Dear Reader, no doubt at one stage or another, you may have been asked to make a birthday or wedding cake for a friend or family member. I did one a few years ago for Mr NQN's sister. I swore I would never do another such was the stress. The bride and groom wanted cream cheese frosting on a wedding that was held in the blistering 40+C heat of January in a room without air conditioning. I had panic filled nightmares of it dripping and melting and trying to pass that off as a deliberate effect.
But then my friend The Second Wife asked me to make her wedding cake. The reason why I happily said yes was because she said "I would love absolutely anything you come up with. It can be Halloween themed. It can be made of anything. It can be a batshit crazy as you like!!! ". It was a brief I could hardly refuse! I wanted it to be brilliant (and despite the fact that she had mentioned Halloween, it wasn't going to be Halloween themed). So when I was offered a place of any of Patisse's cooking classes I jumped at the French Croquembouche one thinking that I would be able to test out whether I could make one for her wedding or not. I had made choux quite a bit as I am a bit of a choux addict in le Religieuse, St Honore, Croqumebouche cupcakes, and a small croquembouche.
I walk into the Waterloo location at 5.45pm for the 6-10pm class where there are eight other people gathered. Jennifer from Patisse explains how the class will progress. Chef Vincent Gadan is teaching us tonight and he comes out with a flourish and explains the croquembouche to us. Mr NQN was coming along to photograph it but little did he know that I was going to get him to try his hand at making the croquembouche! ;) Vincent points out that there are two men in the class and we later learn that one was given the gift from his girlfriend who suggested that it would be more entertaining to watch him in the class than to go out for drinks with her friends. The second guy is there with his girlfriend and up until he walked in, it was surprise that she had arranged-he thought that he was going to a taping of "The Footy Show" or a sports game!
Vincent brings us the croquembouche we will be making. It has about 50-60 choux balls on it and is about 30 cms / 1 foot high. He also shows us the decorations that we can choose from. There are fresh flowers, tiny choux balls covered with cocoa nibs, crystallised violet, chopped pistachios, pearl sugar and egg shaped silver dragees. I ask if Mr NQN and I can combine our choux balls and make one double that size as I want to test whether I can do a wedding sized croquembouche. They say yes!
We wash our hands and take our places at the bench. In front of us are the ingredients that have been measured out for us. We start with making the choux pastry. He shows us the approximate size of the buns that we need to make which is about an inch in diameter as they will expand slightly. The dough is straightforward, mixing the flour with the milk, water, sugar and salt that has been heated until boiling and we just cook this mixture and taking the steam out of it while stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon for 1 minute. Interestingly, Vincent gives us the measurement of 5 grams of caster sugar as "six pinches".
"Dessecher" is the process of taking steam out of it. We then place it in a mixing bowl fixed with a paddle to remove even more steam. The whole eggs are then added to the mixture. This mixture then has to be placed in the fridge for 1-2 hours or overnight until it firms up as you cannot pipe it as it is as the texture is too soft. Never fear, he has made a batch of choux pastry at 5pm that day so that we have some ready for us.
Rather cleverly, he shows us a tip-to make sure that your baking paper doesn't fly away or move on the baking sheet, spray it with some oil spray and then it will adhere! For some present, this is the first time piping anything so he shows us the basics to the choux buns. Pipe with the tip 1 cm above the baking sheet, stop piping and then cut by moving the tip quickly. "Don't do it like Kerri-Anne" he jokes-apparently when she tried doing it her buns looking a bit penis shaped.
He then shows us a little trick to help to flatten the tips from the piping bag. Beat a couple of eggs with a fork. Using a little of the beaten egg and the back of a fork, gently press down in a cross hatch pattern. These buns are then baked for 190C for 30-40 minutes and then the oven is reduced to 160C and then baked for an additional 10 minutes to dry them out.
