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!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! That was a "flash" mounting! I'm sure it was delicious! Sorry about your burnt fingers, though.