Sometimes, my friends and I get these crazy ideas. One of them was a coconut cake-inspired feast. Another, more recently, was throwing a birthday party for someone who didn’t exactly but kind of did want a birthday party. When someone feels this apprehensive about their birthday, the only thing to do is to concoct a party that is so full of friends and food and a good helping of cheesy-gushy-we-love-you-sentiments that the reluctant birthday guy cannot help but have fun.
The only cake for this kind of situation is a croquembouche.
My birthday friend appreciates the finer things in life. He likes things that are refined and detailed and a little bit glam. He also likes food that tastes really good. All of these adjectives describe the croquembouche. So you understand–I had no choice. It had to be a croquembouche.
What is a croquembouche, you may ask? A croquembouche is usually called a cake, but it’s really a towering, elegant cone of stacked cream puffs held together with caramel. In French croquembouche means “crunch in the mouth,” for the hardened caramel that covers each puff as you break it off the cake. Thank goodness my coconut-cake-cohort had this idea, or birthday guy would’ve been getting some not nearly as exciting cupcakes instead.
As you can imagine, a croquembouche tends to strike fear into amateur bakers’ hearts. It combines all of the most temperamental and fussy things you could possibly bake. Choux pastry–the base of things like eclairs, profiteroles, and beignets–has the potential to puff up beautifully but is so delicate that one wrong breath or cat darting through the kitchen and everything deflates.
Pastry cream, a sweet egg-based filling (almost pudding-like, but not quite), must be cooked then chilled and heaven forbid you don’t cook it all the way through because then you’ll be eating raw eggs in your pastries. (PS: My aforementioned party planning cohort/sous chef had the idea to cheat on that one and made a just as delicious fake pastry cream filling. Genius.)
And then there’s caramel. Frightening, intimidating caramel that will burn your fingers and splatter on you and cool down so quickly you can barely get the cream puffs stacked on top of each other. Not to mention how caramel sticks to your pots and pans. Pots and pans shiver in fright when their owners mention caramel. Baker Tip: I highly recommend having a cohort/sous chef like mine to help you with the caramel when you freak out.
But, if you are a baker brave of heart, you can absolutely make a croquembouche. This post is suddenly feeling a little medieval-quest-y, but it’s a worthy metaphor. Many challenges await along the way, beyond the above three hurdles: an 80-degree day that I guarantee will threaten deflation of your puffs; the chilling, waiting, and transporting entailed in constructing the thing; a few pots nearly sacrificed to caramel along the way; and of course, the realization that you did not actually make enough cream puffs to make a cone, and that your croquembouche will be more of a tapering cylinder.
Don’t worry, though. None of these things will matter once you drizzle the thing with caramel, decorate with some raspberries, and put some birthday candles in. The look on birthday guy’s face (and your admitted self-satisfaction at actually making a croquembouche) will more than make up for burned fingers and untraditionally shaped French pastries. Continue reading