Onto the custard-oops I mean creme patissiere. Vincent vehemently insists that creme patissiere and custard are two totally different things (and they are really) and says "I don't want you to call it custard ok? I don't want to hear the word custard. It's creme patissiere or "creme pat". Well of course you know that this means that everyone calls it custard, even accidentally!
He shows us the best way to remove the seeds from a vanilla bean. You firstly flatten the bean with a knife. Then you cut off both ends, slit it down the centre and then scrape out the beans. We whisk the yolks and sugar together while the milk and vanilla bean are boiling. Once the eggs are light and fluffy we whisk in the flour until there are no lumps and we then pour 1/3 of the boiling milk into the egg mixture and whisk it.
We add this to the rest of the milk and return it to the heat and keep mixing until it becomes thick. And the final piece de resistance? A splash of Grand Marnier! I admit I'm not a huge fan of Grand Marnier but it tastes fantastic in this custard-oops I mean creme pat ;) We then cover it with cling film resting right on the very top. If you don't have cling film, you can always pat a little butter on top to form a skin.
Now the thing that I didn't know is that this also goes into the fridge for a few hours until it is hard and you can slice it and this is then whipped. If it is too soft it will spill out of the choux bun and make it soggy. He cuts the custard like a firm jelly slice and then whips it and he tells us that it will firm up again.
Time to fill the chouxs! We take the end of our pens and poke a hole in the bottom of the choux and then wriggle the pen around to break up any walls. We then take our piping bag filled with whipped creme pat and fill them (I find it much easier to do this when holding the bag sideways as shown above). These are set down on baking sheets lined with oil sprayed baking paper. This is to prevent the custard bottoms from sticking to the paper.
Before we break for dinner, he shows us how to make the caramel. We use glucose to prevent crystallising from occurring and a wet brush to brush down any stray sugar crystals because if they fall down into the caramel, it may crystallise.
Dinner time! I am starving as I hadn't eaten beforehand and it is now about 8pm. Jennifer sets down a plate of either caramelised onion tart, bacon and egg quiche or beef pie in front of us and we swap if we don't like it. I end up trying a bit of everything due. The bacon and egg quiche is particularly good and all of the pastry is lovely and crisp. We also try a polenta muffin which is filled with vegetables like spinach and pumpkin. Wine and soft drinks are also served.
Dinner eaten, we return to the kitchen where Vincent has been baking some extra choux just in case we need them. The caramel is boiling away while we fill in the rest of our choux buns. He warns us that the caramel will continue to keep cooking so remove it from the heat when you feel like it is almost at the right colour.
Have a large lined baking tray ready. Then very, very carefully dip the top of the choux buns in the caramel and then cut the strands by pressing it against the side of the pot. He warns us to make sure not to drop any in there or get any custard into the caramel as we won't be able to use it again. Once the caramel starts to get hard, then you need to return it to a low heat to soften it. This process has to be done by hand, even when you order them for a wedding which is why croquembouche is such an expensive cake to order.
Now comes the assembly. The hardest bit and the bit where I wonder if I can do it for my friend's wedding. We take a foam cone which can be bought at Spotlight and similar places. They place non stick paper around it and then sticky tape it together. This is then sprayed with an oil spray to cover the sticky tape and to ensure that it slides out.
Because ours is large, they've made a custom sized one. He shows the important part: the bottom layer of the croquembouche. Once this is in place, then the rest of the layers are relatively easy (relatively I did say ;) ). The choux buns are dipped in the caramel but on the side of the bun. You stick two together and place them flat against the bottom of the cone. You may need to gently press your fingers on them for about 20 seconds for the caramel to full set to keep them flat against the cone as gravity will mean that they want to fall down.
This bottom layer does take the longest but it's important to have this done well as it is the foundation of the croquembouche. And we are creating a tower of these choux so structural engineering is important. If there are any flyaway sugar strands, these can be removed with a dry brush.
