Okay, so this is not really called a "tower of cream puffs." Instead, it has a French name, or a few French names, actually. The idea is you make a pate a choux, which is basically a puff pastry and the base for many a French sweet delicacy. You shape the pate a choux into puffs, fill them with cream of whatever flavor--vanilla, chocolate, coffee, etc--then dip them in some sort of stickiness and pile them into a shape. All of this is an incredibly lowbrow way of describing this dessert, which is actually called a piece montee. The real and truly French ones are often used as wedding cakes, apparently, and pastry chefs shape the tower o' puffs into various shapes all stuck together with caramel or chocolate sauce.
Before I get too far into my explanation of this challenge, let me just tell you that it knocked me down a peg or two. I like to think of myself as a fairly good vegan baker. Maybe even just a teensy bit accomplished. I've wowed my fair share of soccer moms, good-hearted Buddhists, and eager, overly-grateful compatriots with my cakes and pies and whatnot. But if you, dear reader, ever feel that in the future I'm getting a bit big for my britches, so to speak, and I'm waxing on about my various baking exploits and conquests, you have only to whisper two words to me to put me back in my place. By now, I'm sure you can guess what those two words are, right? 1) Cream. 2) Puff.
I could only find one recipe for vegan pate a choux online, here. This is a variation of a recipe posted to vegweb and reiterated on yahoo answers and other places. Apparently, the cream puff is one of those stubborn egg-based hold-outs that continue to stymie egg-free bakers. Most standard recipes for pate a choux require many eggs, which apparently are whipped into the dough until it is "glossy." I achieved nothing like "glossy" and perhaps I should have known on the two (count my failures, two) occasions on which I tried different variations of these recipes that the lack of gloss was an early warning of my inevitable failure. Despite the satisfied tone of the blogs from which I took my recipes, my puffs didn't puff. Not at all. The first time I made them, I used a simple cornstarch egg replacer and doubled the baking powder. I also think I over-cooked the dough. The result: Sweet, pasty lumps. Um, no thanks. The second time, I decided to use a different egg replacer recipe that seemed much more complicated, and, I figured, better. Isn't complexity at the heart of French baking? This time they worked better. Still nothing I would call puffage. No crispy golden exterior. Not be completely undone by this challenge, though, I hollowed them out a bit, filled them with whipped cream, glazed the tops with some bittersweet chocolate and had it over with. Since the challenge specified that the final product must have some height to it, I assembled the free-form pyramid you see in my photo.