Friday, December 19, 2008


When Christmas comes around, I love to bake American and German-style cookies. I can't think of similarly festive baked goods in France. Confections such as truffles and marrons glacés, yes, cakes such as a "bûche de Noël" (yule log), but no cookies. At least not that I can think of. Furthermore, what I find missing in French Christmas traditions is spices. While I'm not an unconditional fan of cinnamon or ginger year-round, I find no other flavor is as evocative of Christmas.

Above is a box of goodies I put together as a gift. It contains gingerbread, pinwheel cookies, brown sugar cut-out cookies, and "pecanios" or pecan tartlets. (The box was photographed in the snow on our balcony.)

I love to bake and decorate gingerbread. The house smells good of baking and spices. Gingerbread dough is sturdy and the cookies can be formed in intricate patterns for decorations.

This year the girls and I made a large gingerbread house as well as several smaller ones for their immediate consumption, and also some cookies for decorating Christmas trees.

For the large house I used a set of special cookie cutters for the roof, walls and chimney. For the smaller houses, I had a single smaller cookie cutter for the front of the house, and improvised some rectangles for the roof and low walls.

A gingerbread village!

The weather contributed to the seasonal cheer.

I wanted to photograph the cookies with a snow scene in the background but found it difficult to focus on both simultaneously

The box nearly toppled out the window...

A white plate is a good background

A box full of gingerbread, waiting to be decorated. Notice the house cut-out which I used to make the small gingerbread houses

My husband calls this my signature bear

So hard not to touch the houses as they dry!

Recipe: Gingerbread
For making gingerbread houses or cookies
Source: Joy of Cooking (1997)
[I haven't changed the recipe any, but the following is only a an excerpt of the detailed instructions for making a gingerbread house. This makes a lot of dough!]

Whisk together thoroughly:
- 6 cups all purpose flour
- 1/2 tspn baking powder
- 4 tspn ground ginger
- 4 tspn ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tspn ground cloves or allspice
- 1/2 tspn salt

Beat on medium speed until fluffy and well blended:
- 12 tablespoons (170g) butter, softened
- 1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar

Beat in until well combined:
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup dark molasses
[I find the taste too strong, perhaps European molasses are stronger? So I use half honey, half molasses]
- 1 TB water
[Careful, dough can get very sticky. I once forgot the water and it worked better, though the dough was a little harder to roll]

Beat half of the flour mixutre into the molasses mixutre until well blended and smooth. Stir in the remaining flour, then knead the mixture until well blended. If the dough is soft, stir in more flour until it is firmer and more manageable but not at all dry.
Place the dough in a sealable plastic bag or airtight plastic container. Set aside in a cool place, but not the refrigerator, for at least 2 hours or up to 6 hours. Or refrigerate the dough for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature before using.

[I roll the dough without waiting between two sheets of parchment paper, then thoroughly chill the dough in the fridge or even freezer before cutting it out]

Divide dough in half (I rolled about 600g of dough at a time, if memory serves). Roll the dough directly on parchment paper so that there is no warping when transferring dough to the baking sheet. Roll it to a scant 1/4 of an inch.

[The dough is sticky. I roll it between two sheets of parchment paper, then freeze the whole thing before making my cut-outs. Otherwise it's hard to peel off the parchment paper. For more tips on this rolling technique see an explanation here; and some videos I made here.]

Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 11 to 15 minutes for large pieces, 6 to 8 for small pieces. Or until the edges are tinged with brown.
[I like mine quite dark and crunchy.]

These molasses are very dark, but I use only half the amount and complete the rest with honey, making a lighter but very flavorful dough.

Roll and cut the shapes directly on the final parchment paper, then peel off the dough that's in between the cut-outs so that you never move them. This helps the cut-outs keep their shape, which is important if you're building a house.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Saint Honoré

Here is the second part of my recent baking spree, the Saint Honoré (the first part was the Paris-Brest).

Creamy cakes are not usually my favorite, but I make an exception for a good Saint Honoré. The varieties of textures make it special: crispy puff pastry, tender choux, crunchy caramel, velvety crème Chiboust, and fluffy whipped cream.

