This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week six (dessert week) of series two: croquembouche.
Is there anything more gloriously, resplendently French than a croquembouche? Delicate, perfectly crisp profiterole shells encasing soft cream, with a crisp and shattering glaze of caramel holding them all together, piled high, served at weddings and other celebratory communal events, a creation from the dazzling and spectacular mind of Marie-Antoine Careme. And the showstopper challenge of dessert week.
There is a reason croquembouche was selected as the showstopper challenge: it is not a simple task and I admit I was not, strictly speaking, worthy of it. I didn’t really make a croquembouche, more a piled-up tower of profiteroles stacked up into a peak. As it was I found the experience of building exceptionally stressful and can’t imagine how I would have felt had I opted for a proper croquembouche experience.
I also eschewed making a full-on croquembouche, with the little profiteroles stuck to a cone mould, delicately removed at the end of the assembly-job, on cost grounds. A proper metal croquembouche mould is expensive and would have been a pointless piece of kitchen kit to own, even by my admittedly relaxed standards on what exactly constitutes ‘pointless’. A lot of recipes on the internet suggested using, instead, a foil-wrapped polystyrene cone, which sounds like an excellent solution, but I had a window of free time and didn’t want to wait for something ordered online to arrive, and just couldn’t face traipsing to art shops around London to find one (I did have a quick peek in a local art shop). I recalled that Holly Bell, one of the series two finalists, had actually piled her profiteroles up and just decided to do that. However, because of this decision, my profiterole tower can hardly claim to have reached the lofty heights of a true croquembouche. On the other hand, I would have run out of both profiteroles and stomach capacity had I opted for one of traditional height.
Although as I’ve said above the croquembouche is a quintessentially French dessert, I added a Belgian twist by making a speculoos paste filling, using a recipe from a book I picked up on impulse a few trips ago. Juliette’s Speculoos is all about speculoos, those ubiquitous spiced Belgian biscuits, and the flavours are translated into a variety of different desserts, such as tiramisu. Regrettably the instructions aren’t as clear as they could be (even in the original Dutch book which I have) and I definitely overcooked the paste, making it a little harder, drier and more candy-like than I would have wished. So I’d say definitely go slow when making this and don’t let the mixture boil. Instead of using caramel to bind – as speculoos already has a caramelised flavour – I used a chocolate ganache, made with a little less cream than usual to ensure it was firm. When using chocolate for binding, I would recommend letting it cool carefully between layers and ensuring the croquembouche is kept in a cool place, because if the chocolate melts everything will slide around.
Contestant Mary-Anne Boermans’ croquembouche was balanced on a praline base; to tie the flavours together I made a chocolate shortbread base to balance the profiterole tower on. I will say that shortbread probably isn’t the ideal choice because the texture is very tender and breakable, but it is a very good recipe.