Posted in baking, candy, thickening

Daring Baker Challenge: Croquembouche!

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.

This challenge was so epic, I had to invite people over to see it.  And eat it, which they did – the whole entire thing.  I made 3 1/2 batches of pate a choux, 3 batches of pastry cream, and two batches of caramel for it.

Pate a choux:

Dense profiterole
This was one with too little egg - it didn't rise much.
Light profiterole
This is a profiterole with too much egg - it's light and airy, but kind of flat.

This is an interesting kind of baked good that I frankly don’t understand the science behind, so if anyone out there does, please, enlighten me.  You boil water and butter (with a little salt and sugar), add flour and heat a little more, and then add eggs.  You end up with a completely un-airy batter that can be piped.  It contains no chemical leaveners, no yeast.  And then you bake it, and voila, it comes out almost completely hollow inside!

I’ll tell you what I do know: not enough egg will keep them from puffing; you can spot this problem if the paste is too dense.  It should have a pleasant, smooth feel between your fingers, not too thick and sticky.  Too much egg will make them too wet to hold their shape after being piped, and you’ll end up with puffed but squat profiteroles.  The batter should keep its shape.  The recipe said to use 4 eggs for a cup of flour and 6 tbsp of butter, but I ended up using a little less than that.  I beat some eggs and put them in a measuring cup so I could add a little at a time.  How much you use still depends on how much you heated the flour mixture, though, so I’ll say around 3/4 cup worked for me, but you have to kind of play it by ear.

Pastry cream:

Filled cream puffs
Some of the cream puffs, filled with pastry cream.

I flavored two batches with chocolate and one with cream cheese and a little bit of sour cream, trying to go for a cheesecake flavor.  Most pastry cream recipes say to boil the milk and then temper the eggs, that is, add 1/3 of the milk to the eggs, whisking, and then add the eggs to the rest of the milk and continue heating.  I tried this and curdled my eggs.  I think adding the hot milk to the eggs didn’t heat them up as much as it was supposed to, and so they were untempered when I threw them onto the hot stove, poor things.  So I made my creams in a double boiler.  No fancy steps, I just mixed everything together (except the cream cheese, sour cream, and vanilla) in a double boiler and whisked for approximately forever.  I was worried that I wouldn’t get it to a high enough temperature to deactive the enzymes in the eggs that attack the starch, but I made them the night before and they never separated, so I guess it did the job.  I never really saw it boil, but I may have missed it because I was whisking constantly and whenever I noticed the bottom had suddenly thickened, I’d take it off the heat and stir like crazy.  It thickened to the point of coating a spoon, but then also past that, to the point of leaving a trail that doesn’t disappear.  So, if anyone has tips on how to do pastry cream the normal way, don’t be shy, but at least you know you can fall back on this method if necessary.


It was pretty while it lasted.

Our recipe said to make a dry caramel, that is, to just heat sugar till it’s caramel.  I tried that, but I guess I was stirring too much, because I ended up with crystallized bits.  So I went with a wet caramel after that, which is sugar and water (I used approximately equal amounts by volume, but it doesn’t really matter), heated until it changes color.  I stopped it at a fairly light amber, because caramel gets softer as it gets darker and I wanted mine to dry fairly hard so it would make good glue.  I cooked until I saw a light amber color, touched the bottom of the pan to the surface of some water I had standing by in a big bowl a couple of times, and then set the pan over a pot of simmering water in an

effort to keep the caramel workable for as long as possible.  I don’t know if the double boiler helped at all; I don’t really think it did.  It took me two batches of caramel to build the whole thing, not because I ran out of caramel, but because I ran out of time while it was workable.

I also drizzled some caramel on parchment paper the night before, thinking I’d break it into pieces and stick them into the croquembouche as decoration, but the caramel absorbed moisture overnight, so that the really small strands just plain dissolved, and the bigger areas got sticky and stuck to the paper (which they had come off of easily before). I wanted to do some more real quick before serving, but when it got to that time, I had burnt myself twice with the caramel and was a little bit over it.  Definitely have cold water around if you work with caramel, it gives second degree burns.

inside the cone
The inside of the cone.


I made a cone out of posterboard and lined it with parchment paper, which I sprayed with Pam just to be safe.  I put the cone in a vase and dipped the profiteroles in the caramel and then put them in the cone.  My friend kindly offered to help and she arranged them in the cone so I could work faster and burn myself less. I made a hollow cone, which seems to be the thing to do.  Then I cut off the extra posterboard, inverted on a baking pan, and unwrapped the cone.  It stood!  Just long enough for everyone to start digging in.

This was a hit.  You wouldn’t believe the comments I got.  I have now been called a “wizard of food.”  So if you have the time and motivation, this dessert comes with a big payoff!  Just be sure to serve it right away – it’s not known for its long-term stability.

finished croquembouche

The really finished croquembouche

Posted in foam, thickening

May Flowers Macarons

Baked macarons
When I first read about the importance of the frilly feet, I thought it was nonsense. When I saw these feet, I was ecstatic.

For our last departmental reception of the school year, I finally made macarons de Paris.  I’ve made macarons d’Amiens before, and I long preferred their unassuming deliciousness to the over-celebrated froufrou that is the Parisian macaron.  I actually never ate them in Paris, partially because I misunderstood what they were and didn’t think I’d really like them, and partially because I thought the colors everyone loves so much were a little silly.  But somehow I came around.

Spring makes me deliriously happy after spending my first winter above the Mason-Dixon line, so these macarons were an ode to flowers.  As a Floridian, the flowers were, naturally, orange blossoms.  So: orange blossom flavored macarons filled with orange blossom honey jam.

I used Not So Humble Pie’s French meringue macaron recipe with a capful (probably a little over a teaspoon) of orange blossom water mixed in while I was beating the egg whites.  I knew I could get away with that because Alton Brown taught me that you can add a little water to your egg whites for more volume.  I used an oven temperature of about 300F, and I used Bob’s Red Mill almond meal – please don’t even try to use Trader Joe’s (I’ll have to remake the macarons d’Amiens with the Red Mill meal, so much better).  I piped them with a Ziploc bag and a star tip, because it turns out my random assortment of piping tips does not include a large round one.  So they were not quite perfectly smooth, but they were pretty good.  I also didn’t bother to shield them with a sheet pan from getting browned.  They browned a little, and since I didn’t color them, I thought it was a nice peachy tinge.  I am very proud to say that they had lovely feet.  And great height, which of course came along with air bubbles inside.  Whatever.  You can’t even tell when you eat them.  I was super proud.

Assembled macaron
I ate this one after taking this shot.

Now, I have to confess: I tried to make honey buttercream frosting three times before giving up and making honey jam instead.  I’ll write a full post on that so you can learn from my mistakes.  But the honey jam was super easy: just add some water to the honey, and a little lemon juice (which I still suspect of being unnecessary since pectin comes with acid nowadays, but worst case scenario it freshens up the flavor, right?), boil, add pectin, boil a minute more, and you’re done.  I actually have a lot left over despite making about a third of this recipe.  I am not complaining.

They were loved and every last one was eaten.  Ok, I ate the last one.  What?  It’s important to try your own food, so you know what to improve on.  So even though buttercream kicked my butt, I am really proud that I can make macarons.  I feel like I can just whip them up for anything now.

Oh, and a lesson: it really does help to let your egg whites come to room temperature before beating them.  I was never patient enough before, and they will beat cold, but this time I let the whites age overnight and wow, the beating went a lot faster.  I also wait a little longer than most people to add the sugar in, because I find it really hard to get to stiff peaks if I added the sugar as soon as the eggs get frothy.