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Piece Montée, Crunch in the Mouth, Croquembouche!

So I joined The Daring Bakers!  It’s an online group of bloggers who issue and participate in a challenge each month.  There are rules and expectations, some people follow them, some use them more as rough guidelines…and lastly, everyone posts about the project on their own blogs the same day.

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.

So croquembouche.  Yeah…never thought I would be making one of these…which is a good part of the reason that I joined Daring Bakers.  I’m a little picky.  Everyone has their favorites, their fall-backs, their ruts.  Everyone can use an excuse to go beyond the recipes they lean towards.  I set out to make the whole shebang on a Sunday – yeah…that did not happen.

So I started with the custard – ’cause I had everything I needed to make it right then…and it needed to chill in the fridge before piping it into the puffs.  (recipe is posted below) Custard made on Sunday – and puffs made on Tuesday.

1/4 cup of milk is mixed with cornstarch…and the rest of the milk is mixed with sugar and heated on the stove.

Whole eggs are beaten into the milk and cornstarch mixture.

Then yolks are added – it is custard, after all.

Now is when things start to get dicey…and you start wishing that you had paid attention during those Patisserie classes, and you are crossing your fingers that you don’t scramble the eggs…as starting over at this point would bite!

You take the heated milk mixture off the burner and add some of it to the egg mixture…stirring constantly to avoid a chunky scrambling disaster…but this is not the crux yet.

*note – things were moving fast and stirring could not be stopped…so there are a few missing pictures.

Next, you add all the egg mixture back into the hot saucepan full of still-very-warm milk…and stir like crazy.  In my head –  I was thinking – okay…not so bad, I’m making custard…look at me go.  Then it was – wow…I’m really hot and sweating, is it done yet…?  It this thick enough…?  Oh god – how will I know when it is done enough…if my custard doesn’t set – croquembouche is a pipe(ing) dream.  Then…all of a sudden…and I mean SUDDENLY…I had custard.  It was thick and needed NO more heat.

You take it off the heat…once it has thickened…and hopefully not scrambled or burned…and quickly stir in butter and vanilla!  Whew!

I’ll admit…it is not the smoothest custard ever made – but taste was not sacrificed in the least.  Cover it and throw it in the fridge.

For the Vanilla Crème Patisserie
2 cup whole milk
4 Tbsp. cornstarch
12 Tbsp. sugar
2 large egg
4 large egg yolks
4 Tbsp. (30 g.) unsalted butter
2 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, and remove from the heat.  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/scramble) until the cream thickens and comes to a boil.  This can happen very quickly – not a good time to step away from the stove…or even look away.  Remove from heat and beat in the butter and vanilla.

Pour custard into a glass bowl.  Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface.  Chill immediately and until ready to use.

On to the Pâte à Choux

Start with butter, salt, sugar and water.

Once the butter has melted and the water is boiling, add in the sifted flour while continuing to stir with a wooden spoon. Continue  cooking the mixture until it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.

I’ve completed the next steps in my Kitchenaid mixer…but decided I would follow the recipe provided to the letter…so it was time for an arm workout.  The dough gets dumped into another bowl…mainly so the hot pan doesn’t immediately cook the eggs.

Add one egg at a time and fully incorporate it into the dough before adding another egg.  It’s also important to consider how big your eggs are…if using large or extra-large eggs, I would recommend adding just a touch more flour.  Otherwise your dough can end up a little runny.

While mixing, you might feel like it will never mix together and like it is a sloppy eggy mess…keep mixing.  It will come back together.

Fill piping bag (no tip necessary – and a Ziploc with the end cut off works just as well).

I piped just enough batter out to make small puffs – about one and a half times around.  The exact form is not super critical, as they sort of melt before puffing up from all the moisture in the batter as it converts to steam.

Since I had two trays in the oven at a time, I switched them halfway through cooking.  It should also be noted that this is one of those recipe’s where the oven temperature needs to be reduced 10 minutes into cooking – don’t forget.

It’s easy to think that you can pull these out of the oven before the timer dings…don’t be fooled.  They must stay in the oven long enough to dry out a bit and this is important for two reason.  One – they will sink like soufflé if they have not been cooked long enough…and Two – you’re filling them with custard…and no one likes a soggy mushy cream puff!

Pate a Choux (Yield: About 40)
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.

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. Consistency is important.

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).

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.

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.

I planned my first layer before filling them, and used wax paper to make sure I ended up with a clean area around my finished ‘bouche.

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 dark chocolate – I used a 72% cacao chocolate)

Melt chocolate in microwave or double boiler. Stir at regular intervals to avoid burning. Use the best quality chocolate you can afford. Use immediately – although I didn’t have any trouble with it hardening up.

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 bottom of each choux in your glaze (careful it may be a little 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.

At this point, I was excited that my structure was holding, and decided I should take a break and let the chocolate harden a bit before continuing – I managed to catch a few minutes of Glee…thank goodness…and thank goodness for hulu.


