ONE WEDDING LEADS TO ANOTHER
Our wedding was small, barely a dozen attended. A simple affair, a stroll to city hall, sitting in those gilded chairs fit for royalty, the sun streaming into the large, bright hall, the festive floral murals gracing the pale golden walls made for a celebration. My soon to be husband, glowing in his joy, sitting in his black brocante zoot suit looking rather stunned in disbelief and I, sitting happily, nervously next to him in something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, a bit stunned myself at the wonder of sitting here in Bois Colombes marrying * gasp * a Frenchman. M. le Maire Adjoint walks in, seemingly as giddy as the soon-to-be-newlyweds, bringing with him an unexpected added gaiety to the party, his infectious booming laughter, and an electric buzz shoots through the room and we are off! With much less solemnity than we had expected, we are married by this rotund, funny gentleman who, in no uncertain terms, imparts his pleasure in joining a Frenchman and an American, his first American in 20 years of performing marriages. Sacrebleu!
His words washed over me like warm water and whenever he glanced in my direction, his eyes meeting mine, and he paused I simply stuttered “Oui” as if on cue. He prattled on, his words a lovely, incomprehensible jumble of French, or so I assumed, but nary a word did I understand. No matter. I knew what I was there for, I understood the gist and the huge, fatherly grin splashed across his face gave me the confidence that whatever he was having me promise must most certainly be for my own good.
After the ceremony, the exchange of rings, the fumbling kiss, the signing of the papers with shaking hands, we paraded back home in all of our married glory to a wedding brunch that we had cooked and prepared ourselves the day before. Champagne flowed amid the flowers, we ate and drank and I, in my stumbling schoolgirl French met many of his friends for the first time, giggling at their amazement and disbelief that he had actually, formally tied the official knot. And amongst the guests was one, his witness, his best friend, the one who came to the wedding decked out in red and green tartan plaid from head to toe for a laugh, carrying a baby stroller as a good joke, Olivier. Crazy, wild, funny Olivier with whom JP shares some wild and crazy stories of their adventures together. Well, this is a tale of his wedding, not our own humble affair. Our marriage was no traditional fête, no storybook Parisian wedding, no affair spread out in the dreamy pages of some American women’s magazine; no elegantly dressed guests, no top-hatted gentlemen nor women in extravagant, frothy hats, no fancy white car decked out in flowers to whisk us off to church, no sophisticated string quartet entertaining us as we nibbled on catered fare. No, not even an engagement ring nor les fiançailles, no bridal shower nor stag party, and for dessert on that most special day of our lives? Homebaked Vanilla Sponge Cake with coulis de fruits rouges and a dense, decadent Chocolate Cake with Cognac Buttercream whipped up by the bride herself in her future Mother-in-Law’s kitchen.
But Olivier’s marriage, for a rather simple, low-key affair, pulled out all the stops and whistles. We arrived, two tiny sons and my older brother in tow, the day after their small, private City Hall knot-tying ceremony. We settled into the hotel in time to change and make it to his parents’ huge, aristocratic stone pile for the pre-wedding party: lots of food, laughter and loud music as we wandered in amazement from room to room, avoiding small talk with people with whom we had very little in common. The next morning, we found our way to church for the traditional religious ceremony. Bride in a simple beige suit, groom sitting next to her, they listened to the priest for what seemed like hours, the ceremony long and solemn, much more solemn than I would have imagined for something as joyous as a marriage, and totally incomprehensible to me.
But what sticks in my mind most vividly of this entire weekend was the wedding dinner. We arrived as the sun was setting and were led into an unusual, pretty renovated mill all in dark wood and elegant lighting. Guests were milling about (sorry for the pun), admiring the romantic country setting, the beautiful surroundings, finding their way into the reception room. Gold tablecloths, glittering chandeliers, sophistication and charm as the stars lit up the sky outside and the bottles of champagne were opened, pop, pop, pop, one after the other, glasses filled and crystal clinking as the toasts to the newly married couple began. And then the food: oysters, platter upon platter of oysters, began arriving. We joined the line at the table up front and began loading down our plates with oysters and the other wonderful seafood that was carried out and placed amongst the bottles of bubbly. And we ate and we ate and we ate to our fill. And the platters of oysters and smoked fish and all of the delectable treats kept coming. And champagne, of course, to wash it all down. What seemed hours flew by and, completely sated, we simply were left wondering how late the party was to go on for and then it dawned on us. With horror did we realize, much too late, that in fact, the oyster and seafood bar was simply the appetizer. Yes, the appetizer. Just as we were pushing our seats away from the table we turned around and saw waiters carrying in the first course. Well, as polite as we were and as gauche as we were afraid of appearing, we put on our “yes, of course I know what’s going on” faces, picked up knives and forks and dug in. First course, second, third, that huge traditional French wedding feast.
