My sugary nemesis
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.
When I was in high school I used to tear recipes out of life style magazines – I wish I could find them because they are about 20 years old and give you that weird time warp feeling that looking at dated fashion spreads and aging food fads can do. These were South Africa’s greatest attempts at staying up to date on current trends – and despite great advances since the days when the British and the Boers spent months travelling to the Cape of Good Hope bringing the latest in European fashions to Africa several seasons too late — we, in Johannesburg, did still not enjoy the cutting edge sophistication of, say, Brooklyn! Anyway, one of the recipes I clipped was for croquembouche and included a magnificent photograph of the towering pastry construction encased in a nest of spun sugar. I was both enthralled and petrified – no regular mortal could make something so sublime. And yet the head note clearly suggested that indeed, mere mortals could make this french creation, and do so quite easily at that.
Years passed and for some reason I took out the stash of recipes again. As fate would have it I had volunteered to bake something for a party friends were throwing to celebrate their domestic partnership. Since the croquembouche is traditionally created as a wedding cake it seemed the perfect treat to celebrate their union. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it actually was to make — the pastries puffed appropriately and tasted airy and delicious. But I drew the line at the spun sugar which really did seem too hard. I filled the pastries with cream and dipped them in chocolate and drew enough of an appreciative response from that to sate my competitive baking demon.
And now, a few years on, when I eagerly logged on to the Daring Kitchen to check the May challenge I found that hostess Cat had challenged the crew to make a croquembouche. Since I could not allow myself simply to recreate something I had done before (she even chose a recipe I had previously used, since my pastry classes at ICE were written by Nick Malgieri and used his choux pastry recipe) I realised immediately that I was going to have to face my old nemesis: spun caramel sugar.
I actually procrastinated this task for a long while – I don’t know why it seemed so daunting. In the end I learned that spinning sugar is not hard to do badly (especially with some online video assistance)… though I did give myself a nasty little burn on my hand while I was dipping in my double forks. It is however extremely messy (see exhibit A below, the bowl which lay adjacent to the spinning station and got itself a good coating of caramel by mistake – our floor looked only slightly less disastrous). I am really very happy to have made the leap and tried the sugar work. Having tried once I really wanted to make a second attempt to create a more perfect sugar nest – I have a vision of a single pastry puff surrounded by a delicate spun casing which extends around and above it to a lofty height creating an individual and impressive piece montée. I didn’t have time to try this before today’s reveal date, but I’m putting a note in my recipe file and as you know, I do revisit that every few years!
The recipes and many photos of the beautiful creations of my fellow daring bakers can all be found at the daring kitchen so do head over there for a look!