31 May 2015

Gâteau Paris-Brest

Serves: 8
Preparation: 40 mins (choux pastry) + 40 mins (filling and dressing)
Cooking: 20 mins + extra 5 mins + leave in the open oven for an extra 5 mins

If a French pastry ever were to be described as la crème de la crème (in every sense of the phrase), then Paris-Brest would be it. The gâteau is classic in style and celebratory in mood, and a piece of French culinary heritage all to itself that goes beyond anything cream cake. If I wax lyrical so readily about this particular pâtisserie, it is simply because it stands as my all-time favourite!

The Paris-Brest dates back to 1910, which despite making it a centenarian, also brings out its timeless appeal! Its circular shape is in reference to the Paris-Brest cycle race. A pâtissier from the Parisian suburbs, Louis Durand, had been tasked by the race manager to create a cake that would commemorate the event.

So here we have a gâteau whose popularity has surpassed that of the actual race. It is made out of light and airy choux pastry (cream puff dough), and sprinkled with a generous helping of aromatic roasted almond slivers, finished off with a fine dusting of icing-sugar. The filling is nothing less than a dreamy fluffy praline mousseline cream whose nuttiness echoes that of the almonds, and peers out of its fine corset of piped pastry to doom us into sweet temptation some more.

The Paris-Brest might appear daunting to bake, only if you follow some of the eccentric variants out there, that make it sound more complicated than it actually is! The best thing to do is to follow my step-by-step foolproof method, and you'll be coming back for more!

[Recipe adapted from Maxi Cuisine magazine from a few years back.]

Choux pastry:
  • 10cl (1/2 cup) milk (whole or half-skimmed)
  • 10cl (1/2 cup) water
  • 80g butter (1/3 cup), cut in small chunks
  • 140g (1 cup) all-purpose white flour, sieved
  • 4 middle-size organic eggs
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp white caster sugar
Filling (praline mousseline cream):
  • 1l (2 pints) milk (whole or half-skimmed, but not fat-free)
  • half a vanilla pod
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 80g (1/3 cup) white caster sugar
  • 25g (1 heaped tablespoon) all-purpose white flour, sieved
  • 25g (1 heaped tablespoon) cornflour 
  • 180g (1 cup 1/2) chopped French pralines (a confection of almonds with caramelized sugar)
  • 100g (1/3 cup + 1 oz) softened butter (left out of the fridge)
  • 50g (1/2 cup) almond slivers
  • 50g (1/3 cup) icing sugar

P.S: For baking ingredient conversions, refer to this.

P.P.S: PRALINES-- French Pralines are caramelized almonds. They are sold either whole as a confection, or chopped into a rough granulated texture (see above picture), called 'Pralin' in French. However depending upon which country you live in, French Pralines may not be readily available to purchase. Therefore you may have to resort to making your own, and this easy-to-follow online recipe will do the trick. If you are based in the US, you may want to opt for Glazed Pecans or Praline Pecans from Southern Candy Makers as your closest shop-bought alternative to French Pralin - and for that little Southern touch... All you will need to do is chop the whole glazed pecans/ praline pecans through a food processor until they turn to a granulated texture.

All in all, please be warned about the confusion between Pralines (as in Southern Pecan Pralines) and French Pralines, despite their common French origins. The Pecan Pralines (described by Southern Candy Makers as "similar to candied pecans, only creamier, [they] resemble a cookie, but are actually a crumbly candy patty [made] from fresh cream, butter, sugar, and Louisana pecans") are not suitable for Paris-Brest. Do aim for Glazed Pecans or Praline Pecans instead.

Now back to our Paris-Brest. Preheat the oven (200°C/ 392°F). Prepare the choux pastry: In a medium saucepan and on medium heat, combine (without whisking) milk, water, butter, salt and sugar. When the mixture starts to simmer, add the flour in one go. Then for about one minute and on lower heat, mix together vigorously with a wooden spatula so as to dry out the dough without it sticking to the pan, and you should get a thick and smooth consistency.

