By Claire Saffitz, The New York Times
When I think of French pastry — before eclairs, before madeleines, before even the croissant — I think of Paris-Brest. For me, it occupies a special status in the pastry pantheon, simply because I find it incomparably delicious.
Invented in 1910 by pastry chef Louis Durand, Paris-Brest was named for a bike race that runs between Paris and the port city of Brest, in northwest France. It was even designed to resemble a bike wheel, with its ring of pate a choux, or cream puff dough, split horizontally and filled with a praline mousseline. The end result is a study in contrasts, with its juxtaposition of crispy choux and silky filling.
Like many other French pastries, Paris-Brest requires several steps and components, but the entire process can be broken down into manageable parts that can — and should — be done ahead of time. The finished pastry is a showpiece, so make it when you really want to show off (and feed a group).
The first step is to make the praline, a ground mixture of caramel and nuts (typically a 50-50 mix of hazelnuts and almonds). Homemade praline paste tends to be grainier than store-bought, which is hard to find outside France. To ensure my homemade praline paste is as smooth as possible, I coat toasted hazelnuts in a dark caramel, then crush the mixture and combine it with smooth almond butter in a food processor. The almond butter jump-starts the grinding, reducing the amount of the work for the food processor and producing less grit. You can make the praline weeks in advance; just store it in the fridge to prevent rancidity and stir it well before using to reincorporate the oils.
Next is the mousseline: You first make a pastry cream, which is basically a vanilla pudding. It’s cooked on the stovetop until thick and bubbling. (Make sure the mixture comes to a boil, whisking all the while, to activate the cornstarch.) After being chilled for several hours, the pastry cream is whipped with the praline paste and room-temperature butter until light and smooth to help the mousseline to hold its shape, so you can pipe it into beautiful swirls inside the pastry ring.
Lastly, there’s the pate a choux ring. Making the pate a choux can be tricky. To ensure it puffs and hollows out in the oven, it must be thoroughly cooked in two phases. First, milk, water, butter and flour are stirred into a soft dough on the stovetop to drive out moisture before eggs are beaten in off the heat. (Pate a choux contains a very high proportion of eggs, which is what gives it the ability to puff. The key is to add enough eggs so the mixture is smooth, glossy and elastic, but not so much that the dough can’t hold its shape.)
The second cooking occurs in the oven. If you don’t bake the dough sufficiently, the interior will be too wet and cause the dough to collapse, so let it go until the pastry is deep golden brown. Don’t forget to poke holes in the ring and let it cool inside the turned-off oven, which will help to further dry out the interior and guarantee the ring stays hollow, which is crucial to separating the top from the bottom.
Fill the Paris-Brest right before serving so the pastry stays crisp, then finish it with a dusting of powdered sugar (not only does it look pretty, but if your piping skills aren’t stellar, it helps disguise any unevenness in the choux). One challenge of serving the Paris-Brest is preventing the mousseline from squishing out of the pastry as you slice, so I pre-slice the top ring before placing it over the filling.
By planning ahead and making all of the components in advance, you’ll be able to assemble one of the most showstopping and delicious desserts ever invented, entirely stress-free — and there’s really nothing more impressive than that.
Named for a bicycle race that runs between Paris and Brest, France, this showstopping dessert is an assemblage of praline-flavored mousseline piped inside a ring of pate a choux designed to resemble a bike wheel. The recipe might appear daunting, but all of the components can be prepared separately and in advance, so assembly isn’t a monumental effort.
By Claire Saffitz
Yield: 8 servings
Total time: 3 hours, plus cooling and chilling
For the Praline and Pastry Cream:
- 1 1/4 cups/142 grams whole hazelnuts
- 1 1/4 cups/250 grams granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
- 1/4 cup/60 grams smooth natural almond butter
- 1 1/2 cups/360 milliliters whole milk
- Seeds scraped from 1/2 vanilla bean or 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla paste or extract
- 1/4 cup/30 grams cornstarch
- 5 large egg yolks
- 6 tablespoons/85 grams unsalted butter, cut into pieces and chilled
For the Pâte à Choux:
- 6 tablespoons/90 milliliters whole milk
- 6 tablespoons/85 grams unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal) or 1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt (such as Morton’s)
- 3/4 cup/100 grams all-purpose flour
- 4 large eggs, beaten
For the Assembly:
- 1/2 cup/113 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature
- Powdered sugar
1. Toast the hazelnuts: Arrange an oven rack in the center position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Scatter the hazelnuts across a rimmed baking sheet and toast, shaking the baking sheet once halfway through, until the hazelnuts are golden and fragrant, 10 to 12 minutes. Set aside to cool.
