Monday, March 12, 2012

Death of a croquembouche

Artistry, appetite, and ego are a terrible combination, especially when it comes to late night baking.

Several months ago my house hosted a Great Gatsby party and other than binding my breasts and putting Annette Hanshaw on the Victrola I wasn't sure what to contribute.  Ever an advocate for all things edible, I thought back on previous culinary victories:  the Marie Antoinette sheet cake beheaded in the back yard by bagel slicer on Bastille Day, port on the carport for Trafalgar Day, endless pots of outlandish chilis.  It was 10 pm the night before the Great Event when I decided nothing else would do but the most lavish offering my overzealous, under trained pastry skills could concieve:  I would make a croquembouche.

What is a croquembouche, you ask?  A traditional french dessert for weddings, christenings, or liberation from the Germans, it is a tower of creme puffs held together by caramel and spun sugar.  Picture Willy Wonka being force fed sticks of butter by Paula Dean and you get the general idea.  Making one can take six hours; in arrogant ignorance I tied on my apron at 10:01 pm and got to work.

At midnight my spirits were high, buoyed by custard sampling.  The first few batches of creme puffs sat in rows of golden perfection.  I hummed about with the efficiency of a confident chef anticipating well earned applause.

By 2 am my dedicated creme puff sampling had me feeling antsy and irritable, skin crawling with gooey sugary residue and the smell of melted butter seeping out of my skin.

3 am and the endless trays of creme puffs were coming out as flabby lumps.  My icing bag had ripped.  Boiling caramel had reduced my hands to a collection of sugar encrusted burns.  It was a bad scene as I constructed my tower, sugar gluing the creme puffs one by one until I had built a (slightly leaning and sagging) croquembouche.  The last batch of caramel wasn't done but I was and I drizzled it on top, exhausted and relieved to be done.

I dreamt of sugary monsters chasing me with blenders through a sea of pastry dough.

At 6 am I emerged blurry eyed from my room, stumbling into the dimly lit kitchen.  Funny, why did the floor feel so sticky?  And what were all the little....

oh no. 
NO no no no NO!
damn. it.
Evil leprachauns had thrown a bowling alley rager in my kitchen and their creme puff bowling pins lay scattered across the room.  Creme puffs on the counter, under the stove, sticky tacky tracks leading underneath the fridge, a schmoo sludge of wet pastry on the sole of my slipper.

Standing in the middle of that fetid pastry puddle, I dropped one good loud F bomb.  And then--- total calm.  Buddhism speaks of non attachment as the pathway toward enlightenment and in that unexpected moment, standing there in my ratty robe and be-schmooed slippers, I caught a glimpse of that truth.  I had been obstinate and arrogant and this had happened.  Actually it was almost funny.  Almost.

So I dumped it all in the garbage, resisting the Polish corner of my soul that arged "hey!  some of these are still salvageable!  just wash off the dust bunnies and the guests will never know!"  I would know.  And like the Grinch on Mount Crumpet, I knew that serving up a brag worthy dessert just wasn't the point anymore.

The party went off without a hitch, and if anyone noticed the lack of pastry, they were too kind or too into their gin to say so.  I had a wonderful time not trying to impress a soul.  And the whole incident cured me of wanting to ever even look at another creme puff.


  1. BRILLIANT, Julia! I LOVE your description of croquembouche- Willy Wonka being force fed butter by Paula Dean... HILARIOUS.

  2. Wonderful. Felt like I was there, exhausted and sticky with you!