Classical Pastry Terms & Definitions: The Pièce Montée

A friend asked me recently if couverture and chocolate were interchangeable terms. They are not (chocolate is a general term; couverture is premium chocolate with a specific amount of cocoa butter inside) but this made me think of other pastry terms that were vague or classic definitions long forgotten. So, for the rest of the month of June there will be a definition a day, all related to the pastry and baking field, or the most frequently asked questions I get via email relating to pastry arts. Now let's see if I can keep up... :)

First up: Pièces Montées

Yep, the whole showpiece thing. When the term flies around, generally an image of a croquembouche comes to mind. Something large and generally the showstopper for the buffet table. A pièce montée is a decorative piece for display, and while edible ingredients are used to make it, the piece generally isn't meant to be consumed. The main exception is the classic croquembouche - a pyramid tower of caramel dipped cream puffs. Nougat, pastillage gum paste, royal icing, pulled sugar (sucre tiré), and other sugar pastes and hard candy are typically used, as well as chocolate. You can read more about ornamental sugar pieces in the Old School Pastry blog.

Showpieces are made of edible ingredients. Sometimes boards and wires will be used as support, or as a base, or to give movement, and if they are, they are entirely enrobed or covered in whatever confectionery base is being used so as to completely hide them.

If you do a search for ' pièce montée', a likely image to pop up in the search is one that was taken from the Delmonico's kitchens. For anyone that has opened up The Epicurean cookbook, you'll understand why the pièce montée is associated with that restaurant. The illustrations of many of the showpieces take me back to watching French pastry chefs in action when I was 20 years old at the Ritz-Carlton. It's been quite some time since then but those pieces are still being produced in traditional pastry kitchens around the world. It's refreshing to know what was done almost a century ago still catches the eyes and hands of modern pastry chefs, and delights diners who unexpectedly find them at their events.

I'm lucky to have an original print copy of The Epicurean, and it is amazing to see how much time and detail went into those showpieces back then. Here are some of my favorites:

Centerpiece Designs for a Sugar Showpiece: Cut them out of pastillage, gum paste, or nougat.
Pulled Sugar and Nougat Basket
Pulled Sugar Flowers.
Nougat Bon Voyage Themed Pièce Montée.
Sugar Vases.

Here are some of my recipes to try. And good luck with your next pièce montée.

Pastillage (Large Batch)

10 oz. hot water
3 oz. plain vinegar
16 sheets gelatin
4 # 8 oz. powdered sugar (1)
3 # 12 oz. powdered sugar (2)

Place water, vinegar and gelatin sheets in a bain marie until about 90°C. Pour into a large stand up mixer with a paddle and add the first powdered sugar. Mix smooth, then add the last powdered sugar. Mix until combined. Can color the liquid for large batch colors or knead in desired color to dough. Roll out with cornstarch using a sheeter. This recipe can be sheeted very thin with little problem. Form and dry completely before using.

Pastillage - (Home Version)

1 package of plain gelatin
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
5 cups powdered sugar
1 cup cornstarch

Sift the powdered sugar and cornstarch together. Place the water and cream of tartar in a small, heavy saucepan, then sprinkle the plain gelatin over the top. Stir over low heat until dissolved. There may be an amount of cream of tartar that doesn't dissolve; just be sure no amount of gelatin is left undissolved. Remove from heat and add to the bowl of stand up mixer. Put on a paddle attachment and with low speed, add in the dry ingredients - spoonful by spoonful, a couple of tablespoons at a time or so. When all the dry ingredients are incorporated, switch to medium speed and mix until the pastillage is lightened and very white, about 3 minutes. Remove from bowl, wrap in plastic wrap and let sit for half an hour before rolling out. Can be frozen; place in refrigerator overnight to thaw. Roll out with cornstarch.

Blown Sugar Recipes

Tartaric Acid Recipe:

Sugar 2 # 6 oz.
Water 14 oz.
Glucose 9 oz.
Tartaric Acid, 10 drops, diluted - see below for ratio

Sugar pan must be immaculately scrubbed clean. Sugar, water, glucose - bring to 145°C, add acid, continue to cook to between 160°C and 162°C. Pull 40 times, 40% humidity maximum.

Note: tartaric acid dilution: 1 tsp = 3 g. Use 1 to 1 ratio with water.

Cream of tartar recipe:

Sugar 2 # 6 oz.
Water 14 oz.
Glucose 10 oz.
Cream of tartar 2 g

Recipe procedure same as above.


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