Failing at Croquembouche Helped Me Overcome Bullying

How one writer attempted to conquer the sugar-spun tower and homophobic bullies all in one afternoon.

November 29, 2022
Photo by Evan Stevens/Happy Cooking Cards

When I was a freshman in high school, I was nearly pushed down the stairs, startled by pop-up jocks from behind doors and called homophobic slurs. The day before Christmas break was one of the best school days of the year for most kids, second only to the last day of school. Every teacher would show movies while hungry teenagers ate every holiday treat in sight. I, however, couldn’t get out of bed. Just the thought of those checkered halls made me sick. So, I told my mom I wasn’t feeling well, faked a cough for good measure, crept back into bed, my duvet wrapped around me like a boa constrictor, and cried. I had never felt like I entirely fit in, but I had never been bullied like this. So, I tried to think of things that made me happy, like baking cookies with my mom and trying new recipes from my first cookbook, Flour by Joanne Chang.

Eventually, I got myself out of bed and scanned through my mom’s recent issue of Food Network magazine. I was enchanted by the colors and textures of weeknight dinners and garnished cakes. I came across a 2-page spread about how to make a croquembouche. It looked at me like a pâtissier Uncle Sam, demanding me to put on an apron and go to war. I read about [choux pastry], wet caramel, and how to wrap your pastry tower with spun sugar. I pictured a 7-foot version in the living room instead of my family’s Christmas tree and, without a second thought, gathered flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and vanilla. I tied my barely-worn “I want chocolate and I want it now” apron around my waist and got to work.

I started by carefully reading the magazine page and diligently measuring ingredients in little bowls, as if I was the host of a cooking show. I tilted my head as I whisked water and butter in a saucepan, pouring in flour through a parchment paper taco. I stirred the dough with Herculean effort, then lined up six brown eggs in the curve of the cutting board. I added the eggs too quickly and spooned gloopy mounds of pale gold batter onto baking sheets. My flour-flaked fingers pressed a timer as I squatted impatiently in front of the glowing box. I hoped that if I stared intensely enough, they would miraculously rise into golden ornaments, but just as they climbed, they began to fall.

Nevertheless, I carried on with the pastry cream, waiting impatiently for the eggs to thicken into custard. I cooked sugar and water over a bright red coil and watched my first caramel begin to bubble. It felt like it would never cook, so I tended to my burning choux amoebas. Still, I carried on. I sloppily piped the cream into the cooled pastries with a cut-corner sandwich bag. I dipped them in the hardening brown goo with the scalding pan resting on a flowery potholder, one at a time, singeing my fingertips and waving my hand in pain. Soon, I had a homely 3-foot tree on the dining table, just as the sun started to set. The kitchen was covered in flour, batter, egg shells, and caramel drips, and I studied my creation like a masterpiece. Normally, I would have cared that my croquembouche didn’t resemble the perfect magazine picture, but I felt proud of the work I had done.

When my parents came home, their eyes widened at the chaos in the kitchen, and then calmed when they saw me smiling. Their wilting, exhausted child had been brought back to life. None of us cared that the caramel was burnt, or that the pastry cream gushed out of the profiteroles like raw egg yolks. We wallowed in the joy and nearly fell over trying to pull them apart.

While I wasn’t physically sick that day, staying home was what I needed. Even for just one day, the weight of adolescence fell from my shoulders. I went hours without thinking of what path to take at the bell ring to avoid being jumped. And, for the first time, I imagined a life beyond being a 14-year-old outcast. My problems didn’t magically disappear after conquering the croquembouche, but it taught me that I’m perfectly capable of climbing mountains, no matter how crooked or burnt they may be.

