From the archive: Holiday treats in unexpected places

Croquembouche is celebratory French dessert
From the archive: Holiday treats in unexpected places

Editor’s note: In celebration of Madison Magazine’s 40th anniversary, the magazine is republishing a story each month from the archive. In honor of the upcoming holiday season, we’re republishing part of the December 2003 cover story called “Sweet Secrets: Treats from unexpected places.”

The winter holidays are so closely associated with traditional and seasonal sweets that they, holidays and sweets both, are often embedded in our memories. For the most part, these gifts of the season are found in the family kitchen, prepared according to culture, tradition and experience. In today’s cosmopolitan environment these special pastries can be found in boutique patisseries or artisanal bakeries. Many cities have at least a handful of both.

Madison has fewer than most, so we broadened our search and discovered two remarkable holiday desserts in truly unexpected places – in Fitchburg and in Baraboo, we found the most beautiful French pastries, expertly carried out in traditional styles from authentic recipes by highly skilled bakers,

At a health care facility on East Cheryl Parkway in Fitchburg, the number one priority is quality of life at the end of life for the patients being cared for there. The Don and Marilyn Anderson HospiceCare Center opened more than three years ago with 18 private rooms in a serene wooded setting with patios, gardens and around-the-clock care. Staff that understands quality of life at the end of life means different things for different people.

Sometimes that’s a chocolate croissant,” says kitchen manager Anne Breckenridge Swanson. “Sometimes it’s a scone and sometimes it’s buttermilk biscuits and don’t forget the redeye gravy, which we had to look up on the Web because I don’t know how to do it.

For Swanson, food is a key component of the HospiceCare philosophy, and she has built a food service and a staff that embrace it. Patients are encouraged to ask for anything they want, to tell the staff what would please them, perhaps delight them, perhaps make them feel better. But the kitchen and dining room at the center are so much more.

“We’ve talked about the kitchen being the heart of Hospice,” says Swanson, and with plans to add a cafe and a bakery in the new addition, “people can get coffee, espresso, buns, cakes, and we’ll sell those to go as well.”

What Swanson is creating is a public space for patients, families and caregivers, but also for visitors and other guests using the facilities or grounds.

Enter the croquembouche.

The center’s director, Susan Philips, said she wanted something special to symbolize how important staff had been in making HospiceCare as important as it is, so Swanson and her staff chose the impressively tall pastry that is a classic French dessert for celebration. It’s also a classic children’s dessert because it’s easy–kids can help assemble the pieces, which you stick together with warm caramel.

Croquembouche is also shaped like a tree — the Hospice symbol.

“No one knew what it was and it was beautiful,” says Swanson. “It was high and it had this caramel cage around it that had gold, French ribbon coming down. The translation is crunchy, crispy kiss. It’s wonderful – choux paste puff rolls little cream puffs. We filled them with pastry cream with a little coffee, and you pull them off one at a time.”

Croquembouche was also the perfect choice for the occasion because the baking process is team-oriented, much like Hospice. When the time came to dig in. Swanson says Philips wasn’t shy.

“When Susan went over and started eating it, she said it was like a little piece of heaven in your mouth, says Swanson, “and then everyone went up and grabbed one and it was a real special moment.”

Off the beaten path
Trees line the long country road to the Little French Bakery in North Freedom, 40 miles north of Madison. Tucked into bluffs, the gravel road, one car wide, is called, appropriately, Sugar Road. There at the end of the private drive in a former garage is a little bit of Paris, where Susan Holding teaches, bakes, pulls, molds and otherwise to the use intended her studies at Le Cordon Bleu. She earned the Diplome de Patisserie there in 1999.

From her rural bakery, Holding has done everything from bake cakes for the local volunteer fire department to selling cookies at local convenience store and loaves of French bread at the near tavern. Today she concentrates on her true loves: teaching small classes in her backyard commercial kitchen and producing authentic French pastries–cakes, tarts, charlottes, St. Honore’s. One of her specialties is the boat-shaped marronier, classic French tarts filled with an almond paste that’s baked. Then chestnut paste is piped on with a special pastry tip called a St. Honore tip. It has a very clean V-shaped notch that makes the cream come out shaped like the Sydney Opera House. The tarts are chilled and dipped in pot-de-glace, a crisp, chocolate preparation Holding imports from France. Lt dries very crisp and thin, so you bite through the dark chocolate, into the cream, and then into the nut cake.

Because chestnut is a main ingredient of the marroniers, Holding says people are often reluctant to try them. That’s why she works hard at both selling and educating.

“It’s not particularly sweet,” says Holding. “The chocolate is dark, the chestnut paste is more buttery than sweet, and there’s so much flavor that people love them once they’ve had them.”

A star at Le Cordon Bleu, Holding takes great pride in her work. In addition to her chocolate from France, her chestnut paste comes from Fauchon, the premier French purveyor of gourmet products. But she’s just as interested in other people making them as making them herself Tarts, she says, might look impossible to create, but they’re not.

“I love to teach people to do one, little perfect thing,” she says.

Making marronier and croquembouche is not difficult, and finding them unexpectedly, in unlikely places, is a joy to be savored.