2. Once cooled, rub off and discard the skins. Measure out 1/4 cup hazelnuts and coarsely chop, then set aside for sprinkling over the ring of choux.
3. Caramelize the hazelnuts: Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Fill a glass with water, place a pastry brush inside and set aside. Combine 1 cup/200 grams granulated sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 cup/60 grams water in a small, heavy saucepan and stir gently with a heatproof spatula over medium-high heat just until sugar dissolves to form a clear syrup, about 3 minutes. Let the mixture come to a boil and use the wet pastry brush to brush down the sides of the saucepan and dissolve any stuck-on sugar crystals. Boil the mixture without stirring, occasionally swirling the saucepan gently and brushing down the sides of the saucepan if you see crystals forming, until the syrup becomes viscous and takes on a pale golden color and the bubbles become large, glassy and slow to pop (a sign that the water has boiled off and caramelization is near), about 5 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium and continue to cook, keeping a close watch and frequently swirling the saucepan, until the bubbling has mostly subsided and the mixture is very fluid and has turned a deep amber, about 4 minutes. Immediately remove the saucepan from the heat, add the 1 cup whole toasted hazelnuts and stir thoroughly with the spatula, scraping the bottom and sides, just until the nuts are coated. Working quickly before the caramel starts to harden, scrape the mixture out onto the lined baking sheet and spread the nuts in an even layer. Set the baking sheet aside and let the caramelized nuts cool completely.
4. Make the praline paste: Break up the cooled slab of caramelized hazelnuts into pieces, then transfer the pieces to a large resealable bag. Press out the air and seal the bag, then bash the pieces with a rolling pin until they’re broken into bits about the size of a pine nut. Transfer to a food processor along with the almond butter. Process the mixture, occasionally stopping to scrape down the sides, until you have a smooth, fluid paste with as little grit as possible, about 5 minutes. Scrape the paste into a lidded container, cover and set aside.
5. Make the pastry cream: Have a clean medium bowl at the ready. Combine the milk, vanilla seeds or paste, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small, heavy saucepan (if using vanilla extract, you’ll add it later). Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking once or twice, then remove from the heat.
6. Combine the cornstarch and remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar in a separate medium bowl and whisk to combine, then add the yolks and whisk vigorously until the mixture is very pale, light in texture and thick, about 2 minutes. (It will be very thick at first but will thin out as you work it.)
7. Whisking the yolk mixture constantly, slowly stream about half of the hot milk mixture into the bowl. Then, whisking constantly, stream the yolk mixture back into the remaining milk mixture in the saucepan. Set the saucepan over medium heat and cook, whisking constantly, until the foam has subsided and the pastry cream is thick like pudding and holds the marks of the whisk, about 2 minutes. Stop whisking for several seconds and check for slow bubbling beneath the surface, an indication that the pastry cream is at a boil. When you see bubbling, immediately remove the saucepan from the heat and scrape into the reserved bowl. (If you don’t see bubbling, continue whisking vigorously and pause to check every 20 seconds or so.) Whisk the chilled butter into the hot pastry cream a few pieces at a time until smooth. (If using vanilla extract, whisk it in.) Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pastry cream and refrigerate until it’s cold, at least 4 hours.
8. Cook the dough for the pate a choux: In a small saucepan, combine the milk, butter, granulated sugar, salt and 6 tablespoons/76 milliliters water and bring the mixture to a lively simmer over medium-low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon to melt the butter. Once you see active bubbling across the surface, add the flour all at once and stir slowly to incorporate, then stir more vigorously to bring together a soft dough. (A film will also form along the sides and bottom of the saucepan.) Continue to cook the dough over medium heat, using the spoon to smack it aggressively against the sides of the saucepan, until it’s shiny and holds together in a firm ball, 3 to 4 minutes. You want to make sure the dough has a chance to dry out and the flour loses its raw taste.
