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An Encore Croquembouche + Champagne Widows #LitHappens

After I sent the photo below to R at school, when he came home for Easter, he asked for an encore croquembouche. Done!

But first: Why Croquembouche? Well, because we were assigned Champagne Widows: First Woman of Champagne, Veuve Clicquot by Rebecca Rosenberg in one of my online book groups Lit Happen. Thanks to Wendy of A Day in the Life on the Farm for the impetus to pick up the book; I have been meaning to read it, but this was just the shove I needed! And, serendipitously, we had just had a bottle of Veuve Clicquot on our twenty-second wedding anniversary.

Champagne Widows

In Champagne Widows Rosenberg interwines history and imagination to tell the tale of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot who builds a winemaking empire despite the on-going Napoleonic wars. Barbe-Nicole inherits Le Nez, literally 'the nose', which gives her an uncanny sense of smell. In addition to everything that we can smell, she can smell emotions and intentions; and she can smell the nuances in the grapes that allow her to blend outstanding wines.

Here are a couple of passages that show Le Nez at work...

"The widow cuts cheese while François opens champagne with an expert pfffft. He offers me a coupe of rusty-colored fizz, a whiff of jasmine and peaches. The taste is even sweeter, appealing to my palate. 'What makes your champagne so delicious?' I ask. She pats the ground with her hand. 'The earth. Where the grapes grow. We call it terroir'." 

"The first carafe is marked 1798. 'That was the year we married, it rained all summer,' I say, inhaling the weak fumes. 'Too much water for the grapes?' 'I’m impressed,' she says. 'Grapes like to work for their water. The more they’re stressed, the more flavor'."

I had no idea that widows worked the Champagne houses during the Napoleonic wars. And they could retain control of their vineyards so long as they didn't remarry. I was both educated and entertained by this historical fiction. If you love this genre, you'll adore this book. If you love Champagne, you'll want to get your hands on a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and indulge! 

I rarely buy Champagne because it sells at a much higher price point than the Spanish and Italian bubbles of Cava and Prosecco. But, when I do splurge, I enjoy it immensely.

An Encore Croquembouche

While Lit Happens isn't a cook-from-the-book kinda club, there are a few of us who are almost always inspired into the kitchen anyway. For me, I loved reading about the French tradition of a wedding croquembouche. Barbe-Nicole narrates, "Lizzette wheels in a cart with the wedding Croquembouche, a towering pyramid of cream puffs held together with a web of hardened caramel. 'I know how my girl likes her sweets.' 'Oh, my goodness!' Clementine jumps up to get one. Maman holds her back. 'The wedding couple must eat the top cream puff with no hands for the partnership to be blessed'."

First, a bit about croquembouche in case you're unfamiliar. The name comes from the French croque en bouche  and translates to "crunches in the mouth." It's composed of petits choux (choux pastry balls) piled into a cone and bound with threads of caramel. Traditionally, it's decorated with sugared almonds, chocolate, flowers, or ribbons. I have been going with abstract caramel toppers and I fill it with a vanilla cream.

Pâte à Choux
  • 12 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 2 cups flour
  • 9 eggs
Vanilla Cream
  • 500 ml whole milk
  • 1 vanilla pod, sliced lengthwise with seeds scraped
  • 3 eggs
  • 100 grams organic granulated sugar
  • 30 grams corn starch
  • 25 grams butter

Burnt Caramel
  • 2 cups organic granulated sugar


Pâte à Choux
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bring butter and water to a boil in a large saucepan. Remove pan from heat and add flour all at once. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until mixture forms a thick dough and pulls away from sides of pan, approximately 3 minutes. Return pan to heat and cook, stirring constantly, until dough is lightly dried, about 2 minutes more.

Transfer dough to a bowl, and let cool for 5 minutes; using a wooden spoon, beat in 8 eggs, one at a time, making sure each egg is completely incorporated before adding the next. Dough will come together and be thick, shiny, and smooth.

Scoop a walnut-size piece of dough and place onto parchment-lined baking sheet, setting pieces 1 apart on a baking sheet.

Lightly beat remaining egg with pinch of salt and brush each piece of dough with it. 

Bake at 425 degrees Fahrenheit until puffed and light brown, approximately 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and continue to bake until well browned, approximately 15 minutes. Let cool. While the puffs cool, make your filling.

Vanilla Cream
Place the milk and the vanilla bean and scraped seeds in a medium sauce pan and let stand for 20 minutes. Then scald the milk and let the vanilla steep in the milk for 10 minutes. In the meantime, in mixing bowl, blend the sugar and eggs until the mixture becomes fluffy and pale. Add the corn starch and whisk to combine.

Slowly pour the warmed milk into the egg mixture, whisking as you pour.  Place the saucepan back on the stove and bring to a boil. Whisking vigorously the whole time.  Once the mixture has thickened and just started to boil, remove from the heat. Keep whisking to keep it smooth. Spread the pastry cream into a dish and cover with plastic wrap, touching the top to keep the cream from developing a film.  Refrigerate until cool.

Place filling into a pastry bag or other decorating tool. Insert a chopstick into the bottom of the puff to open it up a bit, then fill. 

Place sugar in medium sauce pan. Cook until smooth and amber, approximately 15 to 20 minutes.


Dip the filled puffs in the caramel and place them on a lined baking sheet to harden. You are really just sealing off the filling point with this dipping.

Dip the puffs in the caramel, again, and stack them to form a conical shape. 

Once the tower is the height you want, dip a fork in the caramel and swirl it around the tower to form the caramel threads.

Then I pour the remaining caramel into an abstract shape on a parchment-lined baking sheet and place it in the freezer to harden. Place the caramel onto the top of the croquembouche and serve immediately.

Well, that's a wrap on my April Lit Happens offering. Next month we'll be reading The One by John Marrs. Stay tuned!


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