Une Pièce Montée, aka Croquembouche, aka Espresso Cream Puffs, aka I did a Daring Bakers' Challenge! Kind of.

Of course, I completed this challenge about 5 months later than everyone else, but still! The Daring Bakers' Challenge is something that I eye with intrigue all the time, but for right now, it's not all that realistic for me to get involved in. I don't have the spare time, really, to be dedicated, and I have enough trouble with baked goods going to waste even when there's an actual occasion for them. One day, though, I hope to become a part of the fun and creativity. Until then, I'm content to snag some of their awe-inspiring recipes at my own pace, and daringly test them out that way.

I was so proud of myself, waking up at 7am on the morning of Christmas Eve to make these before heading to L's dad's house for some festivities. Step number one, the pastry cream, went swimmingly and I popped that into the fridge to chill without issue. The pate a choux itself was nerve-wracking in that they seemed très flat for an unsettling period of the baking process, but puffed up beautifully in the end. Some of them stuck to the baking sheet so upside-down they resembled popovers more than what I would imagine should be a fillable pastry, but I worked with it and it's really not a big deal. Then, I took a break to let them cool. With just a half hour or so remaining, I assembled them and turned to step three: the salted caramel glaze. These were measured in grams and milliliters, so I did a little conversion and then went on my merry way. Melt the sugar and butter you say? No problem. Whisk, whisk, whisk, you say? Easy as pie. Whisk, whisk, whisk until the mixture is thick as honey? Um...how does "thick like marshmallow fluff" sound to you? The same? Yes? No? So I whisked away, and finally gave up and poured it into a bowl, as the instructions stated. And while I nursed my poor arm after all of that whisking, I looked over at the bowl to find....clumpy, lumpy, very-un-glaze-like crumbles of milk, sugar, and butter. Not usable at. all.

So, maybe I'm not quite a Daring Baker yet. I didn't have time to try again, so I just melted sugar in a saucepan to make a very simple caramel, and drizzled it over the top of the pastries. Maybe it was lacking a certain depth of flavor, but if so, this "weak" attempt at a croquembouche is mighty tasty. I'm so happy with the results that I don't find myself mourning the loss of the salted aspect of the caramel glaze at all. It was elegant, appropriately portioned, different from all of the pies and cookies you typically find at a Christmas gathering, and very, very doable. I post this now because, although the holidays have just passed, I think it would make a fantastic dessert for any New Year's celebrations you have in mind. It's also infinitely adaptable, from the type of cream you use to the flavors in the glaze - even the design you use to assemble the finished product can be as traditional or as wacky as you like. It went over so well with everyone who tried it, and I will definitely be making it again. And again. And again....

Pièce Montée/Croquembouche, with a Caffeinated Twist, courtesy of The Daring Bakers and, more specifically, Juls' Kitchen
Yield: 28 pastries (I halved it and got around 15)

The Ingredients - The Pastry Cream
1 cup (225 milliliters) whole milk
2 tablesoons corn starch
6 tablespoons (100 grams) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons (30 grams) unsalted butter
(I used salted and it was fine)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
(I used 1.5x the amount of instant coffee powder)

The Method
Dissolve the cornstarch into 1/4 of the milk. Beat the whole egg, followed by the egg yolks, into this mixture, and set aside. Dissolve the espresso powder into 1 1/2 teaspoons of boiling water, and set aside as well. Meanwhile, combine the rest of the milk with the sugar in a small-medium saucepan. Bring the sugar mixture to a boil, and then remove from the heat.

Pour approximately 1/3 of the boiling milk into the egg mixture, whisking non-stop to prevent the eggs from cooking. Return the remaining milk in the saucepan and bring to a boil once more in order to add in the egg mixture in a steady stream, whisking all the while. Continue whisking, without stopping, until the mixture thickens and comes to a boil. At this point, remove it from the heat. Whisk the espresso mixture, vanilla, and butter into the cream until it has become fully incorporated.

Immediately pour the cream into a stainless steel or ceramic bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and chill until ready to assemble the pastries.

The Ingredients - Pate a Choux
3/4 cup (175 milliliters) water
6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
(omitted, as I used salted butter)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs

The Method
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit (220 Celsius) and line two baking sheets with parchment paper (aha! that would be the step I missed - seriously do this in the hopes of preventing the bottomless pastries I by-and-large had).

Add the water, butter, salt, and sugar in a medium saucepan placed over medium heat. Bright the mixture to a boil, stirring every so often. Once it reaches a boil, remove it from the heat and sift in the flour; I found it easiest to have the flour pre-measured and the sifter handy. Stir to incorporate the flour, and then return to the heat while stirring constantly. The batter will begin to dry out and pull away from the sides of the pan. When this happens, transfer to a bowl and stir with a wooden spoon for about a minute, allowing it to cool slightly.