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BarbaraTheCook December 11, 2022
Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your story and your evolution into yourself. I appreciate the entire article. So helpful for many in so many ways.
EvanStevens December 11, 2022
Thank YOU so much for your kindness. I appreciate it!
Westcoasty December 11, 2022
EvanStevens, thank you for sharing this wonderful story. I'm not gay, but I got bullied in school as well. I'm glad you're doing so much better now (as am I!). I still take the occasional mental health day, I confess. Sometimes we need to hit the reset button.
EvanStevens December 11, 2022
Absolutely, mental health comes first! Thank you so much.
[email protected] December 11, 2022
GARox57 December 11, 2022
It’s 7 ish in the morning and I am still working on my first cup of coffee sitting on the sofa with my husband and pup with the drone of the news on. I always scroll through the new emails at this time deleting most and reading a few. I opened the Food 52 email when I saw the title of your essay and was intrigued. I also enjoy recipes and the occasional challenge but as I have gotten older (grandchildren now) I recognize which ones I’m willing to put the effort into and which ones I will pass on. I really want to tell you is I read your every word, felt the emotion as you recalled your achievement and I teared up and said “ I can’t believe I just read the most amazing, touching, important essay in a food blog at 7 in the morning on a Sunday”! Thank you. You inspired me.
EvanStevens December 11, 2022
Thank you!! I'm so happy that I inspired you, thank you for sharing your story with me.
Ruth T. December 4, 2022
Your story reminded me of a recipe I took on back in the 70’s when I was about 18. My cousin from Vienna had sent me her recipe for Sachentorte as a response to a mailed recipe chain letter (this was the 70’s after all). The moment I saw it: a folded card of pink construction paper with a Polaroid photo — mounted on a small paper-lace doily, glued to the front— of the most beautiful, ganache-shiny torte. I knew that would be the cake I would make for the next family birthday. The instructions were hand-written on parchment paper inside, and there were lots of them. I started the night before, and got through about 1/4 of the recipe when I realized I was in trouble. I worked, and called in to say I got summoned to jury duty so I could get the Sachentorte finished by dinner. It wasn’t perfect like the photo, tasted good, but not life-changing, but I did it!
Evan, I love your spirit, and your parents sound amazing. I am so thankful you shared your story.
EvanStevens December 4, 2022
Hi Ruth! Thank you so much for your comment. This is such a wonderful parallel story! I'm so happy you shared. It's so funny - I make greeting cards with recipes to send in the mail, which is another parallel! I've never made sachentorte but I think I saw it on the great British bake off. I really want to make it now! Do you happen to still have the recipe? And yes, my parents are amazing :)
Ruth T. December 4, 2022
I'm still kicking myself that I parted with it a decade or more ago. The presentation was irreplaceable!
judy November 30, 2022
I like challenging desserts. They are a great escape and coping mechanism, I find. I have never attempted this particular challenge. But I do like the cream puffs. Spun sugar is terrifying. So I have not tried that one. Only ever gotten as far as burning the sugar. Caramel of all types seems to defeat me!
EvanStevens November 30, 2022
I love challenging desserts too! I've only craved even more difficult things as I've gotten older. Check out Masterchef Australia for the most killer "pressure tests" that often require 5+ hours to make (which isn't long enough). The trick with caramel is low and slow, and patience!
noknok November 30, 2022
Mental health days can make such a difference - I’m impressed that you were self aware enough at age 14 to take one! My kid was also bullied on similar grounds - nearly suicidal by the time we pulled her out and got her to a safer environment. I’m so sorry. Bullies are evil.

Your story reminded me of our wedding cake. We’d wanted a croquembouche and sourced a gorgeous, perfect one. But whoever printed the menu had apparently never heard of them and had no idea what they were writing. It came out printed as ‘c*ck in bush’ and giggles abounded by all who were immature enough to find it funny. Shocked expressions for the others. What a day!
EvanStevens November 30, 2022
I'm so sorry your child had to endure a similar experience. It's no excuse, but at least now we're stronger people! What a funny story about your wedding cake, I love it! It's probably not what you wanted at the time but it'll make more of an everlasting impression I'm sure :)
Rosemary H. November 29, 2022
This is the "It Gets Better" story I needed today. Spun sugar and caramel STILL terrify me. Bullies, not so much.
EvanStevens November 30, 2022
Bullies beware! :)