Monday, March 08, 2010

The return of the croquembouche

Please. If you are a friend of mine, and you're turning 40, don't invite me to a big party to celebrate it. I might have to offer to make a croquembouche again.

One year later, I made another one of these cakes for a friend's 40th birthday. This time I used more caramel, and let it harden before turning the cake right side up, so we had no tower of Pisa syndrom. Not to say we had no drama though. I had bought a dress, was dressed and ready to go, building my cake at the last minute since it doesn't keep too well, when I realized the snow was really falling heavily, and cars were having trouble going down the hill outside our home. I started worrying but my husband reminded me we have chains for the tires. Next, the babysitter didn't show up. Every babysitter in the neighborhood had been booked for this party, so I began to panic. I had visions of being stuck at home with a cake for 40 people... Finally we found a teenager who agreed to cancel her Saturday evening plans for double the usual rate. The cake made it despite the slippery driving in the snow, and it was a success. Too much caramel to my taste (and the caramel was a little too dark), but dramatic and quite tasty.

OK, so maybe give me a year to get over this one, and then invite me to your party. After all, I did get to dance at the last one, and that in itself is worth a croquembouche to me!

I increased the kitsch factor by crafting these marzipan roses to decorate the cake (the theme of the party was pink). My seven-year old daughter made the small one on her own. I watched this video to learn how to do it. It's in French, but you'll still get it even if you don't speak French. I used supermarket marzipan (I think it's called "Modelliermarzipan" here in Switzerland) and added some pink food coloring wihtout mixing completely to make the petals different shades of pink. I even had some luster dust to make them sparkle a little (OK so yes I hate food coloring, but who is going to eat these roses anyway? Though they did disappear. I wonder what happened to them.) The only thing was the bigger ones were heavy, and I was too stressed to figure out a good way to attach them to the cake, so I glued them on the bottom with caramel. The little one stuck well near the top of the cake.

Last-minute rushing around gluing "dragées" (candied almonds) as decorations. "Enough!" said my husband, but nothing is ever enough when you make a croquembouche...

How do you serve the darn thing?! Wack the caramel hard.

Et voilà, another croquembouche devoured.

Joyeux anniversaire Sabine! (Sorry for the blurry shot, I was having too much fun to hold the camera steady!)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Happy Holidays!

I am still baking! And reading other food blogs. Just not much time to post to La Cerise. But I hope to do better in 2010. In the meantime, you can find my basic gingerbread recipe here.

Have a lovely end of the year!

Friday, September 04, 2009

How this blog helped me choose my new profession

This food blog is three and a half years old. I have had a wonderful time working on it, and plan to continue updating it as often as possible.

Still, at times I wondered what my motivation was, why I was I so into it. Though I love baking, I knew there was something more that made me stay up late nights working on it. I sometimes told my husband, "you know, there's something here that's important to me, it's not just about the food." He watched patiently as I squandered hours of my time, trying new complicated recipes, photographing the process and writing it up in detail.

And then in February, I read about a new profession, and had a revelation: I wanted to become a visual explainer.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Meringue d'automne, or the joys and frustrations of being self-taught

(Apologies for my long silence, I've been very busy with a new project, which I'll post about soon. But I still bake!)

One of the things I like about baking and blogging is that I can teach myself a good number of techniques by reading recipes on the web. Blogging about the process gives me an additional incentive to invest the time and effort to get it right. So mostly I'm pleased I've learned quite a bit since starting this blog.

But self-teaching has its limits, and I keep stumbling upon baking mysteries I can't solve even with the help of on-line resources.

A recipe that illustrates the rewards and frustrations I've encountered is my go-to recipe for celebration cakes, Pierre Hermé's meringue d'automne (which he also refers to as a Megève in some of his books).

Since this post got a bit long-winded (I know, I can get obsessive about documenting successes and failures, as with my croissant saga), I decided to summarize what I've learned in the drawing below:

A review of these five versions of the same recipe follows. Process photos and the recipe itself can be found further down in this post.

Version number 1, October 2006:
The shape was lumpy, the glaze was splotchy, the white chocolate lettering was sloppy, but the flavor and texture were delicious.

Version number 2, December 2006:
Ta-da, I found a solution to hide the lumpy shape and avoid the whole glaze issue: inspired by Alice Medrich, I wrapped the cake in chocolate and covered it with ruffles. Details and my video on how to make the chocolate ruffles can be found here.

