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If you’re planning a wedding or other big celebration, then there are lots of ideas in this week’s (4th June 2013) magazine for ideas on how to decorate the venue, and one of the suggestions is to have a croquembouche as a centrepiece rather than a traditional wedding cake.

Hello, this is Cookery Editor, Sue, and I was pleased to read in the magazine about the suggestion of making a croquembouche as whenever I’ve made them they are something I enjoy doing, and they always look so impressive. The name “croque-em-bouche” is French and means “crunch in the mouth”. The dessert is a tall pile of profiteroles which are usually filled with vanilla pastry cream (custard) and are stuck together with caramel and then sugar is spun around over them. They are then often decorated with sugared almonds or edible flowers.

This type of dessert is popular at weddings and baptisms in France but are becoming more popular over here. In the magazine it’s suggested as an alternative to wedding cake, but on most occasions when I’ve known people to have them, they’ve served them in addition to a traditional British-style wedding cake, and they’ve served the croquembouche as a dessert.

To get the shape right it helps to build the profiteroles up around a cone shape. In the past I’ve used several layers of aluminium foil, which I’ve shaped into a cone, and then oiled it well so that once the caramel has set, the cone can carefully be removed from the stack. I’ve always used this method as special stainless steel croquembouche formers are expensive and I’ve never wanted to invest in one as I know I wouldn’t use it enough, plus they are bulky to store, but something we now have in our test kitchen is the Silverwood Croquembouche Mould which is an aluminium top and bottom piece and then a cone shape of a non-stick silicone-coated material, so it comes to pieces and doesn’t take up much storage space, plus at £19.99 the price is much better than at my favourite professional catering equipment supplier who charge over £100 for their small size mould and over £270 for the large size one. However, my brother, who used to work as a chef came up with an alternative to the large size mould when he had to make one so he went out into the hotel car park and borrowed one of the traffic bollards and covered that with foil (I would like to think that it was well bleached before use).

So once you’ve got the mould, the next thing is to make all the choux puffs. These are just like profiteroles.The actual buns can be made in advance and frozen, so there’s not so much stress on the day that it’s going to be assembled and served, but if you do freeze them, then I’d recommend warming then through in a hot oven to crisp them up again before filling them. When I fill the buns, I used to cut into them and pull them open, but anyone who saw me demonstrating at Woman’s Weekly Live last year will have seen me using what was then one of my “new toys” – a stainless steel piping tube, which I used to pipe jam into the centre of cupcakes, but it’s also great for piecing through choux pastry to pipe in the filling and is neater than cutting them with a knife.

I think that the most difficult thing is the assembly, as you need to dip the filled buns into hot caramel, so you need to take care that you don’t splash the caramel and burn yourself. Also, this can be the most stressful part as it’s better to fill and assemble the choux buns as close to serving them as possible so that the pastry remains crisp. Also, as most fillings have fresh cream in them, it’s not recommended to have them unrefrigerated for more than 2 hours, particularly in the heat of the summer. So if you haven’t made one before, then I’d suggest making a small practice one beforehand so you’ve got the hang of dipping them and sticking them close enough together so that the structure is firm enough and isn’t going to collapse if you remove the centre cone (the correct way to serve them is to remove the cone, but if you’re worried about it collapsing, then the cone can be left in place). Ideally you also want to be able to assemble it where you’re going to be serving it, rather than having to transport it in a car. So if the party is a hotel, then you may want to check with them if it’s going to be possible to do that.

If you do have a go at making a croquembouche and you enjoy doing it then you can get much more creative than just making cone shapes. I’ve noticed when I’ve been to patisserie events over in France they have whole books about “Pièces montées (which is a term that the French use to describe constructions from choux buns such as croquembouche) and doing an online search I found this French Patisserie shop who have a selection of creations based on choux with some nougatine too for events such as Baptisms and First Communion as well as weddings. And I think the prize for the most bazaar creation must go to this dress in choux!