Welcome to your first attempt at making a croquembouche. This traditional French cake, served at weddings and other milestone celebrations, is made up of choux à la crème (profiteroles or cream puffs) glued into a conical tower using caramel syrup.
According to a 1987 New York Times article, preparing croquembouche calls for “the poise and artistry of a ballet dancer, the linear sensibilities of an architect, the delicate balance of a tightrope walker, the dexterity and artisanship of Michelangelo, and the imagination of Antonin Careme.” Antonin (or Marie-Antoine) Careme, the celebrity chef who popularized this ornamental marvel in the late 1700s, was a master of the pièce montée—architectural centerpieces made from confectionary.
With the aforementioned skills in mind, you fashion the dough, pâte à choux (named “pastry of cabbages” for its baked appearance), from scratch. You bake it into hundreds of delicate, airy puffs. After expertly filling each pastry with a dollop of homemade Crème Chantilly, you’ve successfully completed a batch of cream puffs. Now you’re ready for the hard part.
Once you heat a pot of caramel syrup on the stove, it’s time to dip the dough balls. Don’t let the caramel burn; you’ll need it again. With as much grace and tact as possible, stack each puff, sticky-side down, to form one Christmas tree-shaped centerpiece. Next, enshroud your creation in delicate webs of the remaining caramel syrup, encircling the pile with threads to hold it in place. Do this over and over. And don’t let it all go tumbling to the floor.
Finish your fragile tower with a medley of marzipan flowers, candied almonds, chocolate, or nougatine. This sugary shell of candy and caramel is what gives the finished pièce montée its name. But as anyone who’s ever attempted to make one will tell you, calling it “croquembouche,” which loosely means “crunch in the mouth,” doesn’t really do it justice.
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