Published: November 28, 2023
By: By Susan Rosser
I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my lifetime in ninth-grade English class. One day, as we sauntered into the classroom, our teacher, Mrs. Robbins, directed us to pull out pen and paper and commanded us to write. Naturally, we asked, “Write what?”
“Write anything,” she declared, “just write.”
And so we did.
I have no recollection of what I wrote about that day. Often, we entered class expecting literary discussions on “Macbeth” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” only to be met with a peculiar directive: “Sit down and write something – anything.”
Finally, we collectively asked Mrs. Robbins what the deal was with all of this aimless writing. To paraphrase her answer, she said, “People are afraid to write. A blank page is intimidating. But if you sit down and just write something – anything – you realize it’s not scary after all. You can go back and change it. You can rewrite it. You can write about something completely different. But just write. Do not be afraid.”
She said that no matter what path we choose, we will surely have to write something. Ironically, I remember thinking to myself, “Not me.”
The real value of Mrs. Robbins’s lesson transcended writing – it was a lesson in conquering the fear of failure. As a risk-averse person, I have replayed her words, “Don’t be afraid,” many times over the years.
A few years ago, two of my daughter’s friends casually mentioned they wanted to make a croquembouche. For the uninitiated baker, a croquembouche is an inverted cone-shaped tower constructed of cream puffs and held together by caramel. I love to cook, so I agreed to the challenge.
I sent them out to procure the ingredients and pastry bags. We started with the pastry cream as it would need time to set in the refrigerator. We all tasted it and agreed that nine egg yolks, sugar, milk and a vanilla bean are a miraculous combination. We made pate au choux (the dough), and the girls piped the puffs-to-be onto the cookie sheets. Into the oven they went.
After a two-hour stint in the fridge, the pastry cream remained disappointingly thin. The girls valiantly attempted to pipe the runny cream into the puffs, only to see it leak from the bottoms.
Failure was upon us.
By this point, we were seven hours into “adventures in baking.” I suggested we build the tower using our unstuffed puffs and serve the heavenly, albeit soupy, cream on the side. The girls agreed.
The final step in croquembouche construction is to create a caramel “cage” around the puff structure. This didn’t work either. Perhaps BuzzFeed was not the best source for a complicated recipe.
I want to think that maybe the girls learned a lesson on that rainy Sunday. If you want to bake a croquembouche? Bake a croquembouche. Our cream was too soupy, we couldn’t engineer the tower to be the majestic confectionery structure we envisioned, and the caramel cage was a flop. But in the end, when we dipped the hollow puffs into our homemade pastry cream and drizzled them with warm caramel – the combination was extraordinary. So I decided to write about it. Mrs. Robbins would be proud.
Susan Rosser is an avid dessert enthusiast. While she has conquered a variety of baking challenges, the croquembouche still eludes her.