This entry is VERY late, three days late to be exact. Humidity turned caramelized sugar to croquembouche goo and well, I almost gave up. I’m glad I didn’t, so better late than never (are you listening, BOT?).
When I was in my early 20’s, I constructed my first croquembouche (aka Piece Montee). I saw it on the cover of a Good Housekeeping magazine at the market and bought that magazine because I had to attempt it. That combined with having seen a classic Martha Stewart repeat, in all of her 90’s wedge-cut glory, dipping a snipped whisk into caramelized sugar and spinning it around and around this extraordinary, cone-shaped tower of cream puffs. I watched in awe as she formed golden strand after golden strand around that croquembouche, which was seducing me like no pastry had before. Before I continue, the infamous blog checking lines;
The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a piece montée, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri. Thanks, Cat!
So, I decided that a croquembouche would be the perfect, and most impressive, dessert to bring to a boyfriend’s Christmas day family gathering. After a few issues with the creme patisserie, which I hadn’t made before, I spent hours building this tower of beauty, decorating it like the one on the cover of the aforementioned Good Housekeeping issue, with silver dragees, red and green Jordan almonds, and of course, that gorgeous angel hair mane of spun sugar. It was ahh-mazing; it actually looked like a golden Christmas Tree! I was ecstatic to show this baby off, but even more excited for everyone to take a bite of the caramel coated cream puffs and discover the rich, creamy centers in various flavors (vanilla ginger, chocolate truffle, and salted caramel).
Surely they would marvel at my artistry and ability to make something that looked so good, taste SO delicious!!
When we got there, the both of us holding a side of the croquembouche platter like it was a newborn baby; walking in slow motion, then scoping the room for any stable place to put it down, everyone did marvel. Excited gasps and exclamations of “WOW, I can’t believe you made that!” and “HOW GORGEOUS!!”, peppered the room .
I was totally basking in a “D’s chick is a supergirl – what a catch!” kind of moment.
His brother took a side of the platter and helped us place it smack dab in the middle of the main dinner table; the centerpiece!! As more people arrived, their eyes went straight to my croquembouche, asking where they bought this amazing, edible tower. Of course they were shocked to find out that I made it all by my lil’ ol self. To say I was lovin’ it is such a freakin’ understatement, it isn’t even funny. I was the bomb diggity bomb that day! I was SO full of my pastry self (inwardly, of course) it was almost humorous, and I couldn’t wait until everyone experienced crispy, creamy profiterole pleasure on their palates!
Notice the pool of melting sugar at the bottom from the humidity. It seeps through the dang walls no matter how high you have the AC or CA blasting. Within an hour, the puffs started to keel over and roll off. Even the perfect dip of sprinkles on several of the cream puffs wouldn’t hold and started to melt off – as well as the spun sugar, which literally disintegrated before I took photos. This is why croquembouche is NOT a summer dessert, IMO.
Well, you all know what’s coming. This kind of self-congratulatory euphoria cannot take place without some form of karma, can it?
We were all sitting in the living room, our bellies full after a lovely dinner, chatting away until said bellies made room for dessert. Everyone kept commenting on how they couldn’t wait to dig into my tower of croquembouche cream puff gorgeousness, so much so, that the Italian pastries, pies and cakes were all but kicked to the side of the table. My croquembouche stood in full view; grand, tall and proud, glistening like an actual Christmas tree with lights; lights that were winking at us in a come hither way, luring all to pull off a cream puff or three.
Suddenly, someone said “Oh, look, Socky and Basher love the croquembouche too!” I looked over and saw that their cats were ON THE TABLE investigating this odd upside- down cone, with intense curiosity.
We all watched in horror as both cats started licking my croquembouche. Not just little licks, but rapid, ravenous licks, along with (which was sort of even worse), long, sensuous rubs against the sides of the croquembouche with their flanks, their hair sticking to every puff. They were courting my croquembouche! They even sat up on their hind legs and licked the top and all around the top! OMG, they weren’t going to leave one area untouched!
Soon, everyone started to laugh, and I had to join in so the sight of my head deflating wouldn’t be too obvious. It went from light laughter to extremely loud guffaws, with comments like..
“Looks like we won’t be eating THAT for dessert!”
“I had no idea your cats were into French desserts, Jack!”
I wanted to crawl under the table and remain there for eternity, or at least until I didn’t feel like sulking or crying anymore.
Of course everyone was nice, sweet, and apologetic about it, but I was so disappointed because no one was going to be able taste it, unless they liked cat hair cream puffs.
I did make several more of the croquembouche in coming years, with no kitty foreplay rendering them inedible, but whenever I make or even hear the word ‘croquembouche’, my mind always races back to that first moment of glory turned gloom.
I cut and pulled off the bottom layer of puffs to give it a more ‘vase’ shape.
Onto the challenge. No tower this time, but a croquemVASE filled with fruit! Papaya hearts (dipped in strawberry sugar, which melted, on one side, just because..), watermelon flowers with mango centers, pineapple-melon kebabs (there is actually a few chunks of Yubari King Melon on some of them!), strawberries etc. It turned out messy because the fruit was drippy and slippery due to the weather, and by the time I got to the fruit kebabs, I just shoved uneven chunks (instead of the beautiful balls of fruit I was going to scoop) onto the skewer because I was fed up and DONE!
Initially, I was going to make a croquem’bowl’, but as I kept building toward the ceiling, I realized a bowl wasn’t to be had. In France, a croquembouche is usually presented as a wedding cake, but I always associate it with cold weather holidays, so an elaborate cone tower in this sweltering heat was not in the cards. Well, since we’re in the dog days of summer, why not morph the croquembouche into ‘springy/summery’ goodness with a bouquet of fruits in a VASEmbouche?
Well, that’s what I did.
I filled the pate a choux puffs with a simple soft chocolate ganache, sort of emulating a chocolate fondue you’d be dipping the fruit into. Bite of fruit, bite of crispy with oozing chocolate, bite of fruit, bite of crispy with oozing chocolate, lather, rinse, repeat et al.
To be honest, I always felt a croquembouche could do without the hard caramel coating as far as the taste and texture goes, but it makes such a pretty presentation, I can never resist. Next time I may just use chocolate and save the ‘shimmer’ for holidays. At the very least, cool weather eliminates the muggy humidity that results in gooey, melting sugar, also known as the croquembouche killer.
How to Make a Croquembouche
For the master recipe for croquembouche, click HERE.