Philippe Conticini is an award-winning French master of patisserie. A creative genius, the New York times once wrote that “Every time you feel you’ve figured out what he’s thinking, he is way ahead of you.” In the 80s, he revolutionized patisserie by using salt and spices, but other inventions include the pastries in glasses (the so-called verrines) and the de-contextualization of desserts from horizontal to vertical (think millefeuilles, to give you a for instance). A constant innovator, he is always on the lookout to recreate traditional French dessert with a modern and own twist, such as this Paris Brest. This pastry dessert was created in 1981 to commemorate the Paris-Brest bicycle race. It comprises a wheel-shaped ring made of choux pastry which is usually filled with cream and praliné, a hazelnut paste.
Conticini’s revolutionary idea was to keep the choux and the praliné components of the dessert, but to turn a wheel into a chain of choux buns, which get extra crunch and texture from the addition of craquelin, a sugary and buttery paste added on top of the choux buns before they are baked to create an even layer of crunchy goodness. The craquelin, in addition to adding texture to the pastry, also ensures an even rise. This recipe was also featured in the finale of the French edition of the GBBO (Le meilleur patissier). I suppose you can buy good quality praliné either online or from specialist shops, but I decided to make my own. Alternatively, you can use any hazelnut paste/spread (Nutella, to name one), but remember those also contain cocoa powder and plenty of other fats – not that this ever scared me. Making your own praliné is extremely easy and only requires the help of a sturdy food processor. The sugar and the natural oils contained in the nuts will do the rest. Last but not least, if you understand French, you can have a look at the tutorial for this recipe here. Hope you enjoy it!
HOW TO MAKE HOME-MADE PRALINÉ
- 125g hazelnuts
- 125g almonds with the skin on
- 165g caster sugar
- 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
- 45g water
- Pre-heat your oven to 165C. Spread the nuts on a baking tray and roast for 20 minutes. Roasting the nuts ensures a deeper flavour and allows to remove their papery skins.
- Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly. Take the hazelnuts only and place them inside a towel, then wrap it around them and gently rub them together for a good 2 minutes. This will allow you to remove and detach their skins, which will be left in the towel. Alternatively, take the hazelnuts in your hands and rub them or do it one by one. Either way, discard the skins and put the now peeled hazelnuts together with the almonds.
- Pour the sugar, vanilla bean paste and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat over medium heat until the mixture boils. Boil it until it reach 120C (use a sugar thermometer).
- Remove from the heat and add the nuts, then use a wooden spoon to mix them in. The sugar syrup will seize and crystallize – don’t worry, this is normal. Put the pan back on the heat over a very low heat and leave the sugar to melt again until it turns a dark amber colour.
- Remove from the heat and pour the caramel and nuts onto a baking tray lined with oiled baking parchment or a silicon mat. Leave to cool for 30 minutes.
- Transfer the mixture to a food processor equipped with the blade attachment, then process it until it first turns into a sugary powder and then, little by little, it starts to clump together. Keep on processing until you obtain a fairly smooth paste, then remove from the food processor and transfer to a bowl. If the mixture looks too brittle and powdery at first, keep on processing. The nuts will start to yield their natural oil which will turn the powder into a paste.
HOW TO MAKE THE PARIS BREST VERSION CONTICINI
First of all, we start with the craquelin.
- 40g unsalted butter, softened
- 50g light brown sugar
- 50g plain flour
- 1/4 tsp salt
- In the bowl of a freestanding mixer (or even by hand in a normal bowl), mix the unsalted butter with the rest of the ingredients to obtain a smooth dough-like consistency, then remove from the bowl and place between two sheets of baking parchment.
- Using a rolling pin, roll it out to 3mm thick. Remove the top baking parchment sheet and use a 3-4cm round cutter to impress round shapes on top of the craquelin, then cover with the second sheet of baking parchment and put in the freezer for at least 10 minutes.
Then, we move on to the crème mousseline au praliné
- 250ml whole milk
- 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
- 150g unsalted butter, softened
- 50g caster sugar
- 10g plain flour
- 10g corn flour
- 2 medium egg yolks
- 75g praliné
- Sift the flour and the cornstarch together.
- In a bowl, lightly whisk the egg yolks with the sugar, then add the flour mixture and mix that in too.
- In a saucepan, combine the milk and the vanilla bean paste, then bring the milk to the boil. While still mixing, trickle the milk into the egg yolk mixture, then combine and transfer back on to the heat.
- Mix with a balloon whisk for about one minute, by which point the mixture will have thickened nicely. Remove from the heat and transfer the mixture to a shallow tray, then cover tightly with clingfilm and leave to cool completely.
- Once your custard has completely cooled, cream the butter with a whisk or in the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with the paddle attachment, then add the praliné and, tablespoon by tablespoon, the custard. Mix over medium speed until the mixture is combined and fluffy.
- Transfer to a piping bag with a plain round nozzle.
Last, but not least, let’s make the choux buns.
- 125g water
- 80g plain flour
- 60g unsalted butter
- 2g salt
- 2g caster sugar
- 125g whole eggs, lightly beaten (measure without the shells!)
- In a saucepan, combine the water, salt, sugar and butter, then bring the mixture to the boil but ensure the butter has completely melted.
- Take the pan off the heat, then add the flour all at once. Use a wooden spoon to combine the mixture, which will look like a messy lump. That is normal. Put back over medium heat and dry the mixture by beating it with the wooden spoon until the mixture come well together into a big ball and it leaves a slight layer of dough at the bottom. Remove from the heat and transfer to the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with a paddle attachment.
- Leave the mixture to cool slightly, then start beating it on medium speed. Slowly start adding the eggs two tablespoons at the time and wait until the mixture is fully combined before adding the next lot. Once you have used all of the eggs, the mixture should be thoroughly combined and it should create a trail once you lift the beater. Also, if you were to draw a line in the middle, the mixture should keep the line and not close on itself very quickly.
- Transfer the mixture to a piping bag with a plain nozzle.
- Pre-heat your oven to 180C and line a big baking tray with parchment.
- Use the piping bag to pipe 4 blobs of choux pastry on the parchment where the 4 corners of a 20cm square should be. Turn the baking parchment 90 degrees and repeat the process, piping in the middle of the already piped blobs. Use the rest of the mixture to fill the buns if they look small, they should be approximately 4cm in diameter, all equal and touching.
- Remove the craquelin sheet from the freezer and detach the rounds you had pre-cut. Arrange on the piped choux buns, then transfer to the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
To assemble and fill the Paris Brest
Use a serrated knife to cut the crown-shaped choux buns in halves, making sure not to damage the circular structure. Remove the top and set aside.
In a bowl, combine 100g praliné with 50g double cream. I also added 1 tbsp Nutella, but that was a personal choice more than anything else. Transfer this mixture to a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle.
Now, pipe a good dollop of the crème mousseline inside each choux bun, then top with one eighth of the praliné and top with more crème mousseline. Cover the crown with the top, then dust in icing sugar and serve. Best eaten on the same day.