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Remember when I got back from Nice I spoke about a toothsome customary confection called Paris Brest which I had there? Of course I had to try my own home made variation and I’m happy to report that there’s no need to look for a French bakery anymore where this particular pastry is concerned, making it at home fills me with equal gratification. Paris Brest is traditionally made from choux pastry, so if you are familiar with Profiteroles, Eclairs, Bignè, or Croquembouche then you would know the type of pastry I’m referring to.

Choux pastry is one of the simplest pastries to make even for an amateur baker. There are only two major steps involved and those include the heating of ingredients and the addition of eggs and that’s it. The choux paste itself has no raising agent, yet when a choux paste bakes it leavens remarkably and you can’t help but wonder how that happened. To understand the elements involved in making the perfect choux pastry we have to understand the ingredients. The first steps to making choux paste or patê á choux as known in France (country of origin) is to heat butter, water and milk together with a few pinches of sugar and salt. When the butter has melted and the liquids begin to boil, flour must be added quickly. The flour then starts to thicken and form a panade, a mix of flour, liquids and butter. This step must be done rapidly so that the panade does not lose too much moisture. As you will understand in a minute the key to a good choux pastry is the moisture. Making the panade can take between 5-7 minutes from start to finish and once the panade is ready, 2/3rds of your choux paste is complete. The final step is the addition of eggs, one at a time until fully combined. And that’s your choux paste done, quick and easy. At this point you are ready to pipe them into eclairs or profiteroles.

Here in Italy profiteroles are called bignè and are usually filled with various creams, the three most common being chocolate, vanilla or zabaione. Zabaione (a foam made from sugar, egg yolks and Vin Santo) combined with mascarpone is the traditional filling for Italy’s famous Tiramisù. The bignè are filled and glazed accordingly to let the customer understand what decadence lies within so for example a bignè filled with chocolate cream is topped with a chocolate glaze. The French on the other hand also have their own exceptional traditions of serving “profiteroles”. Croquembouche, a pyramid of filled profiteroles fenced in by delicate strands of spun sugar makes for a traditional French wedding cake and when the are no wedding bells ringing, the size is adapted (usually smaller) and covered with chocolate mousse for an elaborate party dessert. While all of this is marvelous to eat, a bignè in Italy costs from a euro each catapulting one’s incentive to make these at home.

When it comes to baking choux paste it can become slightly tricky depending on the shape you choose to make. What you’re looking to achieve is a light and airy almost hollow interior with firm exterior. During the baking process the liquid in the paste condenses into steam and as it evaporates it causes the pastry to rise and expand with the heat. It is this vapour that leavens the choux paste and creates a naturally aerated pastry that’s perfect to be filled with pastry cream. An important key-note to remember is that if the pastry is not baked thoroughly and remains even a little wet inside, the remaining moisture that has not been given sufficient time to evaporate will draw back when the temperature drops causing the pastries to shrink and collapse. Devastating! You probably will not see that coming because choux paste tends to rise beautifully in the oven deceiving you into thinking that it’s fully baked. That is why it is well-known amongst all bakers alike that choux paste be baked without opening the oven door not only during the bake but after the bake as well. The pastries have to dry off completely and cool gradually as the oven temperature goes down so that they keep their shape and stay up.

Experience has taught me that when making little profiteroles or bignè the baking is very straightforward. This is probably due to the fact that they are little and therefore rise fairly quickly by drying out or losing moisture faster. I’ve been making these for a long time and I’ve never had any problems, so at this point if you prefer to make little profiteroles all you have to do is pipe out the choux paste accordingly and bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for 30 minutes and they’re good to go.

The baking for the Paris Brest however is a little different and that is specifically because of its shape. If you are familiar with the French town of Brest and its cycling history you might know where the Paris Brest derived its unusual name from. The Paris Brest was first created by a French Patissier Louis Durand, at the request of the organiser of the famous bicycle race from Paris to Brest. When Durand created the very first Paris Brest he gave it the shape of a bicycle wheel and to this day most bakeries still have kept the tradition going. To obtain the shape of a wheel the choux paste is piped into one large round ring, made up of three circles of paste. Two circles are piped alongside each other while the third circle sits on top of the two for additional height. If you compare that with a small individual profiterole it is a lot of paste meaning it takes considerable time to bake. This is why it can be confusing when bakers use the same temperature and baking time for Paris Brest as well as profiteroles. Keeping in mind that no two ovens work exactly in the same way what I discovered is that using the same temperature settings for these two very different amounts of choux paste does not yield the same results. I ‘ve tried this many times and I stand a hundred per cent assured that a prolonged bake is the only way you will get your wheel to rise, keep its shape and not look like a punctured tyre that’s seen better days.

