There are times when healthy eating gets boring. All things in moderation, they say, even moderation. We all need a moment of excess; some of us need it daily. Occasionally, excess takes the form of a breathtaking sweet à la belle cuisine Française.
Two hundred years ago a great confectioner, Auguste Carême, built an awe-inspiring edible empire of temples and pyramids with marzipan, nougat and caramel. In a moment of dangerously high self-esteem, Carême proclaimed pastry "the highest form of architecture”. They're all gone now, eaten, crumbled, all Carême’s grandiose pièces montées (mounted pieces) save one: le croquemebouche
Few francophiles have seen much less tasted a croquembouche. This tower of cream-filled choux pastry is reserved for momentous occasions such as a wedding reception, a communion or a baptism. What makes is this stunning dessert so rare? I recently took the opportunity to find out at a Lenôtre pastry school in Paris.
Here are my notes....
Four of us gathered one Saturday afternoon in the surprisingly glamorous kitchen of a Lenôtre boutique Who would expect a teaching kitchen to have a sleek black wall of ovens on one side of the room and an expanse of glass looking out on traffic at the Porte de Vincennes on the other? We knew we were going to make something special.
To my surprise, the four recipes we were given filled a single page. These brief recipes took four full hours to complete. For starters we worked with quadrupled ingredients so each of us could assemble our own croquembouche.
We prepared the crème patissière first to give it time to cool. This traditional recipe held no surprises although the three minutes we spent stirring the completed custard felt longer than usual. We froze the crème for just five minute, then refrigerated it tightly covered in plastic for use later.
The almond nougatine recipe was next. We would make candy disks to serve as a base for our tower. As we cooked the sugar syrup to the caramel stage, I made a note to purchase a mercury-free Matfer candy thermometer to replace my Taylor and digital models. Once at the desired temperature, the chef added previously toasted, sliced almonds to the hot mixture. This molten mixture was immediately divided among four Silpat sheets.
The nougatine was rolled flat while still very warm. We took turns cutting a large nougatine circle, each of us working with our own bakesheet. We made three additional smaller circles (later attached under the base for easier handling) and wide strips which were divided into triangular bits later used to decorate the edge of the base.
Cutting these structural pieces took a surprising amount of time. The candy hardened so quickly (within 3 minutes) we had time to cut just one or two pieces. The bakesheets had to be returned to the warm ovens to become soft enough to cut.
There is always more to learn about making the pâte à choux pastry. At Lenôtre the chef beat the milk and flour mixture much longer than I expected before adding the eggs. He showed us how to determine when the paste had reached the proper consistency. Every time he stirred in an additional tablespoon of beaten egg, he would scoop up a small amount on a spoon. When a small amount tipped off the side of a spoon formed a bec d’oisseau (bird’s beak) the pàte à choux was ready. (see above)
Then it was time to transfer the dough to a pastry bag and squeeze identical mounds of choux paste onto a non-stick Silpat sheets and bake them. We all took turns pressing out the puffs. Voila! No sooner were the puffs in the oven, than the chef pulled out 200 pre-baked and cooled puffs for us to fill. Our own choux would undoubtedly be used in another class.
As we filled the puffs with the cooled crème patissière, the chef prepared a second sugar syrup. Half the filled puffs were lightly dipped in this syrup and turned sticky-side-down into a bed of coarse sugar. We dipped the remaining puffs in the clear syrup and turned them shiny side up to cool and harden the syrup. Construction began once all our puffs were glazed and sugared.
This was the most difficult part of the class for me. Unlike building objects with Legos, pastry puffs are soft, uneven. and difficult to dip. The sugar syrup is extremely hot and in the process of cooling quickly into long dripping strands. Even the slightest drop of hot sugar from puff onto a finger or hand creates a painful burn. If you have short nails (as I did), it’s extremely hard to get a good grip on the puffs. Enough complaining. There was no stopping us now
To construct our croquembouche, each of us borrowed the metal ring we had used to cut out our nougatine pads. We carefully dipped ten puffs coated with coarse sugar on two adjacent sides, and set them sugar-side facing the ring and sticky sides down and touching the adjacent puffs to form a tight circular layer. The next layer was built with the puffs covered in clear syrup and tilted slightly inward. You get the idea.
In principle, the tower should end with a single puff at the top. That didn't happen for most of us. Anticipating that our first attempt would be wobbly and uneven, the chef had prepared some decorations to cover and distract from telltale imperfections. Small green pulled-sugar leaves and white almond dragées were slipped into holes and between uneven layers. He had fashioned four beautiful white pulled-sugar roses for each of us to place at the pinnacle (or on the side) of our masterpiece.
We did it! Our creations set out for display were stunning, a fairyland forest of confections. But it wasn’t over yet. We had to package our masterpieces to take home. Each croquembouche was carefully placed on a styrofoam base and stabilized with strategically placed toothpicks. A tall open-ended box was set over the foam base to protect the sides and plastic film was stretched over the top. Mine made it home intact on the Metro. Mission accomplished!