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