Daring Bakers: Piece Montee – Croquembouche

I know it has been a while.  After Shavuoth, work really picked up – think 10-11 hour days of total chaos.  But thank God, the season for the Q1 2010 results reporting is over and we can look forward to a little quiet, and best of all, I can get back to baking!  The end of the month also means Daring Bakers challenges.  This month’s challenge was a croquembouche (literally a crunch in the mouth).  It is basically a stack of pastry cream filled eclairs dipped in chocolate or caramel to hold it together.  I have always wanted to make eclairs and this was the perfect time to do it.

I decided to make the croquembouche for Shavuoth when we would be having 10 people anyway.  Also, J., an avid Top Chef watcher,  was coming and he appreciates what I do.

On Shavuot there is a widespread custom to eat only dairy foods (for many reasons, but one is because they taste so good – there should be at least one holiday when we eat dairy instead of meat!).  So as this was probably my one and only chance for the whole year to make fancy dairy desserts, the croquembouche was not the centerpiece it should have been, but it was delicious anyway.

Melting the butter with the water.

I made the eclairs over the span of a few days.  First making the eclair shells, and the pastry cream.  And then the next day putting everything together.  I’m pretty sure that it was too warm to make this, as my pate a choux kind of spread when I piped it onto the pan.

Eclairs ready for baking.

Either way, they puffed up and got crispy.  I put them in a Ziploc bag overnight because the recipe said that you could store them in an airtight container until you were ready to use them.  This made them soft and I had to recrisp them afterward.

Pastry Cream Filling

I wasn’t sure how to stack the eclairs to make the croquembouche.  Some recommended to use toothpicks to hold the eclairs together.  I didn’t want the toothpicks to show when people started taking off each eclair, so I decided to just let the chocolate that I was using to coat the tops of the eclairs to harden a bit before putting on the next layer.  This way the eclairs would stick to each other.  This worked perfectly and made for great presentation.

The final product - the Piece Montee

I decided to use melted chocolate instead of caramel to dip the eclairs because it would be easier to clean off the pot (sometimes these are important considerations.)

Everyone loved them and they went wonderfully with the mint ice cream that I made – yum!

Recipe:

For the Vanilla 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

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 and beat in the 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.

Preparing batter:
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.

Piping:
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).

Baking:
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 an airtight box overnight.

Filling:
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.

Use one of these to top your choux and assemble your piece montée.

Chocolate Glaze:
8 ounces/200 g. finely chopped chocolate (use the finest quality you can afford as the taste will be quite pronounced; I recommend semi-sweet)

Melt chocolate in microwave or double boiler. Stir at regular intervals to avoid burning. Use the best quality chocolate you can afford. Use immediately.

Hard Caramel Glaze:
1 cup (225 g.) sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice

Combine sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan with a metal kitchen spoon stirring until the sugar resembles wet sand. Place on medium heat; heat without stirring until sugar starts to melt around the sides of the pan and the center begins to smoke. Begin to stir sugar. Continue heating, stirring occasionally until the sugar is a clear, amber color. Remove from heat immediately; place bottom of pan in ice water to stop the cooking. Use immediately.

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. (You may want to use toothpicks to hold them in place).

When you have finished the design of your piece montée, you may drizzle with remaining glaze or use ribbons, sugar cookie cut-outs, almonds, flowers, etc. to decorate. Have fun and enjoy! Bon appétit!

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