Marco Polo Cake

An Italian caramelized profiterole cake made with 100 petite choux pastry puffs filled with sweet mascarpone, ricotta and whipped cream. Each cream-filled puff is dipped in homemade caramel sauce then stacked into a magnificent hollow dome, drizzled with candied caramel sauce and swirled with strands of angel hair caramel.

The Mission: To create a spectacular adult celebration cake!  It must be something architectural for my brother-the-architect. Something worldly to match his love of travel. Maybe relating to Rome. Something exciting that pops, perhaps literally, when you carve into it. Something completely decadent and distinctive. It must conclude a feasting celebration supper with family and friends. Something that can made at an “away” location with make-do provisions. And, of course, it must have risen from a vintage grave, brought back to life with a modern twist!

Tribal face paint and a monkey in the Amazon jungle.

Birthday Boy: My little brother, Mark Odell, is an unusual guy. He is: a hard worker, born to the country (but now an urbanite), fun, brilliant and wildly inventive. He is an avid world traveler who enjoys exotic trips…

Like: Down the Amazon in a canoe carved by his guides from a forest tree trunk. Like: Through the streets of Rome on foot with a sketch pad to draw the ancient water duct system. That sort of thing. So… Creating a special cake for this guy ain’t gonna be easy!

No 4-star hotels for this guy!

Cake Location: Mark designed The River House to be a gentleman’s farmhouse. He razed then resurrected Grandfather’s modest one-bedroom house in the country and transformed it into a Metropolitan Home magazine award-winner using unique building materials…a metal roof, stained-glass church windows, “harvested” sinks, doors, wall panels and light fixtures.

It’s a place filled with charm where the family gravitates for hunting, fishing, canoeing, berry picking, hiking and gold panning. It also doubles as a food party house!  Oh yeah!

Cake Research: Vintage recipes from grandmothers, great-grandmothers, dusty cookbooks, stained recipe cards. Must be dazzling and elegant, historic and off-the-charts unique.

Thinking tower, maybe dome. Thinking cream puffs.

Thinking French Croquembouch (“CROCK-om-boosh”) — aka Piece Montee — but that’s for French brides and a little too dainty and light — and too towering for a party of 15 folks. Thinking caramel. Homemade caramel seems “right good” and kind of manly for a guy cake. Cannot be made with an interior metal cone mold, even if I can DIY the mold from wax-wrapped cardboard. Cannot be made by sticking toothpicks through the puffs to a tall foam cone. If I do this deal, I must lay these little creamy puffs, brick by puffy brick, using caramel as the sweet-crackling mortar — from large circles of filled puffs to smaller circles, layer by mouth-watering layer. Here’s a cool video showing a very fancy tall tower Croquembouch assembly with way-fancy decorations.

And here’s my favorite youtube video showing the REAL way to assemble this kind of cake without a mold — old school style! Click here to watch it being assembled just the way it should be done.

The hoped-for result: Traditional cream puffs Italian style (trying NOT to make them look perfect) with sticky caramel mortar-building using architectural principles to present a fascinating and memorable celebration cake.

Teens in charge of table setting. Love it! 🙂

Mascarpone (“mahz-car-POE-nay”) is a very rich and slightly tart double creme cheese said to have been invented in about 1600 near Milan and usually used in a traditional tiramisu. It is similar to creme fraiche (so use that for a substitution with perhaps some cream cheese to get a spread-cheese consistency). I decided to use mascarpone instead of the traditional sweetened whipped cream or a cooked pastry cream because I wanted to zing-out the filling rustica style.


Marco Polo Cake Recipe Instructions: (to be prepared early in the day or the day prior)

WARNING: This will be a 4 to 6 hour thrill-ride so hang on, here we go…

These recipes must be repeated 4 times. Why? Because I’m replicating for you exactly what I did to create this glory — and I was working from a country home kitchen (not a commercial kitchen) without a double oven. Being away from home, I had to improvise with the most ridiculous sizes and shapes of flat baking pans to get the job done — but I’m guessing you will have an easier time of it with your own beloved kitchen tools.

