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.
Fancy names aside, this dessert is essentially a tower of cream puffs, held together by caramel or chocolate sauce. It's a traditional French wedding cake where they can be very, very tall and decorated with all sorts of fantastical sugar creations. Spun sugar is very often wrapped around the tower like a fluffy golden shawl.
Unfortunately, I am not an expert in sugar works. My attempt to create a nest of sugar ended in clumps of sugar connected by spindly threads. It was still darn tasty, though.
The challenge has three components: the choux pastry, the pastry cream filling, and the caramel sauce. I was totally confident about the challenge since I've made cream puffs before with surprising success. I even invited people to come watch me assemble the whole thing.
Most of the time when I bake, I'm baking for someone else, like this and this. My personal tastes tend towards the tart and bitter and salty. I like licorice ice cream and dark gingerbread and salty smoky caramel. What I really have a soft spot for, though, are tough, sour fruits that take a bit of coaxing to come out of their shell, like rhubarb (yes it's technically a vegetable), sour cherries, and apricots.
I feel like apricots are not appreciated enough in the states. There's apple pie, peach pie, blueberry pie, but who's heard of apricot pie? Apricots are the darlings of French pastry cooks though (at least it seems that way after reading three Pierre Herme cookbooks). Fresh apricots are meant for buttery pastry, and dried apricots pair wonderfully with chocolate desserts.
I baked up a storm this Sunday, making walnut butter tarts, chocolate tartlets, mango coconut ice cream, and this gorgeous apricot blackberry crisp. While the other three were meant to be shared, the crisp was my private treat. The buttery, nutty topping was a perfect foil for the intensely aromatic and tart (not to mention vibrant!) fruit below.
I can handle tarts, cakes, gelatin, and caramel, and I'm damn proud of my ice cream. But I have a serious handicap. I'm very, very afraid of yeast.
I purchased a bread machine two years ago, after a friend raved about his fluffy, freshly baked loafs. For the initial run, I carefully followed the directions in the manufacturer's manual for basic white bread. I closed the lid and hoped for a puffy, bouncy white loaf. For some reason, my bread came out tough and dense and smelling suspiciously of yeast gone wrong. I made a few more attempts, but every time the bread came out tough as a brick. Maybe it was the yeast, even though I bought fresh packets every time. Maybe it was the humidity in the apartment. Maybe it was the altitude (I lived on the twenty-fourth floor then). Maybe I simply forgot to make an offering to the wild yeast lord.
I've had somewhat better luck with sweet yeast breads. It only took me two attempts before I made respectable cinnamon buns (to the fair, the first time was a total disaster). I still haven't mustered up the courage to tackle kouign amanns, but someday, their salty crunchy caramel goodness shall be mine...
I used to be terrified of making custard. The idea of mixing hot liquid with eggs just sounds like a sure-fire way to end up with egg-drop soup. So, whenever I had to make custard, I would drizzle the hot liquid into the egg yolks ever so slowly, and I used a hand mixer to make sure every hot droplet was distributed into the eggs as quickly as possible. After a couple of successful custards, though, I started getting complacent. I ditched the hand mixer for a whisk and started pouring faster and faster, until...
Yesterday, I totally screwed up a batch of custard. We're talking big time egg-drop soup, pieces-of-coagulated-protein-floating-in-liquid style screwed up. This wake-up call reminded me that cooking is a science, and it requires due attention and care.
That said, I decided to write up some points that I've learned, so you won't make the same mistakes.
The typical custard recipe has the following steps:
1. Heat the liquid (milk, cream, etc) with sugar and flavoring (ex. vanilla) until boiling.
2. Add the hot liquid to beaten egg yolks
3. Cook the mixture over the stove top until "thickened to coat the back of the spoon".
Step #1 is fairly straight forward.
The goal for step #2 is to incorporate the hot liquid into the egg yolks in as gentle and gradual a way as possible, so no bit of egg yolk gets overcooked.
- Add some sugar to the egg yolks before tempering with hot milk/cream. I think it helps to add the sugar to the egg yolks to create some insulation, especially when the pot is heavy and it's easy to slop more than you intended into the eggs.
Even though French pastries get all the spotlight on this blog (okay, most of the spotlight, sometimes I feel perverse and do this), I'm always curious to explore the desserts of other cultures. I stumbled upon a wonderful book at the library a few weeks ago. Dolce Italiano by Gina De Palma, the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo Kitchen, takes you on an amazing cultural journey through Italy. She describes not only the desserts of various regions, but their wine and cheese as well. I tend to read cookbooks for the vicarious pleasure of traveling to other places and pretending I'm living among the locals, rather than to get recipes, so I had a blast with this book. One day, I'll be sipping vin santo in my Tuscan villa, surrounded by my vineyards...
There was a toasted almond gelato recipe in the book that I just had to try*. I wanted to make something refreshing and fragrant, but with enough toasty body to be fulfilling.
This recipe is perfect for someone who likes almonds. For those of you who don't (shame on you), replacing the almonds with hazelnuts, and amaretto with frangelico, would probably yield equally amazing results.
* Okay, so there were other recipes, like fried orange cream and custard donuts, that I wanted to try more. But I know better than to purchase a deep fryer.
Now that my WSET exam is finally over, I can catch up with blogging. No more late-night flashcard making! I don't know how much more geography and region names I could have crammed into my head. (Although I have to admit, I wish I had an iPhone flashcard app back in school. It totally beats lugging a stack of cards everywhere).
This is a cake I made two weeks ago to celebrate the new office move. The new building is decidedly more labyrinthine, I think it was built before people realized that right-angle intersections are a good thing. And don't even get me started on the garage. Let's just say that it's the traditional location for intern puzzle hunts.
On the bright side (no pun intended), I finally get a window view (even if it's through someone else's office).
Let's talk about the cake. The Criollo cake is a multi-layered affair consisting of two coconut daquoise disks, lemon-ginger chocolate mousse, and caramelized bananas. It sounds a little fussy, but it's actually quite simple to make (it's definitely one of the easier cakes in Chocolate Desserts). As a testament to it's simplicity, I made it because I had four egg whites to get rid of and I happened to have all the ingredients in the pantry.