Thursday, May 27, 2010

Croquembouche Maybe

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!

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Challenging Cinco de Mayo

Our hosts this month, Barbara of Barbara Bakes and Bunnee of Anna+Food have chosen a delicious Stacked Green Chile & Grilled Chicken Enchilada recipe in celebration of Cinco de Mayo! The recipe, featuring a homemade enchilada sauce was found on and written by Robb Walsh.

The May Daring Cooks challenge was very special since Barbara and I hosted the challenge. This was quite the undertaking. We agreed to do at the end of last year and started working on it January, exchanging information and drafts via e-mail. Since our challenge ran from April 17 to May 14 and included May 5, Cinco de Mayo, we decided to do a Mexican dish. As it turned out, this was a very popular choice!

Our recipe was stacked chicken enchiladas with a green chile sauce. Above is the photo of the raw ingredients. The little green things with papery husks are tomatillos, an ingredient which is frequently used in Mexican cooking but which is not universally available around the world, as we found out.

Challenges have to be something that stretches the Daring Cooks. We required a homemade sauce. If the ingredients or flavors for the green tomatillo and chile sauce were not available or not something the cook thought would work, any other sauce was an option. People did red sauces, moles, cremas, and some very innovative things with local ingredients (North African sauce, anyone?). While we suggested stacked enchiladas with corn tortillas, people were free to roll their enchiladas or use flour tortillas or even some other substitute if tortillas or the ingredients for making them were not available. We suggested using grilled chicken, but there were beef, black bean and a wide array of other fillings used. And we used Monterey Jack, but there were lots of other cheeses, including Mexican cheeses, that people added to their enchiladas. Recipes are supposed to include variations for vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free cooking. This recipe was really ideal for all that. Corn tortillas for those avoiding gluten; vegetarian fillings for those avoiding meat; cheese optional for the vegans - worked out really well.

The creativity of the cooks was absolutely amazing. And the pictures! As I took my turn commenting on and complimenting those Daring Cooks who posted their results, I was drooling continuously. So many intriguing combinations, interesting marinades and solutions to problems finding ingredients - truly inspirational.

This was my final product and it was just as good as the first time I made this recipe years ago. I added some chipotle Tabasco sauce to the chicken, along with salt, pepper and some cumin, making the heat in the dish slightly more pronounced. The roasted chiles and tomatillos make a really succulent and spicy sauce. Below is a picture I "borrowed" from Barbara of the chiles as they went from raw to roasted. Mine looked pretty much the same, but her picture was better (thanks, Barbara).

From the comments we received, I think the Daring Cooks really enjoyed this challenge. For many of them, it was an introduction to Mexican cooking; for others, it was a chance to try something new. And, as might be expected, there were also a few mentions of margaritas on the menus!

My very special thanks to Barbara, without whom I could not have done this. She not only has an incredible blog to showcase her creative culinary endeavors, she is a master of the world of blog technicalities and dealt with the links, the pictures and the formatting. Plus her pictures were really good and she has an eye for detail. I think we were a good team and I'm very proud of our efforts.