Yummmmm. And faaaaaiiiiilll. Those are the two words that sum up my experience with this month’s Daring Bakers Challenge. I sat out last month, because the recipe called for suet, and even though we could use substitutions, just the word “suet” freaked me out enough to turn away. But this month, oh, this month I was excited! 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. Croquembouche is a gorgeous confectionery tower of puff pastry, vanilla cream, and a crunchy, sugary glaze.
Though we were offered the option to play around with fillings and glazes, I went totally traditional, and I’m glad I did. Even though the glaze was a bitch to make and I failed at it once. But that means I can give you some tips!
The custard came together very quickly and very easily. After my pastry cream disaster from the fruit tart I made, I approached this custard with trepidation. But holy simplicity, Batman! This was so easy and delicious that I think I might have a go-to recipe for custard in the future. Or at least custard that requires some substance, like the kind you need to fill a tart shell and support a load of berries.
After whipping up the custard, I was feeling a little cocky, all “Bring it on, pate a choux! Ain’t nothing I can’t do now!”
And that didn’t last very long. Herein we encounter my first fail. The choux batter is supposed to be thick enough that, when piped, it holds its own little inch-high blob shape. Mine… oozed into silver dollar pancakes. I had to have Terwilliger help me pour the batter into a pastry bag, an event that turned into a mess of such epic proportions that I should have realized sooner that something was amiss.
So I piped the oozing batter into oozing circles on the baking sheet and gave it the ol’ college try. When they didn’t rise at all and I was left with wee little hollow pancakes, I threw away the rest of the batter and started over, reading the recipe more carefully this time.
I’m honestly not sure what I did wrong — I measured everything correctly and used the right amount of eggs, but I have a hunch the disaster occurred because I missed a step. Yeah. That’ll do it.
See, with this pastry dough, you bring water, sugar, a pinch of salt, and some butter to a boil, then you stir in flour. Then you return the mixture (which totally resembles play-doh, by the way) to the heat and cook it for a little while longer to dry it out. That’s what I forgot to do.
My next batch was more successful, even if the puffs did look like Smurf hats. But at least they rose to an appropriate puff-like height!
After my puffs were all ready to go, I got to work on the caramel, which, as I mentioned before, was a pain in the ass. The first caramel recipe I tried was just too thick and candy-like. This might be because I walked away and putzed around on the internet while the sugar was cooking, and when I came back it was sliiiiiightly darker than it probably should have been. So yeah, I pretty much cooked it into candy. But anyway, I tried another recipe from my reliably perfect friend Martha Stewart and had much better luck with that.
Assembling the croquembouche was the best part! First I did a trial run with the dry, unfilled puffs and was pleased to find that the basic stacking skills I learned in kindergarten were still in tact. The puffs actually nestle into each other quite naturally, so it was easy to find the most practical pattern for building skyward. I didn’t have that many puffs, so my final piece was relatively small, but I was still delighted with it.
Also, stuffing the puffs with pastry cream was super fun. I’ve never pumped filling into a dessert before, and it was strangely satisfying feeling the little puff plump up all heavy with custard. You just press a pastry tip into the bottom of the puff and squeeze, and that’s all there is to it! Except when you squeeze too much and send a geyser of custard out through a weak spot in a puff. Don’t do that.
After the puffs were filled, the rest of it was just brick-and-mortar. I started with a flower of puffs, then dipped the bottom of each consecutive puff in the caramel sauce and stuck it in place. The caramel was a perfect glue. And because it started to harden just a bit toward the end, I was able to create some pretty little wisps of sugar just by pulling a caramel-coated spoon around the pastry tower.
That said, I do think that if I were to make this again, I’d prefer a slightly wetter version of caramel, one that could function more as a thin glaze for all the puffs instead of as candy-glue for the just the bottoms. But that’s a small gripe. Overall, this was incredibly fun to put together, and it wasn’t all that difficult or time consuming.
Oh, you want to know what it tastes like? Let me say again that the custard is heaven on a spoon, and tucked inside the lightest little pastry puffs sitting on a slate of caramelized sugar, it’s even better.
Here’s the lowdown on how to make this recipe. Be sure to check out the Daring Bakers website for more details and lots of other photos. Thanks to Cat for picking a recipe that’s as much fun to assemble as it is to eat!
Croquembouche has three main components — the pate a choux (puff pastry — the same stuff that makes up eclairs and profiteroles and their ilk), the custard, and the caramel. We’ll start with the custard, which — heads up — has to chill for at least six hours:
1 cup milk (I used 1%)
2 T. cornstarch
6 T. (100 g.) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 T. (30 g.) unsalted butter
1 tsp. vanilla
Dissolve cornstarch in 1/4 cup of milk and set aside. In a saucepan, combine the remaining 3/4 cup milk with the sugar and bring it to a boil. Once boiling, remove from heat.
Beat the whole egg into the cornstarch-milk mixture, then beat in the yolks. Pour a third of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly so that the eggs do not begin to cook.
Return the remaining milk to the heat and bring to a boil. Pour in the hot egg mixture in a stream, whisking all the while. Keep whisking steadily until the cream thickens and comes to a boil. Remove from heat and beat in the butter and vanilla.
Using a spatula, scrape the cream into a stainless steel or ceramic bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface and chill immediately. Leave in fridge until ready to use.
On to the pate a choux:
3/4 cup water
6 T. (85 g.) unsalted butter
1 T. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup (125 g.) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
For egg wash: one egg beaten with a pinch of salt
Pre-heat oven to 425F. 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. Once it boils, remove from heat and stir in the flour until assimilated.
*Return the mixture 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 for one minute to cool slightly.
Stir in 1 egg. The batter will get all loose and shiny. As you stir, it will start to come together and look kind of like mashed potatoes. Now it’s time to add the second egg. Repeat this until you have added all the eggs.
Transfer the batter to a pastry bag fitted with a large open tip. Pipe batter into 1-inch-round blobs onto the baking sheets, space about 1 inch apart. Dip your finger in water and gently tamp down any prominent tips, being careful not to squish the dough too much. Brush the tops of each puff with egg wash.
Bake the choux at 425 degrees until they puff up and are getting slightly golden-colored, about 10 minutes. Drop the heat to 350F and continue baking for another 20 minutes, or until the puffs are a rich golden color. Remove to a rack and cool. These can be stored in a airtight box overnight, if you wish.
When you are ready to assemble your masterpiece, fill a pastry bag with the custard. Using a plain pastry tip, pierce the bottom of each puff and fill the choux, then place on a paper-lined baking sheet. The choux can be refrigerated for a few minutes while you make your caramel glaze.
And finally, the caramel — Martha’s recipe:
1 cup (225 g.) granulated sugar
2 T. water
1 tsp. lemon juice
First, prepare an ice-water bath and keep it close by. Combine sugar, water, and lemon juice in a saucepan. Place over medium heat and cook without stirring until sugar begins to melt, about 5 – 6 minutes. Raise the heat to high and cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar syrup turn an amber color, about another 5 – 6 minutes. (You might wonder why it’s taking so damn long as you gaze at your plain old clear syrup, but have faith — it will start to color soon enough.) Remove caramel from heat and immediately set bottom of pan in ice-water bath for a few seconds to stop the sugar from cooking further. Now use it to assemble your croquembouche.
I’m going to leave the assembly up to you — check out the Daring Bakers site for tips, or just wing it with a plate and a vision. I have faith in you. All you need to remember is to use your caramel as glue. Delicious, sweet, messy glue that is extremely hot, so be careful!