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, writes Damien Pignolet.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.