Every so often a pastry comes along that makes even the most jaded sweet-eater throw down his fork, stomp his foot and shout out loud:
my GOD that’s good. Gâteau St. Honoré is that pastry. Yes, you may think you know what it tastes like: cream puff dough, pastry cream, meringue and caramel. But I’m telling you friends, until you actually prepare and serve one of these you won’t understand the impact that all those components can have when they’re delivered together. The uninitiated are always, always stunned.
The nice thing is that while this pastry is rather involved it isn’t strictly speaking “hard” to make. You can even spread the preparation out over days or weeks if you like. Allow me to explain…as I preheat my oven to 450.
Here I have about a ten-ounce ball of puff pastry scraps that I’ve been keeping in my freezer (they’re thawed of course). You can use an equal amount of non-scrap homemade puff pastry or store-bought puff pastry.
I roll it out into a sheet about 12″ on all sides…
…then I place a 9″ to 10″ form — like this tarnished pot lid — over the sheet. I trim around it with a pizza cutter.
I then dock the circle with a fork to keep it from rising very much. I stick that in the fridge on a parchment-lined sheet pan while I prepare the choux.
When the choux is ready, I load it into a piping bag with just the collar (no tip) and pipe a thick line around the edge. I press the bag firmly and remember to hold the tip of the bag about an inch from the piping surface. I don’t extrude the batter, I let it fall from the tip.
Now I go over to a second parchment-lined sheet pan and pipe some cream puffs, about 18 of them. With a lightly moistened fingertip, I pat down any pointy bits.
Now I return to the pastry circle, and with any remaining batter I pipe a curlicue in the middle of the circle. This is mostly just to use up batter and fill space. If you don’t pipe this perfectly it’s no big deal…at all.
I insert both pans on upper racks in my oven, placing the handle-end of a wooden spoon in the door. What does that do? It keeps the over door open about 1/4″, and that allows steam to escape. Don’t skip that part. It’s important.
I bake for 10 minutes at 450, then turn the heat down and bake another five minutes at 400. By then the puffs should be, er, puffy and well browned. I take them out of the oven.
After a further ten minutes the base should be nicely browned. Don’t be afraid to get it a little on the dark side. You get a better look and more complex flavor that way.
If you’ve had enough at this point you can stop for up to several weeks. How’s that? Because choux freezes very, very well. Put the puffs in freezer bags and wrap the base in thick plastic wrap. It’ll keep nicely. When you’re ready to assemble the pastry, affix a narrow tip to the pastry bag and fill it with pastry cream. Here I’m using a big ol’ Bismarck tip. Fill the puff, but not to bursting. You don’t want these things too heavy.
Once that’s done, I prepare the caramel by swirling a cup of sugar and a 1/4 cup of water in a shallow pan over high heat until it’s just past a light amber color. I turn off the heat and take the pan off the burner. The caramel will continue to cook for the next 30 seconds or so. While the caramel is still liquid, I dip the tops of the cream puffs — careful now, they don’t call this stuff “bakery napalm” for nothing.
Now I rest the puffs — top side down — on yet another parchment-lined baking sheet, leaning them against the edges so they don’t roll over. If you don’t like those little flat tops, you can set the puffs right-side-up instead. I like those odd little shapes, myself. They not only look vaguely sculptural, they provide your guests with a nice, greedy bite of caramel candy. Oh that’s good.
But where was I? Right. When they’re all done, I return to the first puff and dip the bottom (note that if the caramel is hardening at this stage, you can just return the pan to the stove top…high heat for 20 or 30 seconds loosened it back up).
Then one by one, I stick the cream puffs on the edge of the base…
…until I have a complete border. I put the whole thing into the refrigerator while I made the chiboust. I could keep the base in the fridge all day at this point if I need to, and make the chiboust later. That’s up to you.
When the chiboust is ready I spoon some into the base to fill up some of the volume…
…then with a pastry bag — with no tip or collar — I gently pipe large blobs of filling into the center in no particular pattern. (Forgive me for not showing this, but it was 95 with 90% humidity yesterday, and the chiboust was melting fast in the oppressive environment…plus my girls were trying to hit me with water balloons — all in all less than ideal conditions for pastry making).
If you don’t want to go to the trouble of making chiboust, pastry cream lightened with whipped cream (about 2 parts whipped cream to 1 part pastry cream) will also work splendidly. Chantilly cream (whipped cream with a little sugar and vanilla added is also very nice).
And I’m done. This pastry can be refrigerated for 6-8 hours before serving, but should be eaten the same day. Note that you can simply use sweetened whipped ream (Chantilly cream) if you wish. Either way it’s a knockout.