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 19 Dec '09 - from Anne Riddell


I entertained five chums this week, mostly fans of the TV MasterChef competition. So I decided to attempt a croquembouche, the fabulous conical tower of toffee-covered profiteroles that had been the supreme challenge for contestants. They were given 2½ hours to complete it, but I would take my time. How hard could it be?

I read several recipes online and printed out two. The MasterChef version listed the ingredients in grams. How do you judge 330g of egg yolks? It seemed to use vast quantities, though did not indicate how many it would serve. 

The other recipe specified half the amounts, to serve 12-15. Too big for me, so I halved it and got started. First the custard filling, using a recipe from a friend. Horrified by my proposal to use packet custard, she had given me a cheat version, using the purists’ eggs, milk, vanilla and cream, but with a little custard powder to thicken. Made in the microwave, it was a breeze.
Then the choux pastry. Cooking it on the stove seemed weird, but I remembered my mum exclaiming how easy it was – and she was right. Soon I had 28 little shiny balls on oven trays and in they went. I watched fascinated as they rose and puffed and turned pale gold. Gee, I was clever.
Next morning I put them back in the oven briefly to crisp up. While they cooled, I beat the chilled custard smooth and squirty, and filled my new forcing bag. Each little ball became even rounder with its yellow filling and lay upside down awaiting its caramel coating. As I worked, I composed my application for the 2010 MasterChef contest.
Now for the caramel. A heap of sugar and a little water into heavy-based pot – and a pinch of cream of tartar, how about that?  Bubble bubble, this ain’t trouble, turning golden on the double. Place pot in wok filled with boiling water, to keep the toffee liquid. Now pick up a profiterole with tongs, dip, place on baking paper, repeat … but what’s this? It’s stuck to the tongs. Poke it off with chopstick. It’s stuck to chopstick. Knock it off. Pick up from floor. OK. Hard to pick up next with toffee-covered tongs, oh it’s fallen into the toffee. Rescue … that’s two done … persevere … that’s seven, tilt the pot … but now the base of the pot is covered with hardened toffee, there’s nothing to dip into. Oh my god, add boiling water, beat with wooden spoon on heat. Yes, toffee again, but darker. Work fast. Dip, dip, dip. More water, more beating, darker caramel, burny sort of smell. Dip dip, that’s it, but still have to pile them up into shape.
The TV contestants had each been given a metal cone into which they pushed their pastries, but the online recipe said to place the balls around the outside of a cone. So I had made a cone out of card covered with foil. I began to assemble the coated balls around this, dipping again into the now-blackened toffee when extra stick was needed. But my cone would have needed about 40 balls to cover it and I only had 28. The apex stuck up naked and the sides had huge gaps. I plugged these with glace cherries. As for the spun sugar that was meant to finish it, my tarry residue would not spin, so I poured it over instead.
Eventually I had it on a plate. A misshapen mass of pastry clinging to a strange cone of foil with chunks of blackened toffee protruding dangerously. I put it on a tray and hid it, just as the guests arrived. Closing the bedroom door, I heard a muffled ‘thunk’.
When it was time for dessert, I opened the door. Yes, the profiteroles had all slid down the cone and fallen onto the tray and the surrounding bedspread. Hastily I scooped them up, jammed them around the cone and called for help. One of the chums carried the tray to the table while I held it together with both hands. Then I let go and it fell to pieces.
What a crock. But you know, it was probably a better party because of it.