Today, bakers like Laurent Pello of Pain d’Antan in Perpignan, spend hours constructing this traditional dessert out of crème-filled pastries, caramel and nougatine, a candy made of caramel syrup and nuts.
“If you want the pièce montée to be nice you have to respect the recipe,” says Laurent, who has been a pastry chef for more than two years. On a recent day, Laurent spent more than seven hours in the stifling kitchen, never stopping for more than a few moments to wipe the sweat from his brow and to sip some water, as he sculpted this classic dessert.
While the components of a pièce montée date back to the 15th century, its popularization as a celebration cake is credited to the 17th century French pastry chef Antoine Careme, who sculpted ornate designs out of choux pastries. Today pièce montées are most commonly seen at weddings, baptisms and first communions in the shape of a cone or cradle. While the conical shape is the most popular, pastry chefs like Laurent sometimes break away from the classic design.
Laurent has crafted pièce montées to resemble beach scenes; other pastry chefs have sculpted castles, snails or churches. Pastry chefs may also stray from the classic recipe by filling the chouxwith untraditional fillings like chocolate.
Guests are typically served three puff pastries each. Unlike most cakes, pièce montées are priced by the individual choux, which is typically 1.50 euro per piece. Elaborate decorations and nougatine add to the cost. So a basic pièce montée for 100 people could costs upwards of 500 euros.
Although the cakes are expensive, many French say keeping up the tradition is worth the cost.
“The food in a wedding is very, very important here,” says Laurence Roussel, a Perpignan resident. “It’s one of the most important things, so pièce montées are very important. It’s very special, because it’s like art.”