Thursday, May 27, 2010

Daring Baker's Challenge: Piece Montee (Croquembouche) (aka tower of cream puffs)

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.

I first heard of this dessert when my friend, Delphine, described her wedding cake to me as a tower of cream puffs. Holy cow, I thought! As I remember the story, this classic French wedding cake was the one detail she really wanted for the wedding. I'm thinking that she had a tough time finding a baker in Boston to prepare it. Imagining someone making thousands of cream puffs and stacking them for wedding guests both intimidated and awed me. When I saw this month's challenge, my mind immediately jumped back to her wedding cake. Thankfully, my croquembouche did not need to feed 300 guests! I decided it would be a fun dessert to eat at an upcoming cooking night. Due to the necessity of prepping the fillings and cream puff pastries, the majority of the work could be completed ahead. The puffs were filled and stacked quickly for a small crowd of ten. Only 2 fingers were burned by hot caramel in the process and both were mine, so it was all good.

By now, you may be wondering what is involved in a tower of cream puffs...and why would you get burnt by a cream puff? The challenge had 3 main components: the pastry (pate choux), the filling (creme patissierie), and the mounting glaze (caramel, chocolate, etc.) The pastry and cream were both something I had tried before when I made eclairs on a whim. The pastry (I learned) needed to be baked longer than the instructions I first used indicated. If you don't bake long enough, the puffs poof and then fall flat. Its very sad. I don't recommend doing it that way. Knowing this, I read the recipe for the pastry.

Pate a Choux (Yield: About 28) (from Cat of the Daring Kitchen)

¾ cup (175 ml.) water
6 Tbsp. (85 g.) unsalted butter
¼ Tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 cup (125 g.) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs

For Egg Wash: 1 egg and pinch of salt

Pre-heat oven to 425◦F/220◦C degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Preparing batter:
Combine water, butter, salt and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and stir occasionally. At boil, remove from heat and sift in the flour, stirring to combine completely.

Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly until the batter dries slightly and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.

Transfer to a bowl and stir with a wooden spoon 1 minute to cool slightly.

Add 1 egg. The batter will appear loose and shiny.

As you stir, the batter will become dry-looking like lightly buttered mashed potatoes.

It is at this point that you will add in the next egg. Repeat until you have incorporated all the eggs.

Transfer batter to a pastry bag fitted with a large open tip (I piped directly from the bag opening without a tip). Pipe choux about 1 inch-part in the baking sheets. Choux should be about 1 inch high about 1 inch wide.

Using a clean finger dipped in hot water, gently press down on any tips that have formed on the top of choux when piping. You want them to retain their ball shape, but be smoothly curved on top.

Brush tops with egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with pinch of salt).

Bake the choux at 425◦F/220◦C degrees until well-puffed and turning lightly golden in color, about 10 minutes.

Lower the temperature to 350◦F/180◦C degrees and continue baking until well-colored and dry, about 20 minutes more. Remove to a rack and cool.

Can be stored in a airtight box overnight.

Great! I knew 15 minutes was too short of a time and her directions were very clear. So I made the dough.

Pate a Choux

Then I piped the dough into 1 inch circles. Confession. Initially my "1 inch" was closer to 2 inches so when my friend Rebecca stopped by there were a few samples to taste since they were clearly too big to be part of a tower...It was tragic...;) After they were baked, Rebecca was elated and I was glad to see how happy getting a preview taste made her.

Piped Pastry

Baked Pastry

Next up, filling! After making 2 batches of pate a choux, I was ready to make the filling. Rebecca counselled that more of the puffs might disappear before the filling was made so I prepared 3 half recipes of filling. I made vanilla, chocolate, and hazelnut. After tasting the chocolate, I converted it over to chocolate hazelnut. I preferred the chocolate hazelnut to chocolate but my favorite filling was definitely hazelnut. Rebecca's favorite was vanilla. Other eaters decidedly hunted out chocolate so all were good. Ruthann injected spare puffs with half chocolate, half hazelnut cream (before I added hazelnut flavoring to the chocolate).

Anyway, you get that it was good. Here's the recipe that was provided and my notes on modifications will follow below.

For the Vanilla Crème Patissiere (Half Batch)
1 cup (225 ml.) whole milk
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
6 Tbsp. (100 g.) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp. (30 g.) unsalted butter
1 Tsp. Vanilla

Dissolve cornstarch in ¼ cup of milk. Combine the remaining milk with the sugar in a saucepan; bring to boil; remove from heat.

Beat the whole egg, then the yolks into the cornstarch mixture. Pour 1/3 of boiling milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly so that the eggs do not begin to cook.