9. Beat in the eggs: Scrape the dough into a medium bowl and set aside for about a minute to cool, stirring once or twice to help release steam. Add a couple of tablespoons of beaten eggs to the bowl with the dough and mix with the wooden spoon until the dough absorbs the egg and the mixture is thick but smooth. (The dough will lose its cohesiveness when you add the egg but will come back together with a bit of mixing.) Beat in the remaining eggs a couple of tablespoons at a time, waiting until the dough smooths out before adding more, until you’ve added all but about 3 tablespoons. Set aside the remaining egg for brushing over the choux. The dough will become glossier and looser after each addition. Take a look at the consistency — it should be thick, smooth and glossy, and when you let it fall off the spoon it should leave a V-shaped trail. (If it seems very thick, dribble in a little more beaten egg and stir, but make sure to leave about 2 tablespoons egg for brushing the choux.) Scrape the dough into a large pastry bag or resealable plastic bag. Twist or seal the bag to close, squeezing out as much air as possible, then set aside at room temperature to allow the dough to set up for 15 to 20 minutes. Snip a 1-inch-wide opening in the tip of the bag.
10. Pipe the pate a choux: Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Turn over a sheet pan and line the turned-up side with a piece of parchment paper. Trace a 9- or 10-inch circle (a smaller ring will puff more, while a larger one will lay flatter; use a dinner plate or cake pan as your guide) onto the parchment paper with a permanent marker, then turn the parchment over (dab a bit of the pate a choux in the four corners of the pan underneath the parchment so it doesn’t slide around). Applying even pressure to the bag, pipe a ring of choux around the inside of the traced circle, overlapping the dough slightly where the ends meet. Pipe a second ring of dough inside the first so the two are touching, but starting and ending at a different point. Using all of the remaining dough, pipe a third ring over top of the first two, nestling it in between them and starting and ending at a third point. If you have any remaining pate a choux, pipe it along the circle to fill in any thinner spots. Using a gentle scraping motion, drag the tines of a fork all along the dough to lightly score the surface and help blend the rings together (this will help it puff more evenly). Brush the entire surface of the dough with the reserved beaten egg, then sprinkle the reserved hazelnuts evenly over top.
11. Bake and cool: Bake the ring for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue to bake until it’s puffed and deep golden brown, an additional 35 to 45 minutes. Avoid the temptation to open the door at this point: It’s important that the dough thoroughly dry out in the oven, or it will collapse, making it hard to fill. Turn off the oven, then open the door and use the tip of a paring knife to poke several holes in the top and side of the ring to allow steam to escape. Prop the door open with a wooden spoon and let the ring cool inside the oven for 1 hour, then remove it from the oven and let it cool completely.
12. Make the mousseline filling: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat 1/2 cup/113 grams of room temperature butter and 2/3 cup of the praline paste on medium speed, pausing once to scrape down the sides of the bowl, until the mixture is very smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. (Reserve the remaining praline for assembly.) Beating constantly on medium speed, add the chilled pastry cream to the bowl a couple of tablespoons at a time, waiting until the cream is incorporated before adding more. Once all the pastry cream is added, stop the mixer, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then continue to beat just until the mixture is very smooth and light, about 1 minute. Scrape the mousseline into a pastry bag fitted with a large open star tip, taking care not to form air pockets, then twist the bag to close and set aside.
13. Assemble the Paris-Brest: Use a serrated knife to slice evenly through the ring of pate a choux horizontally, separating the taller portion of the ring from the base. Gently slide the upper ring off the base and onto a cutting board, then transfer the base to a serving platter. Spoon the reserved praline paste inside the base and spread it in an even layer, then pipe the mousseline in large rosettes inside the base, using it all and distributing evenly. Use a serrated knife to cut the upper ring into eighths, then use a fine-mesh strainer to dust the pieces with powdered sugar. Place the pieces over the filling, reassembling them into a ring.
14. To serve the Paris-Brest, slice between the pieces of the upper ring and down through the filling and base. Transfer slices to plates and serve immediately.
TIPS: The Paris-Brest is best eaten right away while the choux is crisp, but leftovers will keep covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. The pastry cream will keep, stored airtight in the refrigerator, for 5 days. The praline paste will keep, stored airtight at room temperature, for 1 week. The pate a choux can also be refrigerated in the pastry bag for up to 1 day before baking. Let it come to room temperature before piping.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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