Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Paris brest

Paris Brest. Photos by Steve Shanahan

It’s that time of year when glazed-eyed cycling fans are glued to late night telly watching sweaty fellas on two wheels toughing it out through the impossibly picturesque and often steep French countryside, competing in the Tour de France. 

For those of us who are non-cyclists, don’t despair. You can get into the quintessentially French spirit of this event by providing tempting sustenance to those devotees of the be-spoked wheel,  in the form a Paris Brest. 

The traditional Paris-Brest is a bicycle wheel shaped choux pastry creation, filled with patisserie cream and topped with almonds and icing sugar. It was originally created in 1891 in honour of the Paris to Brest bicycle race, by a pastry cook whose shop was situated along the route. This spare wheel was filled with high calorie cream to provide sustenance to the race participants.

The patisserie cream filling can be substituted with fresh whipped cream and strawberries, which is a lot less work and much more economical. It also gives a lighter and fresher result.

You will need a large pastry bag, with a wide nozzle about 18mm wide and strong arms to mix in the eggs. Alternatively, you could use an electric mixer with a dough beater, to mix in the flour and eggs, being careful not to over-mix the paste. I still prefer to do the mixing with a wooden spoon, this little bit of exercise eases my guilt before indulging.

For flavour variations, add a few drops of liqueur to the cream, such as, Frangelico or Kahlua. If chocolate is more your thing, you could drizzle the top with melted chocolate, then decorate with toasted almonds.

This popular dessert is found in good patisseries all over the world, but is an easy and impressive one to make at home. It’s a standout sweet that will provide calorific encouragement while watching the famous race and guaranteed to cheer on celebrations at your Tour de France parties.

The quantity makes a 23cm round pastry that can be sliced into six to eight portions.

150g unsalted butter
225g plain flour, sifted twice
pinch of salt
7 free range eggs, medium size
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 extra egg, lightly beaten
30g flaked almonds
600ml pure cream
scraped vanilla bean or ½ tsp vanilla bean paste
2 tbsp caster sugar
punnet of strawberries, hulled and sliced
icing sugar for decoration

Preheat the oven to 200C. Draw a 20 centimetre circle on the back of a piece of baking paper in a dark pen so that the circle shows through onto the other side. Using a baking tray that will take the size of the paper. Spray a few dots of oil onto a baking tray to help the paper stay in place. Place the paper on the baking tray, pen side down.

Melt the butter with 375ml of water in a saucepan, then bring it to a rolling boil. Transfer the saucepan to a heat-proof work surface, such as a silicone mat. This will provide a non-slip surface for mixing the paste. 

Add the flour all at once to the butter and water mixture in the saucepan. Add the pinch of salt. Return to the heat and beat continuously with a wooden spoon to make a smooth shiny paste that comes away from the sides of the pan. Once it does this, remove from the heat and cool for a few moments.

Beat in the eggs one at a time until shiny and smooth, the mixture should drop off the spoon, but not be too runny. Beat in the sugar.  

Standing the pastry bag in a tall jug, open the top up and fold it back, filling the pastry bag with the paste. Pipe a pastry ring over the circle guide you have drawn. Now pipe another ring of pastry directly inside this one so that you have one thick ring. Pipe another two circles on top of the first tow and continue until all the choux pastry has been used. Brush the choux ring with the beaten egg and sprinkle with the flaked almonds.

Bake the choux ring for20 minutes, then reduce the oven to 180C and bake for a further fifteen to twenty minutes. Remove from the baking tray and place on a wire rack. Immediately slice the ring in half horizontally, using a serrated bread knife. Make the base twice as deep as the top. Lift off the top and scoop out any uncooked pastry from the base. Leave to cool completely.

Whip the cream, vanilla and sugar until very stiff. Fill the pastry base with the cream and top with sliced strawberries. Cover with the pastry top and dust with icing sugar.

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