Return the remaining milk to boil. Pour in the hot egg mixture in a stream, continuing whisking.

Continue whisking (this is important – you do not want the eggs to solidify/cook) until the cream thickens and comes to a boil. Remove from heat and beat in the butter and vanilla.

Pour cream into a stainless steel/ceramic bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface. Chill immediately and until ready to use.

For Chocolate Pastry Cream (Half Batch Recipe):
Bring ¼ cup (about 50 cl.) milk to a boil in a small pan; remove from heat and add in 3 ounces (about 80 g.) semisweet chocolate, finely chopped, and mix until smooth. Whisk into pastry cream when you add the butter and vanilla.

For Coffee Pastry Cream (Half Batch recipe)
Dissolve 1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso powder in 1 ½ teaspoons boiling water. Whisk into pastry cream with butter and vanilla.

Rather than making Coffee, I dissolved 2 teaspoons of hazelnut instant coffee in 2 teaspoons of boiling water. I whisked it into the pastry cream with butter and vanilla, then tasted. Too weak! I added another 2 teaspoons in 1 teaspoon of boiling water. Whisked the solution in...yummy. All of the mixtures were placed in the fridge to chill for at least 4 hours before serving. This allowed the puddings to set up before being injected into the pastries.

(Unfortunately, I didn't think to take a picture of the mixtures. You'll have to imagine one yellow colored custard (vanilla), one light brown (hazelnut), and one dark brown (chocolate). Sniff. Can you smell it? If you can, you should head to your kitchen to see if there's someone making these at your house. If not, you have an incredible imagination.

So now, I waited. I stored the puff pastries in gladware until time for cooking night. Our theme was Greek food and will be the subject of a future post ...when I get around to it. Anyway, I tend to take a pass on one item for the theme sometimes. Since a tower of cream puffs begs to be shared, it seemed like a good substitution. I figured, assembly couldn't be that bad so I could do that quickly as people were finishing up with the main meal. It turns out, it wasn't that bad. I prestacked my puffs before filling to make sure which stacked well where. Then I piped roughly 1/3 with vanilla, 1/3 with hazelnut...alright maybe more with hazelnut, and 1/3 (maybe a bit less) with chocolate. I left the piping tool and the remaining filling out for the remainder of the puffs not going into the tower. That way, guests had a choice. Picking puff off a fun tower or filling their own.

Here are the rest of the instructions for the glaze and assembly...followed by my notes, of course.

Chocolate Glaze:
8 ounces/200 g. finely chopped chocolate (use the finest quality you can afford as the taste will be quite pronounced; I recommend semi-sweet)

Melt chocolate in microwave or double boiler. Stir at regular intervals to avoid burning. Use the best quality chocolate you can afford. Use immediately.

Hard Caramel Glaze:
1 cup (225 g.) sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice

Combine sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan with a metal kitchen spoon stirring until the sugar resembles wet sand. Place on medium heat; heat without stirring until sugar starts to melt around the sides of the pan and the center begins to smoke. Begin to stir sugar. Continue heating, stirring occasionally until the sugar is a clear, amber color. Remove from heat immediately; place bottom of pan in ice water to stop the cooking. Use immediately.

Assembly of your Piece Montée:
You may want to lay out your unfilled, unglazed choux in a practice design to get a feel for how to assemble the final dessert. For example, if making a conical shape, trace a circle (no bigger than 8 inches) on a piece of parchment to use as a pattern. Then take some of the larger choux and assemble them in the circle for the bottom layer. Practice seeing which pieces fit together best.

Once you are ready to assemble your piece montée, dip the top of each choux in your glaze (careful it may be still hot!), and start assembling on your cake board/plate/sheet. Continue dipping and adding choux in levels using the glaze to hold them together as you build up. (You may want to use toothpicks to hold them in place).

While I filled the puffs, my friend, David, made a quick caramel glaze. I dipped the puffs into the glaze and stacked as fast as I could. Unfortunately, this meant I got a couple fingers burnt. However, it was no time to quit. There were people in the living room wondering when they got to eat dessert. Rebecca melted some chocolate for those that wanted it....which definitely included her and myself. I made a few swirls around the puffs with the caramel. I was tired of reheating the caramel and drizzling and I burned my finger again. We drizzled a little chocolate and then I quit. The folks in the living room couldn't have been happier to attack the tower.

The Tower: Ta Da!

