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.
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.