Of course you might think that all this hassle is simply not worth it and why not stick to making simple individual profiteroles. Well that maybe true but there are times when we deserve to take the luxury of eating at home to another level and the Paris Brest is just the confection to bring that kind of self-indulgence into your life. It’s not just an eclair or a profiterole, this edible wheel is dusted with confectioners sugar and covered with almonds that toasts while baking rewarding the pastry with a well-rounded nuttiness, while the interior of the wheel is glutted with a deluxe hazelnut praline cream, topped with remnants of caramelised nuts and shards of cooked sugar and when it all comes together, from the first glimpse to the first bite, you can’t deny that this is nothing short of a work of art.

Some time ago I took a Paris Brest that I had made to a dinner party that my husband’s Aunt Sylvia held in honour of my Mum and even though I knew there would be a magnificent spread, it’s simply good manners to never attend a dinner party empty-handed. I am so grateful that I get this opportunity to say that the hostess outdid herself yet again with course after course of delicious Italian dishes. The appetizer of sliced Parmigiano Reggiano with an aged Balsamic cream served with Focaccia was the perfect beginning. This was preceded by Corzetti, little coins of pasta which are stylishly engraved with Italian designs. This beautiful pasta was tossed with green beans, smothered in a basil pesto and came piping to the table. The next course was a broccoli quiche ( a recipe handed down by Sylvia’s late Mother) dripping with a creamy béchamel and at this point I was starting to really stretch my stomach however I could not resist the main course of grilled lobsters with a side of Ratatouille. As if she could not spoil us further she brought out chocolate Amoretti biscuits with a trio of artisanal gelato and a plentiful bowl of fruit brimming with a myraid of colours from the blueberries, raspberries, Indian figs, pomegranates and so many others, all laced with a good hit of Grappa. At the end of all that I literally could not move and I was certain nobody at the table would have been even remotely interested in the long forgotten Paris Brest. Suddenly out came our gracious Aunty, Paris Brest in hand telling me its time to cut. I was humbled at how many praises I got from the guests even though I knew how stuffed we all were and the honesty in their praise was confirmed when after about twelve minutes there was nothing left except a smidgen for Bondie the pet dog.

If you are adept to pampering your guests when they come over to dine with you or you would like to prepare something special over the Christmas holidays, I think that the Paris Brest makes a unique Christmas desert, there is something about the wheel that somewhat resembles a Christmas wreath. With Christmas less than two months away I wonder if the countdown to your Christmas menu has already begun and if it hasn’t this may be an excellent start. What better way to put all those festive Christmas nuts to use and amass victory at your holiday table, than with this world-class champion. Here’s how its done.

FOR THE CHOUX PASTRY
Ingredients
  • 125ml water
  • 125ml milk
  • 100g cubed butter
  • 150g flour
  • 1tsp salt
  • 2tsp sugar
  • 2 whole eggs (room temp)
  • 1tbs confectioners sugar
  • handful of shaved almonds
 Preparation
  1. Preheat oven to 220°C conventional / 200°C electric fan/180°C gas fan.
  2. Using parchment paper and a small side plate draw a circle as a guideline for your first dough ring. Invert the paper to ensure that the ink will not touch the choux paste. Line a heavy based baking sheet with the paper and set aside.
  3. In a medium saucepan bring butter, water, milk, salt and sugar to the boil.
    When the butter is completely melted and the liquid is boiling, turn off the heat and add in the flour. Rapidly mix this mixture until it becomes a ball of dough that pulls away from the pot to form the panade.
  4. Place dough ball inside the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on low-speed with paddle attachment for five minutes. This will allow for the ball to cool before the addition of the eggs.
  5. Add the eggs one at a time and beat on medium speed for 4 minutes between intervals.
    The mixture should gently fall off the paddle attachment to show readiness.
  6. Clean the sides of the bowl and mix again on high-speed for ten seconds.
    Fill a piping bag with the choux paste and using a large round tip, pipe your first ring onto the parchment paper.
  7. Pipe the second ring on the outer side of the first ring and finally to complete the ring, pipe a third circle of choux paste on top of the two rings.
  8. Scatter over the almonds and dust the ring with confectioners sugar.
  9. Place in the oven for 10 minutes before reducing the temperature by 20°C and bake for 60 minutes.
  10. Switch off the oven and leave to cool inside the warm oven for 30 minutes.
    Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely.

