Damien Pignolet’s guide to making gâteau Saint-Honoré

Bearing the name of the patron saint of French pâtissiers, this crown-like confection of pastry and crème is a cake in a venerable tradition.
Gâteau Saint-Honoré

Gâteau Saint-Honoré

William Meppem
6 - 8
2H 30M
3H 30M

The French word gâteau, meaning cake, comes from the old French word guastrel. The term later crossed the channel to England and by Victorian times gâteau meant an elaborate dessert or pudding, generally highly decorated and served on celebratory occasions. This tradition remains in both countries – in France with their bûche de Noël, or yule log, and the croquembouche, and in England with the likes of Christmas cake.

The gâteau Saint-Honoré is a confection in this tradition. Some say it was created at a pâtisserie in Paris’s rue Saint-Honoré in 1846 by a pâtissier named Chiboust, who also created the traditional pastry-cream filling for the gâteau which takes his name; others say it was a pastry chef called Fauvel who worked with him. The gâteau itself, meanwhile, is named either for Saint-Honoré, the patron saint of pastry cooks and bakers in France, who was the bishop of Amiens in northern France in the sixth century and ultimately canonised, or after the Parisian street where it was apparently created.

All the parts of a gâteau Saint-Honoré

The original recipe called for a 30cm disc of shortcrust or puff pastry with the circumference topped with balls of choux pastry anointed with caramel. The centre of this crown was filled with a pastry cream lightened with Italian meringue made by beating cooked sugar syrup into stiffly beaten eggwhites. Research shows that the original used raw eggwhite, which had the potential to cause food poisoning, so the recipe later changed to cooked meringue.

The Italian meringue used in the crème Chiboust is a little tricky – you need to coordinate cooking a sugar syrup with beating the eggwhites to incorporate them before the syrup cooks beyond the correct temperature. It’s a job for a stand or hand-held mixer, beating to incorporate rather than splashing it around the sides of the bowl. The next step is to beat the mixture at low speed until it has substantially cooled. Italian meringue has a number of uses, with the most obvious being bombe Alaska. It’s a fairly stable product compared with the fragility of French or Swiss meringue, which needs to be used immediately.

The base of a gâteau Saint-Honoré is made of either puff pastry, or a slightly sweetened shortcrust made in the food processor. If you prefer the former, make a rough puff pastry, which has more body and is a lot easier to make than full puff pastry.

Rough puff combines equal quantities of cold diced butter and flour with a quarter of their weight in water and an optional small amount of lemon juice or vinegar. The pastry is rolled six times, reversing the direction each time by turning to create the millefeuille effect. If this seems too daunting, use your favourite shortcrust recipe.

Step 2.

(Photo: William Meppem)

My recipe for rough puff makes a firmer style of pastry which, when well baked, tends to be crisper. At first the pastry looks lumpy, but as you roll and fold it, it becomes smooth and more cohesive; at this stage, be sure to dust off excess flour with a pastry brush as you’re rolling, or its rising will be inhibited, making for a heavy result.

Regardless of your pastry preference, the base of the gâteau Saint-Honoré needs to be well cooked, because if it stands for too long the pastry cream may make it soggy. Bake it until it takes on a deep golden colour.

The importance of those choux pastry balls

The hero of your gâteau Saint-Honoré is the ring of choux pastry balls, baked then dipped in caramel, which provides the magical crunchy contrast to the rich cream filling. Choux pastry is an incredibly versatile product, with applications in both the sweet and savoury kitchen. Once the desired shapes have been cooked and cooled, they can be frozen very successfully, ready to use for canapés within 10 minutes from the freezer. After a quick refresh in the oven, fill them with creamed eggs and caviar, say, or avocado and prawn mousse. With larger ones, crisp them in the oven, then fill them with ice-cream and dip in melted chocolate or glaze with caramel for classic profiteroles.

The method for choux pastry requires bringing water or a combination of water and milk slowly to the boil with butter and seasoning, then removing it from the heat and adding sieved flour. Return the mixture to low heat and cook it until it forms a ball. After cooling the dough slightly, eggs are gradually beaten in until the dough falls from a wooden spoon in a thick thread; you may not need to add all the egg to reach this consistency. Then form balls using spoons or a piping bag and bake – a very simple job with great results. Often some paste remains inside the pastry shapes, which usually means a little too much egg was added. This is simply resolved: just slice off the top and dig the paste out with a small spoon, then dry the pastries briefly in a 150C oven.

Step 11.

Coating the balls of choux pastry in caramel is easier than you might imagine; a good tip is to make two batches of caramel, starting the second a few minutes after the first to use in case the first batch starts to harden before all the balls are dipped. Traditionally, the choux balls should be adhered to the base pastry with the flat base facing upwards, so a quick dip on the rounded side glues them to the base, then you finish by glazing the flat tops.

Step 12.

Once you have mastered this dipping method, you can work towards the “pie in the sky” choux pastry pièce montée, the croquembouche – meaning it crunches in the mouth. This astonishing tower of choux pastry balls filled with pastry cream and dipped in caramel, created with a conical mould and founded on a disc of nougat or pastry, can be seen as a natural progression from this recipe. So off to the kitchen and begin your apprenticeship making a delicious gâteau Saint-Honoré.

The recipe

The crème Chiboust, formed when the crème pâtissière and Italian meringue are combined, is based on Michel Roux’s version.

