From the handful of cooking classes I’ve taken, there is one piece of advice that stands out—read a recipe all the way through before getting started, preferably, more than once. Simple enough, and I usually stick to that rule. Usually. Sometimes, time gets the best of me, and reading the recipe turns into more of a quick glance/skim/sure whatever lets get started. And as much as I love all those cute little bowls of pre-measured ingredients on cooking shows, I can’t seem to get past the fact that mise en place usually means sink full of dishes. I may, however, need to rethink my strategy.
My second Daring Bakers challenge did not go quite as smoothly as the first. The May 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. I accidentally left out an ingredient.
I was so excited for this challenge, because I’m leaving for Paris in two days (from the time of writing this), and I’ll actually be in Paris on the reveal date where I’ll desperately seek out an internet café so I can post. A Parisian dessert just in time for Paris—you can’t get much better than that. I was thrilled to be surrounded by expertly made pastries knowing that I’ve at the very least made an attempt to recreate them. And this challenge was definitely a classic that, once mastered, can be used for all sorts of deliciousness.
Since I was so eager to get started, and so pressed for time with the trip coming up and work getting in the way (as seems to be the trend lately), I missed my mis en place. I read the recipe when we received the challenge. Read it again to make sure I had all the necessary ingredients. But somehow, as I was actually making the choux, I skipped sugar. SUGAR?!
Let me first say that the Vanilla Crème Patissiere went smoothly. I used skim milk instead of whole, and it still came out delicious. The Pate a Choux on the other hand was a little off. I followed the directions, mixing the dough on the stove, removing it from the heat. But when it came time to add the eggs, I couldn’t figure out why my batter was so runny (more like pancake batter). That’s when I looked back at the recipe and realized it was the sugar. Two measly tablespoons of sugar! Could they really make that much of a difference? Apparently, yes.
So I added the sugar late in the game and had to add about a cup of extra flour to get the batter to a pipe-able consistency. It was an attempt. I had to press forward, because I simply didn’t have the time to start over from scratch before the trip. I put the choux in the oven, and hoped for the best. But I knew that extra flour would mean denser pastry.
In the end, they were denser and less flakey, but they still tasted good. Because of the consistency, I couldn’t pipe the filling into the centers and had to just cut them in half instead. Ultimately, I still managed to build my piece montée.
Next time, I’ll get it right. It was a good attempt, and a good lesson. My guess is that adding the sugar in the earlier stages and heating it with the butter helps the batter to congeal, giving it a thicker consistency for piping. When I get back from Paris, I’ll have to try my hand at round 2, while I can still taste the inspiration of the expert’s pastries. And maybe this time, I’ll reconsider the mise en place.
Piece Montée (Croquembouche)
Adapted from Little Miss Cupcake and Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri
For the Vanilla Crème Patissiere (Half Batch)
1 cup (225 ml.) whole milk (I used skim and it worked fine)
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
6 Tbsp. (100 g.) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp. (30 g.) unsalted butter
1 Tsp. Vanilla
In a small bowl, mix cornstarch in ¼ cup of milk until dissolved. Set aside. 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. Slowly pour about 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, while whisking continuously.
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 or ceramic bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface. Chill immediately and until ready to use. (It is recommended that it be chilled for at least 6 hours or overnight).
For Chocolate Pastry Cream (Half Batch Recipe):
Bring ¼ cup (about 50 cl.) milk to a boil in a small pan; remove from heat and add in 3 ounces (about 80 g.) semisweet chocolate, finely chopped, and mix until smooth. Whisk into pastry cream when you add the butter and vanilla.
For Coffee Pastry Cream (Half Batch recipe)
Dissolve 1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso powder in 1 ½ teaspoons boiling water. Whisk into pastry cream with butter and vanilla.
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.
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.
As you stir, the batter will become dry-looking like lightly buttered mashed potatoes.
It 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. Pipe choux about 1 inch apart 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 container overnight.
When you are ready to assemble your piece montée, use a plain pastry tip to 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.
Use one of these to top your choux and assemble your piece montée.
8 ounces/200 g. finely chopped chocolate (use the finest quality you can afford as the taste will be quite pronounced, semi-sweet is recommended)
Melt chocolate in microwave or double boiler. Stir at regular intervals to avoid burning. Use immediately.
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.
Assembly of your Piece Montée:
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 also use toothpicks to hold them in place).
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. Bon appétit!