The Winter Solstice called to me to celebrate its commencement and what better way to honor this day than with a party for dear friends who have enriched my life. These gatherings always lighten my spirit and give me an excuse to create good food with maybe one show stopper. Pots of minestrone bubbled on the stove and guests filled my table with favorite dips, dishes and warm cocktails. Yes, by “warm cocktails” I mean hot apple cider, laced with Tuaca, an Italian vanilla and citrus liqueur, and garnished with whipped cream and cinnamon. A perfect holiday beverage.
The need to create something beautiful nudged my cooking muse. With sentimentality taking over, I decided on a dessert that my mom made long ago for our annual Christmas Eve open house. Enter Le Croquembouche. This masterpiece is a pièce montée or mounted piece of filled cream puffs glued together with caramelized sugar and piled high into a tower or tree. It is a work of love as it does take many hours and steps of preparation.
The creator of the croquembouche, French for “crunch in the mouth,” is Antoine Careme, who lived from 1784-1833. Careme was the most esteemed French chef of his time with a penchant for architecture, often creating replicas of Turkish Mosques, Gothic towers and other extravaganzas out of nougatine and cooked sugar. His Turkish Fez form became the shape that is most popular today. Little did I know that my Christmas tree croquembouche originated as a hat!
Croquembouches are also a typical French wedding cake. The story dates back centuries when honey cakes were brought to the bride and groom. The cakes were stacked high and the couple had to kiss over the cakes without toppling them to insure a long life together and many children. Careme’s hard sugar-coating stabilized the stack thus increasing the chance that bride and groom would live happily ever after.
Even though it can be daunting to decide how to eat the croquembouche, I just encourage my guests to pull each puff off the tree with their fingers and pop the sugar-crunched pastries into their mouth. It’s a community nosh!
I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Buon Natale & Joyeux Noël!
Great links for Croquembouche: