My grandma’s piece de resistance is pate a choux (never used so many French words into the same sentence, I swear!): she is famous among our relatives for her choux, since she’s able to bake a whole tray of superb puff pastries all by herself, filling them with amazingly soft pastry cream and dusting them with icing sugar. When she steps into the room proudly bringing her tray of puff pastries, she is like the woman of an old tv advertising, a woman with an apron and a bright smile on her face. This is my grandma, this is my mental image of her: proud yet modest, she brightens up the party with a sweet touch.
Imagine my happiness and excitement when I figured out that this month’s DB Challenge was a Piece montée, also know as Croquembouche, a traditional wedding cake in France, used for baptisms and communions as well. The classic piece montée is a high pyramid/cone made of profiteroles sometimes dipped in chocolate, bound with caramel, and usually decorated with threads of caramel, sugared almonds, chocolate, flowers, or ribbons. Modern pastry chefs have taken to assembling this dessert in all manners of shapes and sizes.
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.
For the Coffee Crème Patissiere (Half Batch)
- 1 cup (225 ml.) whole milk
- 2 Tbsp. cornstarch
- 6 Tbsp. (100 g.) sugar
- 1 large egg
- 2 large egg yolks
- 2 Tbsp. (30 g.) unsalted butter
- 1 Tsp. Vanilla
- 1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso powder
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. Dissolve 1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso powder in 1 ½ teaspoons boiling water. Whisk into pastry cream with 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.
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 (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.
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.
Salted Caramel Glaze
- 100 gr caster sugar
- 50 gr salted butter
- 50 ml whipping cream
Melt caster sugar in a heavy small saucepan with two tablespoons of water, without stirring. Remove from the heat and stir in diced butter: pay attention, it will bubble and it will get firmer. Stir in whipping cream and return to boiling. Boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly until it gets thick and sticky like honey. Remove from heat. Cool completely.
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.