The most beautiful dessert. Croquembuche
There’s nothing like croquembouche. Anyone, who has ever been at a classic French wedding, christening, or communion will know – without even knowing how to pronounce it – what croquembouche is (literally, crunch in your mouth). It’s a rare French person who doesn’t know about croquembouche – little balls piled up in a cone covered in spun sugar, placed upon shiny caramel nougatine.
Welcome to the world of the finest and architecturally most impressive cakes croquembouche – a beautiful, carefully prepared pastry creation into which pastry chefs put all their knowledge, not only about how to make choux pastry and cream, but also about architecture and design.
Thanks to the fact that it is truly built, croquembouche in France is known as pièce montée (assembled piece). It originated way back in the 16th century when it could be found on the tables of the wealthy and the nobility. Even today, it is a symbol of wealth, because making a croquembouche is not cheap. Not at all. It takes time, precision, and knowledge in all kinds of things.
Getting back to history. Although croquembouche has been found on dessert and holiday tables in France since the 1500s, we’re talking more about form, not content. The croquembouche we see on tables today was born at the end of the 18th century, thanks to the most influential and historically significant chef in French history – Antoine Careme. It was at the end of the 18th century when he began to create croquembouche – its form and content – in the way we recognize today. And it is his tradition that continues to be presented at weddings to this day.
Actually, Careme believed that architecture and pastry were closely tied, even inseparable, and that the art of pastry making was the highest form of architecture, which was displayed in choux pastry balls being turned into creations resembling Persian pavilions, Turkish mosques, Gothic towers, and many other creations. Apparently, mosque designs were very popular, but the classic cone shape held on into the 20th and 21st centuries: the pastry chef’s nightmare and pride and joy at the same time.
This pièce montée example was created from little balls of choux pastry – profiteroles – filled with custard or sweet cream (vanilla is classic) with an addition of liquor. This is all built into a tall tower and held together with caramel that is spread on each profiterole. Then this all gets placed on a base of nougatine (almond and caramel base made into a circle) and covered with strands of spun sugar. It may sound simple, but it’s not. It’s a process you cannot make a mistake completing: the choux pastry must be firm enough, but not dry; cream that doesn’t drip out; caramel that has to get hard just at the right time; and then it has to be made into a proportionately beautiful tower that doesn’t tip one way or the other.
Of course, these days there are many variations with creams ranging from lemon, chocolate, fruit and berry to praline and tastes like matcha and juzu, just to name a few. The design of the tower is also endless – a challenge to any pastry chef to create the one and only and uniquely beautiful croquembouche.
While the world searches for its best cakes and drapes them in sugar glazes or marzipan coatings so that that they looked very dressed up, the French are clear about what to serve at their weddings. The correct answer is croquembouche, but it’s not just for weddings, because this spun sugar tower takes center stage at baptisms, communions, and other important family celebrations. It’s still a symbol of good taste, but also respects tradition and wealth.
Not many in Latvia can create the classic, perfect croquembouche – a dessert that even people who say they don’t eat sweets can’t turn down. Ones that hold together perfectly without being sickly sweet or totally tasteless. One of the places I order croquembouche from is the pastry shop Bel Etage, and although it’s much more sensible to order it and not make it, if you decide to attempt to try it yourself, here are some suggestions from pastry chef Jūlija Beļicka on how to properly make croquembouche:
Remember, this dessert is made and eaten on the same day and can’t be kept in the fridge until tomorrow, because the caramel gets soft and you no longer get that sensation as the name suggests – crunch in your mouth. Keeping it in the fridge will make the caramel run and drip.
You can serve it many different ways, but the classic way to serve it is on the nougatine base that is always created in the diameter needed for the croquembouche.
Choux pastry is always prepared slightly stiffer (but not much), because that is what helps keep the tower stable and stay in shape. Profiteroles that are too soft will just collapse under the weight.
Small choux balls are dipped into caramel, which is boiled to a light color and then left on a low heat until all the balls are dipped. It goes without saying that you have to watch your fingers and work fast. If you’re making a large croquembouche, it’s better to have the caramel in two pots.
The classic decoration is spun sugar, supported with dabs of caramel. If you already know your design, then its better to created it ahead of time so that you can use the same caramel for dipping the profiteroles to support the spun sugar.
For a 20 cm high tower, you will need about 60 profiteroles about 4.5-5 cm in diameter.
Story and pictures: Signe Meirane
Camera: Sony Alpha 7s