26 May 2010

Piece Montée -also known as Croquembouche

Even the name sounds yummy.... cro-kemmmmmmm-booooooooshhhhh.

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 was super excited when I this month's challenge, for a bunch of reasons...
  1. I won't have to make anyone cry with my Daring Bakers' Challenge this month
  2. It's French, and I adore all things French
  3. I *love* pastry cream filled choux - one of the tastiest things on the planet in my opinion.
  4. I am a stickler for real, honest-to-goodness, made-from-scratch pastry cream, and not powdered vanilla pudding.
  5. I have made this dessert before (for my sis-in-law's wedding), and have always wanted to try it again, because I wanted to perfect it (word of advice - don't try and make/assemble a never-before-made dessert for 150 people an hour before you're supposed to beat a wedding, dressed-up and not covered in chocolate. Oh - and maybe make sure you have enough little choux to actually finish the piece montée, so you don't have to lop off the top and end up with a croquembouche that looks like this ------>)
  6. I love French desserts.  Pretty much all things French, actually, but my absolute favourite are French things you can eat.
  7. I've always wanted to do the proper spun caramel technique for it (you can guess why that didn't happen the first time - no time, and it's even less attractive to show up at a wedding with molten sugar burns on your arms)
  8. It's stunning AND delicious, and that's a pretty killer combo in my books
  9. It's FRENCH... wait, did I already say that?
So, first of all, I'm a little bummed that April's & May's DB challenges weren't switched, because I had a dozen events in April that this would have been perfect for, and I have none of those in May.  While I love girly, pretty French things, most of my co-workers are more...ummm (how do I say this?) ....they're more not into girly, pretty French things.  A big culture shock for me was to go from working in an industry with mostly women and a lot of gay men, to working with very few women and a lot of men who aren't even all that comfortable being around gay men.  So bringing this in for what have now become known in the office as "Baking Mondays", well, it won't get quite the same level of appreciation a dessert like this deserves.  (but boy oh boy, it would have at the flower shop...)

Anyway... I sat down with a good cup of coffee and began reading all about the challenge - no sweat, I can totally do this.  When it came time to actually make it however, I gave it a second read and noticed that "You must use the recipe provided for the the pate a choux batter however".  Sure thing, Cat, not a problem.  Your recipe doesn't look all that different from the recipe I normally... wait a second....NO MILK???????  Oh great, here we go again......

You may recall my recent, still-very-fresh-in-my-mind, battle with brioche and recipes that omit crucial ingredients.  Namely: milk.  Well, as soon as I saw this recipe used only water, I began going over and over the recipe, looking for some hint that this was a typo.  Nope, just water.  Hmm.  Ok (here's where I owe Little Miss Cupcake an apology ), I googled pâte à choux recipes to see if this was in fact an accurate version of the recipe.  Huge sigh of relief when I found several other recipes that were sans le lait.  whew!  Carry on.

I started out by making my pastry cream - exactly the same one I made for my Perfect Chocolate Éclairs. Tried and true and tasty.  Once the pastry cream was chilling in the fridge, I took a deep breath and started on my batch of choux.  Much to my delight, it worked and behaved exactly like the recipe I usually use avec le  lait, so I was worried for no reason.  My piping skills have even improved  considerably, thanks to the techniques Mardi at Eat.Live.Travel.Write. shared from her macarons class at Lenôtre.  (my piping skills really needed still need work - I've graduated to the lever where I can pipe blobs now... not much else).  Into the oven my petit choux blobs went.  When the timer finally went off, I took a deep breath and looked in the oven.  They were beautiful - I would have to say they were even bigger than mine normally are, so maybe milk-less is the way to go.  Filling them up with that lovely pastry cream didn't take very long, which meant I was soon ready to move on to the next step.

The Caramel.  I have made caramel sauce before - many times in fact - and each time seems to be a bit different.  But this isn't caramel sauce - this is just caramelized sugar.  That's all.  No water or added cream or vanilla or butter.  Just sugar.  However, one thing you should know about me is that I am a complete woos when it comes to the idea of burning myself, and playing with molten sugar scares the bejeezus out of me.  But I persevere, in hopes that eventually I will be able to do it and not hold find myself holding my breath the whole time - cuz that only makes you lightheaded and dizzy, which *significantly* increases your chances of getting a 3rd degree sugar burn.  Also, one of my goals for this year is to improve my caramel and sugar caramelizing skills (stay tuned for future posts and you'll get to see how that turns out).  This was as good a time as any to get in some practice time, right?  Besides, if you're going to participate in a baking "challenge" then there should be some aspect of it that challenges you.  (yeesh - that sounds more conceited than intended - let me elaborate)  Yes, so far I've lucked out two months in a row with DB Challenges that I already have experience making, but I also believe that luck is going to run out soon.  

