Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

Croquembouche cake 5 small Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

You may have figured out by now that it’s birthday season around here – as in most families, our birthdays come in clusters, most of them in January and October, with two double birthdays included in this month. This weekend was the end of the January run, as B turned 10. He couldn’t decide between cream puffs and cake (takes after his aunt, he does) and so I made sunken chocolate cakes, their concavity perfect for a pile of cream puffs.

Let me pause here before getting into the sticky details of spinning sugar and dribbling chocolate to use this as a segue way to introduce a fun new series my friend Jan and I have been scheming. Although there is no shortage of recipes on this world-wide interweb, what we love most about food is its ability to bring people together; not just families at mealtimes, but extended families – relatives and friends and strangers connecting around food, whether it’s a celebration or an impromptu gathering. Food is social, it’s comforting, it nourishes and connects us in ways we can all relate to. It’s a common ground. The concept of “entertaining”, though, makes gathering friends around your dinner table seem daunting. People say to me all the time, “you must entertain a lot,” which conjures images of beef Wellington and crème brûlée and me in the kitchen sipping wine in a stylish apron with a 29 inch waist. Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with beef Wellington and crème brûlée, but the notion of entertaining in that Martha-meets-the-Stepford-Wives style puts so much pressure on the host that most often we’re dissuaded from doing anything.

So. This year Jan and I are bringing back the casual gathering – and taking the pressure off of those fancy events we so often approach from a standpoint of damage control – and having as many dinner parties and other gatherings as possible. On the last Wednesday of each month we’ll post about one or more of them here, which will allow us to get a running start on a new blog – called Gatherings – where we’ll share recipes, ideas, techniques and tools that we hope will inspire (and help!) anyone putting together a party, or just looking for new ways to bring friends together around the table. (Jan used to be a professional party planner, you know! she knows all about quantities and catering secrets and tons of helpful stuff!) Gatherings will (hopefully!) launch April 1, and we’re even talking about turning it into a book… although those details haven’t been figured out yet. For now, we’ll start here.

Croquembouche cake 1 Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

As I mentioned, we had a huge handful of birthdays this month, with family members turning the clock from 7 to sixtysomething. The first was a milestone birthday for my brother-in-law, with a party full of friends and relatives, and loads of cheese – there were charcuterie boards loaded with fromage all over the house, and enough left over at the end of the night that they’re going to be set for gourmet grilled cheeses until spring break.

Rory party 31 Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

Cheese and charcuterie boards are easy. Pile cheeses of varying shapes/sizes/textures onto wooden cutting boards or big slate tiles (you can pick them up for a dollar-ish at Home Depot) and fill in the gaps with crackers, pickles, chutneys, dried fruit and nuts – no matter what, it will look awesome.

Rory party 4 Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

Add little spoons and knives – they don’t have to match. If you want to add little signs for the cheese, people like that. Otherwise, the rustic-er the better.

Rory party 2 Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

My (not across the street) sister is particularly adept at baking cakes – she made no fewer than 4 stylish cheesecakes, and picked up a monster of a chocolate cake from the Purple Perk.

cakes Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

We were the kids with the most cake.

Later that week, for hers and my mom’s birthday, we all got together and ordered Indian food. Which totally counts. No rule says that when everyone comes over for dinner you have to actually cook.

Indian food Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

For B’s birthday, he chose those saucy cocktail meatballs made with grape jelly and chili sauce, pan-fried sole, and Kraft Dinner. Dessert was two dense flourless chocolate cakes, piled with cream puffs. W and I decided to make one in the traditional croquembouche style, covered in spun sugar, and another drizzled with chocolate and sprinkles. There would be 5 boys 10 and under in attendance.

Croquembouche collage 1 Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

This isn’t the most dramatically sunken cake, but it’s one of the best I know. Deeply fudgy and easy to stir together. The cream puffs were piled, not glued – I dislike having to chip away at a fragile cream puff that has been glued to its tower with hard caramel. On one, we melted chocolate chips in a zip-lock baggie in warm water, snipped off a corner, and drizzled it over. Sprinkles were quickly sprinkled, so that they would stick before the chocolate set.

Spun sugar forks Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

Spun sugar is a little trickier. All you need is sugar – and if you like, a spoonful of water and drop of lemon juice, which helps convince caramel to stay in its liquid state. Heat it in a small saucepan until it melts and turns deep golden. The trick, now, is to let it cool a bit – rather than work quickly, which will result in drops of caramel rather than spiderweby strands, it needs to cool to the texture of molasses. At that point, get two forks and hold them back to back, dip them in the caramel, and wave them back and forth over your cream puff tower.

Spun Sugar Collage Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

You will make a glorious mess. Forget about it. The benefit of hard candy is that once cool, it brushes right off – your cake plate will come instantly clean – it seems like it should be the opposite, but it’s not. And because it’s just sugar, it will dissolve off your pot in hot water – no scrubbing required.

Croquembouche cake 21 Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

And as you can see, it looks brilliant.

Croquembouche Cake

Cake layer adapted from Gourmet

Sunken chocolate cake:
4 oz. good-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped, or 3/4 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup cocoa

frozen cream puffs, thawed or not
chocolate or sugar, for topping

Preheat oven to 375°F and butter an 8-inch round baking pan. Line the bottom with a round of waxed paper and butter the paper, too.

In a small saucepan melt the chocolate with the butter over low heat, stirring until smooth. Pour into a bowl and whisk in the sugar, then the eggs and whisk well. Sift 1/2 cup cocoa powder over the chocolate mixture (to get rid of lumps) and whisk until just combined.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 25 minutes, until it’s crusty on top and set around the edges. Cool your cake in the pan, then gently invert it onto a plate, or your hand, and then invert it onto whatever you’d like to serve it on. Pile cream puffs on top and drizzle with melted chocolate or caramelized sugar (see above for instructions). Serves 6-8.

