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.