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Holiday Croquembouche

Pastry chef Joseph Poupon makes these French cream-puff creations

December 23, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,sun reporter

In this country, it is informally called "the Christmas tree," but in its native France it is croquembouche, or "crackle in the mouth."

Both are descriptive, but if you want to serve one of these fantastic pastry centerpieces at your holiday party, there is only one place to go -- Joseph Poupon's traditional French bakery on East Baltimore Street, Patisserie Poupon.

The croquembouche is a cone-shaped tower of cream puffs held in place by a sugar mixture that is at first sticky and then crackly. Hence, the name.

In France, it is most often served at family events -- weddings, christenings, communions and such. It can even be made into the shape of a soccer ball. But because it resembles a Christmas tree, it has begun to rival the Buche de Noel, or yule log, as a holiday confection in this country.

Poupon, whose cramped kitchen operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week all year long to fill orders for his perfect delicacies, has no idea how many trees he will create this season.

THE ALLURE OF CROQUEMBOUCHE --They can be difficult. But I own a French bakery. People expect me to do this. They know to come to me. Other bakeries send them here.

ON CREAM PUFFS AS A BUILDING BLOCK --It is pate a choux [pronounced pat-a-shoe; choux translates into "little cabbages," which is how the puffs will look when they are baked]. It is a very simple recipe. One-One-One-One.

[In this case, it is 4 pounds of butter, 4 pounds of bread flour and a little salt, 4 quarts of milk and water, 4 quarts of eggs.] If you do it at home for a small dinner, you will have a lot left over. You have to do a larger batch to do it well. So you can mix it with a little salt and pepper and some mashed potatoes and deep fry them. Dauphine potatoes. Very good. Or mix it with some good Swiss cheese. This is gougeres, also very good.

WHY USE VANILLA FILLING? --It is the holiday, so we are using a lot of vanilla cream. If the customer doesn't ask, it is vanilla. You can use liqueur or chocolate. But perhaps a guest does not like chocolate or does not like to have liqueur. Vanilla is safe.

THE TOUGHEST PART --The sugar (caramel sauce) has to be cooked to the perfect temperature. It is the glue. It has to stick. But if you don't cook it to the perfect temperature, it gets weaker, more susceptible to humidity. It will not hold. I like the challenge and, sometimes, I like the result.

HAVE YOU EVER HAD ONE FALL APART ON YOU? --Yes. On 295. Near the B-W Airport. I was on my way to D.C. when it broke. I kept going. I wanted the customer to know at least I had made it. Sometimes you can put them back together. But not this time. At least it fell in the box. There were puffs to serve. At least. The people were very understanding.

HOW DO YOU SERVE IT? --[Poupon looks perplexed for a moment, as if he only knows how to put these trees together.] With a knife and fork. I think you can just get in between and pull it apart.

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