(Some time in between versions 2 and 3 I made two additional undocumented ruffle-covered cakes, both of which turned out fine).

Version number 3, October 2007:
Here I had more success with the shape of the cake, as I built it within a cake ring lined with plastic, piping the mousse around the edges as I added each layer of meringue. But again I didn't have any success with the glaze, you can see how blotchy it looks.

Version number 4, September 2008:
The chocolate ruffles were decorated with white chocolate squiggles, creating a nice effect. But oh dear, what happened to the meringue? By the time I served the cake, ie two days after assembling it (Hermé recommends preparing it in advance), the meringue had partially vanished into the mousse (sorry no photo of the inside of the cake). The cake still held its shape, as the chilled mousse is quite firm thanks to its butter content, but the texture was not as interesting as there was no longer much contrast between crunchy meringue and unctuous mousse. I assumed the cake should not be prepared too soon before serving, despite what the recipe said.

Version number 5, July 2009:
I tried the glaze one last time, this time with success: the key lies in making a large quantity of glaze, pouring it on top of the cake and letting it settle without touching it with the spatula (though I did touch up the sides). It's a little wasteful but you can put the cake on a rack and catch the surplus on a sheet of parchment paper under the rack.
However, the meringue disappeared again (again no photo), even though I served it the day after making the cake. I don't know why, and it's driving me nuts.

Possible hypotheses for the disappearing meringue

- Is it because I used defrosted egg whites to make the meringues? That's supposed to be a good thing, aged egg whites whip better don't they?
- Or did I not dry the meringues out long enough in the oven? Twice?
- Perhaps I was too generous with the chocolate mousse. I do remember increasing the quantity of mousse, thinking Hermé's recipe was too stingy...


So along with my pride at having mastered the form, the chocolate ruffles, and the shiny glaze of this cake, comes the humbling lesson that the first iteration tasted better than the last. Despite three years' worth of practice, I don't know if the next time I make this cake it will come out right. Argh!

Process photos (click on any to enlarge)

Chocolate ruffles with white chocolate decorations, as on the cover of Bittersweet (see my video for making chocolate ruffles here):

Meringues before baking (the small ones are left-over meringue batter)

The chocolate and butter mixed together

Folding in the whipped egg whites is done with a whisk

The cake is assembled in a ring form lined with plastic (rhodoïde, or acetate I believe it's called)

Once the cake is fully chilled, you can patch up any holes with left-over mousse.

To wrap the cake in chocolate, cover a strip of plastic (rhodoïde or acetate or in this case shelf-liner. Which is thicker and easier to use than rhodoïde, but this particular one left a pattern on the chocolate, even though of course I used the smooth side). Then wrap the strip of plastic with the melted chocolate around the cake, blocking the end with a piece of parchment paper so you can remove the plastic.

Then decorate with the chocolate ruffles

Recipe: Meringue d'automne
Source: Pierre Hermé, Larousse du chocolat

(I increased the proportions of the meringue and of the mousse)

- 8 egg whites
- 400g sugar
- 2 vanilla pods or 2 tspn vanilla extract

- 400g 70% chocolate
- 417g soft butter
- 5 egg yolks
- 5 tablespoons chocolate sauce (see below)
- 10 egg whites
- 33g sugar

Chocolate sauce
(This makes half a liter of sauce, too much for this recipe)
- 130g 70% chocolate
- 250ml (or grams) water
- 70g sugar
- 125ml (or about the same in grams) thick crème fraiche, or heavy cream

(I don't remember but I think I increased this quantity)
- 100g sauce (see above)
- 100g 70% chocolate
- 80ml "crème fraiche liquide" or heavy cream
- 20g soft butter

Preheat the oven to 120°C.
Scrape the seeds out of the vanilla bean and reserve. Whip the egg whites at medium speed with an electric beater and very gradually, from the beginning, add half the sugar, then the vanilla seeds. Fold in the rest of the sugar carefully so as not to deflate the meringues.
Pipe (using a number 10 plain tip) the meringues into three spirals of 22 cm diameter on parchment-lined baking sheets.
Put the sheets in the oven, keeping the oven door propped open with a wooden spoon. Bake for 30 minutes at 120°C, then lower the temperature to 100°C and bake for one and a half hour more. Turn the oven off and let the meringues dry out with door propped slightly open for 2 or 3 hours. Cool on a rack.