Add one egg and begin to stir. At first, the batter will look loose and shiny, but as you stir the egg in to become more and more incorporated, the batter will take on a drier appearance that resembles butttered mashed potatoes. Only at this point, add the second egg, and repeat until all of the eggs are incorporated in this fashion.

Transfer the batter to a pastry bag fitted either with a large open tip or without a tip at all (I used a plastic bag - really need a set of pastry bags). Pipe the batter into 1" wide by 1" heigh discs, spread about 1" apart from each other. Dip your finger in hot water and gently press down on any tips or lumps that you see, creating as smooth pastries as possible. Brush the tops with an egg wash of 1 egg lightly beaten with a pinch of salt - I also forget about this, and think it came out fine, but maybe it'll knock your socks off if you include it. I'll definitely be trying it next time.

Bake the choux until they puff up and begin to turn a golden color, around 10 minutes. At this point, lower the temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius) and continue to cook until dry and "well-colored," which I took to mean a deeper gold bordering on nicely browned. For me, this happened after about 8-10 minutes, but the recipe approximates it to take about 20. So keep an eye on it. Remove them to a rack and cool; I transferred them from the baking sheet here. These can be stored in an airtight container overnight.

When you're ready to finish up the recipe and assemble your pièce montée, first make a few trial designs to know exactly how each piece stacks. The recipe suggests going more in-depth with this process, tracing out a circle to use as a guide and really keeping track of it. I didn't have the time for this, so I just found out which ones worked the best on each layer. Once this is done, get ready to fill the pastries.

I left my icing gun in my apartment, so I had absolutely no tools to fill the pastries the way the recipe instructs. So, I slit the top of the pate a choux and used a plastic bag to pipe the cream into it. However, if you have the necessary tools (a bag or gun with a plain pastry tip), I'd follow the recipe: pierce the bottom of each choux with the tip to make a hole; fill the pastry with the cream; and place on a paper-lined sheet. Either set aside or refrigerate briefly while you proceed to step 3: the dreaded caramel glaze (dun dun dun...)

The Ingredients - The Salted Caramel Glaze*
100 grams caster sugar (yes, I used regular; no, I did not even food process it because, frankly, I meant to do it ahead of time and then didn't, and did not have the time once I remembered)
50 grams salted butter, diced
50 milliliters whipping cream

*Note: because my glaze turned out as such an epic failure, I will not tell you the ratios I used, as they would be no help to you at all. Perhaps my error was in the caster sugar substitute, or the conversion into tablespoons and cups. I don't know, but I have a feeling it was my ratios.

The Method
Combine the caster sugar in a small saucepan along with two tablespoons of water, allowing it to melt without stirring. Remove this from the heat and stir in the butter. Pay attention here! The mixture should start to bubble at this point, and it will get firmer. Warning sign number one for me was when this did not happen.

Stir in the cream and return it to the heat, allowing it to come to a boil again. Boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly until it gets thick and sticky like honey. Again, this never happened for me, even after 5 minutes post-boil of constant stirring. However, when you presumably complete this step more successfully than I did, remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool completely.**

Now you're ready to assemble your pièce montée. Dip the top of each choux in your caramel, being careful as it may not be completely cool yet (even though the last step does tell you to cool completely - I guess it takes into account that many of us, ahem, are not quite that patient), and slowly begin to build your mountain of delicious pastries. The glaze will harden and act as a binder to hold the design together. Rather than dipping the pastries, I merely assembled one layer, drizzled the glaze over it, and then assembled the next one and repeated. My glaze solidified rapidly since I used straight sugar, so I needed to work quickly and employed the help of Mama Floptimism, gratefully.

Once finished, it should be kept cool because of the cream, although the recipe doesn't specify how to store the finished product. I would guess this means that it should be served shortly upon completion; mine stayed at room temperature until I got ready to go and then drove to Papa L's house, then it went into the garage until dessert. It was perfectly fine this way, and I have a few leftovers that I put in the fridge and they seem to be holding up alright, too. Just don't keep them too long - any cream-based dessert has a relatively short life span.

**Note: If your caramel glaze fails as irreparably as mine did, simply place a decent amount of sugar (maybe 1/4 cup) in a clean saucepan and melt it over medium-low heat, tipping the pan to move it around occasionally. Again, this solidifies quickly so be ready to move straight into assembly mode, but it works beautifully and adds a very nice crunch to an otherwise soft and creamy dish. Maybe no salt, but if you're missing that, a little sprinkling of sea salt could be a very nice touch.

And now, there's a near blizzard outside, which means it's a very nice day for hot chocolate, left over treats from the weekend's festivities, and some good, sappy movies. Shouldn't things like bills and rent checks just disappear on days like this? I think so. I hope that everyone caught in this mess is safe and sound, and that everyone who celebrated had a wonderful Christmas. Happy, Merry!

  • Digg
  • Del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS


Post a Comment