May 27, 2010

The Daring Baker Challenge May2010: piece montée

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 this on the forum of the Daring Bakers I thought "Yuhuu! A Croquembouche! My second DB Challenge is going to be even more exciting than the first one". That's because this challenge gave me an excuse to make a dessert that I always wanted to make but for which I never really found the right occasion. The classic piece montée is a high pyramid/cone made of profiteroles (cream-filled puff pastries) sometimes dipped in chocolate, bound with caramel, and usually decorated with threads of caramel, sugared almonds, chocolate, flowers, or ribbons.  More than the Croquembouche itself, the excitement for me was to try to make the pate a choux myself, because it’s the basis of marvelous French desserts such as Eclaires, Profiteroles, and many others. I really, really, really wanted to succeed in the pate a choux making, more than in the assemblage of the Croquembouche. Maybe it was because this was the spirit with which I started this challenge that things went they way they went…

The weekend after the challenge was posted I was already in front of the stoves with all the ingredients for the pate a choux, ready to start. The making of the Croquembouche consists of three steps. The first one is making the pate a choux. Here is the recipe that Cat provided us (one of the requirements of the challenge was to strictly follow this recipe):
Pate a Choux
(Yield: About 28)
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.
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.
t 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.

I have to say: I’ve never been happier to be “forced” to stick to a recipe. I always have the tendency to change something, even a little something, but this recipe was simply perfect! Pate a choux is one of those recipes that I have always thought was way too complicated and refined for me…something only professionals or very gifted people could make. Instead, this part of the challenge was a great boost to my self-esteem. It came out perfect at the first try. I have found the perfect pate a choux recipe on the first attempt! What a blast.

The second step was to make the creme patissiere. Cat let us choose the flavor of the creme patissiere and I had no doubts: I have been having some strong cravings for coffee-flavored desserts lately so the idea of making a coffee cream came immediately to my mind.

Here again is the recipe she gave us:

Vanilla Crème Patissiere
Makes half batch

1 cup (225 ml.) whole milk
2 tbsp cornstarch
6 tbsp (100 gr) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks

2 tbsp (30 gr) 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 Coffee Pastry Cream: dissolve 1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso powder in 1 ½ teaspoons boiling water. Whisk into pastry cream with butter and vanilla.

when you are ready to assemble your piece montée, using a plain pastry tip, pierce the bottom of each choux. Fill the choux with pastry cream using either the same tip or a star tip, and place on a paper-lined sheet. Choux can be refrigerated briefly at this point while you make your glaze.

The third step, the “evil step” I would like to call it, is making the caramel glaze and assembling the whole thing

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.
Once you are ready to assemble your piece montée, dip the top of each choux in your glaze, 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. When you have finished the design of your piece montée, you may drizzle with remaining glaze or use ribbons, sugar cookie cut-outs, almonds, flowers, etc. to decorate.
Here I have to say, I did a big mistake. I did not look carefully into the instructions on how to make the cone and I ended up making a bit of a mess. But that was not the “evil” part. The evil was the caramel. I was immerging the tip of one puff pastry into the caramel when it slipped out of my hands and in catching it I put my fingers on the suuuuuper hot caramel. I burnt the tips of my finger soooooo badly that I had to stay with my hand into iced water for almost half an hour. Needless to say, my fingers were hurting so much that I wasn’t even able to continue assembling the tower. I had to hurry so much that the result was not really a stable, high tower L The other result: my finger tips still have the marks of the burns after 3 weeks! I definitely have an unfinished business with caramel!

By the way, despite the bad assemblage the puff pastries were delicious, so in any case I can say that the burns were worth it!

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