Tools needed for Petits Choux cream puffs:
Cookie sheet baking tray(s)  – 11″ x 17″ preferred
Parchment paper (whole roll) or substitute good quality wax paper (substitute: no oil at all)
3 tea cups or very small bowls
Wooden spoon
Medium saucepan
Piping bag with largest straight metal tip (or no tip is fine, substitute heavy plastic bag with corner cut off, or make from parchment or wax paper – called a “cornet”)
Pancake flipper (to remove baked puffs from the pans)

Directions for Preparing Petits Choux – (“pe-tee’ shoe”) mini cream puffs: (based on a very simple and fool-proof 1936 recipe (mixed and baked in 4 batches for 30 puffs each batch — so this recipe requires repeating 4 times, did I mention that?):

Prepare piping bag with largest straight metal tip (although no tip is fine too)
Tip: I’ve used a large plastic baggie with the corner tip cut away and results are similar.
Set oven rack to center position.
Preheat oven to 400.
Line cookie baking sheet (11×17) with parchment paper (use good quality wax paper as a substitute).
Prepare additional baking sheets with parchment if you have a double oven or additional cookie sheets.
Tip: You can pipe out the dough onto parchment sheets if your baking trays are in use and just transfer the whole parchment loaded with dough puffs to the baking tray when the next tray is available and cooled for next use.

Crack into 3 separate cups and let come to room temperature:
3 large eggs

In a small bowl, whisk to incorporate and set aside:
1 c all-purpose flour
2 T superfine sugar
1/8 t salt

Bring to “just boiling” in a medium saucepan:
1 c water
1 cube (1/2 c) unsalted butter

At the point of boil, immediately turn off the heat (leaving the pot on the burner) and add to the pot, stirring quickly with a wooden spoon:
Prepared flour-sugar mixture
Tip: Some classic recipes suggest boiling this flour-butter paste for 1 or 2 minutes, but I’ve found, by trial and error, that if you have your ingredients ready to go, the 1-minute-boil is not necessary and might even create a too-hot batter that might tend to “scramble” the upcoming eggs.

As soon as flour batter is smoothly incorporated and formed into one large smooth dough ball, crack into the pot, ONE at a time, blending fully with a wooden spoon to a smooth consistency with each addition:
3 large eggs

Tip: Final batter will be smooth and thick with the consistency of cookie dough.

Scoop warm dough into prepared piping bag with no tip or very large tip metal straight tip (or heavy baggie with corner cut away).

Pipe golf ball-sized swirls (swirling from outer circle to inner top point) onto baking sheet lined with parchment paper (though for testing we used some pans ungreased…and it worked fine, just not perfect).
Tip: Greasing pan causes dough to slide while piping and inhibits puffing action.
Tip: Press down any center high points so they won’t scorch.

Puff points should be patted down (but are not) — so fix that – and line the pan with parchment 🙂

Bake one tray at a time at 400 for 20 minutes then rotate the cookie sheet around in the oven, reduce the oven temperature to 350 and bake for another 8 minutes or until golden brown and nicely puffed and firm.

Tip: Since puffs could be smaller and oven temperatures can vary, it is possible that oven temperature may need to be reduced by 10 to 25 degrees.

This recipe makes about 30 puffs. Cool the pan before you use it for the next batch.

Tip: With the small size of these puffs and the amazing number of times I’ve made these puffs, I do not believe you will have to scoop out any gooey center dough and I trust they will come out fully cooked on the inside and out (though you might want to test your first puff to be certain).

Repeat recipe 4 times to make about 120 puffs, which will allow for variations in size and some discards.
Tip: Any leftovers can be frozen and filled with cream cheese and smoked salmon and used for your next cocktail party.

Tools needed for Italian cream filling:
Deep bowls for whipping
Small sifter
Electric mixer
Piping bag with a fine metal straight tip (Important, but can try using an injector tool of some sort as a substitute)

Directions for Preparing Italian cream filling (to be made in 4 batches, repeating this recipe four times):

In a deep bowl, beat with a mixer on high (about 2 to 4 minutes) until light and fluffy but not separated:
2 c heavy cream whipped
Tip: generally, whipped cream almost doubles in size when whipped.

Sift and add to the whipped cream, beating on high for about 30 seconds and set aside:
2/3 c powdered sugar

In a deep bowl, beat on high with a mixer, about 2 minutes:
1 c (8 oz) mascarpone cheese
2/3 c superfine sugar
2 t clear vanilla, extra fine quality
2/3 c ricotta
Tip: If the mascarpone mixture is not the consistency of spreadable soft cream cheese, then add to to stiffen it slightly:
2 t cream of tartar

Beat portions of the cheese mixture into the sweetened whipped cream just to fully incorporate.

Directions for Piping Cream into Puffs:

1. Fill a piping bag to only about half full with the cream filling (for gripping power).

2. Insert a metal tip into a pastry bag that is large enough not to clog with any cheese   particles.
Tip: I think a metal tip and pastry bag is essential although you might try using an injector of some sort to pierce the puff and push the cream. The option of cutting the puffs in half and spooning will not work because the cream filling will spill into the caramel dipping sauce.