Applause then rose from the crowd, tipsy on food and champagne, as they wheeled in the pièce de résistance, le chef d-oeuvre de la soirée (the evening’s masterpiece): La Pièce Montée: an elegant pyramid of perfect little choux buns, filled with pastry cream and piled up into a sumptuous creation, a delicate, graceful tower of tiny pastries dripping with cascades of golden threads of caramel, the delicate shower of sugary caramel giving this elaborate “Assembled Creation” its other name “Croquembouche” or “That which crunches in the mouth”. This traditional wedding dessert is the French version of the American multi-tiered, frosted, flowered confection topped with tiny bride and groom figurines, a classic at all formal weddings. And we were now witnessing our very first. It is up to the bride to pull apart the tiny choux and pass them one by one to her guests, her way of sharing the happiness of the day. One version of the origin of this French wedding fixture dates back to Roman times when the bride would have a large crown of bread placed on her head. The bread was then broken as a sign of future fertility, a good luck token, if you will. The guests then picked up the pieces and ate them so they could enjoy the same good luck!
The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged us to make a piece montée, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri. I absolutely adored this challenge, as I so love making both pastry cream and choux. I usually use my dear old dad’s choux recipe, but this time I followed Cat’s recipes. Mathilde, my wonderful Macaron assistant, came and spent the day with me so she could learn how to make these treasures! She came with her grandfather’s choux recipe, too! We made both chocolate and vanilla pastry cream as they are both quite simple so Mathilde could learn. She was astonished that both the choux puffs and the pastry cream, although demanding careful attention, were quick and simple to make. This is such a perfect dessert to make when you want to impress family, friends and guests! And memories of my own marriage day as well as all of the weddings, simple and fancy, that I have been to flood over me….
Recipe from Peter Kump's Cooking School and chef Nick Malgieri
Vanilla, Chocolate or Coffee
For the Vanilla Crème Patissiere (Half Batch)
1 cup (225 ml.) whole milk (I used low fat)
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
6 Tbs (100 g) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 Tbs (30 g.) unsalted butter (at room temperature makes it easier)
1 tsp vanilla
Dissolve cornstarch in ¼ cup of milk; whisk until smooth and there are no lumps. Combine the remaining milk with the sugar in a saucepan.Bring to a boil; remove from heat.
Beat the whole egg, then the yolks into the cornstarch mixture. Pour 1/3 of boiling milk into the egg mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly so that the eggs do not begin to cook.
Add the rest of the hot milk to the egg mixture then return all of it back into the casserole and return to the heat.
Continue whisking (this is important – you do not want the eggs to solidify/cook) until the cream thickens and comes just to a boil. Remove from heat and beat in the butter and vanilla.
Pour cream into a heatproof pyrex or stainless steel bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface. Chill immediately and until ready to use.
For Chocolate Pastry Cream (Half Batch Recipe):
Bring ¼ cup (about 50 ml) milk to a boil in a small pan; remove from heat and stir in 3 ounces (about 80 g) finely chopped semisweet chocolate; mix until smooth. Whisk into pastry cream when you add the butter and vanilla.
For Coffee Pastry Cream (Half Batch recipe):
Dissolve 1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso powder in 1 ½ teaspoons boiling water. Whisk into pastry cream with butter and vanilla.
Pate a Choux (Yield: About 50)
¾ cup (175 ml) water
6 Tbsp. (90 g) unsalted butter
¼ tsp salt
1 Tbs sugar
1 cup (125 g) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
For Egg Wash: 1 egg and pinch of salt
Pre-heat oven to 425°F (220°C) . Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Combine water, butter, salt and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. As soon as it boils, remove from the heat and sift in the flour, stirring to combine completely.
Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly until the batter dries slightly and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.
Transfer to a bowl and stir with a wooden spoon 1 minute to cool slightly.
Add 1 egg. The batter will appear loose and shiny.
As you stir, the batter will become dry looking like lightly buttered mashed potatoes.
It is at this point that you will add in the next egg. Repeat until you have incorporated all the eggs.
Scoop teaspoonfuls of batter and push off the spoon with your finger, leaving about 1 inch between the choux. Choux should be about 1 inch high about 1 inch wide.
Using a clean finger dipped in hot water, gently press down on any tips that have formed on the top of choux. You want them to retain their ball shape, but be smoothly curved on top.
Brush tops with egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with pinch of salt).
Bake the choux in the preheated oven until well-puffed and turning lightly golden in color, about 10 minutes.
Lower the temperature to 350°F(180°C) and continue baking until well-colored and dry, about 20 minutes more. Remove to a rack. With a small sharp paring knife, slice a small slit in the bottom side of each choux to allow steam to escape or the choux may moisten. All to cool on a cooling rack.
Can be stored in a airtight box overnight.
When you are ready to assemble your piece montée, using a plain pastry tip, pierce the bottom of each choux. Fill the choux with pastry cream using either the same tip or a star tip, and place on a paper-lined sheet. Choux can be refrigerated briefly at this point while you make your glaze. (We put equal amounts of vanilla and chocolate pastry cream side by side in the pastry bag so each choux would be filled with a marbled swirl of both flavors.
8 oz (200 g) finely chopped chocolate (use the finest quality you can afford as the taste will be quite pronounced; I recommend semi-sweet)
Melt chocolate in microwave or double boiler. Stir at regular intervals to avoid burning. Use the best quality chocolate you can afford. Use immediately.
We dipped only half of the choux in the chocolate because it became matte as it dried and though delicious it gave the choux a very heavy appearance. Next time we will prepare a lighter chocolate glaze.