Why Monumental Cream Puff Towers Are on the Rise

Croquembouche, the French pastry popularised in the early 19th century, is suddenly back on the banquet table.

Article by Ella Riley-Adams

Croquembouche_1Seeking to evoke “a meeting of wise characters coming from a fantasy world”, the Paris-based baker Andrea Sham created a trio of croquembouche pastries exclusively for T. Photograph by Florent Tanet. Set Design by Nicholas William White

The chef most often credited with inventing the croquembouche, the French-born confection that towers haughtily over any table it graces, was, unsurprisingly, an architecture enthusiast. Towards the end of the French Revolution, years before he baked the cake for Napoleon Bonaparte’s (second) wedding, Marie-Antoine Carême began an apprenticeship near the Palais Royal. He’d spend his afternoons in the national library across the street, mesmerised by images of architectural marvels. “He copied in ink — and then created in pastry and marzipan, in sugar paste and spun sugar — the ruined castles and hermitages, temples, pyramids and fountains he had seen in the Bibliothèque,” writes Ian Kelly in his 2003 biography of Carême, “Cooking for Kings”.

Among Carême’s most heroic specialties were his statuesque pastries, known as extraordinaires, some shaped as giant harps or colonnaded fountains. But it was the croquembouche in particular — a conical tower constructed out of cream puffs (aka choux à la crème) bound together with caramel — that became a staple of French wedding banquets and, eventually, his legacy.

Its name translated as “crunch in the mouth”, the pastry, when made properly, should deliver a gratifying crackle with every bite. Ensuring that crunch — by preparing the dough just so, and serving before the caramel softens — is in itself a feat, says the baker and food writer Claire Saffitz, who included a recipe for croquembouche in her 2020 book, “Dessert Person”. The outsize ambition required for a croquembouche may be why, along with its undeniable visual appeal, a crop of young pastry chefs are reviving the form. Over the years “it became a way of showing off my baking achievement”, says Saffitz. 

Last year, Zélikha Dinga, a Parisian chef who runs the catering company Caro Diario, created an 80-centimetre-tall croquembouche after the Danish fashion brand Ganni requested “something spectacular” for a Paris dinner event. Dinga embellished her cream puffs with pale yellow and pink snapdragons, accompanying it with stalks of rhubarb and a mound of Chantilly cream. “To me, everything about the croquembouche is appealing,” says Dinga, noting its unusual shape, its gleam and “the ceremony of serving it”. 

The croquembouche is the ideal dessert for an era in which food is consumed first by the eyes. In December, at Nine Orchard, a new hotel on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Hermès hosted a dinner where the New York-based artist Laila Gohar presented a savoury spin on the croquembouche, replacing the puffs with brussels sprouts, purple potatoes and turnips. But then, at the end of the meal, the sweet version emerged, too — laboriously constructed by Nine Orchard’s executive director of food and beverage, Jason Pfeifer, and doused with a pour of melted bittersweet chocolate. And in March, at the 95th Academy Awards Governors Ball after-party, guests came face to face with miniature chocolate Oscar statuettes perched on a croquembouche, its puffs filled with mango and passion fruit cream.

Sham’s frilled adornments on the croquembouches were inspired by a Frida Kahlo exhibition that included items of Tehuana dress (traditionally worn by Zapotec women in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico) from the artist’s wardrobe. Photograph by Florent Tanet. Set Design by Nicholas William White.

Another key part of its allure: the croquembouche provokes childlike wonder, as well as childlike eating habits. It’s sticky, gloriously so. The Paris-based baker Andrea Sham appreciates the hands-on aspect. “There’s a contact thing with it; everyone’s taking the choux,” she says. “It’s quite messy, but it’s fun.” When Sham was asked to create a croquembouche for a 2022 wedding, she mixed charcoal powder with the caramel to give some of the puffs a patent leather shine, while she turned others white with a thin layer of fondant, then tucked peach-coloured chrysanthemums in between orbs.

But though it may inspire messiness, the simplest croquembouche takes precision. For starters, one must perfect the dough for the choux, which is often topped with craquelin, a thin layer of biscuitlike dough that adds crunch and a buttery flavour. Then comes the assiduously whipped pastry cream that fills the choux. Finally, there’s the caramel that not only glues the choux together but gives it all a pleasing sheen. Some bakers use a conical mould to ensure a perfect shape. Others prefer a more artisanal approach. When Julia Child made croquembouche with Martha Stewart, Child constructed hers “country-style”, as Stewart put it, in more of a pile than a hollow building. Saffitz prefers an organic, coneless construction and, despite the seeming fragility of the form, notes that one of her 30-centimetre-high croquembouches fared fine on a hundred-block New York City taxi trip. 

So why, of Carême’s many extraordinaires, has the croquembouche persisted when the others remain locked in the culinary archives? One theory: it offers satisfaction from beginning (the cook marvelling at her own accomplishment) to end. Much of Carême’s centrepieces, with their hardened dough and excess of spun sugar, were never intended for consumption; they were as flavourful as cardboard and often reused at multiple banquets. By contrast, a tower of choux is meant to be enjoyed within an evening, shortly after the puffs have been piped. Yes, its grandeur can be preserved on Instagram, but the real delight of it is purely present tense.

