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.