The May 2010 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a piece montee, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump's Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri.
Okay, May was a challenging month in many respects. In addition to being a co-host for the May Daring Cooks challenge (an exciting but time-consuming endeavor), I fell (sigh) and badly sprained my right hand. This was a serious limitation for the month - very hard to do anything, from typing to stirring. My resident sous chef was called on daily to open cans, slice vegetables and lift things. I was pretty useless. Needless to say, the thought of trying to produce this impressive French pastry was a bit overwhelming. But - optimism triumphed and I plunged in.
Croquembouche is a tower of cream puffs held together with caramel and embellished with caramel or other decorations. Cream puffs - that means piping, right? My favorite activity and I'm so GOOD at it. Actually, I did all right. The weakness in my right hand had abated enough to pipe the puffs and it is amazing how a finger dipped in hot water can repair the occasional flawed puff. I did okay with this part. Yea!
That was day one. Carefully sealing my pate choux (or puffs) away in an airtight contained, I headed for day two with the plan to make the pastry cream. I can do this - no new techniques, have successfully tempered eggs and made custards - no problem! Well, no problem except that batch one turned into a lovely rich, creamy, sweet scrambled egg dish. What was it I said about knowing how to temper eggs? Maybe the milk mixture was not quite hot enough. Try again. Fail again. What's the deal? I know how to do this!!
Now, out of ingredients, I have to regroup. I give up for the day and find a different recipe. David Lebovitz, an American who lives in Paris and does all things dessert with incredible results, has just released a compilation of his favorite and most popular dessert recipes, Ready for Dessert. I find his version of pastry cream, which uses flour instead of cornstarch and takes a slightly different approach to assembling the whole product. New supply of eggs and milk, new recipe - let's try again. And...perfection! A smooth, not too sweet pastry cream. Beautiful texture, delicate flavor - ready to go. I cover and cool it in the refrigerator.
Day four should have been assembly day, but we were out of town, so on to day five. The pastry cream is fine, the caramel is good to go. Unfortunately, the puffs have not held up too well and I'm not prepared to do them again. They are soft instead of crispy and well past their prime. I soldier on. My plan is to stack them in a modified cone with the caramel, decorate with edible flowers and top with a candle (in honor of Bob's birthday which is now over but it is the thought that counts). I manage to create a sort-of tower, shove in the flowers, put the candle on top and rush to take photos. Battery in the camera is dead. Quick search for new battery. Meanwhile, puffs are rebelling and seeking lower ground. Repair. Photo quickly. Total collapse.
Okay - what did I learn? Making pate choux or puffs is not a problem. Making pastry cream with the right recipe is not a problem. Probably better to make the pastry cream first, let it chill overnight and then make the puffs and fill them. The caramel is quick. Honestly - I might do the components again but I would never try to stack them. A bowl with a couple of cream puffs topped with chocolate or caramel makes more sense for us. Even if I had been much more successful with the outcome, I would rather focus on the food than the appearance. I know the "eat with our eyes" adage, but I think a lovely plate with a trio of cream puffs would be more appealing than a tippy tower.
Challenging, yes, but probably more for the construction than for the components. I abandoned the puff and just ate the pastry cream, which was nummers treats!