The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a piece montée, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri.
As you can imagine, when the Daring Bakers saw that this month's challenge would be hosted by a baker who blogs about cupcakes, many of us were expecting this challenge to be, well, cupcake based. Imagine our surprise, then, when she announced that it would be a piece montée. What, you may as, is a piece montée? You may know it by it's other name, croquembouche. Or that might not help at all. The short version, then, is that we were challenged to make cream puffs. Not just to make them, though, but to then pile them into a lovely presentation, usually a pyramid of some sort, held together with either chocolate or caramel.
I had actually heard of croquembouche before, and am almost embarassed to admit where. It was mentioned on an episode of Desperate Housewives, where it was used as an example of a really hard, impressive recipe that the two (then) rival domestic goddesses were trying to use to prove their, well, domestic goddessness. So, despite the fact that I have actually made cream puffs of various sorts before, I was a little nervous.
The hardest part of this challenge for me, aside from getting over my own nerves, was figuring out just when to make it. It seemed like the kind of dessert that needed some kind of an occasion. As luck would have it, such an occasion arose last weekend, when a neighbor decided to host a dessert-only deck party to welcome the family who recently moved in next door to her. Now it was time to get to work.
There are three basic components to the croquembouche - the puffs, made from pate a choux, the cream, and either the chocolate or caramel "glue" to hold the finished piece together. I decided to tackle the pastry cream first, to allow it plenty of time to cool in the fridge while I worked on the other components.
We were given freedom to choose any flavor pastry cream we wanted. I considered several options, but decided on vanilla, since I was making this for a group of people, half of whom I had never met. To kick up the vanilla flavor, I added the seeds of a vanilla bean to the mix, and let the pod steep in the cream to infuse as much of the vanilla flavor as possible. The trickiest part of pastry cream is incorporating the eggs and cooking then completely without actually scrambling them or turning the cream into vanilla flavored breakfast. Consequently, I don't have many pictures of the process, but the cream came together and thickened beautifully.
Once the cream was safely cooling in the fridge, it was time to tackle the puffs themselves. Pate a choux is interesting dough to make, as it is cooked before it is baked. Confused? So was I the first time I made it. The dough is actually put together in a pot over medium heat, cooking the ingredients as the batter comes together. So while my butter, water, salt and sugar were slowly coming to a boil, I gathered up my remaining ingredients - eggs and flour, knowing that when it was time to add each, I would need both hands for mixing and making sure not to burn or overcook anything. The flour is added to the pot and mixed in while still on the burner, effectively cooking the flour as it is being incorporated into the other ingredients. The dough came together very quickly at this point into a cohesive ball. At this point, I transferred the dough to my trusty KitchenAid mixer, where, one at a time, four eggs are added and fully incorporated, resulting in a shiny, sticky dough.
In order to shape the puffs, the dough is supposed to be piped onto a parchment papaer covered cookie sheet. Not having a piping bag, I used the next best thing - a plastic bag with the corner snipped off. This worked really well for about half of the dough. At which point my bag split along one of the seams. Oops. No problem - I scooped out as much of the dough as I could into as close an approximation of rounds as I could. Using clean, wet fingertips, I was able to re-shape or fix up the puffs as much as possible, and they all looked okay. A quick coating of egg wash, and these were ready to go into the oven.
Let me tell you, these puffed SO well. So much better than when I made them in the past, which means that the next time I find myself needing to make any kind of puffs, this will absolutely be the recipe I use.
Puffs cooling, pastry cream in the fridge, it was time to start thinking about how my finished piece would be put together, and what I would use as the "glue" to hold the whole thing together. Many a traditional croquembouche uses spun, hard caramel as its garnish. It is beautiful and very impressive, but not something I realistically considered for my piece. I do, after all, have a four year old sous chef. Somehow, the idea of hot, melty sugar being spun into beautiful designs seemed a little more scary and dangerous that I was prepared for that afternoon. So I then thought to make a chocolate ganache, since, well, everyone loves chocolate. But I couldn't get the idea of caramel out of my mind, especially paired with my vanilla bean pastry cream. I decided to search for a middle ground.
This is what I came up with. A vanilla-infused caramel sauce that could serve as glue and glaze, yet did not require actual manipulation of the hot sugar. Caramel is a fascinating thing to observe. Still scary, since it is essentially sugar in various stages of burning, but really quite interesting to watch progress. It starts as sugar. As it cooks, it transforms into something much more. You have to watch it very carefully, because the transition from perfect caramel to horrible burnt sugar occurs very quickly, but when timed right, the results are fantastic.
At this point, I finally had all three of my components ready. Time to put them all together. First came the filling of the cream puffs. This task is most easily accomplished using a pastry bag fitted with a small, plain tip - this leaves an almost undetectable hole and allows each puff to be filled evenly. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, I don't have a pastry bag. Instead, I once again used a plastic baggie with a corner snipped off. The cut corner is not nearly a sufficient replacement for a solid pastry tip, so I merely used a paring knife to make a big enough incision in the side of each puff to shoot the cream into each. It worked pretty well.
Once the puffs were filled, it was time to construct my tower. I built layers of cream puffs, and drizzled each layer with the warm caramel sauce. Working quickly, I then built the next layer of puffs, letting the cooling caramel serve as the glue to keep the structure from toppling in on itself. I was a little wary as to how this would hold up, but I was pleasantly surprised as to how well it all came together.
I have to say - for as nervous as I was to attempt this, I was really impressed with the finished product. Definitely not professional grade, but it was a very fun dessert to bring to a party. And it was a huge hit, too - especially with the kids. They loved being about to just grab a piece of the pyramid and have a complete dessert right in their hands. And little miss loved saying the word "croquembouche" whenever anyone asked what it was, so it was a fun dessert all around.
Thank you, Cat for such a truly fun challenge. I will definitely keep this one in my bag of tricks for another dessert occasion, since it was both fun to make and fun to share!
And you should definitely take a look at what the other Daring Bakers came up with this month. Click here to see some of the amazing creativity.
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