When I think of French pastry — before éclairs, 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 the 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 pâte à 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 pâte à choux ring. Making the pâte à 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. (Pâte à 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 confectioners’ 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.