So, given my inexperience working with just plain old melted sugar, I was a little apprehensive.  But, I took a deep breath, put some sugar in a cooper pot and lit the burner.  While keeping a very steady eye on my pot of liquifying sugar, I began roughly "dry-fitting" together the pieces for my first layer of the croquembouche, preparing in advance so I would know where to put the little choux once it was covered with hot caramel.  Pretty soon, the sugar was just beyond the point when it starts to smoke, so I plunged the pot into a bowl of ice water to halt the cooking process, and quickly got to work.  Maybe this was the prefect dessert to help me get over my fear of molten sugar, I was so distracted with all of the fitting together the choux blob puzzle, that I completely forgot to be freaked out.  Before I knew it, I had two full layers done and had zero burns!  WooHoo!  This is cool!  Now I can see why they use this as pastry glue for those amazing pieces they make on tv.  It's awesome!

Another thing I learned was why the croquembouche is traditionally covered in a halo of spun sugar.  Because a frothy veil of golden caramel acts as a really good cover for the mess.  You're not exactly going to use your finger to wipe away any smears or drips of 200˚ sugar, and I certainly had a lot of drips and oozes happening.  So, while I was glueing together my piece montée, I asked hubby to take one of my very large whisks and sacrifice it for the spun sugar cause.  Well, it took a little more tweaking after he trimmed off the rounded top of the whisk - he had to also bend the individual wires back out a bit, as they immediately collapsed on one another once they were cut.  Full of caramelly confidence, I was excited to give my "new" toy a try, and dipped the wire whisk into to the hot caramel, lifted it above the completed tower of choux and proceeded to spray hot sugar onto every surface in my kitchen while almost nothing landed on the croquembouche.  Awesome.  I went back for another attempt, but didn't fare any better the second time.  I abandoned that idea and figured that would be a lesson for another day.  I did, however, play around a bit on some parchment paper and made a caramel Tour Eiffel for a decoration.  Because after all, it's FRENCH!

So here you have it - my Piece Montée, complete with caramel.  Thanks so much to Cat (whom I should hate, simply because she lives in Paris and I don't), I had a blast making this, and you helped me face my fear of molten sugar, and I even survived unscathed!  ZERO burns to show for it!  YAY!

Pâte à Choux (sans le lait)
(Yield: About 28) - I ended up with 40
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
(directions are exactly the same as they are for my "Perfect Chocolate Éclair" post, which is also where you will find my recipe for REAL Pastry Cream)

Caramel aka Molten Sugar Glue
1 Cup (200g) sugar
Put the sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, and place over medium heat.  Keep a watchful eye om the sugar, and as the crystals begin to melt and darken, gently stir (using a silicone spatula only) the sugar to move the dry sugar to the bottom to even the cooking.  As the entire pot of sugar melts and begins to darken, it will begin to smoke.  Once it begins smoking, immediately plunge the bottom of the pot into a bowl of ice water to halt the cooking process.  If, while you are assembling your piece montée, the pot of caramel begins to harden and become difficulty to work with, simply return it over a medium flame on the stove until it melts to the proper consistency again.  Repeat as needed.


MeetaK said...

it's looking totally awesome! i have not completely finished mine yet. all components are ready and i'll put it together today but i am loving the incredible height you got.

Charlotte said...

The shape of your croquembouche is perfect; I love your Eiffel tower detail :)

Mardi @eatlivetravelwrite said...

Thanks for the shoutout! I love the Eiffel Tower on top and it looks so professional!! :-) I copped out a little on this month's for various reasons but I was happy to have succeeded at making the pastry!

sassymonkey said...

I followed your link from BlogHer. Molton sugar scares me but I'm glad that you had success with it. Looks like it turns out great. :)

tease-spoon of sugar said...

Yours looks amazing. I wanted to do the caramel too but was unwilling to sacrifice my whisk. Now that I've read yours, I'm glad I didn't! I love the Eiffel Tower decoration!! And I think your wedding Croquembouche looks fantastic too.

Shannon said...

If you're looking for help eating these, I'm always there for you, Julia. I like yummy French things too!!

Barbara Bakes said...

I love the Eiffel Tower on top of your beautiful Tower. Well done!

Anonymous said...

You did a fantastic job!

Seattle Pastry Girl said...

Perfection-your piece is just gorgeous !

Katie said...

Love love LOVE the Eiffel Tower! So cute! Im in awe of the spun sugar, it looks like a beautiful trickle down a mountain of profiteroles. Yum! Great job Anita :D and it was great meeting you the other day! I hope i'll see you at future events.

Renata said...

Your caramel tower is so nice! Your Croquembouche is beautiful! Great job!

Heather said...


Love your piece de monte! I just did mine with chocolate but I would seriously love to try the caramel. I really enjoyed your writing that went with it. Especially the bit about your co-workers! What to do with all the food we bake eh? It was great to finally meet you last week. I look forward to reading more about your baking adventures. Hx

Sarah, Maison Cupcake said...

I sooooo want to make one of these but couldn't this month because of my holiday and ran out of time. Fantastic to meet a fellow red head at FBC last weekend too!