Now, croquembouche are typically french wedding cakes and at least I was not under the pressure of presenting this at someone’s wedding…yikes.  It (or my version of it) is not the most elegant…but after taste-testing time after time after time (I ate at least 9 cream puffs at work – for the sake of research of course)…they were damn good!  I would make these again…just maybe without the design and engineering effort!  Can you croque…and bouche…?  🙂

Stay tuned for a Daring Cooks post in the next few weeks!

Lowcountry Fare & an Alligator

I traveled to Charleston, South Carolina at the beginning of the month…and after all the hoopla of getting tickets and registered for a training and all the planning that goes into a last-minute business trip…I took a breath and realized something.  This trip would be my first south of the Mason Dixon line and actually south of the DC.

Now, software training is not the most invigorating reason for travel…but what I did not realize was the multitude of joints, cafe’s, restaurants, crab shacks, bars, and dining venues that would be available to me in the city of Charleston.  We were bound by a shuttle to downtown from our hotel on Daniel Island and i should admit that two nights (forgive me)…we gave in to eating at the locale 50 steps away.  It’s not that this place in particular was bad, more that it is used to having a captive audience, has a strong pirate theme…like it feels like you’re on an old wooden boat and mostly, it is just nothing incredibly special.

So we went out.  We ventured and explored and took indecisiveness to a new level.

We wanted to eat here.

This place looked amazing.

We explored this store…I love kitchen supply shops!

We almost ate here…but the wait was 30 minutes for the patio.

Our first evening, we (finally) settled on this place.

Our indecision resulted in a time crunch and desperate hunger.  However, the requirements were seafood and sitting outside…as even at 7:45 pm, it was still 85° and muggy. We shared everything – calamari, steamed mussels and the local favorite – she crab soup.

The soup is similar to a bisque made with lady crab parts and roe, lots of heavy cream and finished with some dry sherry.  We found it on almost every menu we perused.


A few nights later we ventured into Charleston once again. Wandering the streets, we marveled at how all the shops closed by 5 pm sharp and how wonderful the night air smelled…with a hint of the ocean.

This place caught our eye – or Sangria caught our eye…one or the other.

I could have ordered at least 7 different things on the menu…we went with two.

Tomato Bread with Melted Fontina Cheese.

Sweet and Sour Shrimp served playfully in a takeout box with pickled carrots and a lightly sweet dipping sauce.

We wandered again, not completely full, but hoping for a pleasant walk and perhaps another interesting find.

Amen Street

I do love me a good gin and tonic!

That’s right…you’re looking at fried green tomatoes with a shrimp salad with a side of hot and sour okra and on the far right plate…shrimp ‘corndogs’ served with Carolina mustard and gherkins!

All of it was amazing.  I would travel back to Charleston…just for the chance to sample a few more of the restaurants and explore more deeply.  I was quite charmed.

It would not have been a complete trip without seeing one of these either…

Baking Powder Biscuits

If you ever spent the night at my house when I was in high school…chances are these biscuits look familiar.  They were a standard on weekdays and weekends growing up…and a favorite of friends of mine and my siblings.  A stop by parents always meant chocolate chip cookies (afternoon) or baking powder biscuits (morning).  Who doesn’t need another quick breakfast in their repertoire?

Baking Powder Biscuits

2            cups       flour
1            Tbsp.     sugar
4            tsp.        baking powder
1/2         tsp.        salt
1/2         tsp.        cream of tartar
1/2         cup         vegetable shortening (Crisco)
2/3         cup         milk

Preheat oven to 425°F.  Place a sheet of parchment paper on a cookie sheet.  In a large bowl combine dry ingredients and stir to mix.  Cut in shortening ‘til mixture resembles coarse meal.  Add the milk all at once and stir with a fork just until dough forms a ball.  Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead 14 times.  Pat (or roll) until ½ in. thick.  Cut into rounds with cookie cutter size of your choice.  Place on cookie sheet, spaced out or next together.  Bake 15-20 minutes until lightly browned.

It’s surprisingly tricky to photograph all white ingredients in a white bowl….note to self – add in some color next time!  Clockwise from bottom left: flour, sugar, salt, milk, cream of tartar, Crisco, and baking powder.

Sift the dry ingredients together.

Add in the shortening.

Cut together using a pastry cutter or two forks.  You want pea size pieces of shortening coated in the dry ingredients.  When the biscuits bake, the shortening melts in and makes the biscuits flaky and delicious.

Add the milk all at once and stir together with a fork, just until it comes together.

Toss out on a floured surface or counter top and pat out (or roll if you don’t feel like working that hard) until the dough is 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch thick.  Err on the side of too thick…as thin biscuits turn out like hockey pucks.

I always try to get as many biscuits out of the first roll-out, then I squish all the dough edges back together and pat it out again and cut a few more biscuits.  The only drawback to patting out a second set is they won’t rise as uniformly.

Best eaten warm and with a homemade jam and some soft sweet butter.

We enjoyed ours with last summer’s strawberry thyme jam.

