This week’s obsession: Croquembouche
This croquembouche Christmas tree is a dream that came true in the most nightmarish of ways. Ever since I learned how to make a croquembouche in pastry school, I’ve had visions of turning it into a Christmas tree and serving it to my family during the holidays. And today, I did just that. But first I failed 4 different times before I was able to make it work.
A croquembouche is a very involved French dessert made up of cream puffs that are semi-organized in a conical presentation. You have to make and bake the cream puffs,
make the filling and pipe it into the puffs, dip the puffs in icing and sprinkles,
and glue them together somehow.
In France, these are typically served as wedding cakes. During the weddings, the top of the cream puff tower is either chopped off with a sword for a bit of high class drama, or the newly married couple takes a small mallet to the top of the tower and hacks away at it until it’s in enough pieces to serve their guests (definitely the most romantic moment of the event, for sure). I’ve even heard that while this is happening, bridesmaids will hold up the edges of the tablecloth on the cake table to catch flying debris. Sounds more like a frat party to me… But on an unrelated note, who wants to go to a French wedding with me???
Of course, once mainstream pastry chefs got a hold of these, croquembouches started showing up as very measured, immaculate design pieces with impeccable straight edges and elaborate décor. But really they originated as piles of puffs barely situated together with maybe some decoration. These things used to be more for eating than anything, which sometimes is how it should be. Mine didn’t come together quite as neatly as I would have liked because I did some rather unorthodox things to assemble it, and really – I’d like this to be all about eating anyway.
Typically the puffs are glued together with melted sugar (it’s basically lava. Dipping a cream puff – or as my French chefs refer to them, a chouquette – in melted sugar is how I got my first injury in pastry school. I can still feel the burn!) that hardens to the point that it’s pretty impossible to pull apart the pieces (hence the mallets and swords to serve them at weddings). Since I knew I would be serving this to my nieces and nephews, I didn’t want to use the melted sugar method because when it hardens, it can be very sharp (to the point where you can impale or slice your fingers and/or tongues) and I did not want to risk one of the kids getting hurt. Therefore, I decided to glue the chouquettes together with royal icing - aka the devil. I’m not even kidding. I actually thought about titling this post “Why Royal Icing is the Devil”. The very first time I had to use royal icing in pastry school, I was so frustrated that I went into the walk-in freezer and cried. You’ll often see royal icing as cookie decoration and as a way to construct and decorate gingerbread houses. It is such an infuriating substance because it basically hardens into cement (even if it’s still in your piping bag while you’re still using it) which usually results in squeezing your piping bag so hard that it bursts, and you end up with royal icing all over your creation and your hands. Trust me on this, I speak from experience. But that reason is exactly why I chose it to construct my croquembouche (the hardening to cement-like strength, not the potential for a bag blowout).
I did not take into account that because I’m now back in a high humidity area (87% humidity currently, which is considered low-ish) and it rained yesterday and today, the royal icing will not set. It has to dry out in order to become the cement-like texture that I needed, and that just wasn’t happening today. I even made a second batch of royal icing with far less liquid to give it a better shot of drying, but no such luck. I got about halfway through stacking my chouquettes each time before a section would tumble down and ruin the whole thing. I did this whole song and dance FOUR FREAKING TIMES before I finally gave in and decided to just use the molten sugar method to make a small croquembouche tower and subsequently forbid the kids from eating that. (I write this all as a condensed version of the day but really it started before 6AM today, involved several glasses of wine, lots of swearing [some of it was my father, but I’ll get to that later], and ended around 5:30PM.) So roughly 12 damn hours of this war against the humidity. And I used to think that the worst thing the humidity did was to my hair. #ChildsPlay
There was one point where my sister saw that I was struggling with keeping my sanity and she put my littlest niece in my arms and said that I needed baby hugs. And I did.
Those baby hugs put me in a much better mood and I stood in the middle of the kitchen hanging on to my itty bitty baby niece until she didn’t want to be held anymore. Then I got to work with wielding my magic with that molten sugar and stacked a small little croquembouche that actually held together!! For this croquembouche, I filled each of the chouquettes with a fresh made lemon cream and covered the outside in green sugar sprinkles to give it the tree effect, along with white sprinkles to imply snowflakes. Stacking these chouquettes with the molten sugar was the royal icing’s last jab at me because the royal icing that we used to glue the green sprinkles on started melting as I dipped the bottoms of the chouquettes into the molten sugar and I lost my grip on several. I ended up having to fish out several chouquettes in this final process. It was a huge mess, but I made it work. By the time I finally finished, I sprawled out on my parents’ kitchen floor, proclaimed to the world that it was finally done, and then barely kept in the tears of relief.
I have to send out a message of gratitude to my sous chef for helping me bring this dream to life (even though it was a whole lotta nightmare along the way). My mom. I tell her that she’s my sous-per chef. She responds with “yeah, super annoying chef.” And then we laugh and laugh until I yell at her for getting the outside of her piping bag messy. It’s a whole thing. But she keeps me laughing and entertained in the kitchen and obliges me when I ask her to take a photo of our work for this blog and is always willing to try whatever crazy pastry idea I come up with next (even if it means she has to do most of the work because my arm is in a brace), or even pouring me [us] a glass of eggnog to get me through the day. (I know most of you are shocked that I still drink eggnog after the Eggnog Slog™ but I definitely do!) I absolutely couldn’t have made this thing without her and am so grateful for all her help!
Also, HUGE shout out to my Dad for toughing it out in the kitchen with me today. I didn’t sleep much last night because I was so concerned about getting this croquembouche together (and for good reason), so I was already in the kitchen and working by 6am (which is 2am in the time zone I just came in from, btw) and shortly after I was working, Dad showed up and got started on making our Christmas gumbo. I think we both were kind of anxious because we knew cooking would be challenging since we’re both bereft of our left arms. #twinsies (Except that he's right handed so I guess it's not too bad for him. Ya know, aside from all the pain and stuff.) This is also where the extra swearing came in because neither of us can do things like lift lids or turn the knobs on the stove (or button our pants and put on our socks for that matter, but that's not really kitchen related) which causes random outbursts.
So I want to leave you with this tip of the week: don’t try to fight the humidity. Whether it’s with your hair or with pastry, humidity is no joke and is a force to be reckoned with. So never make royal icing or meringue or try to straighten your hair in the humidity because you will lose!!
Happy eating, y’all!