Then transfer the dough from the saucepan to a mixing bowl. Add the whole eggs, one at a time, thoroughly incorporating each single egg into the dough with the spatula as you mix together, before you add on the next. Carry on until the dough gets elastic and smooth and comes off the sides of the bowl.

Optionally trace a loose circle (approx. 20cm diameter) on a sheet of parchment paper with a pencil. Then lay the parchment paper onto a baking tray and lightly grease the paper with cooking oil. Then spoon the dough into a piping bag and trace a circle onto the parchment paper and then another circle inside the first (right next to it with no gaps), so that you get a one-inch wide circle. Then pipe a third circle to rest on top of the junction between the first two circles.

You may use a teaspoon as an alternative to the piping bag (which is what I did here) and painstakingly spoon one teaspoon of dough at a time onto the paper until forming a full circle of dough (one inch wide). The finished article, once baked, might not be as full and rounded as the classic (piped) Paris-Brest, but this will not impair the taste whatsoever. And eh, who said Paris-Brest couldn't look rustic round the edges? Actually, [purists, look away now!] should you find convention a tad tricky to handle, you may want to adjust the shape of your Paris-Brest to rectangular, as this will neatly fit in the baking tray (which is what I did here too!).

Sprinkle a generous handful of almond slivers all over the choux pastry. Bake in the oven (200°C/ 392°F) for 20 mins. Never be tempted to open the oven during the baking process or the pastry will deflate and never raise again! When the 20 mins are up, turn the oven temperature down to 180°C/ 356°F and bake the cake for a further 5 mins. Then turn off the oven completely and open its door and leave the cake to cool off for 5 mins before taking it out of the oven. This will prevent it from deflating too much. The pastry should be golden in colour when it comes out of the oven.

Only when the cream puff pastry has thoroughly cooled off, should you split it in two equal horizontal halves, carefully and using a bread knife. Personally I find that a serrated grapefuit knife will do the trick nicely, thanks to the fact that the centre of cream puff is hollow.

Prepare the praline mousseline cream filling: A mousseline cream is basically pastry cream (crème pâtissière) to which butter has been added. Note that the cornflour will lighten the cream consistency. However if you have no cornflour handy, then adjust the all-purpose white flour quantity accordingly, i.e. to 50g (1/3 cup OR 2 heaped tablespoons).

Pour the milk into a saucepan. Split half a vanilla pod lengthways and scrape the seeds into the milk and add the pod shell to it. Bring the milk to the brink of simmer, whisking frequently so as to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Meanwhile combine the egg yolks and sugar into a big mixing bowl and cream until white and fluffy. Then add the combined white flour and cornflour in one go. Whisk together. Strain the vanilla pod out of the warm milk.

Add the warm milk to the yolk and sugar preparation in the mixing bowl. Note that the milk must not be boiling hot or it will cook the egg yolks, which is NOT what we want! Whisk together and then pour the cream back into the pan, on medium heat, until it has thickened up and a couple of bubbles have risen to the surface, indicating that the flour has cooked. Turn off the stove. Add the chopped pralines and mix with a wooden spatula, together with the softened butter, cut in chunks.

P.S: For the purists! Some pastry chefs would recommend that you go the extra mile with the praline cream. Once it has cooked - and before any of the softened butter has been added to it - pour the cream into a mixing bowl that sits in a bigger bowl that is filled with ice cubes. Leave the bowls in the fridge for one hour. When the time is up, take the cream out of the fridge and beat it to unset it. Then deal with the softened butter by creaming it with an electric whisk. Add the creamed butter to the praline cream, a little at a time, so as to get a smooth consistency.

Pipe the praline mousseline cream onto the lower half of the choux pastry circle, or alternatively dollop it with a spoon, and then either smooth the edges with a small pallet knife or shape them with a fork (which is what I did). Carefully position the upper half of the circle (i.e. the cake lid) onto its creamed-up lower half. Refrigerate the Paris-Brest until ready to serve. Liberally sprinkle icing sugar before taking to the dinner table, and just let your guests do all the swooning for you!

Psssst! Do not throw out those left-over egg whites! Whip them into Macaroons, a sweet teatime companion.

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