My contact with saints has been limited. There was one time when I was sixteen and visited the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal in Paris with a group of 30 or so American High School exchange students in the last few days before we were sent off to meet the families we would live with for the summer. We all lined up to see Saint Catherine Labouré’s ‘incorrupt’ body (though she was missing her real hands, which seems a little corrupt to me,) and then left the site with shiny medals in our pockets for protection. I was hoping for protection from ending up with a mean family, and from the possibility of returning to the States at the end of the summer without having ordered any alcoholic drinks in public while chatting up at least a few good-looking French boys. But that’s about it.
I am not Catholic, but I have always been a little intrigued by the concept of saints and the minute details of daily life to which they are assigned. For example, why do charcoal-burners need special protection? I understand that skiers might need a little divine intervention every now and again, but what do librarians get up to that’s so risky? Bakers and pastry chefs can look to Saint Honorius of Aimens, and considering all that can go wrong with pastry, I suppose they can use the help. It seems that bakers are grateful for Honorius’s services—they’ve even named a classic French cake after him, the Gateau St. Honoré.
The Gateau St. Honoré is a beast of a construction, involving a cake-shaped wall of choux pastry balls filled with a set whipped cream and glacé cherries. Sometimes it’s even called ‘ball cake,’ but if you ask me, Gateau St. Honoré sounds distinctly more appetizing. Using that much choux pastry as an integral part of the structure of a cake seems dangerous—that stuff is supposed to be really hard to make. I mean, I’ve heard that you’ve got to check the temperature of the air and the humidity, and really know your oven, and do a little choux pastry dance around the kitchen just to make sure it turns out all right. You’ve got to beg, well, I suppose Saint Honoré himself, don’t you?
Let me let you in on a little secret. Come closer, I don’t want anyone to overhear or else our friend Honoré is going to be out of work in no time. Choux pastry is really very easy to make. Seriously. I can hardly get my fiancée to boil an egg (‘But sweetie, you’re so much better at it,’ he says. Well…if you put it that way…,) but mention profiteroles and he’s in the kitchen at the speed of light, beating the hell out of some choux pastry before you can even say ‘miracle,’ never mind pray for one. And his cream puffs turn out perfect every time—no matter what oven he uses, his elevation above sea level, how many pre-party beers he’s had, nothing.
He hasn’t tackled the full Gateau yet, but really there’s no need. Show up to a party with a box full of cream-filled, chocolate-covered choux puffs, and eyebrows will raise. How impressive, what hard work, so elegant! But we know the truth, and so does Saint Honoré.
Choux pastry recipe from The Complete Cook
50 g unsalted butter
150 ml water
65 g plain flour
2 beaten eggs
250 ml whipping cream
100 g dark chocolate
Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the water and bring to a boil. Take it off the heat and dump the whole lot of flour in, beating it in like your life depends on it. Once the flour is incorporated, let it cool a little and then add the eggs a little at a time, beating the mixture thoroughly as you go. It’s a bit of a workout, but worth it. Once the mix is smooth, put it in a piping bag or sandwich bag with the corner cut out, and pipe little walnut-sized dollops onto a baking tray lined with dampened parchment. If you wet your finger it won’t stick to the dough, and you can tamp down any little points that poke up off the tops of your choux lumps.
Bake in 200C oven for about 30 minutes. Do not open the oven during this time, because the pastry uses steam to puff up, and you don’t want to let it out before it’s done its job. Once they are all puffy and golden brown, take them out of the oven and slice them in half horizontally before they cool. You want to do this pretty quickly or else the steam inside will make the puff go soft again.
Whip your cream to stiff peaks. You can add sugar or booze if you like, but we usually eat ours plain. Fill the inside of each puff ball with plenty of cream and top it with the other half of pastry just like a sandwich. Melt the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of boiling water, then drizzle over each cream puff. I usually refrigerate mine for a few minutes to let the chocolate set, and then get to eatin’.