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The Chef They Called King : Creating a Piece

February 22, 1996

Care^me's most famous creations were his pieces montees, but they aren't for the home cook. In fact, they aren't even for many restaurant chefs. Insofar as this sort of thing is still made, it's by caterers and hotel chefs specializing in ultra-fancy diplomatic and wedding banquets, which are pretty much the milieu for which such set pieces were created in the first place.

But even those chefs don't make Care^me's own piece montee designs. To see what one of the original creations looked like, the Food section called on Michel Richard, chef-owner of Citrus Restaurant and an admirer of le grand mai^tre (Richard owns early 19th century editions of some of Care^me's books). He picked a relatively simple design from "Le Pa^tissier Royal Parisien," une coupe garnie d'oranges.

Like many of Care^me's set pieces, it looks like an elaborate cake, and in fact is made entirely in the kitchen--but it's mostly a socle (see "Please Don't Eat the Socle") adorned with fruits, pastries and candies. It took about three days to complete.

Even in the pursuit of authenticity, Richard and other modern pastry chefs can't follow Care^me's designs exactly. For one thing, they're often a bit sketchy, as in this case.

"It is possible that he never really made this one," Richard said. "He might have just created the design." For example, Care^me didn't describe the balls arranged on the third layer of the socle. Richard guessed that they were tiny baskets made from marzipan, like those illustrated by the 19th century chef Urbain Dubois.

Another reason to update Care^me's designs is that modern pastry chefs have superior materials. In the 19th century, the socle would probably have been made from loaves of stale bread cut into thick disks. Richard uses a lighter, stronger material that Care^me would certainly have used if he'd had it: Styrofoam.

Care^me made various flat elements out of a special dough called pa^te d'office: two parts sugar to three parts flour, mixed with eggs and extra egg yolks. Pa^te d'office is extinct; it wasn't even mentioned in the first edition of Larousse Gastronomique, published 60 years ago.

For such purposes, a modern pastry chef uses pastillage, an inedible mixture of confectioner's sugar, starch and gum that dries smooth and dazzlingly white. The vertical strips of pastillage are painted green and orange here, common colors in Care^me's pastries because of his taste for pistachios and apricots.

Next comes the upper half of the piece: a sheaf of cattails surmounted by a bowl of oranges. "Le Pa^tissier Royal Parisien" says to make all this out of marzipan, very odd in light of Care^me's observation that marzipan not only takes much longer than pulled sugar but has a less brilliant effect. Richard decided to make it all out of sugar, a much more difficult task.

Unfortunately, Jan. 21 was a rainy day, and damp weather is the confectioner's enemy. As soon as he finished a sugar piece, Richard had to put it in a box with hygroscopic materials to keep it from turning sticky.

To make the bowl that crowns the column, he added edible tempera coloring to sugar syrup cooked to the crack stage and poured it out to cool on his pastry marble like a big white pancake. When it was fairly hard, he moved it to a soup plate of exactly the same diameter and set it under a hot lamp. Slowly, and with occasional encouragement from the chef's fingers, the sugar sank into the bowl and took on its shape. Any surface irregularities could be smoothed out with a blowtorch. The result looked eerily like bone china.

Richard took another batch of sugar syrup, colored it orange and heated it to 312 degrees. After working it rapidly on the pastry marble with a knife and a spatula, he started pulling the doughy mass into taffy. In a few minutes it became streaked and glossy.

He took a lump the size of a walnut, hollowed it out with his thumb and softened the lip of the opening with a blowtorch. Then he clapped it over the heated nozzle of a rubber bulb. Squeezing, twisting and pumping, he inflated the lump of sugar into a fragile orange globe. He rubbed it over a grater to give it the texture of orange peel, et voila--an impressively realistic orange.

"Sugar is intoxicating," he said. "Once you get started doing sugar work, it's hard to stop. Sixteen hours go by."

Two days later, the piece montee was finally done. The bowl was originally supposed to sit on a thick disk of hard sugar, which broke when Richard tried to assemble the socle, but by that time Richard had thought of a better solution: more Styrofoam circled with kumquats (attached with melted pastillage) in place of piped decorations. One of the layers called for chocolate barrels filledwith chocolate mousse and raspberries. To make the barrels, Richard found a miniature clay barrel at a novelty store and made a mold from it in ultra-strong gelatin.

He decided to make the cakes--genoise pastry with a filling of Bavarian cream--in dome shapes, rather than in the somewhat unbelievable melon shapes shown in Care^me's diagram. He cloaked them with pale green fondant icing and ornamented them with glazed cherries and lacy patterns of royal icing.

In a final departure from Care^me's diagram, Richard left the handles off the marzipan baskets to show off their fruit contents better and put the chocolate barrels on the second layer, rather than around the bottom, for more harmonious proportions.

The cattails proved to be the biggest challenge of the project. Richard ended up making them three times overbecause of breakage in assembling. In the end, he made the band surrounding the cattails out of sugar colored green, rather than gold, but decorated it with bits of gold leaf, a touch that Care^me would certainly not have disdained.

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