The angle on the picture makes this looks rather short. However, there were 40 puffs in this pile. The pile was reduced to 4 puffs remaining in under 10 minutes. One guest wondered where they all went. She thought there was no way we'd eat them all. :) I was glad they were well received. Thanks for a great challenge!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Double Take: Italian Sausage Brunch Casserole

Italian Sausage Brunch Casserole

I like breakfast at almost any time of day. Whether cereal, yogurt, muffins, pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon, quiche, or biscuits and gravy, I really like it all. I like trying different breakfast options to see if I find a new favorite. This week I chose Italian Sausage Brunch Casserole. Since I’ve noticed the USL cookbook tends to approximate larger serving than what I am accustomed to eating, I decided to cut the recipe in half.

It began with removing fresh Italian sausage from its casing and cooking (while scrambling it) until done. Next, green onions, sliced zucchini, salt and pepper were tossed in with the sausage and cooked until the zucchini was tender.

Sausage/Vegetable Combination

Next, I stirred in half a 7 oz jar of roasted bell peppers. (If you are looking for these, check the vegetable aisle or the produce area near the garlic.) While the veggies cooked, I sliced half a loaf of Italian bread into one inch cubes. I placed half the bread in the base of an 8 x 8” baking dish. The sausage mixture was layered on top of the bread along with shredded sharp Cheddar cheese. I repeated the layering of bread, sausage/veggies, and cheese. I poured a beaten mixture of 3 eggs with ¾ c. milk over the layers.

Casserole Before Baking

The dish was covered, refrigerated 8 hours (to allow the egg to soak into the bread), and baked for 1 hour at 325 F.

Baked Casserole (up close and personal)

Evaluation: I liked it ok. I wanted it to be more flavorful. Of note, the mild flavor of the green onions was not very noticeable in the dish. I also thought it was a little low on egg content. I also thought the bread was a little chunkier and most for my preference. I liked the flavor of the bread though. Further, rather than slicing the zucchini (I quartered, then sliced), in the future I would dice the zucchini. That is, I would want small zucchini bits…not food processed but smaller. To increase the flavor, I would cook onions and garlic with the sausage and zucchini. I would substitute yellow or sweet onions for the green onions. I would also cut the bread into a max size of ½” cubes and perhaps lightly toast it prior to placing it in the baking dish. I would also increase the eggs from 3 to 4 or 5. This reheated well and made 5 (Tabitha sized) servings.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Double Take: Vegetable Quinoa Pilaf

Vegetable Quinoa Pilaf

This week’s double take is brought to you by the letter Q...for quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). Quinoa is a grain with a slightly nutty flavor which becomes puffy and soft (sort of like rice but not really) when boiled. Pilaf is a grain cooked in a broth. Prior to this point, I had not heard of quinoa, which I phonetically pronounced (Queen- O-ah). Oh well. Now I know. Also, I had always thought of pilaf of being a rice dish, so I was surprised when the recipe lacked rice. Thanks to wikipedia,, and Barbara Fairchild (in Bon Appetit: Fast, Easy, Fresh) for clarifying that. After learning how to pronounce quinoa, I still needed to find it. Quinoa can be found in the rice and grain sections of most major grocery stores in a box. However, in this form you’re likely to pay over $7 per pound. To save yourself the sticker shock, if you have a Whole Foods, Fresh Market or other specialty grocery store, check out the bulk grains. At Whole Foods, quinoa was about $2.60/ lb in bulk bins. The bulk bins give you the option of scooping as little or as much of a grain as you need so you can get ½ c. or multiple cups for the same relatively inexpensive rate. Further, if you still want the boxed version that was less at Whole Foods by $1. Quinoa looks like small beads and can be either beige or red in color.

Leeks were another element of the recipe that is not common to many Americans. Leeks are members of the onion and garlic family. They have a mild flavor and go well as a substitute for or complement to onions. I have recently used them in quiche with tasty results. Leeks are found in the fresh produce area of grocery stores. To use leeks, rinse well and slice off the root end and the dark green leaves. Pull off the outer layer of the leaves and rinse again. (Leeks tend to get some rocks and dirt inside.) Now slice up the light green and white parts which remain and use them as directed in your dish.

The rest of the ingredients in this recipe were more familiar: chicken broth, bell peppers, celery, carrots, garlic, and parmesan cheese. Note: I’m not a fan of celery. However, for the purpose of comparison, I used it anyway. Now that I had everything gathered, it was time to get started.

How to (According to me):

1) Chop up the vegetables. Bell peppers can be coarsely chopped but carrots, celery and leeks are probably best minced. I chopped the coarsely and dropped the last three in the food processor for a few seconds to save time. Combine the vegetables together in a bowl for later use. You can wait and chop some vegetables while the quinoa cooks but I wouldn’t suggest chopping them all then unless you are MEGAchopper, the amazing superhero chopper who preps vegetables even faster than Rachel Ray.

