Un petit gateau

If you’re a food writer and you go to Paris, people are going to ask you about what you ate. Or, to be more specific, a remarkable number of people will ask “What was the best thing you ate?” It will be their first, and often only question about your trip.

If you answer that, honestly, the best thing you ate was the bœuf bourguignon you made yourself, well, they aren’t going to like that. They want, I assume, to hear about the best baguette ever or flaky croissants every morning or cheese that blew your mind (okay, I did have a cheese that was washed in walnut liqueur that was pretty crazy awesome). They want tales of loupe de mer so perfectly cooked it was worth the surly attitude of the waiter. They want you to be as enthralled by the meals you ate as they are about the idea of you eating them.

The problem is that while there is a lot of delicious food in Paris, there is also a lot of mediocre food there. There is also a lot of really good food here. And if you’re a family with tastes that tend towards either the ultra-fresh produce California-style and/or spicy, Paris in winter is not going to hit your culinary sweet spot. I first went to Paris 26 years ago. I lived there at two different points and visited many times in between. The difference in quality that used to exist between the average French meal and the average American meal – at least the average meal I eat in America – is no longer a giant slap in the face. And, I would humbly assert, if you’re operating on anything resembling a budget, the City by the Bay has the City of Lights beat by a mile on both variety and quality.

I’m not saying we didn’t eat well – we had some great meals and, just as importantly, we had some really super fun meals. And my son would point out that any place where steak frites is a normal lunch option and where escargots are thick on the ground is nirvana – I’m just saying that nothing stood out and grabbed us by the throat and screamed “eat more of me!” while we wondered where it had been all our lives.

Nothing, that is, except the individual gateaux Paris-Brest I bought at Maison Landemaine on the rue des martyrs on an impulse while picking up what are widely considered to be one of the best baguettes in Paris (yes, the baguette was very good indeed). As we ate them I kept wondering why they were so much better than any other I’d ever had.

A few weeks later, when called upon to bring dessert to a surprise birthday party, I though I’d make one. I pulled out a recipe I’d used before and what made the one at Landemaine such a winner slapped me in the face: they left out the pastry cream.

Genius.

The dessert was lightened considerably, the praline flavor could shine through, and it was scads easier to make in the bargain. I made the big traditional wheel-shaped version for the party, but had just enough choux left over to make this mini one, like that from Landemaine. It was perfect to photograph and, I’ll be honest, to eat all by myself with a cup of coffee after lunch. So far it’s been the best thing I’ve eaten while thinking extremely fondly of our trip to Paris.

Gateau Paris-Brest

Created, so the story goes, to commemorate a famous bike race between Paris and Brest in 1891, this cake will strike some as a fancy riff on an eclair. As mentioned above, usually the praline is added to a pastry cream which is then spread in there which is then topped by a lesser amount of whipped cream than used here. I am not lying when I say that this is a prime example of less being more. The whipped cream-only version may be less, but it is way, way more.

Part of what I love about this pastry is that it contains just butter, flour, eggs, sugar, almonds, and cream. That’s it. There’s some water thrown in here and there, but those six ingredients are used in various ways to create a remarkably complex, delicious confection.

Start by preheating an oven to 400°F.

First, you need to make a choux paste. In a medium (2-quart is ideal) saucepan, bring one cup of water and 1/2 cup of butter to a boil – start it off on a low enough temperature so the butter melts before the water starts bubbling. Dump in 1 cup of flour. Seriously dump it all at once. Use a wooden spoon to stir everything together into a mass. A dough will quite quickly, and rather surprisingly, form as you do this. Reduce the heat to medium or so and cook and stir the dough until it clearly forms a single mass that holds together as you stir it and pulls away from the sides of the pan. Take the pan off the heat.

Add an egg. Stir like hell. At first the dough will fall apart and look horrible. Do not panic. This is just what happens. Keep stirring. It won’t seem like it, but the dough will come together again. Now that you’ve passed that hurdle you need to do it a second time. And a third. And a fourth. For this cake, instead of adding a fifth egg I like to add two egg whites. And no, you cannot add all the eggs and egg whites at once. You must do them one at a time and go through the dough breaking apart and then you man-handling it with a wooden spoon to get it to go back together each time. Choux paste is not for babies. Man up.

Lightly oil or butter the largest baking sheet you have. Use your fingertip to trace as large a circle as will fit on said pan (I find tracing around a cake pan or plate works nicely). Use a spatula to transfer the choux paste from the pan to a pastry bag fitted with a large tip. Make a circle of the choux paste on that circle. Make a second circle directly inside the first. Now make a circle on top of the two concentric circles. See how it sort of looks like a bicycle tire? A little bit?

Brush the pastry with a beaten egg and sprinkle it with about 1/4 cup of sliced almonds.

Increase the oven to 425°F and bake until the pastry is a dark golden-turning brown and the whole circle feels fairly light when you lift it, about 50 minutes. Cut horizontal slits into the sides of the pastry and return to the turned off oven for about 10 minutes to dry out the insides a bit more. Transfer the pastry to a rack and let it cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, make the praline, which is a real flavor of this dessert. Bring a sauce pan of water to a boil. Add one cup of raw almonds and boil/blanch for about 30 seconds. Drain the almonds, rinse them with cold running water, and slip off all their skins. This is an excellent task for children, should any be loafing about. Spread the almonds to dry on a clean kitchen towel or layers of paper towels.

Place a baking sheet next to the stove. If it’s nonstick, great; if not, spray it with cooking oil or lightly grease it.

In a light-colored frying pan, bring one cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water to a boil. Swirl the pan as the water heats to dissolve the sugar. Add the almonds. Keep boiling and watching until the mixture turns a dark amber color. You want the sugar really caramelized and the almonds toasted. This goes from done to a burnt mess in the blink of an eye so, seriously, just stay there and watch it. When it’s ready, pour the caramel-almond mixture onto the pan. This mixture will be extremely hot and burn like hell, so be careful. Have the almond-peeling children well out of the way. If you happen to get the sugar mixture on you or someone else, get the coldest water possible on it immediately to harden the sugar and then pull the hardened caramel off the skin and get that skin under cold water.

Let the almond-caramel harden. Once it is completely cool, break it up and whirl it into a powder in a food processor. Now you have what the French call “praline.”

Just before serving, slice the pastry in half horizontally. Pull out any doughy bits of pastry, if you like.

Whip two cups of heavy cream until soft peaks form. Fold in about 3/4 of the praline. Spread the cream over the bottom of the pastry wheel. Sprinkle with about 1/2 of the remaining praline. Set the top of the pastry wheel on top of the whipped cream, being careful not to push down on it.

If at all possible, bring it to your friend’s house to surprise him for his 43rd birthday. Cut it into sections and serve the pieces sprinkled with the remaining praline, of you like (you may prefer to just eat the extra praline with a spoon). Set aside an extra slice for the birthday boy and stand with him while he eats it at the kitchen counter as you both sip a late harvest Riesling and reflect on the fact that being friends with someone for over 20 years is a fine and noble thing.