The May 2010 Daring Bakers' Challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a Piece Montee or a Croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump's Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri.
A Croquembouche is basically a tower of cream puffs held together with spun sugar or chocolate or a combination of both. There are 3 components to this challenge: 1) the pate a choux (the pastry or "puff" component; 2) the creme patissiere (the custard filling); and 3) the glaze used to mount and decorate (i.e. the caramel/spun sugar or chocolate).
When tackled individually, none of these components is particularly difficult, however when you think about the project as a whole, it is can definitely be time consuming and tedious work. I did a lot of reading about this dessert, from all tips posted on the Daring Kitchen, to Martha Stewart to my Baking Illustrated book. The biggest hurdle by far for me to overcome was timing. If you use spun sugar (sugar melted into a caramel sauce that hardens and is the ideal glue for the 'tower'), refrigerating it is not an option. The moisture from the fridge would compromise the caramel thereby compromising the structure of your tower. In fact, refrigerating the puffs after they were filled was not recommended unless it was for a very short period of time; as the puffs would lose their crisp exterior, rendering them mushy. So ideally, this is a dessert you would assemble just prior to eating. This posed a major problem for me as our entertaining schedule was set for the month of May and I simply did not have the time to make this when we had people over to enjoy it.
Initially I had rather grandiose plans that entailed using both the spun sugar and chocolate to decorate and I wanted to unveil it to my guests at my Mother's Day dinner. This did not happen. The following weekend was spoken for and the next thing I knew it was 2 days before the challenge deadline and I had not even begun. So, in the end, I opted out of the spun sugar, although I would have loved to tackle that, and decided to use chocolate as my "glue". Sadly, I pretty much threw this together halfheartedly, as I knew that there would be no one to share it with, other than my husband who does not eat sweets and my 2 children, who are picky eaters and prefer a bowl of marshmallows to cream puffs. It felt like a crime against the Croquembouche, which is a lovely dessert and definitely a show-stopper. But you really want to make it when you have plenty of time and a captive audience - I had neither. I refused, however, to not participate, and so here is my sadly uninspired rendition.
I started by piping the choux pastry onto parchment lined baking sheets.
Pressed down the pointed tops using fingers dipped in egg wash. Then brushed each pastry with egg wash.
Baked until golden brown.
Once cooled, pierced each puff with tip of squeeze bottle and filled with pastry cream. I chose to make the basic vanilla pastry cream, and used vanilla bean.
Dipped each cream puff into bowl of melted milk chocolate.
Began assembling "tower" - but mine was more of a "pile". I used toothpicks because the chocolate wasn't setting fast enough.
And finally, I took one off the top and tried it. It was delicious - although slightly anticlimactic, having no interested parties to share in my delight.
Thanks Cat for a great challenge. This one was definitely off the beaten path.