Re­fresh­ing eth­nic mix

Wed­ding cakes these days come in more shapes and sizes than ever be­fore, ex­plains Hen­nie Fisher

Business Day - Home Front - - HOMEFRONT - Pic­tures: NADENE MARX-PIEN­AAR

THE days of those hor­ri­bly heavy multi-lay­ered cakes fea­tur­ing cas­cades of pas­tel-coloured ic­ing flower bou­quets drap­ing ar­tis­ti­cally from one level to the next like Michelle Pfeif­fer over a grand pi­ano in The Fab­u­lous Baker Boys are alas not over.

While some find it hard to let go, there are trends in cakes, as in all else – and the cake it­self, as well as the dec­o­ra­tion thereof, changes as quickly and rad­i­cally as the lat­est sea­son’s fash­ions.

Nowa­days it is re­fresh­ing to note some sup­pli­ers work­ing a bit of eth­nic in­flu­ence into the mix — peo­ple can cel­e­brate their cul­tural her­itage as well as their great day in suit­ably South African garb.

With glob­al­i­sa­tion in­flu­ences from other cul­tures are wont to hit our shores, so for a num­ber of years that old French favourite, the Cro­quem­bouche, has been a wel­come guest at some South African wed­dings. This cake is a gen­eral all-rounder. Cro­quem­bouche (which means “crunch in the mouth”) is a catch-all name for a range of elab­o­rate pas­tries that have in com­mon the sugar caramel that forms part of their make-up, and that pro­duces the “crunch” in one’s mouth.

Cro­quem­bouche as we know it in SA is a large, con­i­cal con­struc­tion of choux pas­try puffs filled with sweet­ened cream and as­sem­bled with caramel sugar. It has a his­tory of fri­vol­ity and deca­dence.

What started as sub­tle dis­plays with an ar­chi­tec­tural bent on me­dieval ta­bles soon spi­ralled out of con­trol to­wards the end of the 19th cen­tury when they be­came com­pletely ab­surd (per­haps the marked re­sem­blance be­tween those over the top wigs the French no­bil­ity favoured way back and Cro­quem­bouche should give us a hint.)

Ox­ford dic­tio­nary author Alan Davidson quotes Alice Woo­dledge-Salmon, who had made an in-depth study of the me­dieval prac­tice of stag­ing ac­tiv­i­ties be­tween dif­fer­ent cour­ses — an amal­gam of song, the­atre, me­chan­ics and car­pen­try “com­bined to con­vey an al­le­gor­i­cal fan­tasy or even a po­lit­i­cal mes­sage”.

Set-pieces were cre­ated for dec­o­rat­ing the ta­ble among which the Cro­quem­bouche and fam­ily would have fea­tured; these may have been made of pas­try or but­ter, and even con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als such as wood and can­vas. Bak­ing such a cake is not for the faint­hearted. The choux it­self is rather straight for­ward and is tra­di­tion­ally used to make éclairs.

They re­quire rel­a­tively lit­tle skill and most of the in­gre­di­ents can be found in any kitchen. The Crouquem­bouche’s Achilles heel of course is that it is con­structed of a myr­iad of lit­tle choux balls. Bar the fact that they soften rel­a­tively quickly on their own, they are filled with a very moist cream fill­ing, which makes for a cake that has a shelf life of few hours at most, let alone a day.

I re­cently at­tempted bak­ing this cake (with help from a friend or two) and we de­cided to see if one couldn’t deal with the lim­i­ta­tions of this favourite among brides by al­ter­ing some of the com­po­nents.

In­stead of the tra­di­tional sweet­ened cream fill­ing for the puffs we opted for a fill­ing of crème pâtis­sière; we re­placed the tra­di­tional caramel for as­sem­bling the cone with white choco­late, and to lessen the at­tack of hu­mid­ity on the nor­mally very hy­gro­scopic spun sugar, Iso­malt was used (Iso­malt is a cater­ing in­dus­try standby that gives the same vis­ual ef­fect as sugar, but is less tem­per­a­men­tal — for ex­am­ple, it does not melt/dis­in­te­grate in hu­mid con­di­tions like sugar caramel would).

We ended up with an ethe­re­ally pale and snowy Cro­quem­bouche very ap­pro­pri­ate for a wed­ding, but also not in­ap­pro­pri­ate as a Christ­mas cake). Hav­ing pos­si­bly de­layed the in­evitable soft­en­ing of the puffs, the other ma­jor ob­sta­cle in a cake of close to or per­haps more than a me­ter in height is the weight dis­placed by more than 400 choux puffs filled with crème pâtis­sière.

Pos­si­ble so­lu­tions would be to stick the choux puffs onto a Sty­ro­foam cone (but there’s no fun in that — and you will end up with an empty and rather un­ap­petis­ing cone once peo­ple start eat­ing), or hav­ing a large cone “shell” cus­tom made which would al­low one to make the Cro­quem­bouche and in­vert it onto the cake stand.

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