We begin the painstaking process of placing the buns. I do the bottom layers while Mr NQN does the top layers. He's having lots of fun and I notice how much fun the other guys in the class are having building their own creations. Could this be the start of Mr NQN cooking? A girl can dream can't she? Vincent has bowls of ice water on the table in case we burn our fingers. "I'm not hearing anything" he says surprised that there are any yelps of pain. And then on cue, like we had been jinxed, the yelps come.
Ours takes a bit longer than everyone else's as it is bigger but we watch with bated breath as everyone's are unmoulded with some nifty knife work by Vincent and they take shape. Before he removes them he takes them with both hands and moves them around to see if they are solidly put together. Then he applies additional caramel on the areas where they need a bit more reinforcement. He does the small choux towers and then ours. We breathe a sigh of relief as ours slides off!
In the corner there is some sugar spinning action taking place. With what looks like a whisk with the round end taken off at the end he flicks it back and forth on the sink. Mr NQN is eager to make some and he makes a huge amount of the stuff! "Well it was just going to go to waste" he says.
Everyone's croquembouches are just stunning. While they pack up we decorate ours as we have taken a little longer. Everyone gets a batch of choux to work with at home. I put some of the crystallised violet and pearl sugar mini chouxs as well as some purple flowers and some of the silver dragees-and of course Mr NQN's spun sugar.
"Do you have a big fridge?" Vincent asks.
"Big fridge?" we look alarmed? Errm not really. If you know me, you'll know that my fridge is medium sized but also pretty packed with food all of the time. Hmmm we should have thought of that. We make plans to take this to Mr NQN's work tonight as he rides a bike to work.
He sees that I have already become attached to my croquembouche and are reluctant to let it go "Are you ok with me taking it to work?" he asks.
"Hmmn I don't want to say goodbye to it" I say looking at it longingly.
And will I be making this for The Second Wife's wedding? It is certainly doable-as Vincent suggested, I could make the choux buns at home and simply mix up the caramel and construct it there. I'll see how confident I feel and what the kitchen facilities are like!
So tell me Dear Reader, what is your favourite type of cake?
Recipe courtesy of Patisse
Def: A croquembouche is a French cake, a kind of pièce montée often served at weddings, baptisms, and first communions. It is a high cone of profiteroles (choux filled with pastry cream) sometimes dipped in chocolate bound with caramel, and usually decorated with threads of caramel, sugared almonds, chocolate, flowers, or ribbons.
10g caster sugar
6g/4 pinches of salt
300g plain flour
Place the butter, milk, water, sugar & salt into a saucepan to boil
Add flour and then DESSECHER the mix with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes
Remove from heat
Place mix into a mixing bowl
While beating the mix with paddle, gradually add the eggs
Store overnight in the refrigerator
Pipe mixture into small balls on a baking tray lined with silicon/baking paper about an inch apart from each other.
Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes at 190C/380F. Then reduce temperature to 160C/320F and bake for another 10 minutes to dry out.
8 Egg yolks
120g caster sugar
50g plain flour
50g corn flour
1 vanilla bean
Boil the milk and add vanilla essence
In a mixing bowl whisk the eggs and sugar
When egg mix is light and fluffy add the two flours
Mix until well combined (no lumps)
Sift the milk and then return to the saucepan
Put 1/3 of the milk mix into the egg mix and combine
Then put everything back onto the stove with the milk mix
When it starts to boil cook for 5 minutes
Once cooled from the oven you need to puncture the choux ball to make a
hole. Insert piping bag and add the crème filling.
To coat approx 10 to 15 choux
300g Castor Sugar
Cook to 170c for coating
Dip the choux balls into the caramel as assembled with either cone mould or as arrange as desired.
NQN and Mr NQN attended the Pastisse French Croquembouche class as guests of Patisse
Shop G01, PYD Building
197 Young Street, Waterloo, NSW
Tel: +61 (02) 9690 0665
Information on the cooking classes can be found here: http://patisse.com.au/page/cooking_classes.html