd and 1 cup of heavy cream to stiff peaks.

The Caramelized Sugar:

  • Use a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
  • Choose a saucepan with a light colored  surface making it easier to monitor the sugar’s changing hue.
  • Start sugar over low heat and stir it frequently so it melts…
  • Once sugar comes to the boil, stop stirring. After that swirl the pan occasionally to insure even cooking.

The Construction

  • Unless you’re a seriously experienced baker, don’t try to make one bigger than three-dozen puffs.
  • Make sure you’ve got someone to lend a hand during the construction phase.
  • Stay calm and work quickly, knowing that if the sugar hardens before you finish, you can simply make another batch (it’s just one cup of sugar).
  • Make the caramelized sugar in 2 batches, so you’ve got a fresh batch to work with.

8 Comments

  1. says

    LOL, Pam, you crack me up. “Why the hell would I ever want to do this?”

    I have to be honest. I have never made, nor experienced a Croquembouche. Maybe it’s a northern thing? Did you have them when you were growing up?

    Looks delish though. could definitely get down with that.

  2. says

    I got my own carmalized sugar burns from a Gateaux St Honoré (a close cousin to the croquembouche). I made it for a cooking contest when I was 16. I still have one of the burns. But hey, I took first place…

  3. Maggy says

    I wish I was the kind of cook who could pull off a Croquembouche! But I’m so glad one of us can ;) I have other gifts in the kitchen. Although, mom – if you wanted to make this on Friday or Saturday…I would make it with you. It’s beautiful enough to warrant the effort and potential pain. Tell me, is there any way that we can incorporate some chocolate into this? Croquembouche meets Profiteroles. Then I’d really be on board. Perhaps just a chocolate dipping sauce?

  4. Pam says

    No, I didn’t grow up with a croquembouche either, Amber. It’s French–literally means “crunch in the mouth.”

    And Maggy, I’ve got the Jordan almonds, so we’re definitely making one of these this weekend. Would you be my assembly buddy? I’ll definitely need a little help from a friend at this stage.
    I toyed with gluing the puffs with melted chocolate–some people do that–but it’s a little sloppy looking and not so springy either. But a chocolate dipping sauce…. hmmm. That’s definitely a possibility.

  5. Jeanne says

    Oh dear–I am going to have to try this but I live alone…..

    Would you come and be my construction buddy, Pam? :-)

  6. Susan says

    I’ve been asked to do 3 smaller croquembouches for a wedding at the end of this month!!! I’m now experimenting with baking the profiteroles and I need to know how much to charge for these. I have NO idea. I’ve baked cakes for 25 years, but never a croquembouche. Any help would be greatful!!

  7. Pam says

    Susan,

    Check out the current issue of Fine Cooking. There’s a big croquembouche on the cover. I haven’t made one for a wedding in 25 years, so not sure the going rate, but make sure you get enough to cover your pain and suffering and remember they have to be assembled pretty last minute, and they’re not easy to transport. Once you get a system down, however, it’s not bad.

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