My first pièce montée: croque-en-bouche
Sunday, December 4, 2011

Last week, I made my first pièce montée (edible centrepiece), a croque-en-bouche. It’s a tower of cream puffs that is traditionally served as the wedding cake in France. The literal translation for croque-en-bouche is ‘crunch-in-mouth’. That’s exactly what you get when you bite into a caramelized sugar covered cream puff.

It took us two days to make and assemble our towers. On the first day, we made a base of a hard nougatine (almond in caramelized sugar). The next day, we made 80 choux (cream puffs) and glued them together with more caramelized sugar in the shape of a tall cone. As impressive as it might look, it’s actually not that hard. You just have to make sure you don’t burn your fingers with the hot sugar.

To make our caramelized sugar, we replace 30% (by weight) of the sugar with glucose to prevent crystallization and prolong the working time. We boil the sugar until golden coloured (hard-crack stage, about 155°C) and after that we have about 15 minutes to use it before it cools, hardens and/or crystallizes. You can also reheat it (on low heat) every few minutes but it might start to take on more colour after reheating.

Day 1:

My nougatine pieces for the base and top of the croque-en-bouche. After making the nougatine, we pour the hot mixture onto an oiled baking tray and work quickly. To make the shapes, we roll it into a flat disk and cut out shapes with our knife or circular metal cutters. Since we can't work with all the hot nougatine at once, we put the remainder on a tray in a hot oven to keep it workable. But this trick is only good for 30 minutes.

After the shapes have cooled, we make some more caramelized sugar to glue the pieces together. When gluing the pieces, we have to hold it for a few minutes until the sugar has almost set.

To make the curved triangular pieces, we cut the hot nougatine into triangles first. Then, we warm it up on a tray in the oven so it becomes soft again and lay it on a rolling pin or a curved surface to cool and harden. Then we glue the pieces to our base with the caramelized sugar. The circular base is made from rolling warm nougatine into a flat disk, lining the inside of a cake pan (like tart dough), and cutting off the excess, all while it's warm and workable!

Then, we decorate with royal icing (mix 50g of egg whites with 300g of icing sugar). We make a cornet (mini piping bag) from parchment paper and pipe patterns on the nougatine. To make the strings of icing, we pipe a dot on one end of a nougatine triangle and continue piping it as we make a bridge of icing, ending at the other triangle with another dot.

Day 2:

We make pâte à choux (cream puff dough) and pipe 80 mini choux.

My choux after baking.

Then, we make more caramelized sugar. We cook sugar until golden-coloured (hard-crack stage, 155°C) and dip each choux in the caramel before it sets.

After dipping each choux in the hot sugar, we put them upside down on an oiled baking tray to set. After it cools, they'll have a flat disk of crunchy caramel on top.

Here's my collection of choux after all the dipping. The white speckled ones were rolled in decorative sugar crystals after dipping in the caramel. Now that all the individual pieces are finished, we can assemble it the final tower.

Ta da! Here's my finished croque-en-bouche. Unfortunately, I wasn't very careful with the moment at which I should've closed-in my pyramid so it's a bit cylindrical looking. And you can't really do anything about it after the sugar sets.

A closer look. We stick white candy-coated almonds (dragées) to hide the holes.

Day 3: We used the same techniques for our croque-en-bouche to make a miniature version, known as Saint-Honoré. 

The Saint-Honoré begins with a pâte sablée (a sandy, buttery tart dough) which is the large disk at the base. We hadn't made pâte sablée since the first month of class which felt like so long ago! Then, we make more pâte à choux and pipe a border near the edge of the tart dough circle.

A small amount of pâte à choux is piped inside the tart to prevent the tart dough from burning before the choux is cooked.

Then, we fill the inside of the cake with Saint-Honoré cream which is a crème pâtissière (pastry cream) lightened with whipped egg whites. Personally, I prefer just the pastry cream because the egg whites seem to give it an eggy taste which I don't like.

We made more choux again and filled them with Saint-Honoré cream as well. We dipped these in caramel just like for the croque-en-bouche. We glued a ring of these choux around the edge of the cake.

Then, we use this special tip (#20, Inox brand) to pipe petals of Chantilly cream. This is my favourite tip I've used so far.

