Monday, November 10, 2008


I went a little nuts last weekend. Friends invited us for dinner, and I offered to bring dessert. I wanted to try something I've never made before, despite the risk of failure. I hesitated between two classic French cakes: Saint-Honoré? Paris-Brest? As the number of expected guests climbed from from 8 to 11, the (self-imposed) pressure increased, but also the challenge. Let's make both! ("Uh, will I see you this weekend?" said a dismayed husband.)

I'll break this marathon baking session into two posts, starting with the Paris-Brest. (Unfortunately most photos were taken at night-time and in a rush.)

The Paris-Brest name comes from a bicycle race, hence the wheel shape. This is a lovely dessert. Really not difficult to make... if you know how to make a buttercream. I don't.

The elements
A big fat ring of choux pastry is sprinkled with nuts and sugar before baking. A thinner "inner tube" ring of pastry is baked separately. A cream is made, usually either pure buttercream, or crème mousseline (pastry cream with butter added), or buttercream mixed with pastry cream (this last one is what I attempted). The traditional flavoring is prâlinée, or caramelized nuts. The big choux "doughnut" is cut in half, a thin layer of cream is piped in, the "inner tube" is placed on top -- to provide volume and lightness -- and cream is piped decoratively over it, before the top half of the doughnut is placed back on top, sprinkled with confectioner's sugar.

Three tips for choux pastry success
At this stage I feel confident about my choux pastry skills. The Hermé recipe I've posted about before works all the time for me, and I use it frequently to make chouquettes on short notice.

A few tips for those who are nervous about choux pastry:
1 - Before adding the eggs, you really have to dry out the flour-water-milk-butter mixture well, by cooking it for 3 minutes, stirring it all the time. Don't heed the advice of recipes that say you are done when the dough pulls away from the sides of the pot, or when there is a film of dough stuck to the bottom of the pot. Just look at your watch, 2 1/2 to 3 minutes of arduous stirring over a medium-high flame, no less.
2 - Hold back some of the egg if you are using very large eggs. Check the texture of the dough, if it's forming a nice shiny ribbon when you lift it up you don't need to add any more egg.
3 - Contrary to many recipes' advice, you can make this dough the day before. Just store it in the fridge in the bag you will use for piping, making sure it is well sealed.

My baking nemesis: buttercream
For some reason, I fail every time. If it looks OK on the photos it's because it was still very chilled. Five minutes later it was turning liquid faster than we could eat the cake. Ugh it's so maddening, I've read every tip on the subject. (My rant against buttercream got too long, I've moved it to the bottom of this post).

Some process photos and comments
(I have no photos of the buttercream process, I was too stressed.)

Three layers of piped choux pastry (two on the bottom, one on top), sprinkled with nuts and granulated sugar.

I didn't expect it to inflate so much!

The fully baked choux ring, removed from the metal cake ring.

I piped the "inner tube" with a smaller piping tip, using the tart ring as a guideline for piping a circle. I should have made it slightly smaller.

The baked "inner tube"

Cut the choux "doughnut" in half.

Place the "inner tube" on top of a thin layer of cream.

Cover with cream, piping it like a braid (I wasn't sure how to do that) over the tube so that some cream will stick out once you close the cake sandwich. I should have used a larger star tip (this is a size 7 in France, a size 12 would have been better). Sprinkle the top half with confectioners sugar.

Quick, serve it before the cream slides away! Unless of course you know how to make a firm cream. If so, I'd love some tips.

The next day we had guests over for tea. With the left-over cream and pâte à choux I whipped up another Paris-Brest in less than an hour. This one is smaller, it served four. There's nothing significantly different between this one and the previous one, but I got a few daylight photos so I'm including them here.

This is a crown made with a smaller piping tip, and no metal cake ring to support it.

This time I made the "inner tube" a little too small, so I cut it in four pieces to center it onto the larger ring (no photo). The piping is not particularly elegant. Since my guests had arrived and the cream was very soft, I piped the cream in a mad rush. But the Paris-Brest is apparently quite forgiving.

Recipe: Paris-Brest cake
Source: Pierre Hermé, Secrets Gourmands
Serves 6 to 8
(I increased the proportions to make mine larger)

For the cake
- 300g pâte à choux (The recipe I use makes 750g; I would recommend making the whole amount, if not more, and piping left-overs into little choux.)
- 50g granulated sugar (I'm not sure if granulated is the term: each grain is quite large...)
- 50g chopped blanched almonds
- 15g soft butter
- confectioner's sugar

For the cream
- 300g buttercream (see recipe below)
- 90g praline paste (see recipe below)
- 225g pastry cream

On a baking sheet lined with baking paper, place a 22cm buttered baking circle.
Pipe the choux pastry using a large star tip (I used a smooth tip, French size 13). Pipe one circle inside the baking circle, another contiguous one inside that, then a third circle on top of the first two. Sprinkle with granulated sugar and nuts.

On another baking sheet, form a fourth, slightly thinner circle, with a slightly smaller radius than the largest of the three circles piped previously (what I call the "inner tube").

Bake both in a 180°C preheated oven, for 40 to 45 minutes for the large one, less for the small "inner tube." (or until both are a nice medium brown, not too pale).

After 15 minutes of baking, crack the oven door open using a wooden spoon to let the steam escape. When the cakes are baked, let them cool on a rack.