How to Make Floral Arrangements That Last and Last

For the botanical artist Lutfi Janania, a lush plant isn’t always the right one.

Article by Rose Courteau

21-TMAG-MAKE-FLOWERS-LAST-2The botanical artist Lutfi Janania in his studio in Brooklyn. Photograph by Cheril Sanchez.

When the artist and floral designer Lutfi Janania was a teenager, his parents built a house in a biosphere reserve in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. His father, Omar, a surgeon, oversaw the house’s construction, but he let Janania choose the color of its facade. Janania went with cherry red. “I can’t believe my parents trusted a young gay kid with that decision,” he says from his studio in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood on a recent afternoon in July.

It’s an anecdote told in passing, but it captures the dramatic flair and love of home that fuel Rosalila, the design studio he founded in 2020. In addition to creating lush flower arrangements for the fashion brand Mara Hoffman, the department store Bergdorf Goodman and the jewelry line Buccellati, he also makes sculptural works into which he frequently incorporates less traditional natural materials — dehydrated botanicals and precious stones, for example. Some of these pieces are purely ornamental, such as “The Centipede Study” (2020), a wall hanging that reimagines the titular arthropod using curly sabal palm (whose proliferous, sharp-tipped leaves conjure legs), fuzzy heliconia, preserved grasses and seashells mounted on linen. Others are also functional, such as a series of large mirrors, framed by woven palm fibres manipulated into a variety of pleats and ruffles, that he began making a year ago. The effect is what one might describe as Caribbean baroque. “We want to exist in people’s homes in a beautiful way where it’s romantic and elegant, nostalgic and traditional,” he says.

In one corner of his design studio, Rosalila, Janania displays the earthenware vessels he recently made for a group exhibition at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, which are surrounded by the bromeliad plants that inspired the collection. Photograph by Cheril Sanchez.
A composition of sago palms and dehydrated bromeliads painted in Janania’s preferred color gradient, with fresh white lilies, fuchsia carnations and pink garden roses. Photograph by Cheril Sanchez.

Whatever the project at hand, Janania draws inspiration from personal experience. This past spring, he was selected to participate in “Flower Craft,” an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, where for the first time he showcased several earthenware vessels he designed and had fabricated in his home country. Many of them bore the silhouetted image of the sabal palm — Rosalila’s signature motif — which was cast in relief using smoke-burning techniques employed by the Lenca, Honduras’s largest Indigenous community, with ties to the Mayans of pre-Columbian South America. To accompany the ceramics, Janania built a wall of greenery that included coconut palm leaves, plumosa ferns and ruscus plants and conjured the mountainous forest he encountered daily as a child. Taken as a whole, the installation blended Janania’s own past with a larger history to which he has long felt connected. “I remember visiting the ruins as a child and being in that almost forceful, energetic space,” he says. For him, the pyramids represented a “fantastical world that is not of our own — but somehow is at the same time.”

Rosalila’s earthenware vessels are adorned with Honduran beaded necklaces, hand-twisted mesh harnesses and ceremonial headdresses made from sisal. Photograph by Cheril Sanchez.

But while his creations can be whimsical, his path to success has been defined by hard work. At 23, he moved from Honduras to New York and took a job under the men’s wear designer Carlos Campos. Later, after a stint as a freelance stylist, he began working for Rebecca Shepherd, the Brooklyn-based florist he credits with teaching him the trade. He went solo in 2019, seeking out projects primarily for their creative potential. (“Either we’re partnering with somebody that we believe in and want to support, or we want to create work that we haven’t done before,” says Janania of Rosalila’s guiding principles.)

A dehydrated grass arrangement next to the stones and seashells Janania uses in his work. Photograph by Cheril Sanchez.
Hand-chiseled selenite crystals sculpted using a new technique Janania has been developing. Photograph by Cheril Sanchez.

His career took a leap forward when he was commissioned to design the flowers for an event hosted by the artist Mickalene Thomas, whom he now counts as a friend. “That was an iconic moment for me,” he says. Another such milestone occurred in 2021, when he won the second season of HBO’s “Full Bloom,” a competition series for avant-garde florists in the mold of “The Great British Bake Off.” “It was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” says Janania, but it pushed him to discover his voice, which he is careful to distinguish from his vision — that, he says, has always been there. In that respect, “Full Bloom” was a culmination of all the risks he’d begun taking years earlier. “I was coming from a conservative place where I couldn’t be queer,” he says. “And then, as an adult in New York City, I kind of found myself.”

“I’m interested in seeing the similarities in things, between what’s human and what’s animal and what’s botanical,” Janania says. Photograph by Cheril Sanchez.