The completed Saint-Honoré cake.

Zooming in on the Chantilly cream. It took a while to get the hang of piping. I erased (took off the cream) my piping 5 times when I started. Unfortunately, the multiple piping attempts made my cream slightly curdled.

Day 4: Making Mont-blanc, a French chestnut cake resembling a snow-covered mountain (literal translation). Traditionally, it’s made with just a crunchy meringue base, Chantilly cream (sweetened whipped cream), and pureed chestnuts.

Here's my meringue shell with a wall that seems to have caved in while baking. It's filled with Chantilly cream, candied chestnuts and then a spaghetti-like pile of chestnut cream. Your hands get really sore after piping that mountain of spaghetti. Normally, kitchens will have a pipe tip with many holes so that you can pip many strands of spaghetti at once. We didn't.

Here's my friend's (Weebites) finished Mont-Blanc. Because of the caved-in walls of my meringue, I decided it was too disastrous too be pictured.

Next, we made tart shells for some updated versions of Mont-Blanc.

We filled the tart shells with a filling of our own creation. I made coconut crème pâtissière to fill the inside of my tarts.

Then, we piped a mountain of chestnut cream on top.

And for some of them, I added a ring of Chantilly cream piped with my new favourite tip.



3 Comments so far...
  • Lily
    December 25, 2011
    Hey Emily, One of the drawbacks is that I cannot use unpasteurized egg whites, so that leaves me with meringue powder or the boxed liquid egg whites. The meringue powder gave me a weird milky soup. Will try the liquid egg whites tomorrow. This will be going on a white butter cake with lemon curd and raspberry puree. Worse case scenario, I have 1 litre of whipping cream.
  • Lily
    December 12, 2011
    Chestnut cake is amazing. We used to get that for Chinese birthday cakes! Question for you - have they taught you italian or swiss meringue buttercreams yet? If so, the one with the cooked sugar curdles and stays curdled 50% of the time. I kinda want to know how to avoid it.
    • Emily
      December 12, 2011
      Hi Lily!

      Thanks for your question, which reminds me I haven't replied your e-mail yet, I will :)

      In response to your Q, we only make french buttercreams in class which uses cooked sugar syrup. I'll post a recipe below that I've made many times.

      Most of the time, when you add the softened butter (room temperature), it will always look curdled in the beginning, but just let it continue whipping at medium speed (not high or else you get too many air pockets) and it will fix itself. If you add the butter when the egg/cooked syrup mixture is still too hot, then you will melt the butter and it'll also separate.

      Another problem might be the difference in the weight of eggs. If you use larger eggs, you will need to compensate by adding more butter. Normal eggs should be 50g (excluding shell) with 30g of whites and 20g of yolks. I find eggs in Canada larger than eggs in France (all free-range supposedly).

      Vanilla Buttercream
      Egg yolks, 120g (6 yolks)
      Eggs whole, 150g (3 whole eggs; if you're short just add some of the extra egg whites)
      Granulated sugar, 225g (1 cup)
      Water, 125g, 1/3 cup (not exact but it's okay because you're boiling it to a specific temperature)
      Butter at room temperature, 450g (a little more may be needed)

      Note: Recipe below is made with a KitchenAid mixer. You can also use a hand-mixer but it will take more time.

      1. Whisk all eggs together just so that it's homogenous.
      2. Boil the sugar and water on medium-high (without stirring) until 118°C-120°C (soft-ball stage). If you don't have a thermometer, take a spoon, dip in the boiling syrup and dip it in cold water and feel the consistency. It should be like play-dough.
      3. As you whisk the eggs on medium-high speed, pour the sugar syrup into the eggs steadily.
      4. Whisk the eggs and syrup mixture at high until it's completely cooled to room temperature (at least 10 minutes). It'll become pale yellow, thick and foamy.
      5. Change the speed to medium-low and slowly add the butter, about 3 tbsp at a time. It will look curdle at first, but if you continue whisking (over 5 minutes), it should become smooth and creamy. If not, increase the speed to medium-high for 1 minute. If it's still curdled, add a few tbsp more butter. Stop when it's not curdled anymore.
      6. Whisk in flavouring or colouring.

      Let me know how it goes!