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:
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.
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.
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.
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.