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.
Here's the recipe.
And here is the rest of it.
I've made plenty of pate a choux and have helped build a croquembouche, but this was my first solo attempt at building one, and it was a lot of fun! I only I wish I'd had more time to build it, but as it was, I was able to do a decent job with this as an after-work, workweek dessert.
I didn't have the patience or time to make a traditional conical piece, so I want Egyptian and built a pyramid. There's a treasure in there somewhere! And it's vanilla flavored. Mmm.
-Mixing pate a choux is the fastest way to end up with one big, muscular arm. I recommend working out for a minimum of two weeks before attempting this project, and learning to be ambidextrous so both arms increase at the same rate.
-Don't taste the pastry cream beforehand. This is the best pastry cream recipe I've had, and it was only through great restraint that I was able to avoid eating a big bowl of pudding before I needed to fill my pufs.
-Rethink adding red food coloring to your caramel, because it may look uncannily like burnt caramel. As long as it doesn't taste like burnt caramel, though, you can just call it a neat trick.
-Remember--making small puffs doesn't give you an excuse to eat more of them. Invite friends over the night you make your dessert--I did, and we cleaned the plate without feeling guilty. Besides, eating big cream puffs often leads to embarrassment--smaller ones allow you to huff the cream into your mouth before it plops out and onto your good shoes. The grandeur in the piece comes from the structure, not puffs the size of your fist.
-In all seriousness, oven temps are crucial--the high beginning temp ensures maximum puff as the air inside the batter expands and delivers some balloon octane. You want puffs, not skipping stones. Along the same lines, watch your clock with the second phase of baking--make sure you leave your puffs in the 350-degree oven long enough to dry, and this will ensure your shells stay nice and crispy, even if you don't fill them until the next day.
-I used cane sugar for my caramel--it was hard to track how amber it became because it already had a darker tinge to it, so I pulled the pot just shy of when I thought it might need, and it turned out fine. If you can't tell, trust your nose here. If it smells like burnt sugar, toss the batch--it will definitely taste like burnt sugar, and not in that nice creme brulee way.
-On a tangent, there are two easy ways to clean sugar out of your pot if you don't think your dishwasher can handle it (e.g., you have an inch of sugar stuck in the bottom of your pot). Just fill the pot with water, and the sugar will dissolve on its own, or put a few inches of water in the pot and boil the sugar out. Don't submerge the hot pot in water--you'll come away with the most memorable and sweet-smelling steam bath EVAR.
-Use patience when roping your caramel around your piece, or at least more patience than I did. Draw your strands up long and slow, and you'll come away with thicker rope as opposed to drizzles like I did; in all honesty, I just wanted to get the piece done before the sun set, and fortunately, I like the way it turned out, but some people want a more refined, uniform look. That takes refined, uniform behavior. ;)
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