Jan made an American-Italian feast for her 11 year old, Jackson, with lasagna and a KitKat birthday cake, which she says is perfect for anyone with zero cake decorating experience – you can check out her post over at Family Bites!

pixel Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake
button print gry20 Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake

January 30 2013 12:12 pm | cake

30 Responses to “Gatherings: A Birthday Croquembouche Cake”

  1. Elaine on 30 Jan 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    Oh my gosh, Gatherings sounds like such a stellar idea. I can’t wait!

  2. Laurie from Burnaby on 30 Jan 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    what a wonderful way to celebrate birthdays!

  3. Jan @ Family Bites on 30 Jan 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    I’m so excited for our project, and completely in awe of how perfect this cake is. Amazing, as always.

  4. Emily on 30 Jan 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    We move every couple of years for my husband’s work, and so I always feel pressured to put on my best game face in order to invite new friends over. So gatherings are few and far between in the beginning, and just when I feel I get it down in one location it’s time to move on. I would LOVE new ideas and tips on how to make it easier and less intimidating!

  5. Stephanie on 30 Jan 2013 at 1:53 pm #

    Wow, Julie! What a gorgeous cake. Would it be wrong to just make it now? Just… you know, for myself? Yum.

  6. the other Al on 30 Jan 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    that’s a Cake-asm (cake + orgasm) I’m all flustered just looking at it. WOW! A climax of carnage(pun intended). Totally my kinda mess!!!

  7. Barb on 30 Jan 2013 at 5:26 pm #

    You have to be the BEST Aunt ever!

    I love the idea of Gatherings. Good luck with it.

  8. Anita on 30 Jan 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    I made one of these a few years back for my daughter’s “I love Paris” birthday party. It was 4 feet tall – I made a paper cone, stuck the (pre-made/frozen) cream puffs on it with caramel syrup, covered the whole thing in strings of glistening sugar, voila! The girls loved it.

  9. Kathy - Panini Happy on 30 Jan 2013 at 6:51 pm #

    The cakes came out SO beautiful! Congrats on the new blog (and book!) – Gatherings is such a nice premise to build from.

  10. Julie on 30 Jan 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    Thanks Kathy!!

  11. Andrea on 30 Jan 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    I love your Gathering concept and look forward to reading! The cakes are stunning!

  12. Gemma on 31 Jan 2013 at 7:48 am #

    Happy birthday to W! I LOVE that he wanted fish at his birthday party! I wonder how many 7 year olds can say that?

  13. Gemma on 31 Jan 2013 at 7:50 am #

    Sorry, B’s birthday! Happy birthday to B!

  14. Avery on 31 Jan 2013 at 8:13 am #

    Wow. Beautiful!

  15. Sujata on 31 Jan 2013 at 11:26 am #

    Awesone cakes! Looking forward to the new blog; you’re right we talk ourselves out of having friends & family over more often because we make it daunting.

  16. Carolyn on 31 Jan 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    Beautiful cakes. I have to get my courage up to try the spun sugar. I’ve heard that cutting the tines of a whisk is a great way to get long wispy threads. I hope you still maintain this blog. Not everyone has a large or small group of friends or family that they would bring together for a get-together. The wonderful everydayness of DwJ is fantastic for those of us who usually only feed those living under our roof.

  17. Erica B. on 31 Jan 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    Happy Birthday to those celebrating this month! Gatherings sounds like an excellent idea-you’re so right, getting together around the table doesn’t have to be a production- can’t wait for the first installment. :)

  18. Aimee @ Simple Bites on 31 Jan 2013 at 7:42 pm #

    Congrats, Julie and Jan! You can bet I’ll be reading and sharing. Can’t wait for the launch!

  19. Jenny on 01 Feb 2013 at 8:04 am #

    Yum! I love the idea of Gatherings. Can’t wait!
    Thanks for the info on the Croquembouche – I will be making it for sure.

  20. Averie @ Averie Cooks on 01 Feb 2013 at 10:43 am #

    That spun sugar is amazing and my daughter’s bday is…tomorrow! Thankfully she has just requested a strawberry cake, no spun sugar required. Happy bday to everyone in your world!

  21. Laurel on 01 Feb 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    I love croquembouche! And I agree about the chipping and ripping away…I hate what it does to the cream puffs, delicious nonetheless.
    And I find it funny because I just had the same conversation with my mom about entertaining. We both love doing it, me cooking and my mom Martha Stewart-ing up some table decorations, but we end up not having any party because we put so much pressure on ourselves. Thanks for the pep talk!

  22. Lindsay on 02 Feb 2013 at 9:07 pm #

    I am so excited about the Gatherings blog! What a great idea. I would love to throw dinner parties, but am too intimidated at this point. Can’t wait to see the kind of inspiration the two of you cook up!

  23. Laura on 03 Feb 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    This looks SO FUN! Pinning now!

  24. Jessie Harrold on 04 Feb 2013 at 7:23 pm #

    Wow! Beautiful Croquembouche!

    I worked in a little French patisserie years ago and saw many of these go out the door on their way to weddings and birthday parties. Making a Croquembouche has made it to my food bucket list for 2013…and I think you’ve given me the motivation I need to do it! Thanks!

  25. Maureen on 05 Feb 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    I am sooooo behind. But wanted to say the Gatherings idea is brilliant. A couple of decades ago I “entertained” a lot. Schmancy dinners. And now I can’t bear the thought of all that but also hate that I no longer gather friends around my table. So I can’t wait to use your ideas. Bring them on!

  26. Julie on 06 Feb 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    I totally agree.. let’s lose the beef Wellington and good china but keep on gathering around the table!

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