Croquembouche is a French dessert made by stacking cream puffs in a conical shape and cementing them together with a caramel or spun sugar mixture. The dessert is typically ornamented with an outer layer of spun sugar, chocolate, sugared nuts, or other ingredients, and it is designed to be displayed as the centerpiece of a table. This dessert has been used at French weddings and celebrations for centuries, and it is served outside of France to add a French flair to an evening's events.
The croquembouche has a long history. It appears to have been invented by French pastry chef Antoine Careme in the late 1700s, when it became very popular as a wedding cake. Many of the individual components such as the cream puffs date to the 1500s, illustrating the long history of fine pastries in France.
This pastry concoction is one of a family of desserts known as pièces montées, or “mounted pieces.” A pièce montée is a dessert which is carefully constructed from an assortment of components, and designed to look as ornate and festive as possible. These desserts are often so elaborate that people are hesitant to eat them, and in some cases, a pièce montée may actually be specifically designed to be ornamental, including inedible ingredients like wax or cardboard to support the structure.
Constructing a croquembouche takes several days. First, the baker must make profiteroles, also known as cream puffs, from choux pastry stuffed with pastry cream. Then, a spun sugar or caramel glaze must be prepared. Several hours before the croquembouche is to be served, the cook carefully stacks the cream puffs, using the spun sugar or caramel like mortar to glue them together, and then the outside of the croquembouche must be decorated.
The traditional decoration for a croquembouche is a spun sugar glaze dusted with candied almonds. Some bakers drizzle chocolate over the croquembouche, or add more exotic ingredients like candied flowers. The top of the croquembouche may be adorned with ribbons and other ornaments. The end result is very crunchy, which explains the name: “croquembouche” means “cracks in the mouth.”
One of the biggest challenges with a croquembouche for guests unfamiliar with this food is eating it successfully. Historically, the croquembouche was cracked open with a heavy knife or sword, and guests picked away the profiteroles. In the modern era, the guests may simply be encouraged to pull the croquembouche apart, with napkins in hand to cope with shards of glaze and crumbs from the profiteroles.