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Smart croquembouche

May 5, 2023

Subi Kalra

My mom asked me one of her usual “explain English” questions on the phone today. “I’ve always wondered why people say ‘you’re a smart cookie’ but not ‘you’re a smart bagel’ or ‘you’re a smart donut.’” She said it in a way that made me think she was going to tell me why, but she just stopped short right after that. Later, when I looked it up, it said that the phrase most likely originated in the 1940s or 50s by men towards women. If I start calling men “smart cookies,” will they feel demeaned? What if I called them “smart steak” or “smart XL hamburger?”

After pondering over this dilemma, I realized that the answer is not so simple. Dessert Persons has taught me a lot, but the most important lesson I’ve learned is that it is not always the food that we make that matters but the people it brings together, the conversations it inspires and the friendships it creates. Likewise, the significance of the phrase “smart cookie” was not so much as the choice of a specific food but the cultural associations that have lent themselves to the idiom.

As much as it is interesting to contemplate how language has evolved and what it says about our society, food undoubtedly paints the broadest history with the finest brush. It is a way for us to connect with the past and preserve culture and tradition. When I make miso soup, it is not just to enjoy a comforting and delicious dish but also a way to remember and honor my grandma who passed the recipe onto me. She resides half a world away—so far that I haven’t seen her in years—and I miss her each time I make it.

Food is dictated by the earth. We reap what nature grants us according to the seasons. You best believe that at the start of a new school year, right when Maine has just barely reached the end of its primary blueberry picking season, the dining halls will be putting blueberries on everything—on chicken, on fish, in pasta and in milk. We’re grateful at Bowdoin to have such an abundance of food that even when it isn’t picking season, Moulton is still able to spare enough blueberries to add in their paninis.

And most of all, food marks the significant events and milestones in our life—a wedding, a birth or even a death. And the dessert whose brand is categorizing time and marking a new beginning is none other than the annual New Year’s Eve croquembouche. One of Dessert Persons’ proudest goods, croquembouche is a tower of cream puffs topped and held together by caramel. The largest croquembouche was made in 2009 by French pastry chef Fabrice Prochasson, weighing over 1000 pounds at a height over eight feet tall. Although ours seemed miniscule in comparison, we were pretty proud of our little tower, which stood mildly tilted at two feet tall.

Croquembouche is a difficult and intense dessert to execute. We made over 80 cream puffs and topped each with circular brown-sugary discs called craquelin to give it a delicious crunch. To build the tower, we had to balance the cream puffs together with caramel. From our many adventures working with caramel, Dessert Persons recognizes that it never gets easier. In fact, it sometimes gets worse. Caramel is incredibly hard to make. If even a hint of water or something other than sugar enters the pan, the sugar crystallizes and spreads (there is nothing more painful than scraping a brick of hardened sugar off a pan). When you finally have your caramel, it is only good for less than four minutes. Any longer than that, and it will harden and become unusable. Upon overcoming trial and tribulation, we finally draped the caramel around the tower in glistening golden strands. She was glowing.

The finiteness of ingredients, the delicate timing of baking and the rapid disappearance of our croquembouche all reminded me of food’s ability to capture time. It is in these fleeting moments where I realize just how fast life is passing me by and just how much I have to appreciate it. Just as one crackles a croquembouche cream puff between their teeth to enter a new year with the taste of sugar in their mouth, food can be a portal to transport us into the future.


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