Crème Chiboust vs. millefeuille cream
The crème Chiboust -- pastry cream lightened with Italian meringue and a touch of gelatin -- is traditional. But the St Honoré can also be filled with what is known as a millefeuille cream, which is pastry cream "lightened" with whipped cream. This is what Pierre Hermé recommends.

Since the first of these two creams seemed lighter (!) than the second, and also more traditional, I chose to deviate from Hermé's recipe and make the Chiboust cream.

However I wilfully disregarded the advice found in all recipes, namely that Chiboust cream must be made at the last minute before filling the cake. I made mine the night before, and stored it in a pastry bag. I don't think this advance preparation was good for the cream's texture, but I couldn't make everything at the last minute, and wanted to assemble the cake on site, to make sure nothing got soggy.

Result: some flaws, but a tasty and striking-looking cake
Though the cream's texture was perhaps not optimal, and the whipped cream became too soft, I would say the final result was very good, and encourages me to try again... some time!

Some process photos

Crème pâtissière (pastry cream)

Italian meringue folded into the pastry cream

I like to use a wide jug to hold the pastry bag while my two hands are free to fill it. Make sure to fold the top of the bag over the top of the jug.

The circle of puff pastry.

Pipe choux pastry around the puff pastry disk, about 1cm from the edge, and then make a thin, slightly squashed down spiral in the center of the cake.

The spiral in the center gives the cake structure and lightness; it will support the cream that will be piped in later.

The choux are smaller than usual, piped to about 2cm wide

Fill them with cream and scrape off any cream that sticks out. (This part I did a couple hours ahead of time, and the choux pastry didn't get too soggy).

The tops of the small choux are dipped in the caramel, and left to harden, caramel-side down on a silpat or parchment liner.

The outside choux pastry ring gets filled with cream at regular intervals.

The bottoms of the choux are then dipped in caramel and attached to the base, touching each other and forming walls for the cream filling to be piped in later.

I practiced at home how to use my Saint Honoré piping tip, results shown with arrows. I found out the slit has to be on top, but there is nothing difficult about piping with this tip. At this stage my whipped cream still seemed firm enough to hold its shape.
However I was concerned about the cake getting soggy if I filled it too early, so I assembled the rest of the cake on site. I transported the Chiboust and whipped creams in their piping bags to our friends' house, refrigerated them there, and filled the cake just before serving.

After filling the cake with what little Chiboust I had left, and piping the whipped cream on top, I had about 2.5 seconds to snap some shots before the cake got whisked to the dinner table.
The whipped cream looks too soft. It doesn't have the crisp criss-cross pattern I was hoping for. The cream may not have liked being transported in a piping bag to our friends' house, or else there is a skill to making a good stiff whipped cream that I don't know about.

The cake looks best when modelled by Jess and Vicky!

Yikes, a pastry school test for bakers?
The day before I started baking, I realized I may have gotten myself in too deep when I read on Tartelette that the Saint-Honoré cake is used for testing bakers' skills:
"It is the “must pass” element of pastry school students and it is a cake that includes several elements and techniques that bakers should try at least once: puff pastry, cream puff dough, caramel and pastry filling."

While I feel pretty happy about my St Honoré hardware skills (puff pastry, pâte à choux, and using caramel as cement), I would never pass the software part of the test: crème Chiboust, crème Chantilly. Add to that my recent difficulties with buttercream, not to mention that my ganache often separates, and I see I still have a lot to learn about all things creamy!

Other sources of inspiration
Finally, you can find many other delicious-looking St Honorés by running a search on "Daring Bakers St Honoré."