 

FOR THE HAZELNUT PRALINE CREAM

Traditionally the Paris Brest is made with a Mousseline cream which is a French Pastry Cream or Custard but this is my variation using mascarpone cheese for an Italian twist that cuts the preparation time in half.

Ingredients

150g hazelnuts (skins removed)
200g brown sugar
250ml fresh whipping cream
250ml mascarpone

 Preparation
  1. Using a pan toast nuts on stove top for 15 mins on medium heat tossing around from time to time to prevent burning.
  2. Place toasted nuts in a bowl and set aside.
  3. Place pan back on the heat with sugar and allow to caramelise until a deep amber colour emerges and the consistency is moderately thick.
    Add toasted nuts and combine.
  4. Pour praline onto a silicone mat/silicone loaf pan/ parchment paper and smooth out with a heat resistant spatula. Be careful that to not touch the caramel, it is very hot and dangerous.
    Allow praline to cool completely before breaking into pieces.
  5. Reserve 50g of broken pieces and grind the rest into a paste in a blender/coffee grinder.
    In a well chilled mixing bowl combine mascarpone and fresh cream and whip until medium peak stage.
  6. Add praline paste and whip to stiff peak stage.
  7. Taste the praline cream for personal/preferred sweetness add a tsp of sifted confectioners sugar if need be and mix well.

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Assembly
  1. Fill praline cream into a large piping with a pastry tip of your choice. Here I used a closed star tip.
  2. Leave the piping bag in the refrigerator while you complete the next step.
  3. Using a sharp bread knife, slice the wheel horizontally to form a bottom layer for the base and a top layer for the cover.
  4. Using the base layer fill the hollow interior with one layer of praline cream by piping directly in the centre.
  5. Pipe a second layer on top of the first layer in a design of your choice making sure you cover the open edges.
  6. Crush the reserved broken pieces by placing in a freezer bag and beating with a rolling-pin a couple of times. Do not let it get too fine.
  7. Scatter the cream with the reserved pieces of praline and place the cover on top.
  8. Dust with confectioners sugar to finish.
Maestros Need To Know

*When making the panade always make sure that you remove the boiling liquids from the heat before adding the flour. If you keep the heat going, the panade will lose the moisture it needs to rise by evaporation during the bake.

*Before adding the eggs always ensure that the panade is not hot enough to scramble the eggs. Do not eliminate the step of mixing the panade in the stand mixer to cool.

*When adding the eggs break them into a separate bowl first before incorporation into the panade to prevent mishaps in case the eggs are stale. Usually eggs used for choux paste should be of the freshest quality, (2 days old) but unless you have chickens laying fresh eggs everyday it's a bit difficult. Try buying eggs at your local poultry or always check the expiration dates on store-bought eggs.

*When filling the piping bag it is important to ensure that you eliminate the air pockets which form inside the bag and disrupts consistent piping. To eliminate the air pockets, alway push the air up out of the bag before you are ready to pipe.

*If you are inexperienced with filling a piping bag by holding it in one hand and filling it with the other, then you should place the bag into a jar so it stands upright and begin to fill it. The jar should hold the bag in place while it's being filled. Once filled remove the bag from the jar and with a rolling-pin begin to roll all the paste towards the front end of the bag towards the pastry tip. This will push out the air pockets as well.

*When you are ready to pipe remember to hold the bag not too close to the surface. By holding the bag away from the surface you are ensuring a good round tube of paste to form. If you hold the bag too close to the surface, the paste will spread out as you pipe and instead of a tube of paste you will yield a flat circle of paste.

*When making the caramel for the praline paste watch the sugar closely, as sugar can turn into caramel in the blink of an eye. Be sure not let any liquid touch the caramel while it cooks, as it will cause the caramel to splash which can render serious burns.

*When grinding the praline it is important to remember to not allow any large bits of nuts or cooked sugar to remain in the praline paste. This will become a problem when piping the praline cream later if the pastry tip gets blocked.
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