In conversation, Janania frequently mentions community, something he’s constantly looking for — and looking to preserve. He cherishes his current neighborhood in part for its Black and brown residents. (“I can go days here speaking Spanish,” he says.) He remains close to his family in Honduras, even employing his sister, Yazmin, remotely as part of Rosalila’s management team. The sisal he used for the “Flower Craft” project came from his mother, also named Yazmin, who gathered it from the countryside of San Pedro Sula. He hopes to one day open another studio in Honduras, so that he can use botanicals grown on his family’s land for more of his designs.

As he continues to expand his practice, however, Janania remains focused on the beauty of details, and he’s eager to share his wisdom with others. If someone wants to spruce up their place for a dinner party but can’t afford one of his arrangements, not to worry. “You can create fun, beautiful things with flowers from the bodega,” he says, recommending carnations. “They’re looked down upon, but they’re such a strong flower. They stick around for, like, a whole three weeks.” He also suggests the classic bud vase, which can create the illusion of abundance on a smaller scale. When filling it, one might try to channel Janania’s spirit rather than mimic his designs. “I’m interested in seeing the similarities in things, between what’s human and what’s animal and what’s botanical,” he says. “I like to connect the dots and create something that people can feel.”

Hublot Gives Creative Control to Takashi Murakami and Richard Orlinski

The best art-world collaborations involve an element of risk. Just look to Hublot — the daredevil of the Swiss watch world.

Article by Luke Benedictus

Hublot_Classic_Fusion_Takashi_Murakami_Sapphire_Rainbow_507.JX.0800.RT.TAK21 - Vertical (2)Murakami’s smiling flower emerges from the dial, creating a 3D effect. Courtesy of Hublot.

In 1937, the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli created an off-white silk evening dress with a crimson waistband. A more salient detail, however, was the gigantic lobster printed on the skirt. The man responsible for the crustacean was Salvador Dalí. Apparently, the artist  was disappointed when Schiaparelli refused to allow him to add a final surreal flourish in the form of a dollop of mayonnaise, though she conceded a few sprigs of parsley.

That lobster dress is pinpointed as the object that ignited the fashion world’s obsession with artist collaborations — think Louis Vuitton partnering with Jeff Koons in 2017, or Alexander McQueen and Damien Hirst in 2013. More recently, watch brands have become equally fascinated with cross-pollination. Swatch hooked up with Keith Haring in 1986, Zenith has been colluding with the Argentine-Spanish artist Felipe Pantone since 2020, and last year Bulgari joined forces with the Chinese-French painter Wang Yan Cheng. But one brand pushes these artistic collaborations perhaps further than any other: Hublot.  

Over the years, Hublot has developed timepieces with a host of contemporary artists including Takashi Murakami, Daniel Arsham, Shepard Fairey and Richard Orlinski, plus the creative director and tattoo artist Maxime Plescia-Büchi. According to Orlinski, there’s a reason artists flock to the Swiss brand. “They are the only watchmaker that allow an artist to do whatever they want,” he says. “I love watches, I’ve been a collector for many years, and I’ve had offers from other watch brands before. But they just involved customising a watch. Hublot let me actually create a watch from scratch.” 

Hublot_Richard Orlinski_2_2
Fellow Hublot collaborator Richard Orlinski has produced more than 20 models for the brand. Courtesy of Hublot.

It’s fair to say that Hublot has a reputation for being more broad-minded than other Swiss watch brands. In 1980, it dared to put a gold watch on a rubber strap — a move deemed iconoclastic at the time, but one that has subsequently been embraced across the industry. That spirit of adventure also informs its artistic collaborations, which tend to be of a weird and wonderful bent.
Hublot Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami Black Ceramic Rainbow, for example, is a mad rendition of the Japanese artist’s smiling flower motif, with each of its 12 petals realised in a dazzling gradient consisting of rubies, sapphires, amethysts, tsavorites and topaz. Clearly, Hublot doesn’t just pay lip-service to the promise of creative control. 

Orlinski, described on his website as “the biggest selling contemporary French artist in the world”, is primarily known for his intricately faceted animal sculptures. In the same vein, his designs for Hublot teem with endless bevels and edges. “I just picked some elements from my DNA and some from Hublot’s DNA and mixed them together,” he says. 

Another one of the artist’s trademarks is the surprise locations in which he installs his works. The Hublot partnership came about after the brand’s CEO, Ricardo Guadalupe, happened upon some of Orlinski’s sculptures, including a giant howling wolf and a blood red Tyrannosaurus rex, while
at the French ski resort
Courchevel. “I like doing outdoor expositions where people can enjoy my works for free rather than having to go to the museum,” says Orlinski. “It’s about making my work accessible for all.” 

Displaying his art on people’s wrists is an extension of this philosophy, and he has already produced more than 20 models for Hublot since 2017. “They are just very open-minded,” says Orlinski when asked why the relationship has proved so fruitful. And should he wish to add a dollop of mayo to the next one, you’d expect Hublot would be just fine with that.

This is an extract from an article that appears inside out fourteenth edition’s Watches and Jewellery Lift-Out, with the headline: “Another Thing”