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.
A 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.