Chopped Vegetable Mixture

2) Place quinoa in a fine strainer or cheesecloth and rinse well. (Quinoa has a bitter coating on the outside that must be rinsed before cooking).

3) Add chicken broth and quinoa in a small saucepot and bring to a boil. If you happen to look at a box of quinoa, it recommends 2 c. of fluid to 1 c. quinoa. This is a good approximation.

4) After quinoa comes to a boil, reduce the temperature to a low boil/simmer for 15 minutes.

Cooked Quinoa

5) Finish up chopping the vegetables and toss in a bowl together. Mince the garlic and place in a separate small bowl. I used 3 cloves based on a measurement the cookbook listed but would recommend a heavy hand with garlic if you actually want to taste its flavor. By heavy hand, I mean you can easily double it without a second thought.

6) Add a small amount (around 1 Tbsp) of olive or vegetable oil to a pan and toss in the all the vegetables. Cook until they are done.

7) Combine vegetables with quinoa (which at this point should be fluffy and the fluid should be soaked up by the grain). Add garlic and parmesan. Add salt and pepper, to taste.

Combined Vegetables and Quinoa

Finished! Garnished with chopped parsley.

Evaluation: Bland yet peppery. I know this sounds nuts but its true. Ruthann stopped by for a taste and agreed. The main flavors I tasted were celery and pepper. I wanted some burst of flavor but it was lacking in the recipe as described. I would recommend doubling the garlic, possibly skipping the celery and substituting other vegetables with a more pronounced flavor. Onion and tomato came to mind immediately. However, to make the dish tasty with minimal effort, I added fresh pineapple. I know, that probably sounds like a weird selection. However, the pineapple cut the flavor of the pepper and added a sweet flavorful element. In the future, I plan to try a couple other quinoa recipes. I liked the texture of the quinoa and the fact that it’s a grain with high protein serves as motivation to incorporate it into my diet. Neither Ruthann nor I were interested in repeating this recipe but it served as a stimulus for us to try other recipes with quinoa. Note: The recipe (as written) makes a lot of food. I’d say at least 8 servings of ¾ c. each. The book lists it as 4 servings but that didn’t seem realistic to me.

Be sure to head over to Fabulously Fun Food to get Mel’s two bits worth on the recipe.

Bao Tze (Chinese Stuffed Buns)

Char Siu Bao Tze with Stir Fried Broccoli

My master's advisor at Clemson made us special dumplings a couple of times a year. At the beginning, they took some getting used to for me to eat them. However, I grew to like them a lot. After leaving, I learned that he was from the region in China in which the dish was a specialty and that most Chinese had never made them. Once I could no longer get them, I wanted to be able to make them. I searched the internet and asked all four of the Chinese folks in our lab but nothing turned up, other than learning they were a regional specialty. I wonder if some people realize that loss after having east Tennessee barbecue. Nothing else quite compares and its only made by a select group of people. Anyway, sometime in the last year, I searched for the bao tze again. This time, I found recipes online! Woohoo! I was ecstatic. After reading through the recipes, I learned that it was a lengthy process but not all of it is hands on and there were various spots to stop and restart the process. Feeling reassured, I picked up ingredients to make them.

Chinese stuffed buns can be filled with many items. The recipe I chose was for pork...but due to confusion in the recipe which resulted in restarting the filling despite reading ahead of time, chicken was used in the final product. The main difference here is that chicken cooks more quickly and is tough so your cook time can be decreased. Bonus!

The recipe I used came from recipezaar. I modified the recipe slightly and will share that below. Further, be warned that some of the recipes do not list tasks in a logical order for completion. Be sure to read through them first. I'm listing this recipe in the order of completion...just in case you're not into reading much more than the ingredients and time before getting started. ;)

There are 3 key parts in chinese stuffed buns: the meat (or marinated ingredient, tofu if desired), the filling (combining the meat/marinated ingredient with a couple other ingredients to make a tasty sauce), the dough (which is yeast based and must be allowed time to rise). I'll start with the meat. After the meat is completed, it is best to begin the dough. The filling comes together quickly so while the dough rises, the filling can be completed in plenty of time.

