BVC Eats: Cheating on Croquembouche

by Brenda W. Clough

A version of this recipe appears in Ad Astra: the 50th Anniversary SFWA Cookbook. All proceeds from it go to SFWA’s Legal Fund, which was established to create loans for eligible member writers who have writing-related court costs and other related legal expenses.

Croquembouche 1 2A croquembouche is constructed out of a number of small cream puffs, stuck together into a Christmas-tree like structure. It is the sort of thing that Martha Stewart makes, and if you want to do it her way many recipes are available: make the cream puffs from eggs and flour, and dedicate a day to the project. However, I have invented a cheat. This takes about half an hour but looks exactly the same, and tastes just fine. Make it the day you plan to serve it, because it does not keep at all. Because of the Christmas-tree pyramid shape it makes a fine show at holiday parties, and everyone will believe you worked like a dog.

1 tub frozen mini cream puffs. I buy mine from Costco – there are 100-odd in each tub.
2 cups plain white sugar

Take the tub of frozen cream puffs out the night before, and thaw them in the refrigerator.
Select a serving plate for this confection – about dinner plate sized is right. You will attach the croquembouche to it, so choose well. It should be reasonably heat-proof and heavy – not styrofoam, in other words.
Put the sugar into a heavy 2 quart saucepan and heat it on a medium flame. Add nothing and do not stir it. Keep an eye on it when it starts to caramelize. It’ll turn brown and start to bubble at the edges. At this point you can carefully shake it to encourage it all to melt down. It is ready when all the sugar is melted and the entire mass is dark brown. This will take at least 15 or 20 minutes. Handle the pan with oven mitts and be very very careful not to splash the liquefied sugar – it can give you a nasty burn.
When it is ready, turn the flame down very low. Set your plate by the pan, and have the cream puff tub open and on hand.
One by one, take a cream puff and swipe its bottom through the hot caramel. Stick it onto the plate. You want to create a circle with about 8 or 9 puffs. The sugar will set as it touches the cool plate, and glue the puff tightly and instantly down. If you make a total error you will have to pry the puff off the plate with a metal fork. (All mistakes can be eaten.) Be very careful not to touch the liquid caramel with your bare fingers.
When you have a nice circle of puffs firmly affixed to the plate, it’s time to go up! Glue on a slightly smaller circle of puffs on top of the first one. Get enough caramel onto each puff so that it can stick to the one below, and also to the one beside it. If your bottom circle had 9 puffs, the second could have 8. And then a third round of 7, and 6, and so on up to the top! The very top puff will be a single one, sitting on top of perhaps 3 puffs in a triangle. If the thing seems to be coming to a point too fast, slow down your decreasing — do an extra holding round of 6 puffs. Keep the structure as symmetrical as you can, and use a lot of caramel so that it’ll be reasonably sturdy.
If there is caramel left, pour it on top of the entire structure. If you are deft you can use the fork at this moment to draw out strands of spun sugar to swirl around the pyramid — it is what Martha would do. You have to work quickly since the caramel tends to set up very fast. But drips and dabs of caramel are perfectly acceptable, and help structural integrity.
You will find that you do not use all of the puffs. Leftovers can be refrozen and eaten later. The recipe scales up to a degree – your pyramid can be shorter and wider, but there is a limit on how high you can go. It looks prettiest if the base is not very wide and the tree is as tall as possible – I have gotten it about 20 inches high on a standard sized dinner plate. If you are making it much bigger, be sure and use more sugar. Plenty of caramel is necessary, but that scales up perfectly well. If you really need to serve lots of people, make two instead of trying to keep one gigantic structure stable.
Further refinements could be chocolate sauce – squirt it extravagantly on top. A snow effect could be achieved by sifting confectioners sugar over the top. If you want to add rum or Kahlua, I would use a turkey baster or even a hypodermic syringe (no needle) to inject a couple drops into the individual puffs. If you were properly generous with the caramel the structure will not pull apart for serving all that easily. Use two forks to pry them apart. People do not complain if they get two or three puffs.
Serves a large party, 12-30 people. Anything left over should be stored in the fridge. Leftovers vanish within a day, especially if you have men or kids in the house.



About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.


BVC Eats: Cheating on Croquembouche — 8 Comments

  1. What a great idea! I’m tempted to try this with the kind of little cream puffs that has chocolate icing on them. I’m trying to decide if the chocolate would interfere with the look of the tower. I suppose I will just have to try this with several different kinds of cream puffs to see which is best…

  2. Good solid-setting chocolate might work, instead of the caramel – I too am afraid of the sugar burns. But the melted chocolate will not set as immedately as the caramel does, so I’m not sure if you might need to support the row of puffs while it’s setting before adding another row.
    Maybe putting a waxed-paper cone in the middle would work, or a pointy party hat? Or would that absorb some of the chocolate and stick to the puffs or look unappetizing when serving?
    (Sorry, I’m not a good cook, I’ve never tried it)

  3. There is an even cheatier way to make a croquembouche, and that is to buy the rack that you just put the cream puffs into. I can’t find one on line (they’ve probably all been repurposed into Cupcake Tree Racks) but I have been served one, at a large party. It is tons more stable, of course, but nowhere near as cool. And then you have this large speciality appliance taking up space in your cupboards. Oh, and you can also buy tin forms onto which to glue the puffs, but again this seems like the kind of thing you would only use if you do a lot of catering. It would surely transport better, glued to a tin cone.

  4. Wow, I always wondered what one of these was made of. VERY COOL. Thanks also for the clear and concise description of making caramel. Those “let the steam wash the crystals down the side of the pot” notes in Rombauer intimidated me. (Dudes! I am not that cookish! Tell me the easy stuff!)

    NB about the chocolate, two things: 1) if the cream puffs are still frozen when you start assembling your croquembouche, then the chocolate may set up just fine. 2) if you nuke the chocolate but do not add anything to it (such as liqueur), then it will set up raaather quickly. So chocolate could definitely work.

  5. I would not hesitate, but go for it. The ingredients are not expensive or difficult to get. If the thing simply refuses to stay up in a tree shape, pile the puffs onto a large dish and call it a Deconstructed Croquenbouche (Dissected for Your Dining Convenience!). It will be eaten up just as fast, I promise you. People do not disdain mini cream puffs.