Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Make them think you're a domestic goddess (when you're actually just a really clever baker)

So here's the story. I've been fantasizing about eating a croquembouche for years - YEARS I tell you! Ever since I saw one in a French bande dessinée as a kid... Even though it was merely a sketch in comic book inks, I could taste it in my mind's eye (or is it my mind's tongue?) : cream puff over delicious cream puff, towering to dizzying heights, shielded in a delicate armour of golden glistening caramel... It was magnificent.

I don't know why it took me nearly twenty-five years to try one. Maybe it was partly due to the fact that I  thought it so wondrous that it couldn't possibly exist in real life; or maybe that it was such a massive undertaking that it could only be made for glamorous gatherings of people much worthier than me.

So imagine my astonishment one day when Marc told me how he'd had the near-religious experience of eating croquembouche at his sister's wedding. "What!?!? WHAT?!?!?" I exclaimed. Mere mortals could eat this? Then, more recently, I was stunned to learn that my favourite local bakery could make one to order. WHAT?!?! That was it. The time had come for me to stop wishing and start acting. I made croquembouche MYSELF for my sister and aunt's double-birthday party. And it was won-der-ful.

Now, before you tell me that this endeavour grossly contravenes my "lazy cook" convictions, please know that it does not. This is the best impress-the-pants-off-your-dinner-guests-without-using-any-sort-of-specialized-skills dessert ever. It just takes a little planning, some elbow grease for stirring, and a really big wooden spoon for smacking a certain person's fingers when he tries to snatch a cream puff away for yet another round of self-assigned "quality control".

Laura Calder's recipe for croquembouche is perfect just the way it is, so I recommend it to anyone who is willing to jump into the world of cream puff skyscraper construction. And even if it ends up looking more like Montreal's Olympic Stadium than the Eiffel Tower, who cares! People will still bow to you as a master baker and domestic god(dess) extraordinaire. And the best thing is, it's nothing but smoke and mirrors my friends. Oh, and butter. And sugar. And cream. Mmmmmmm.

I'm not going to go through the whole recipe with you as Laura has already kindly taken care of that. I will, however, give you a few pointers from lessons learned.

1. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT POINTER OF ALL. Caramel is HOT. Blisteringly, searingly, painfully hot. And it conveniently sticks to human flesh, so it keeps burning you until you tear it off in a panic. This warning is not meant to frighten you, only to make you acutely aware that small children or inattentive cooks should not be near this stuff. The only way I could make this any clearer is by saying the following: you know how water boils at 100 degrees Celcius? That's burning hot, right? You're taking the caramel to just over 170 degrees Celcius. Got it? Good. Now go have fun. 

2. Time management is key. Think of this dessert as a succession of three small projects: the pastry cream, the puffs, and the caramel / assembly. To make it feel less laborious, I'd recommend making the pastry cream the night before. And allow at least 30 minutes for the caramel to achieve the right doneness; that stuff's sloooooooow to turn.

3. I didn't use the traditional foil-covered cone as a building base for my croquembouche. I decided to go ahead and just pile those cream puffs right up (hence the squat look of the finished product as you will see a little further down).  I just couldn't be bothered to hunt around Gatineau to find a foam cone, buy it, and then be stuck finding a place to store it in my kitchen once the party was over. In a moment of regret, I did try to make my own by stapling some parchment paper to an extra-large Roll up the Rim Tim Horton's cup, but that was just dumb. Even the dog thought so. I did win a coffee though. 

4. Filling the puffs was fun and easy. I just stabbed each one with the tip of my piping bag and kept slowly squeezing until the puff felt heavy in my hand, about the weight of a small clementine. That's when Marc-the-pastry-vulture started circling... Can't blame him, really. It was like finally being on the open side of the bakery's windowed counter, with unrestricted access! Gaaaaah! 