3. Hold a cream puff in your left hand.

4. Hold the piping bag in your right hand, locked and loaded.

5. Hit the bottom of the cream puff dead center bottom with the metal tip of the piping bag to pierce the soft crust and squeeze the cream from the pastry bag into the puff until you see and feel the puff fill to maximum.
Tip: If you overfill, the pastry cream will ooze out, so, no worries, just wipe it away and continue forward. 🙂

6. Place fully loaded puff on plates or trays and refrigerate them a dozen at a time as you proceed.

Tools needed for Caramel Sauce:
Medium saucepan
Optional: Wire whisk with rounds cut off – to make fancy angel hair decorations

Directions for Preparing Caramel Sauce:

Objective is not to coat entire puff or even half of it, but to give enough caramel to the puff to allow it to stick to the puffs as a building mortar, and to keep the caramel sauce from becoming too thick on the puff since the harden caramel is crunchy and can be too thick to pleasantly crunch into with each bite. Moderation and not too thick gains the perfect result.

In a medium saucepan, boil until brown (about 15 to 20 minutes), watching carefully until only a very light golden color forms:
2-1/2 c sugar
1 c water

Allow this mixture to cool on the stove without touching or stirring for about 10 minutes.
Tip: Important safety information: This is MOLTEN lava (like 238 degrees!) and WILL burn your fingers even after 10 minutes of cooling so when dipping puffs into this mixture, DO NOT TOUCH the caramel.

With the pot right next to your serving dish, dip the side and a little of the bottom of a filled cream puff into the pot of caramel sauce and place it at the outer edge of the first invisible circle layer of your cake. The caramel will harden and hold within a few seconds. Continue lining the outer circle of the presentation plate with puffs dipped in caramel, placing each one neatly side-by-side around the circle to form a complete circle.

For the next circular layer of puffs, edge in the puff slightly and “mortar” it down with dipped caramel sauce, continuing around in a circle as before but making a slightly smaller circle of puffs.

Refer to the video link above regarding building old school cream puff tower. Okay, here it is again: click here.

When the caramel sauce begins to cool to a sticky consistency and will not coat the puff, return the pot to the stove, reheat it to liquid, cool slightly and continue dipping until caramel sauce is fully used.
Tip: The color of the caramel will darken with each re-heating so be careful not to get it too dark or it will have a slightly bitter (as in, burned) taste.
Tip: Pour a tea kettle of boiling water into the caramel drippings to clean and start again, making a fresh batch of caramel.

Continue building your cake with smaller circle of puffs until you have created a fascinating dome cake.
Tip: Use patience and have fun and gather a crowd as you do this!

Now add some butter and cream for the final drizzle:
After the entire cake is built, repeat the caramel sauce recipe.  After the sauce has boiled and turned golden, remove pot from heat and carefully add in the following ingredients, shaking the pot gently without stirring (noting a large bubbling of the caramel is normal but be on the look out for it):
1/4 c butter, in slices or cubes
2/3 c heavy cream

While sauce is very hot and thin and highly dangerous to the touch:
Gently drizzle small drizzles of this sauce in creative patterns over the domed cake.

Angel Hair strands of carmel wrapped around the cake:
Once caramel-butter-cream sauce has cooled for at least 10 minutes, you may want to dip a fork (or use a whisk that has had the ends cut off) into the sticky sauce to pull out fine strands to wrap around the cake in gloriously fun ways.
Tip: As before, if it gets to hard you may re-heat it to tacky stage and then cool before handling or stretching.

This cake should be refrigerated prior to serving because of the cheese and cream content, and can be refrigerated overnight, however, the crackle hardness of the caramel is reduced with overnight refrigeration (which some people prefer over hard caramel).  My recommendation is that either way is good. I tried the leftovers the next day after refrigeration and I think I liked it a little more cold with a softer caramel but others preferred it candy-like.

To serve this cake, you will have to literally crack into the caramel with 2 large silver spoons or forks to retrieve about 5 or 6 filled puffs per plate. This action of cracking into the cake caused a few gasps (screams?) at our table — so be prepared for unusual serving techniques.

You know you have a winner when the table screams and claps!

I’m guessing you will have stretched your creative juices with this cake.

Happy trails to you and to your family and friends!


2 thoughts on “Marco Polo Cake

    • Hi, Jess! Thanks for your comment. With a crowd gathered ’round, you could sell tickets. 🙂 The basic recipe is quite easy, taking great care not to touch the hot caramel sauce with your fingertips. You could even try a mini version and that would be a snap.

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