I recently took a class on French tarts at my local culinary school, just for fun. I had a great time– I’d never worked with pastry rings before (as opposed to removable-bottom tart pans), nor had I ever made a classic pate sucree to roll into the ultra-thin and ultra-refined French-style tarts. Turns out it’s really easy to do, and the results are fabulous!
Since we had extra dough left to take home, I decided to put it to use making some tart recipes of my own creation. Eschewing rich, heavy fillings (like caramel or chocolate) for the moment, I instead went with something lighter for my first try– a yogurt panna cotta. I find that I don’t make panna cotta nearly enough, probably because it’s so simple that it doesn’t feel “exciting.” So adding it to a tart with a fruity garnish was a natural way to gussy it up a bit and make it interesting.
You know how sometimes you wake up in the morning, with a long day of doing nothing in front of you, and you feel like having an indulgent breakfast? It doesn’t happen very often for me (at least not the “doing nothing” part), but recently I found myself with just such a day, and decided to take advantage of it. But what to make? Pancakes weren’t special enough, I didn’t have any good bread to make french toast, and we didn’t have any good omelette fillings in the fridge. I scrolled through my list of bookmarked breakfast ideas when I came across a recipe for “breakfast puffs.”
Breakfast puffs (also referred to as “french breakfast puffs” or “doughnut muffins”) are basically nutmeg-scented muffins, dipped in melted butter and rolled in cinnamon-sugar while still warm. They supposedly taste just like warm doughnuts, but without the frying. Sounded perfect.
Out of the blue one day my husband emailed me a link to the apparently famous Chez Panisse Almond Tart. Since he rarely requests specific desserts I felt compelled to make it– also, we had a bunch of extra heavy cream left over from an earlier baking binge, so any recipe involving cream was welcome! I picked up some sliced almonds, and the rest of the ingredients were already in my pantry– always a plus.
The tart itself didn’t look too hard to make– fussy, sure, with repeated check-ins during the baking time to (weirdly) tap the surface of the tart with a spatula, but not difficult. Surprisingly for me, the crust baked up nicely with minimal shrinkage (I always have issues with that), and while I had my doubts about the filling consistency being too thin when I first poured it into the tart shell, it firmed up nicely in the oven.
Sweetened red bean paste is a staple of many Asian desserts, but I never really liked it growing up– compared to the other available dessert standards (chocolate, vanilla, etc.), it was just too “beany” for me to enjoy. But that all changed when I grew up and tried the incredible Azuki Bean Cream Puff at a local French-Japanese bakery.
The pastry has a thick layer of red bean paste on the bottom, and then is filled to bursting with sweetened whipped cream. I still haven’t figured out how they managed to make the flaky pastry so close to spherical when full, but I’ll do it eventually! In the meantime, I made do with regular choux pastry and made cream puffs. These are split, spread with red bean paste, and filled with stabilized whipped cream. Delicious! The lightness of the cream contrasts beautifully with the dense, sweet, slightly earthy red bean paste, and the pastry adds a little textural interest to the dessert.
So I was looking for something simple to make for a thank-you gift for some friends who did us a favor– I always promise baked goods for things like this. Since our friends had little kids I wanted to make sure that whatever I made was relatively mess-free, as well as being easy to eat and not too outrageously sugary. When I thought of palmiers I knew I’d hit on the right idea. But you know me, I never let well enough alone– I wasn’t going to go to the trouble of making my own puff pastry (it never turns out well for me) so I had to doctor them up somehow.
When I was in Paris I finally got the chance to try the famous Gateau St. Honoré– a toothsome confection consisting of a layer of puff pastry, topped with a piped choux pastry swirl, topped with a ring of caramel-dipped cream puffs, and filled with fluffy cream. It was rich, decadent, and begging to be reproduced at home. Of course, I can rarely leave well enough alone, so when I decided to try making one I thought it would be delicious to incorporate elements of another famous French dessert, the Paris Brest.
Paris Brest is made of a large ring of choux pastry (meant to resemble a bicycle wheel, as the dessert was created in honor of a bicycle race), which is split and filled with a praline mousseline cream. The praline is made of caramelized hazelnuts and almonds, pulverized until they turn into paste, which is then folded into the cream.
I actually vacillated between which of these desserts to make, as both sounded fantastic, but in the end the Gateau St. Honoré– being both more complicated (I always love a challenge) and involving puff pastry, which I always adore– won out. But instead of the regular chiboust (mixture of plain pastry cream and Italian meringue) to fill the center, I made two changes: First, I used diplomat cream (mixture of pastry cream and whipped cream) instead of chiboust cream, because I hate making Italian meringue– too fiddly with the sugar syrup. Second, I decided to add praline paste to the cream to deepen the caramel flavor of the dessert.
The result? Spectacular. The flakiness of the puff pastry base adds just enough textural interest to the slightly firmer choux pastry and the gobs of creamy, hazelnut-kissed filling. The hard caramel dip on the cream puffs is just enough to crunch between your teeth and provide a hint of bitterness, and the dessert as a whole is light yet rich. I will absolutely make this again the next time I need an impressive finish to a meal.
While I was in Paris I took the opportunity to try a cup of the world-famous chocolat chaud at Angelina’s sumptuous tearoom on Rue Rivoli. Let me just say, its fame was well-earned– the chocolate was rich, smooth, and dark, with just the right amount of sweetness. Unlike some people who have tried it, I didn’t think it tasted like a melted chocolate bar– on the contrary, it was just milky enough not to be cloying, and not too thick. Really, it was excellent, and while I have my own hot cocoa recipe for winter days, I thought it would be nice to have another version in my recipe box for special occasions.
Of course, the internet yielded a plethora of recipes, each purporting to replicate French-style hot chocolate but each one different. I decided to try a few to see which came closest to what I remembered.