Dinner last week…

Tamale Pie

Do you ever get those annoying pantry moths?  They infest your grains, flours, open boxes of cereals and crackers.  I hate these moths.  Mainly because I am never completely sure where exactly they are coming from.  I needed some airtight containers – Oxo now has some great ones that fit in our shockingly skinny pull out pantry drawer.  I’ve purchased some, but when you get right down to it, they are a little pricey – $7.99-$13.99.  I wanted to be sure what I was putting in them before I purchased.  This attempt at planning has resulted in weeks, maybe even months of back and forth from the store trying to remember exactly what size I would need for each item…powdered sugar, corn meal, oats, cornstarch, brown sugar, bread flour, pastry flour, semolina flour and on and on and on.  I digress.

As I was tossing the corm meal box, I noticed a recipe that appealed to my desire to find more casseroles that could be good additions to a dinner rotation during busier times.  I was intrigued.  And we had all the ingredients.

Tamale Pie – cornmeal mixture on the bottom baked for a bit to maintain its integrity.  Piled on top of that is a meat, bean and onion filling, topped with the rest of the cornmeal mixture, sprinkled with cheese until it is hot, melted and bubbly.

I wouldn’t say the dish was spectacular…in fact…it needs work.  But the general idea has promise.  The meat filling was the best component of the dish.  The cornmeal aspect ended up a little thick and just a bit gummy.

ps:  I’ve included the recipe here if you’re so inclined.  Please let me know what you think, or how you doctored it up.

3 Words: Duck. Confit. Pizza.

Let’s be honest…words are really not necessary here.  So I’ll keep it short.  I love pizza.  I feel childish, immature, and a bit like a sheltered and naive teen saying this…as if I was not aware of the culinary adventures that exist out in the big wide world.  But I love pizza.  I’m not even that discriminating.  But the pizza that follows takes it to a ‘whole, ‘nother, level.’  (I’ll be impressed if you caught the MadTV reference!)

Dough recipe is courtesy of my brother…it’s super simple, does not take very long to prepare…and always results in extra thin and crispy pizzas.

Duck confit just waiting to be unearthed from its tomb of fat.  It’s a little buried treasure.

It took some restraint to not eat all the tasty morsels right as I shredded them.

We found some squash blossoms at the farmer’s market the day before, and decided they also belonged on pizza.

Mise en place.  Wild mushrooms – check.  Purple potato – check.  Petite zucchini + blossom – check.  Fresh tomato – check.

If I’ve learned one thing in pizza making…you should always start with a basic pizza.  You can make sure the pizza stone is hot enough, the dough is rolled thin enough…and it makes everybody drool for more.

Yep – there she is.  Duck. Confit. Pizza.

Complete with thinly sliced potato, red onion, wild mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, and topped with lightly dressed spinach.  It was all that we hoped it would be.  The high heat of the oven crisped every confit piece perfectly…reminiscent of bacon!

On to the next one.  Squash + blossom pizza.

Another Duck. Confit. Pizza.

And again…

The crispy crust, and rich duck contrasted nicely with the bite of onion and mellow flavor of the zucchini.

Yep, you guessed right…another duck confit pizza.

This was the last one.  Didn’t think Woody and I would eat 6 pizzas…but when there is duck confit involved…what are you going to do?  Seriously.

Good to the last bite.


In the words of my brother…the recipe is as follows:

Thin & Crispy Pizza Dough
2.25 c flour
.5 c water
1 t salt
2 packages yeast
1 egg
.5 t sugar

dissolve sugar in water & add yeast
mix flour, salt & egg in cuisinart, then add water through pouring hole
mix until sticky
put in oiled bowl and let rise at least 2 hours
makes 10-16 pizzas – depending on the size you need.
cook on pizza stone in 450 degree oven

Dinner last week…

Herb Roasted Pork Tenderloin

served with lightly glazed dill carrots and brown rice, barley and radish seeds

Lately, I’ve found myself taking more photos of my food and cooking…many of which don’t deserve a full post with recipe and extensive literary meandering…so I’ve added a new category for just such occasions.  Frankly, if I sat down and wrote a page about everything I ate…I’d never leave the computer.

The above dinner was inspired by a need for some home cooking…at the end of a week in which I hadn’t felt the heat of the stove, heard the sound of vegetables being chopped and the sizzle of something in a pan.  I needed to cook.  We’ve been on the verge of hot weather again…so it was also one last attempt at a meal that just loses its appeal when the thermometer hits 85º.

Herbs from the farmer’s market, lemon juice from our front yard Meyer lemons and garlic were thrown into a mini-cuisinart together with some olive oil for a very fragrant rub/coating.  I seasoned the tenderloin and seared on all sides, then coated it with the herb, lemon, garlic and threw it in the oven to roast.  Meanwhile, steamed some carrots, pulled the lid off, added some honey, salt and pepper and let the water cook off…throw in a hunk of butter and the dill…and poof – glazed carrots!

note:  It was obviously still cold enough to make such a wintry meal…I’m wearing a turtleneck sweater.

While the tenderloin is resting, I made a quick pan sauce using the delicious drippings, some broth, herbs and as always finishing the sauce with some butter.

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