Prep time 2½ hrs, cook 1 hr (plus resting, cooling)

Serves 6 – 8


Damien’s rough puff pastry
Choux pastry
Crème pâtissière
Italian meringue



1.For rough puff pastry, sieve flour and ½ tsp salt into the bowl of an electric mixer, add butter and mix on lowest speed to just coat butter with flour. Add 125ml iced water and lemon juice and mix to just combine – it should look a bit messy with chunks of butter still visible in a slightly sticky paste.
2.Turn dough out onto a work surface and, using hands and a rolling pin, pat and roll into a rough 12cm x 30cm rectangle. With the shortest side facing you, fold the top third down, then the bottom third up to form 3 layers. Slide onto a tray, cover with a clean tea towel, then slip into a plastic bag and chill for 20 minutes.
3.Stand pastry at room temperature to soften slightly (about 10 minutes), then slide onto a lightly floured work surface with the wider side facing you – this is the first 90-degree turn, which means you will roll in the opposite direction with each turn. Patting and rolling with the rolling pin, roll to a rough 12cm x 30cm rectangle. If the pastry starts to stick, roll it up with the rolling pin or if the pastry is too fragile, use a long steel spatula or knife to loosen it from the board, then dust with flour and continue to extend the pastry. With the shortest side facing you, fold the top third down, then the bottom third up to cover, transfer to a tray, cover with a tea towel and plastic bag and refrigerate to rest (20 minutes). Give the pastry 2 more turns, re-wrap and chill for 20 minutes, then repeat. The pastry should look smooth and slightly smeared with butter here and there, though it shouldn’t have broken through. Wrap again and chill for 20 minutes.
4.Roll out pastry on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 4mm, then cut out a 24cm-diameter round with a sharp knife in a straight downward movement. Brush off any excess flour and place upside-down on a baking tray and use a fork to prick the base all over, leaving a 2cm border (this helps to inhibit rising). Cover with a tea towel and plastic bag, then freeze until firm (20-30 minutes or for up to a day before baking). Preheat oven to 210C. Bake pastry until it has risen slightly (8-10 minutes), then reduce oven to 160C and bake until nicely golden (20-25 minutes). Reduce oven to 120C and bake for 5 minutes to dry out. Cool on a wire rack.
5.For choux pastry, preheat oven to 210C. Bring milk, butter, 150ml water and ½ tsp salt to the boil in a saucepan over low-medium heat, then remove from heat and add flour in one lot while beating thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Return to a low heat and beat slowly until the dough forms a ball and leaves the sides of the pan (3-4 minutes). Transfer to a bowl and press a plastic freezer bag or a sheet of Go-Between onto the surface and stand for 5 minutes.
6.Gradually beat in the eggs, beating well between each addition. When most of the eggs have been incorporated, test the texture by holding the spoon above the dough and watching how it falls – a wide thread should slowly fall off the spoon and the dough should look smooth and shiny. Add remaining egg as necessary (you may not need all of it).
7.Place a 1.5cm plain nozzle into a piping bag, then twist the bag above the nozzle (this prevents the mixture oozing out), fill with the dough and hold a paring knife in your other hand. Release the twist and pipe small balls of 2cm-3cm diameter and 2cm high onto the tray, swiping the tip of the nozzle with the knife to finish each ball and leaving about 3cm between each. You’ll need 10-12 balls; freeze the remainder after baking for another use. Brush the balls with eggwash (try not to get eggwash on the tray – this may stop the choux rising) and bake until dark golden (6-7 minutes). Reduce oven to 170C and bake until dried out (5 minutes). Set aside to cool.
8.For crème pâtissière, bring milk, vanilla bean and seeds to the boil in a saucepan over low heat. Whisk yolks and sugar in a bowl to combine well, then whisk in custard powder. Whisking continuously, add hot milk, then return to pan and whisk over medium heat until thickened (2-3 minutes). Reduce heat to low and beat until thick (1-2 minutes), then remove from heat. Squeeze excess water from gelatine, add to crème pâtissière and whisk to combine, Transfer to a bowl, cover closely with plastic wrap, keep warm.
9.For Italian meringue, dissolve sugar with 50ml water in a small saucepan over low heat, bring to the boil and cook, brushing down sides of pan with a wet pastry brush if sugar crystals appear, until mixture reaches 110C (2-3 minutes; as the amount is small you may need to tilt the pan to see the temperature). At this point start whisking the eggwhite on low speed until foamy, then add cream of tartar and a tiny pinch of salt. Increase speed to medium and whisk until creamy yet stiff (4-5 minutes). Continue cooking syrup until it reaches 121C. Reduce mixer speed to low and slowly pour syrup into eggwhite mixture, avoiding the sides of the bowl and the whisk, then whisk until cooled to room temperature (10-15 minutes).
10.To make the crème Chiboust, fold a third of the Italian meringue into the crème pâtissière to lighten, then fold in remainder, being careful not to overwork or mixture will collapse. Cover and refrigerate for no more than 1 hour.
11.Stir sugar and 50ml water in a small saucepan over medium heat until sugar dissolves, bring to the boil and cook, brushing down sides of pan with a wet pastry brush if sugar crystals appear, until mixture turns light golden and reaches 160C on a sugar thermometer (6-8 minutes). Reduce heat to low and cook until mixture reaches 170C. Remove from heat and carefully dip the rounded top of each choux puff (the ideal tool for this is the fine tine of a carving fork) into the caramel, then the flat base and place on the edge of the rough puff base to form a ring, then allow to set.
12.Prepare a piping bag with a 1.5cm-2cm piping nozzle as instructed in step 7. Fill the bag with the crème Chiboust, then fill the centre of the gâteau in a pattern as desired. Open the Champagne and enjoy this delicious masterpiece of French pâtisserie.

Related stories