I love food. I love to eat food, I love to talk about food, I love to write about food, I love to make food, I love to take pictures of food…okay I think you get the picture, but before I was old enough to do any of those things (well obviously everything but the first one), I loved to watch other people make food.
I loved to sit at my grandma Rose’s big oak kitchen table and watch her make apricot horns; I loved to sit cross-legged on the counter in my parent’s old galley style kitchen and watch my mom make dinner every night and I especially loved to watch television shows about food. I know this comment will someday date me quite a bit (like when you hear someone tell you they remember what they were doing when JFK was shot) but I remember when we didn’t have the Food Network! I know it now seems impossible, but I do. I remember when I couldn’t turn on the TV twenty-four hours a day, 356 days a year and watch someone cooking. This was also before we had digital cable and we actually had to flip through the channels to see what was on; I know, it was practically the stone age. Nine times out of ten I would flip through the channels and wouldn’t find any cooking shows, but sometimes I’d get lucky. Sometimes on especially lucky days I’d flip to a channel and Yan Can Cook would be on or Julia Child or Jacques Pepin; other days I would also settle for another show called Great Chefs of the World. It went into the kitchens of fine-dining, fussy looking restaurants all over the world and a chef, usually French who had to be dubbed in English, would prepare something grand and confusing. It was on one of those episodes that I learned about the croquembouche.
A croquembouche (which loosely translates to ‘crunch in the mouth’) is the traditional French wedding cake, but it is now also found at Christenings, birthdays, and graduations, pretty much at any large party when people want to show off. It’s a hollow pyramid of profiteroles (cream puffs) filled with pastry cream and held together with caramel. It often has a nougatine base or sub-structures and is decorated with a combination of dragées (Jordan almonds), royal icing, threads of caramel and sugar sculptures. AND, I’m sure you saw this one coming, I got to make one!
A part of me, ever since I first heard of it, has always aspired to make a croquembouche. I know aspire is a strong word, but there is something daunting about it. The structure practically defies gravity and really, when is a good time to attempt such an audacious dessert. I mean, I would feel a little foolish showing up to a bbq with a homemade croquembouche in tow. So imagine my surprise, no elation, when in Basic section I saw some of the Intermediate students carrying their croquembouches down the stairs from the third floor pastry kitchen. I think I actually did a little happy dance, a little jig right then and there. I was going to get to make a croquembouche. Unfortunately, it’s made during the second to last week of Intermediate so I had to wait, but I loved the anticipation. I mean, I had been waiting to make one since I was around eight years old; it was like a prize for me waiting at the end.
As I mentioned, it’s shaped like a pyramid, so like all good contractors preparing to build a structure, we had to plan it out, take our time, and put everything in order. Unlike most of our patisserie creations this one couldn’t be completed in just one practical, rather it was made over two days. On the first day, we made nougatine: we heated sugar and water until it reached a light amber color, then added sliced almonds, then we poured and molded it like concrete to create the foundation for the pyramid. It’s not completely clear in the picture of my croquembouche below, but the profiteroles are resting on a four-inch high round base of nougatine. Then we decorated the base with additional nougatine that we had rolled out and cut into triangles, attaching with caramel and made a topper out of other shapes, and then decorated all of those with royal icing that we piped in drop lace (a technique where we suspended threads of royal icing from one point to another, dangling freely until they dried). On the second day, we made the profiteroles, made the pastry cream, filled the profiteroles with the pastry cream and started putting all the pieces together with molten caramel, one layer at a time. And voila we had our croquembouches.
(Here are some other pictures of things I made in the second part of Intermediate Cuisine and Patisserie)