The Paris Brest is a relative newcomer in the constellation of French pȃtisserie, invented as it was in 1891 to celebrate the annual bicycle race between Paris and the town of Brest in Brittany, some 600 kilometres from the capital. As such, it is rubs shoulders with the like of the Saint Honoré and the Opéra in the club of celebration cakes.
The traditional Paris Brest is a ring of choux pastry, sliced through the middle and filled with a special cream which is a mixture of crème pȃtissiere, meringue, butter cream, and praline. The top of the cake, which symbolizes a bicycle wheel, is topped with flaked almonds and dusted with confectioner's sugar.
The recipe I followed here, in Christophe Felder's Pȃtisserie! is the traditional one, but nowadays, most shops in France carry one based on the version by Philippe Conticini, where the flaked almonds are replaced by craquelin, a kind of crispy brown sugar caramel. You'll have to wait for my custom version next week to find out all about that.
The recipe was relatively easy to follow. The complexity lies in making the different creams, which all come together in the end in an extravaganza of sweetness, not particularly suited I might say to the modern French taste, which favors a lighter amount of sweetness. I am also afraid that Felder's measurements were right out for this one. The recipe says that it will make 20 pieces, whereas I actually managed to make 6. Also, the recipe calls for 3 eggs for the pȃte à choux. I blithely added three eggs and found the mixture far too liquid. I have a lot of experience with pȃte à choux and realized immediately that this was wrong. Therefore, I had to start again and noticed that the correct consistency was achieved with 2 eggs. Next time I will trust my usual recipe for the proportions.
The cream filling was delicious, even if, as I said, a little rich. The original idea was to provide energy for those taking part in the bicycle race. The modern taste in France has moved away from really sweet things sometimes even mixing the sweet and the savory. The almonds added a lovely crunch to the cake which balanced the fondant cream inside perfectly. You can see why this has been a winner for more than 100 years.