Chocolate sauce
Chop the chocolate in small pieces. Put it in a saucepan with a thick bottom along with the water, the sugar and the cream. Mix together well with a wooden spoon.
Without ceasing to stir, bring the sauce to boiling point on a medium heat. Lower the heat and let the sauce cook while stirring continuously until the sauce becomes smooth and coats the back of the spoon. Remove from the heat.

Chop the chocolate into small pieces and melt it gently. With an electric beater, whip the butter. Incorporate the chocolate in three parts (it should be warm but not hot, about 40°C).
In a bowl mix the egg yolks with the chocolate sauce, and mix this into the butter-chocolate mixture.
Whip the egg whites into soft peaks, adding the sugar little by little. Fold in 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture then mix the rest in carefully (use a whisk I would recommend).

Assembling the cake
Place the first meringue disk on a cardboard circle.
(I recommend placing the cardboard within a cake ring lined with plastic wrap, acetate or parchment paper, and piping the mousse around the edges for a nice cylindrical shape. See process photos below.)
Spread a first layer of chocolate mousse, gently press the second meringue disk on top, spread with mousse, add the last meringue disk, then spread top and sides with remaining mousse.
(If you used the method I recommend above you don't need to worry about the sides, though save a little mousse for touching up any holes you may not have filled along the sides of the cake.)
Place in the fridge for two hours.

1) Either wrap the cake in melted chocolate and decorate with ruffles, see process photos below or read my first post on the subject.

2) Or, as per Hermé's original recipe, place cake on a rack over parchment paper and pour glaze over the top, refraining from touching the glaze too much with a spatula. Store the cake in the refrigerator but remove from the fridge one hour before serving.

Chop the chocolate.
Bring the cream to a boil in a saucepan with a thick bottom.
Remove the saucepan from the heat. Add a small amount (about 1/4 or 1/5?) of the chocolate and mix it very slowly with a spatula, starting from the center and stirring towards the sides of the saucepan. Continue adding the rest of the chocolate in several small batches and stirring as described above.

(All this caution is important, as otherwise the emulsion can break, which happened to me. If it happens to you, you can use the "mayonnaise method" described by Alice Medrich to save a ganache... If I remember correctly you heat up two TB of cream, then slowly trickle in your seperated ganache as you stir continuously and carefully).

Let the sauce cool to below 60°C.
At this point, add the butter that has been cut into small pieces, stirring as little as possible, then the chocolate sauce, also stirring as little as possible. The mixture should be homogenous.

Use the glaze between 35 and 40°C, pouring it onto the cake. If it has cooled too much, warm it up very gently in a warm-water bath, or in a microwave oven, without stirring.

(This glaze is a nuisance to make, but it tastes good and most important stays shiny even when the cake is stored in the fridge.)

Monday, February 09, 2009

The croquembouche project

A croquembouche is a tower of cream puffs held together with caramel. In France it is the traditional cake for weddings, baptisms or communions.

Looking for an excuse to make a croquembouche
I've had good results with choux pastry in the past, and wanted to try my hand at the biggest of all choux cakes, the croquembouche. I seriously considered making one for my youngest daughter's christening, but thank goodness common sense prevailed and I realized the last minute construction of this monument would conflict with my organization duties.

Then when my friend Risa announced she would be celebrating her 40th birthday, I thought, aha, here's a good reason to make the cake!

The day of the party, I defrosted the 160 choux I had baked earlier, and filled them with three different fillings I had prepared the day before. Then I made the caramel, and started dipping the choux and gluing them together. My husband was out of town, but luckily I had the help of a young girl from our neighborhood to keep my daughters out of the hot caramel.

Too impatient to wait for the caramel to harden...
Construction took place inside a large cone I had made out of paper (details below). I was really pressed for time, as I had to drive 15 minutes north to drop off my 1 1/2 year old with friends, then rush back south to get to the party by 5 pm. The caramel showed signs of thickening and crystallizing, but I kept warming it and crossing my fingers. When I placed the last chou, I just had to see the result, so I turned the tower over onto a plate, removed the cone and voilà!

I was delighted with the result. Of course, I should have waited, as the caramel was probably not quite hard enough. I glued on some candied almonds (dragées) I had left-over from our gingerbread house project. Then I placed the cone back on top of the tower, but decided to transport it right side up, rather than inverted in the cone. Again, a mistake I think.

