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.
When I read that challenge for this month, my first reaction was fear. Croquembouche is a grand treat, worthy of elegant parties, and as it is commonly seen in France, at weddings. Many times, a croquembouche can tower over other pastries as a tall, commanding pyramid of cream puffs, covered with caramel, chocolate and sometimes, decorative candies or spun sugar. I’d never made cream puffs. I can barely make a layer cake, and I haven’t even tried anything so daunting since going gluten-free. And right now, I’m currently dairy and corn-free, so I had to consider making those adjustments as well.
But once I had some time to absorb the details, my next reaction was one of excitement. Despite my hectic schedule, I had to make room for this challenge. If I could pull it off, I’d feel so accomplished. I would grow. I would step outside that box. And after all, isn’t that what Daring Bakers is all about?
So I made plans to make it. Only…time escaped me. I wanted to make it this past weekend, but other activities trumped it. So I finally told my husband that he’d have to fend for himself for dinner Monday night – I was dedicating the evening to croquembouche. Little did I know just how much of the evening I would be dedicating.
Four and a half hours. Now, normally, that isn’t anything for me to complain about. I love to spend Sundays in the kitchen all day, preparing various dishes and baking. Time flies when I’m in the kitchen, and I couldn’t be happier. The reason it took me four and a half hours to make the croquembouche was only because I failed. My first pate a choux dough was so thin that when I piped it to bake, it spread out like pancake batter. Batch two, following a different recipe, was nearly as thin, but in a desperate attempt, I baked it, only to end up with flat disks. Finally, I tried one more recipe. Obviously, it was the recipe I should have started with – the puffs “puffed” beautifully, and were nice and light. Just like the gluten-y, buttery ones. I was encouraged, and so I pressed on with the caramel glaze. And it failed – it siezed up and was grainy. But with such perfect puffs, I had to try again. My next glaze was great, and I assembled the croquembouche. This process started to become fun!
Then, finally, I wanted to decorate the croquembouche with spun sugar. Only the first time I tried to make it, I used the same pan that siezed up my caramel glaze (I think it was too small). It siezed up the caramel for the spun sugar. So I went to the “successful” pan, and for the first time ever, I made spun sugar. It was so fun, I can’t wait to think of new things to decorate with it!
In any case, I was so excited that I stuck with this challenge. I was pretty pleased with how the croquembouche looked. But the taste? Oh – it was evil! (Evilly divine, that is…) When you bite into a piece, it crunches with caramel on the outside, with a delicate puff, and then you get the burst of a lovely, not-too-rich almond cream. Heaven. My husband, not one for sweets or pastries, upon seeing it, said “Baby, that’s really cool.” and when he ate some, there was a lot of “nom nom nom” going on. (Okay, there was “nom nom nom” from both of us!)
This has been my favorite challenge so far. While I doubt Memorial Day is the perfect day to make one of these for guests, (Croquembouche and burgers? Nah, not so much.) I do want to make it for a special event sometime! A big thanks to Cat for challenging us!
Dairy Free Pastry Cream, adapted from Simply…Gluten Free
2 c coconut milk
1/4 t kosher salt
6 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/2 c granulated sugar
3 T tapioca starch or potato starch (I used a mixture of both)
1 t vanilla extract
1 t almond extract
Combine the coconut milk and salt in a large saucepan and bring to a boil.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the egg yolks with the sugar on medium high speed until the mixture is light yellow and thick, about 3 minutes. Turn the mixer to low and add the starches. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Turn the mixer back to low and slowly add the hot coconut milk to the egg mixture in a thin stream. Pour the mixture back into the sauce pan and cook over medium heat until thick and it just starts to come back up to a boil, stirring constantly with a spoon or whisk. Continue cooking for 1 – 2 minutes. (Do not cook more than 2 minutes or the starches will lose effectiveness.) Remove from heat and stir in the extracts. Strain into a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap, placing the plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pastry cream. Refrigerate until cold, about 2 – 3 hours. Whisk the pastry cream well before filling the puffs.
Dairy Free “Cream” Puffs, adapted from Simply…Gluten Free
1/2 c organic palm shortening
1 c coconut milk
1 pinch kosher salt
1 c sweet rice flour
4 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper or Silpat.
In a medium saucepan, combine the shortening, coconut milk, and salt and bring just to a boil over medium heat. Stir to try to incorporate the oil with the coconut milk – it won’t completely blend, but that’s okay. As soon as it comes to a boil, remove from heat and dump in the flour all at once. With a wooden spoon, stir quickly and in one direction. The liquid will start absorbing and form a ball. Some of the oil will remain at the bottom of the pan – that’s okay. Continue to cook and stir for 1-2 minutes.
Dump the contents of the saucepan into the bowl of a stand mixer, oil and all, fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat the dough for a minute on medium speed to cool it down slightly. Add the eggs and yolk, one at a time, waiting until one incorporates into the dough fully before adding the next. The dough will look like a gloopy mess at first, but then it will start to blend and look kind of like buttery mashed potatoes. Continue mixing the dough until it is uniformly smooth and thick.
Place dough into a pastry bag fitted with a plain large tip (or no tip at all) and pipe into silver-dollar-sized circles on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the oven off and allow to sit for another 20 minutes to dry out.
Hard Caramel Glaze (and Spun Sugar)
1 c sugar
½ t 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 for just a moment to stop the cooking. Use immediately.
Assembly of your Piece Montée/Croquembouche
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 can use toothpicks if needed.
Use the recipe for the caramel glaze, and when sugar is melted, remove from heat and start stirring with a fork. Once the sugar starts to cool enough to create strands, take the fork and swirl the sugar strands around the piece montee. Repeat until the desired amount of sugar is all over your piece montee.