This year’s Dîner En Blanc Toronto was magical. I thoroughly enjoyed the fabulous location at Ontario Place waterfront. The live entertainment of ballet dancers and painting were classy. The DJ and band put the crowd into a festive mood. I was so happy to be a part of this experience, to share a special evening with 1400 revellers in elegant white outfits.
From last year’s experience, my friends and I decided that group of four was the optimal set up. Each of us was in charge of one course of the menu so our preparation was streamlined. Last year I made main course for my group but this year I enthusiastically volunteered to prepare dessert. I had the crazy idea to make a croquembouche from scratch and bring it to the secret event location. I am always up for a good culinary challenge.
Why my fascination with croquembouche? This traditional French dessert is typically served at big celebrations such as weddings or birthdays. The tower of caramel-glazed custard-filled cream puffs is held together solely with caramel and garnished flamboyantly with filigree of spun sugar. So what if it is complicated to make and delicate to transport? Surely I could overcome such, umm trivial, details. I wanted a croquembouche on our table and that was that.
First I needed to find a container. I already told you about that last week. I couldn’t believe what a perfect vessel I found by chance. Instead of building the tower free-hand, I found a wire cone-shape Christmas decoration from the dollar store that ought to guide me. I wrapped it in foil and parchment to ensure the caramel would not stick.
The components were easy to make, nothing that I never tried before.
- double batch of Cook’s Illustrated pate a choux (recipe here)
- single batch of Pierre Herme’s vanilla pastry cream (recipe here)
- double batch of Pierre Herme’s caramel from his gateau st-honore recipe (400g sugar, 200g light corn syrup, 4 tablespoons water, squeeze of lemon juice)
The pate a choux was piped into 1-inch blobs which baked into little 1.5-inch balloons of puffs. I filled as many as I could with the batch of pastry cream before cooking the caramel. As usual with baking, it is important to have everything ready before caramel does not wait. Once the caramel turned light amber, I took it off the heat and dipped the pot briefly in cold water to stop cooking. I gingerly glazed the top of each cream puffs with caramel and set them right side up to harden. When the caramel became to thick, I gently reheated it at low heat so it remained workable.
Once all the cream puffs were glazed, it was time to build a tower. I set my parchment-wrapped cone on a parchment lined baking sheet. I dipped the bottom and side of each puff with a bit of caramel and glued it onto my mould. Once I had about 6 rings, I carefully removed the mould and finished off the top 2 rings free hand. Any holes that a cream puff could not fit I covered it with star-shaped iced sugar cookies.
Did I mention I had the bright idea to light up my croquembouche from the inside? I bought a small string of battery-operated LED lights. I bunched up all the bulbs and fit them inside a small napkin ring. At this point, I moved my croquembouche from my work surface to set on top of a 6-inch cake board and slipped the LED lights inside the hollow tower. The battery pack remained outside.
When the tower was done, the leftover caramel was used to make spun sugar. It should be as thick as runny honey. I placed a large parchment lined baking sheet at an angle in the sink. I dipped two forks in caramel and flicked my wrist back and forth so the strands landed on my baking sheet. Once I had a large swath of caramel filigree, I lifted it from the parchment and draped on the croquembouche. It is easier to do than to describe.
If you are not crazy like me, it is a good time to move your croquembouche to a pretty cake stand and let the crowd ooo-and-aahh. But of course, mine was destined to travel so I placed it inside the container and went out the door to the Dîner En Blanc rendez-vous. This year my group travelled by bus to the secrete location so luckily my croquembouche did not need to endure too much bumps on the road. It was amazing how much attention it attracted from our fellow partiers!
As soon as we arrived at Ontario Place, we set up quickly and I had the nerve-wrecking honour to move the croquembouche from its travel container to the cake stand. It was sticky business but without incident. Phew! Daylight was quickly fading away so of course I turned on the light switch. It glowed!
When it was time for dessert, the four of us plucked the cream puffs from the tower and munched away. The shattering caramel contrasted so nicely with the creamy custard filling offering a little crunch in the mouth just as the namesake suggests. The spun sugar didn’t survive so well but it was no big deal. The stunning dessert doubled as centerpiece and I could not imagine a more appropriate end to our elegant dinner.
I cannot wait for next year’s Dîner En Blanc. And my next croquembouche of course, now that I solved the puzzle!