Step 1: Meat (or other marinated ingredient) (Char Siu) 

3 c. water
1 lb boneless skinless chicken or deboned pork
4 cloves of garlic (minced, I used a microplane to speed up the process)
1 tsp. fresh ginger (minced)
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp. honey
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 Tbsp. hoisin sauce (international section or Asian grocery)
2 Tbsp. sherry, mirin, chinese wine, or sake (you can find mirin and sake in the international foods sections of most grocery stores or feel free to try a Asian grocery for a lower price)

(optional) 1 tsp. chinese five spice powder (also in international section or Asian grocery)

Note: some people really do not like chinese five spice powder, this may not be the first place to try it. I really like it but have friends who don't so if you're making this for a crowd, you may want to skip it.

How to prepare the meat:

1) Combine all ingredients (except the meat and water) together.

2) Place the meat in the marinade and marinate 3 hours or overnight.

3) a) roast in an oven at 350 F (turning halfway through cooking) in a pan with water
b) Place in a crockpot with 3 c. water. Cook in the crockpot on high for ONE hour, followed by 3-5 hours on low. You want the meat to be done and flake away when you touch it with a fork.
c) You could also cook the meat on medium in a covered pot on the stove. This would likely speed up the process but requires more monitoring but cooking it slowly should yield a more tender filling.

Step 2: Dough

How to:

1) If you refrigerate your yeast, let it come to room temperature. You can either sit the container out or scoop the amount you need into a bowl and wait about 10 minutes to let it reach room temperature. I recommend the latter.

2) Place the yeast and sugar together in a medium sized bowl. Add the warm water. Stir the yeast, sugar, water mixture until the yeast and sugar are dissolved. Allow the yeast mixture to sit for 10 minutes to proof. (Proofing is a way of making sure your yeast is active. Active yeast will bubble after a few minutes and appears frothy after about 10 minutes. If your yeast does not become frothy, its dead and you need to stop by the store for fresh yeast.)

3) Place flour and salt in a bowl or bread machine. Add yeast mixture and mix well either by hand or with a stand mixer with a dough hook or let your bread machine mix it for you. If mixing by hand, mix until all is homogeneous and forms a ball.

4)Place in an oiled bowl, covered with a towel or plastic wrap and allow to rise for about 15 minutes. (This is a good time to prepare your filling.)

Meat Combined with Filling

Step 3: Filling (Completing the Char Siu)

1 1/2 c. of meat (char siu chicken or pork or whatever you want to marinate) (You can buy char siu pork in the grocery store in some locations.)

  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
  • 1/2 cup hoisin sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sweet chili paste (or garlic chili paste) (I use the garlic chili paste with the rooster on it)
  • 4 scallions, chopped finely

How To:

1) Chop the meat finely.

2) Saute the ginger in the peanut oil for four minutes, stirring constantly.

3) Transfer the ginger to a bowl and add all the rest of the ingredients, including the meat. Stir together well and let cool.

A Single Assembled Bun

Step 4: Stuffed Bun Assembly

1) Take the dough after it has risen and divide it into into 25 balls. Flatten them and place a small portion of filling into the center of each pancake-like piece of dough.

2) Pinch the edges of the dough toward the middle to close them into a ball shape.

3) Lightly oil parchment or wax paper and place the balls onto the surface to rise. I placed them 9x13 pans so they could be covered. Allow to sit for at least 15 minutes, until the balls double in size.

4) After allowing the buns to rise, they are ready to be steamed. You can either use a bamboo steamer or if you have a double boiler, that works too. To prevent the buns from sticking to the surface, place lettuce, cabbage leaves, or wax paper into the the steamer. Set the buns into the steamer by hand.

5) After the buns steam 10 minutes, remove them. I recommend using salad tongs for this process. If you used wax paper, feel free to remove the whole piece and replace it with another to save time.

6) It will take several runs of steaming to cook them all. Once they are cooked, you can either eat them or place them in freezer bags.

7) After freezing, they can be removed, and resteamed for 10 minutes to reheat.

Pile of Finished Buns

A View of Inside the Bun

We ate the bao with the stir fried broccoli (posted as last week's double take). The steamed buns were awesome! Kyndra, Ruthann and I loved them. They were spicy and a great first run. We ate them plain or dipped in hoisin sauce or soy sauce.

I edited the recipe above to reflect changes that should help them be even better in the future. The main issue was that we had a little too much dough per bun. Instead of 16 buns per the recipe, we recommend 25. Per the recipe, there were a bit big and the ratio of dough to filling could be optimized by using less dough each and flattening the dough to between 1/8 and 1/4 inch. The dough should be just thick enough to work with your hands. Another issue was confusion of the recipe which is hopefully alleviated in my version. If you test it and find it confusing, let me know and I'd like to make it clear enough for anyone to use.