Recipe: Gateau Saint-Honoré
From Pierre Hermé, Secrets Gourmands (loosely translated)

For 6 people

- 300g choux pastry [this quantity may not be sufficient I found]
- 150g puff pastry
- 350g mille-feuille cream [I used chiboust cream, see both recipes below. Again, make more than this quantity, I didn't feel I had quite enough.]
- 250g sugar
- 60g glucose
[I think this prevents crystallization, and perhaps makes the caramel less hard. If you don't have glucose, you can try corn syrup, I think the result should be similar but can't vouch for it.]
- 80g water
- 250g whipped cream (crème chantilly, or cream whipped stiff with a small amount of sugar)

Roll the puff pastry to 2mm thick. Cut out a 22cm circle. Place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper that has been moistened with water. [Prick with a fork and chill while you prepare the choux pastry.]

Preheat oven to 180°C.

Place the choux pastry in a piping bag with a French size 9 or 10 tip [about 12mm in diameter]. Form a crown about 1cm from the edge of the circle. Then pipe a loose spiral inside the crown, which will serve to support the cream that will be piped in later. The spiral should be piped thinner than the crown, so press down on your piping bag. Dust the puff pastry with sugar.

On a second baking sheet lined with parchment paper, using the rest of the choux dough make 24 small choux, each about 2cm wide [these are significantly smaller than a typical choux or chouquette or profiterole]. Place both baking sheets in the oven.

You'll be baking the cake base about 25 minutes, and the choux about 18 minutes. After about 6 minutes, open the door of the oven a crack and block it with a wooden spoon, so the steam can escape. Using a small piping tip (French size 5), make small holes every two centimeters in the crown, and into the bottom of each chou. Let the base and the choux cool completely.

Place the millefeuille cream in a pastry bag with a French size 7 tip. Poke the tip into the holes you have made in the crown and squeeze in the cream by pressing hard. Proceed the same way for the choux. Wipe off any excess cream.

In a saucepan, mix the glucose, the sugar and the water. Cook until 155°C [if I remember correctly, this seemed barely golden to me, I cooked the caramel longer to have a darker amber.] Place the bottom of the saucepan in cold water to stop the caramel from getting any darker. Dip the tops of the choux into the caramel and place them, top down, on parchment paper or on a Silpat liner. The dip the other side (bottom) of the choux in caramel and immediately attach them to the ring of pastry. You want to try to get some caramel on the sides of each chou so they stick to each other as you place them contiguously on the crown. Let them cool off.

Fill the center of the cake with the remaining mille-feuille cream, then pipe the whipped cream in a zigzag using either a St Honoré tip or a large star tip. Serve the St Honoré as soon as possible.

Recipe: Mille-feuille cream
From Pierre Hermé, Secrets Gourmands (loosely translated)
[This is the cream Hermé uses in a St Honoré]

- 750g pastry cream
- 1.5 dl [about 150g] very cold whipping cream
- 2 Tablespoons sugar

Chill a large bowl in the freezer for 15 minutes. Whip the cream in the chilled bowl until it is firm. Add the sugar. Fold this whipped cream into the pastry cream.

Recipe: Chiboust cream
[OK to be honest I don't remember which recipe I used for Chiboust cream, as I looked at so many! But the following seems very good.]
Source: Tartelette

Saint Honore Cream (Rapid Chiboust or Diplomat Cream)

1 envelope unflavored gelatin (7 gr.)
1/4 cup cold water (60 ml)
1/2 cup + 2 Tablespoons sugar (130 gr)
½ cup all-purpose flour (70 gr)
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 egg yolks
2 cups whole milk (500ml)
1 Tb. rum [I left out the rhum]
¼ cup whipping cream (57 gr)
3 egg whitesdash of salt
1/2 cup sugar (105 gr)

Soak the gelatin in the 1/4 cup of cold water.
Put the sugar, flour, and salt into a saucepan and stir together with a whisk. Add the yolks and enough milk to make a paste. Whisk in the remainder of the milk. Place over low heat and stirring constantly, cook until thick. Remove from heat and stir in the rum and the gelatin. Stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.Stir in the whipping cream. Set the mixing bowl in cold water and stir until the cream is cool. Place the egg whites in a clean bowl and using clean beaters, whip them with the dash of salt. As soon as the whites begin to stiffen, gradually add the 1/2 cup of sugar and beat until they are very stiff. Fold the egg whites into the cooled cream.