28 May 2007
Homework is one of those things that you are supposed to be freed from upon leaving school. One of the perks of ‘adult’ life, like going out on a weeknight, or the realization that calculus really was useless. Liberated from homework, people get to move forward in their lives and do fun things like fix the broken washing machine, fertilize the lawn, pay the bills, and have those little things called kids and tend to raising them. But we never really get away from homework, even if it no longer involves trigonometry. I sometimes bring work home with me, especially if I’m working on a piece of writing, I like to be able to mull over word choice and sentence structure at my own leisure. However, this week I was cursing myself for some self-assigned homework.
You may have read about a certain crepe cake I made way back when, part of a baking group I joined (the Daring Bakers), in which we have a ‘monthly challenge.’ So, along came this month’s challenge, and I’ll admit it, I balked. As the deadline approached, I grumbled sourly about “that thing I have to bake, as if I don’t have other things to do.” The assignment, a Gâteau Saint-Honoré, was indeed a challenge, with multiple components and steps. I could be heard muttering things about ‘stupid French pastries’ under my breath like a kid with a book report to do. In France, fancy pastries and cakes are almost always purchased from professional bakers, while home cooks rely on a repertory of simple baked goods and custards for everyday. I am very-much a home cook, but I hope I am also daring, so I gave it a go.
A Gâteau Saint-Honoré is a classic pastry comprised of a puff pastry base with rings of cream puff dough, then topped with a lightened pastry cream (rapid Chiboust), and decorated with cream puffs, whipped cream, and caramelized sugar. May 16 was Saint Honore (pronounced o-no-ray) Day the patron saint of bakers after whom the cake is named.
I finally buckled down and made the thing, and you know what, I’m so glad I did. Like the best homework assignment, it actually taught me some things. I’d never made cream puffs (choux paste dough) before, it’s an interesting technique, and one I look forward to experimenting with some more. I stirred the dough by hand, and nearly lost an arm to it, so if you have a stand mixer, I recommend using it. The puff pastry and Chiboust ( a pastry cream stabilized with gelatin and lightened with both whipped cream and beaten egg whites), are classic techniques worth knowing. If you wanted to simplify this, you could use a purchased puff pastry (I recommend Dufour brand), and a simple pastry cream lightened with whipped cream.
Most importantly, the cake was delicious. I had been contemplating giving half of it away to a friend, but after the two of us went back for seconds, I was told: “you better not give any of this away, it’s like a real French pastry.” I agreed, nibbling a delectable cream puff with a crunch of caramelized sugar, and feeling rather proud of my bit of edible homework. A+
Since it is quite lengthy, I recommend you head over here for the full Gâteau Saint-Honoré recipe. Also, much of my own success is due to Helen, who wrote out the recipe and offered great support and advice along the way. Many thanks!