5. Laura doesn't mention this, but it's important that once your caramel has reached the right temperature, you take it off the heat as it will continue to darken. You can choose to work relatively quickly before it gets too dark (as I did), or place the bottom of the pan in a bit of ice water while you work, to cool things off a bit. And here's a clean-up trick: keep the caramel in the pan and stick to metal implements. Once everything is done, fill up the pan with water, with any remaining caramel still in it, and set it to boil. The caramel will slowly dissolve away and you'll have a perfectly clean pan in the end. Do the same with any caramel encrusted utensils you might have.

6. I watched a whole bunch of YouTube videos on how to assemble croquembouche to find decorating tips. This one showed a nifty way to make that pretty veil effect over the finished mountain of cream puffs (just click it forward to 4:50 for that specific part): It took me a while to figure out that the caramel has to be slightly cool before it start producing threads; so just dip in your forks, keep them stuck together for a bit, and then start pulling them apart. I also may try this whole adventure again with the chocolate version presented in this other video - if you're nervous about the caramel, this could be an option for you too:

7. Finally, I'm very proud to say I made a really neat topper for the croquembouche by simply swirling some remaining caramel on a clean, buttered sheet pan. Once it was partially set but still malleable (I kept checking by trying to lift a little bit of it off the pan), I picked it up with my hands and gently compressed it to make a tulip shape, then I held it until it was completely set. Poof. Instant-glamour.

Sorry - it got too hectic after this first shot.
I forgot to take another one!

So there we go. The croquembouche. It may sound scary, but it's not. I just takes a bit of perseverance,  and some self control once those cream puffs are filled. The benefits, I assure you, will exceed your expectations. So will the storage capacity of your stomach once you start snarfing these things down. Good luck!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The reality check...

I wouldn't say that I have an obsessive personality... Okay. Some of you who know me may be sniggering at that. Do I have an obsessive personality? Maybe? For some things? Really? Whatever. Let's move on.

So, as I was saying: I wouldn't say that I have an obsessive personality.  But ever since reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, I haven't been able to look at an apple the same way. Nor any sort of produce, really. I can't stop thinking about how non-organic produce is chemical soaked, nutritionally void styrofoam; why would I waste my money, time and health on that? 

So for about a year now, the variety and availability of produce in my fridge has been shrinking... Sure, eating locally through the MSRO and my own garden in the summer was bountiful and wonderful; but this winter has been bleeeeeeak. Always the same for my little Gatineau organic shopping cart: carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, apples, bananas, spinach and romaine, sometimes oranges. How's a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-make-the-recipe-up-as-you-go cook supposed to survive on that?! For the first time in my life - THE FIRST TIME! - I've run out of inspiration (ergo, the slowly dwindling number of blog posts). The fight with the rotting sweet potato was the first symptom. Gaaaawd - that thing drove me nuts! Sitting at the back of the crisper, giving me the stare-down. Argh! 

And I'm lazy! I could have promised myself that I'd drive all the way to Hull, or Ottawa, for a better selection of organic produce, but let's face it: that wasn't going to happen. Driving more than an hour round-trip each week to get my groceries was out of the question. So, after consulting with fellow converts-to-organic, I decided to compromise: I'll avoid the Dirty Dozen as much as humanly possible (gonna be tough when the first strawberries start coming in), and I'll buy organic when it's available. Sounds logical enough for some? It was a freakin' epiphany for me. I know. Slow learner.

So with that in mind, I hit my old greengrocer's with the enthusiasm of a kid at Christmas: the bright colours! The smells! The crapload of goodies! How I missed it. I held a sweet bell pepper in my hand, but I had the strength to set it back down, and I took some brussels sprouts instead (no wait - it's not a downgrade! They're equivalent! It's called "tossing it with bacon", people!) . So I'm happy again. It's so strange; I literally felt inspiration flowing back into my little cook's core as poked and sniffed the pineapple (which, by the way, is on sale for a dollar each at Marché Frais this week! I bought three!). So that's it for this post. I haven't cooked dinner yet, so I don't have anything to show you. I was just that excited to say that I felt like cooking again.

Talk to you soon!