The cone travelled on the passenger seat next to me where I could grab it every time I took a sharp turn, and after dropping off my daughter I arrived 30 minutes late at the party, in time to make a grand entrance with the cake. The steady rain worried me as I knew caramel does not like humidity.

16:08 Ariane whisks Diane away from the tempting cake.

Pictures at the party

17:48 I was so glad the tower made it in one piece to the party, I didn't notice the ominous crack at the bottom of the tower.

20:26 This was my view from the dinner table. Something seemed odd, I decided to investigate

20:26 Seen from another angle. The leaning croquembouche of Pisa. Help!

20:50 Oh no, please don't tell me there's still a cheese course!

22:08 Ah. I feel better. And the silver lining to the story is once the caramel gets soft, it's a lot easier to serve the cream puffs without wrecking them.

Happy birthday Risa!

And so that's the story of my first croquembouche. I had waited months to make it, then spent several days baking choux, making different flavored fillings, filling the choux, and building the cone, and because I was too impatient to wait five minutes for the caramel to harden, it almost turned into a ruin of cream puffs!

Oh, it tasted quite good. If you like croquembouches. Which, by the way, I've never been crazy about (too much sticky caramel on each puff). But no, really, it was good, especially the chocolate-filled puffs.

Pictures from the past
This project reminded me of croquembouches of my past. In particular, the one at our wedding. I don't quite remember our discussion with the caterer, but I believe I voiced some strong reservations about having a croquembouche (again, too much caramel, and I'm not wild about crème pâtissière). But the caterer convinced us we had to have one if only for the esthetics, and that a host of other desserts would be served alongside. I'm glad she convinced us, as it does make for pretty photos.

The desserts arrived with pomp and glory at our wedding. Click to enlarge, and check out the nougatine columns holding up the top half of the croquembouche! Now that's gutsy. No, I did not make this one!

Did he realize just how many pieces of cake I would be feeding him in the years to come?

Process pictures

Lots of choux in my freezer!

I think I made about 160, though not all were used for my tower.

I found the metal tip awkward for piping, and finally used it just to pierce holes in the choux, using the cheapo plastic tip to pipe in the cream

The cone for building the croquembouche. Stiff paper, taped in the shape of a cone, lined with baking paper. The whole thing is set in a vase so I have two hands free for filling it. I lined the walls of the cone with choux, using caramel as cement (as little caramel as possible). The resulting hollow tower of choux is then tipped over onto plate and the cone and baking paper are removed.
Ahem. WAIT for the caramel to harden before doing this...

Et voilà, you can decorate the cake with candied almonds, marzipan flowers, or anything you like. Some of the choux I had dipped in caramel and then in sugar lumps, which is decorative though tooth-achingly sweet, so I didn't use too many.

Goodbye pretty cake. It was fun, but I won't be making too many of you any time soon!

Recipe for croquembouche, sort of!

I'm feeling a bit lazy about posting a recipe for this cake. Is anyone out there planning to make one? If you are, let me know, I'll post detailed info (update: I've added links to the choux and pastry cream recipes, as well as the recipe for the chocolate pastry cream below). Otherwise, here is the summary: you make fairly small choux (recipe here), bake them a little longer than usual so they are nice and crisp and can hold their shape well, you fill them with pastry cream (recipe here) or diplomat cream -- pastry cream lightened with whipped cream and gelatine (I used three different flavors: chocolate pastry cream (recipe below) and vanilla and praliné diplomat cream) -- and you can chill the filled choux for a few hours in the fridge, but not too long. Then you make loads of caramel, not too dark, using a little glucose or corn syrup to avoid crystallization, and you dip and build within the cone. Don't first coat the choux with caramel, as that will be really sickeningly sweet and sticky. Keep warming the caramel if it gets too thick, though careful, you don't want it to get darker. When the caramel has hardened, tip the whole thing over onto a plate. Do not store in fridge -- as if you have room -- as the caramel will weep. Serve asap!

Recipe: Chocolate Pastry Cream (or crème pâtissière with chocolate)
Source: Pierre Hermé, Secrets Gourmands

Make a double batch of the pastry cream as described here. Before the cream cools off, in three or four additions stir in 200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa) that has been chopped very fine or even grated.

Update March 2010

I made another croquembouche, see post here.