Monday, September 7, 2009

A demanding beauty

IP Lesson XIX-XX- Croquembouche

My Croquembouch, my dream wedding cake

I’ve been waiting for this lesson ever since I started my training in Le Cordon Bleu.

It has become personal since the Croquembouche is my dream wedding cake. For the uninitiated, the Croquembouche is a traditional French wedding cake made with a tower of profiteroles dipped in caramel on a nougatine base and decorated with spun sugar.

The French name, Croquembouche, loosely translate to “crack in the mouth” which refers to the crackle of the caramel as you pop one of those profiteroles into your mouth.

We spent two days preparing our croquembouche tower. The first day was spent baking the profiteroles, preparing the crème patisserie, and baking and cutting the nougatine sheets.

The second day was spent assembling our tower of profiteroles with caramel.

Day One was a disappointment for me. I wouldn’t make up any excuses for my below-par performance. Perhaps overconfidence has brought me down: As a result of letting my guard down, I ended up letting both my choux puffs and my partner down. It was an embarrassing episode for me especially after making choux pastry for the umpteen time.

What happened was I got carried away while adding the eggs and I added too much of it. As we all know, too much of something is not always a good thing, especially in the world of baking. My profiteroles didn’t puff up nicely as they should; in fact, they were pretty flat!

The day did not end with just the disappointment. Before I could sit around and mope, I was forced to confront my temperamental twin, Nougatine. This evil twin had me running to and fro the oven and my bench. By the end of lesson, my face was all flushed; beads of perspiration dotted my face and back; my arms were left aching.

You see, nougatine needs to be worked with when it is hot and pliable. That meant that you had to roll out the nougatine sheet before it cools down too much. Once it is cooled, it refuses to comply with you. Just like a difficult kid; nougatine simply snaps. You have to coax it by warming it up in the oven; however, you have to be extra careful, as overheating will over colour it.

Only tenacity will help you find a way with it.

“I’m going to whip you into shape,” I was lashing out a stern warning to my nougatine pieces. I still believe in the tough-line approach.

Some of my other course mates were coaxing their nougatine pieces.
Whatever the approach, we managed to cutting out our nougatine pieces ready for class the next day.


I went to bed that night with negative thoughts about my profiteroles.

I did not wake up feeling better. With the sinking feeling, I dragged my feet to the train station. But even while I was waiting for my train, I wanted to turn back for home.

I was facing the mountain of impossibility of having to stick my flat profiteroles together.

“Would my croquembouche even resemble one?” I thought to myself.

At that moment, my train arrived and left me with no time for any reconsideration.

I trudged on to class with heavy steps and a heavy heart.

“We’ll make the best with whatever we got,” my bench partner comforted me. With that, the both of us soldiered on.

Full concentration is an essential when assembling the croquembouche. Those negative thoughts dispersed the moment we started making caramel.

Caramel is made by heating up a sugar syrup to past hard crack stage (> 160 degrees Celsius). Imagine having to handle something of that temperature! If handling nougatine was like handling a difficult kid, handling caramel is like playing with fire.

A moment of distraction could result in dire consequences. All of us worked with the caramel with a bowl of ice water beside us- just in case. We were told of a story of how a student burn his finger in caramel and in reflex, used his other hand to swipe of the caramel and ended up ripping the skin of his finger off!

That being said, I find that to deal with caramel, one needs to be fearless. The more afraid you are, the more likely you will get hurt. Fearless was my doctrine for that day.

But I ended up with a burn on my thumb midway through my tower. I’m not going to try to pretend it didn’t hurt, because it sure hurts like hell. I dunk my thumb in the iced water and my entire face grimaced in intense pain.

You could hear expletives and swearing in the kitchen all through that afternoon. It is all the doing of caramel.

I would say that getting burnt was worth it the moment I pulled out the silicon paper cone that helped give the croquembouche tower its shape.
That was the only word that summed up how I felt at the point in time.

My very own croquembouche!

Chef noticed the lack of puff in the profiteroles but other than that, he said it was a job well-done.

Sadly, this might be the last croquembouche I would make. I have to say goodbye to my wedding cake dream. (Yes! Before this lesson, I was determined to make this for my wedding next year!)

The croquembouche is a beauty with too many demands; short shelf life of four to six hours; needs to be in a cool and dry place (fridge is not an answer with all the moisture). In hot and humid Singapore, I think that the caramel and spun sugar will sweat and melt before I say “I do”.
on a nougatine base decorated with nougatine triangles, bounded together with caramel and spun sugar

A beauty

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