Rich And Powerful
Gâteau Saint-Honoré can share the spotlight with a special Sauternes
When a friend asked us to dinner, my wife Betsy and I offered to bring dessert. But when we learned that dessert would be served with a 1971 Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes, we were so intimidated that we considered forgoing dessert and bringing a chunk of Roquefort cheese. Then I had a flash of inspiration, an idea for something that would be perfect with this legendary wine.
Like all Sauternes, it hails from the tiny Sauternais region of Bordeaux. It's made from sémillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle grapes. But what makes these wines so remarkable is something called "Noble Rot." Under certain circumstances, a fungus called botrytis cinerea decays the grapes even as it concentrates their sugars and essences, and the juice is rendered into a golden-colored nectar that, once fermented, is practically worth its weight in real gold. Somehow I knew that the elaborate gold-colored dessert called Gâteau Saint-Honoré would be a perfect match for this singular wine.
The origins of this gateau are lost in the dim recesses of history, and any connection to Saint Honore himself, a bishop who died around 660 A.D., is elusive. Some say the name alludes not to the saint but to the swank Parisian street, Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where elegant pastry shops purvey desserts like this. But Catholic tradition holds that when the saint's nursemaid heard he had become a bishop, she was baking a cake. "I won't believe that boy is a bishop," she said, "unless my baker's paddle takes root and sprouts leaves." Then she stuck her paddle in the ground and it did precisely that.
Assembling this masterpiece of the French pastry kitchen is more challenging than sticking a baker's paddle into the ground, but the process can be reduced to fairly simple steps that any reasonably accomplished baker can manage. And the results are just as miraculous.
Greg Atkinson is author of "West Coast Cooking." He can be reached at email@example.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recipe: Pistachio Gâteau Saint-Honoré
Makes 8 servings
Essentially, a sheet of simple butter pastry surrounded by a ring of cream-puff dough and filled with an elaborate pastry cream, this cake is less intimidating than it would appear.
For the pastry layer
1 cup flour
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg, cold from the refrigerator
For the puffs
¾ cup water
¼ cup (½ stick) butter
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup flour
For the filling
1 tablespoon powdered gelatin
2 tablespoons water
2/3 cup sugar, divided
¼ cup cornstarch
½ teaspoon kosher salt
4 egg yolks
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 egg whites
½ teaspoon salt
For the topping
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
½ cup toasted salted pistachios, out of their shells, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with baker's parchment.
2. Make the pastry layer. In a food processor, combine the flour, butter, sugar and salt. Process just until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. With the motor running, add the egg, then pulse the motor off and on until the mixture just begins to come together to form a single mass of dough. (If all the ingredients are cold to begin with, the dough should be cold enough to roll out without chilling.) Roll the dough into a 10-inch circle and plant the circle on a baking sheet. Refrigerate the pastry while you prepare the puffs.
3. Make the puffs. Put the water, butter and salt in a saucepan over high heat. When the water is boiling and the butter is melted, turn off the heat, whisk in the flour and stir the paste until it is smooth and coming away from the sides of the pan. Whisk in the eggs one at a time, and continue mixing until the eggs are completely incorporated. Pile the mixture into a pastry bag and pipe a 1-inch-thick ring around the perimeter of the pastry circle. On a separate baking sheet, pipe eight 2-inch balls of dough and bake both the pastry layer and the puffs until the puffs have expanded and become golden brown, about 25 minutes.
4. Make the filling. Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water and set it aside to soften. Whisk 1/3 cup of the sugar with the cornstarch, salt and the egg yolks in a saucepan until the mixture is very smooth. Whisk in the milk and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the custard comes to a boil. Take the custard off the heat and whisk in the vanilla extract and the softened gelatin, then let the mixture cool to room temperature. Whip the egg whites with the salt in an electric mixer until they hold soft peaks. With the motor running, stream in the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar and continue beating until the meringue is quite stiff. Fold the meringue into the cooled custard and pile the mixture into a pastry bag.
5. Make the caramel topping and assemble the cake. Lightly oil a baking sheet and set it aside. Cook the sugar and water over medium-high heat until the syrup is golden brown. Immediately dip the bottom of each puff in the caramel then plant it on the puff ring to make a ring of puffballs on top of the ring around the pastry circle. Stir the chopped pistachios into the remaining caramel and transfer the mixture to the oiled baking sheet and set it aside to cool. Pipe the filling into the center of the pastry ring and pipe dollops of the filling between each of the pastry puffs. Use a rolling pin to crush the pistachio-caramel, or transfer it to a food processor to pulverize it, then sprinkle the pulverized mixture over the filling. Chill before serving.
Greg Atkinson, 2007