Prepare the cream: whip the buttercream to lighten it, then add the praline paste, and the pastry cream, mixing with a whisk.

When the cakes are cool, cut the larger ring in half, horizontally, using a serrated knife. Pipe a thin layer of cream (using a star piping tip, larger than the size 7 I used). Place the "inner tube" on top and pipe more cream over it in a braid, so that a little will stick out the sides of the cake.

Dust the top of the cake with confectioners sugar, then place it on top of the cream.

Hermé says the Paris-Brest can be served right away or refrigerated, but must be brought out 1 hour before serving. (I suppose that's if your cream is successful...)

I wasn't sure if the cake might become soggy so I brought the cream in a piping bag and piped it into the cake at the house where the dinner was held.

Recipe: Crème au beurre (Buttercream)
Source: Pierre Hermé, Secrets Gourmands

Ingredients for 750g cream
- 200g sugar
- 75g water
- 3 eggs
- 3 egg yolks
- 250g very soft butter

Pour the water into a small saucepan. Add the sugar. As soon as it boils, wash the walls of the pot with a wet brush. Cook the syrup until 120°C.

In the meantime, whip the eggs and egg yolks until they turn white.
Cream the butter in another bowl so that it becomes creamy in consistency.

When the syrup is ready, drizzle it slowly into the eggs while whipping at low speed. Continue whipping until the mixture is cold, then incorporate the butter while whipping continuously. When the cream is homogenous and smooth, place it in the fridge until you need it. You can keep it for 3 or 4 days at 4°C.

You can flavor this cream with kirsch, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, rhum, or cognac by adding, once the cream is finished, 1.5 tablespoons of these alcohols. For coffee flavoring, add 2 tsp instant coffee diluted in 2 tspn water, plus 1 tspn coffee extract. For pistachio, add 1 tbspn pistachio paste. You can add pastry cream, in varying proportions depending on the application.

Recipe: Praline paste

(This batch will be more than you will need for the Paris-Brest, but can be used later. Or make a smaller amount).

- 300g sugar
- 100g water
- To avoid crystallization: a few drops of lemon, or a small part of the sugar amount replaced with glucose or corn syrup (I used neither and my sugar crystallized. Not pretty, but I managed to get some caramel out of it).
- 300g toasted almonds or hazelnuts, or a combination thereof.

If the hazelnuts still have their skin, as soon as the come out of the oven wrap them in a towel. Let them sit there for a few minutes, then rub them hard together inside the towel to loosen their skins. It doesn't matter if you don't get it all off.

Make a caramel with the sugar, water and lemon/glucose/corn syrup. Once it reaches a nice amber color (180°C?) remove from heat, add the warm nuts and stir.

Spread as thin as possible on a baking pan with a silpat lining and leave it to harden.

Caramelized nuts ready to be ground into pralinée paste.

Once it's cool, break into pieces and grind in several batches in a food processor. The praline will quickly break down into powder (I think this powder is called pralin, and can also be used for flavoring or sprinkling on top of dessert). It will take several minutes for the powder to turn into paste, just keep scraping the sides down and processing some more. This was tedious in my tiny processor... The paste keeps a long time in the refrigerator.

The nuts quickly turn to powder. Keep scraping and pushing the powder down and eventually it will turn...

... to paste. It will never be as smooth as the paste you can buy, but I like the slight crunch of my home-made pralinée paste.

Appendix: My troubles with buttercream

So, if you have nothing better to do, pull up a chair and listen to me whine about buttercream.

It doesn't help that the tips I read all contradict each other. "Use very soft butter!" "The butter should be soft, but not too soft!" "The egg and syrup mixture should be absolutely cold" "Uhm, not too cold!" "If the cream has a curdled appearance, warm the bowl slightly." "Chill the cream if it separates." "Add more butter." "Use the whisk beater." "Use the paddle beater!"

And the most frequent advice: "If the cream looks curdled, don't worry, just keep beating, it will come together after a while." Maybe I should have tried even longer, but I was afraid my Kitchenaid would start smoking.

The worst is there always seems a point when the buttercream looks OK, well emulsified and shiny. Then it separates again, or becomes grainy or runny. I hate it!

And it's not the sugar syrup that's a problem. I boil it up, check the temperature, pour it onto the eggs as I whip and the eggs turn into a beautiful, poofy mass. The problem is when I add the butter.

This time I thought I would try adding the soft butter when the eggs were still a hint warm, about 30°C. Too warm, it turned to soup.

Fine, I knew what to do: I kept back some of the butter, chilled everything for 15 minutes, then used the "mayonnaise" method: I whipped the remaining butter and slowly trickled the runny buttercream into it. It took a few trips to the fridge but at one point I felt I had it, the cream was thick and shiny. Aha, success!

But no. I added the pralinée paste, then whipped in the pastry cream (too little pastry cream, I forgot I had to halve the buttercream recipe). And it all turned to soup. I froze the cream in the pastry bag for a few hours, then placed it in the fridge for two hours, and was able to pipe something that looked decent for a few minutes. Sigh.

Maybe it's the addition of pralinee paste and chilled pastry cream that's the culprit. But when I make buttercream for coffee macarons I have the same problem when I add the coffee flavoring. What looked smooth for an instant turns back to separated or granular-looking cream.

Sorry for being so long-winded about these difficulties. But if anyone knows THE definitive tip that might help me, I would very be grateful.