Monday, December 21, 2015

Crumbling Croquembouche

Okay, it happened.  About twice a year, I have a total baking disaster.  Usually at the worst possible time (although I did get lucky with the previous meltdown -- the blueberry brioche was only witnessed by myself and my husband.)  So, given that the brioche happened early in 2015, I suppose I was due for this horrifying mess.  Although, the timing really was terrible.

Let me start at the beginning.  Remember how, in the last blogpost, I was bragging (insufferably, I know) about my cream puffs?  The ethereal beauty, the pillowy softness, the heavenly cream. . . Well I decided to (in the immortal words of Emeril) kick it up a notch -- and to build a croquembouche.  The day of my holiday party.  Where I was expecting around 50 guests.  Note, I did not say I decided to attempt this architectural feat.  Because, to be honest, my recent projects had all gone so flawlessly, that I really didn't contemplate the possibility of failure.  Cocky, I know. . . and you know what they say about pride. . . (and in this context, the fall was both figuarative and literal. . .in quite a spectacular way.)

In the beginning, everything proceeded flawlessly.  I baked one hundred and twenty cream puffs --every one looking absolutely gorgeous coming out of the oven.

They were individually, painstakingly filled by hand with four batches of smooth-as-satin pastry cream; the last drop of which perfectly topped off the last cream puff, as if by divine intervention.

I had purchased several Styrofoam cones from Michaels earlier in the week, and wrapped them with parchment paper, sealed with tape (which miraculously, for the first time ever, didn't peel off the moment I turned my back.) This was to be the mold. Upon inspection of all of the cones, I decided to go big or go home (as a matter of speaking. . . I already was home. . .) And big it was -- approximately 20 inches in height, and 6 inches in diameter.

Sugar and water was heated to the requisite 310 degrees F -- and with foresight that I usually don't possess -- I had rubber kitchen gloves on hand to work the boiling hot confection. Each puff was dipped in hot sugar (those kitchen gloves saved me from more than a few blistering sugar burns, I have to say) and carefully placed around the mold, with each puff meticulously "glued" to the ones around it.
So far, so good.  About 1/3 of the way up, the sugar cooled and a new batch was made, with the same sparkling, effervescent quality of a freshly sprung bottle of champagne -- if champagne could maim with a mere splash that is.  But with my trusty kitchen gloves, it was no problem.  I was a confectionery expert -- dip, flick, paste.  It was artistry. . . until I hit my first snag.  The cone is normally supposed to be removed, with the puffs free-standing upon their own weight, but when I went to remove the cone, it was stuck, STUCK, with a vehemence that I wouldn't have thought possible.  I had used parchment paper! I had sprayed the whole cone with an over abundance of olive oil spray! Why, oh why was it sticking?  Eventually I gave up. . .so there would be a cone inside. . .not ideal, but still okay.  Minor detraction, but still, it could be FABULOUS.  When the whole thing was finally constructed, I used a box of raspberries and a dozen roses to construct a Christmas-worthy centerpiece.

And it was so beautiful.  So, so, so beautiful.  It makes me want to weep when I think about it.  Because exactly four hours after the last creamy rose was delicately posed, four hours after the last one of forty raspberries was artfully placed, four whole hours after my towering masterpiece was lovingly wrapped with the golden beads and iridescent strands of spun sugar -- the cream puffs started to fall off.  I'm still not sure exactly what happened -- maybe the cream puff shell was too soft. . . or too filled, and eventually the puffs started to sag, breaking the fragile sugar bond? Maybe the house was too warm or humid, softening the sugar of the hardened caramel? In any case, the croquembouche crumbled. . . right in front of my eyes, and right as the first of our fifty guests started to arrive.

And so it was, my beautiful journey with the ugliest of endings -- namely, me, scraping hot sugar off of our coffee table and piling the decimated puffs on plastic plates.  Consider it the ruins of a beautiful architechural piece, I suppose -- though while most structures takes centuries to come to this state, my own only took four hours.  Photos are only of the good times, since I couldn't bear to document the end. Ah well, at least they still tasted good, and like my mother used to say of ruined pancakes -- it all gets crumbled up in your stomach anyways.  Wise words to live by. . .

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