French

The Great Majesty of the Paris-Brest, an Éclair to Share

Spring's best dessert, featuring fresh strawberries and lemon.

May 20, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

When you live among the beauty and majesty of Paris, as I did while pursuing my undergraduate degree, the most fantastic things become routine. Like picnicking on the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower, which I did with friends regularly as it was the closest park to my apartment. (It’s actually where I met my husband, Garth: during our exams, late at night, in a circle of friends and half-drunk bottles of wine.)

Another of these incredible, singular routines of my Parisian life was the frequency in which I went to Ladurée. When I was feeling any mix of a range of feelings that afflicts any 19-year-old—pathetic, downtrodden, happy, excited—I’d find my way to Ladurée. (This was before the “macaron” was an international sensation, but I’m certainly not claiming to have discovered the place.)

At the time, Ladurée was an opulent tea room of the traditional old-world style with incredible viennoiserie and other traditional pastries, as they remain today. I’d nudge my way through tourists, and Garth and I would perch at a small table for two. I had a pastry in mind for any occasion: ispahan for celebrations, a single chocolate éclair when I wanted to be coddled, a rose-scented religieuse when wanted to feel fancy, and the palmier for the everyday bliss I’d pocket on my way out to nibble as I read another assignment. My trips to Ladurée were part of my education and, tourists be damned, I still consider it some of the best pastry in Paris.

That there was a time in my life that I could just pop by and grab a meticulously crafted, perfect cake made just for me to bring back to my grubby basement apartment is so distant to me now.

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“When Eric Kayser, Le Notre and Dallayou and others make this and call it Paris-Brest the Academie Francais will burn to the ground.”
— Gordon
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This inversion of reality in which the absolutely unbelievable becomes mundane, I realize now, resurfaced with my cancer diagnosis. It is an entirely different kind of dream: a deeper one, in many ways, than mine of Paris, with higher stakes. One involves a surplus of beauty that is impossible to process, details that are lost due to the limits of human perception, while the other involves an abundance of darkness and challenges that overwhelm the senses. In both dreams, however, I am led to discover who I am.


The very morning I began to put the finishing touches on this recipe was the one in which Notre Dame caught fire. I was texting all of our friends in Paris, our college friends across the country, just trying to feel less alone and hopeless in my kitchen. I frantically searched on the internet for a live feed, a French news station that was covering what was happening, so I could let my reeling mind rest, where it longed to be, as my hands made choux pastry.

I wept while washing dishes, scraping dough and pastry cream out of the saucepan with my fingers, and felt a deep mourning in the pit of my stomach.

While the choux were resting in the oven, I pulled down my attic stairs, determined to find a photo of the church I knew probably wasn’t even taken. The Notre Dame was part of the backdrop of my college years—I passed it mostly in search of Berthillon ice cream and favored taking my tourist family to the adjacent Sainte-Chapelle for its shorter line and because it had better stained-glass windows, I thought. I never even went to the top, I realized, as I shuffled through pictures of people I don’t talk to much anymore. I found only one of the church with my childhood best friend, grinning together in front of the camera held by another tourist; I could tell I was mortified to have my picture taken like that, even in this terrible image that is mostly of the cobblestones, and which cuts off the two towers, no spire in sight. I was filled with overwhelming guilt, as if my grandmother had died, one I should have called more often but didn’t because I was too self-absorbed.

The scent of the resting pastries drew me back down to the kitchen. Before that day, I had been preparing for Easter, thinking mostly of how I would roast the lamb shoulder that was in my freezer. I am not religious, really, but Easter is a time when we celebrate the general themes of hope and rebirth with our kids in a non-denominational, pastel-colored setting.

I hear a correspondent interrupt the newscaster to explain that many of the relics and artwork from the interior had been saved. The slightest glimmer of relief began to flicker in my heart. And, well after I had filled and plated the meringue cake, I heard the news that the stone structure would be repaired and, in fact, donations began pouring in for its restoration. There was confluence of this historic event and the pastry I had just made, fresh-faced and precious on its platter, an embodiment of my relationship to Paris, and of the hope and rebirth that comes with the aftermath of a fire.

Have you ever had a Paris-Brest? Share in the comments below.

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Before her diagnosis, Caroline wrote a book on cakes called Cake Magic!. She started developing a birthday cake using her gluten-free mix found in that book. Check out other recipes she’s developing for her new life—and the stories behind them—on her blog, The Wright Recipes. Her next book, Catalan Food, written with chef Daniel Olivella, comes out in early September from Clarkson Potter.

9 Comments

Gordon November 6, 2019
WAIT!! A Paris-Brest with strawberries and lemon!?!? Not ever in France. You would be run out of town to call this a Paris-Brest. That is not saying it is not good and very tasty. But it is not Paris-Brest. When Eric Kayser, Le Notre and Dallayou and others make this and call it Paris-Brest the Academie Francais will burn to the ground.
 
tupperbear May 21, 2019
I passed high school French class by making Paris-Brest filled with fresh raspberries & whipped cream. Teacher loved it!
 
Author Comment
Caroline W. May 25, 2019
I hope you got extra credit! :)
 
Kay F. May 21, 2019
I first made a Paris Brest for a family Christmas dessert 10 years ago. It was so ethereal and wonderful I was afraid it could never be recreated. Your story has me longing to make another.
 
Author Comment
Caroline W. May 25, 2019
Thanks, Kay. It ::would:: make a perfect Christmas dessert. I'll have to keep that in mind!
 
I’ve eaten it many times both in Paris and NYC. This recipe may inspire me to make one. I think I would have to add the spun sugar so I would no longer be easy.
 
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Caroline W. May 25, 2019
I think you got this!
 
ChefJune May 20, 2019
Paris-Brest is fabulous and a real project. I learned it in a cooking class with Lucy Vanel, a magnificent patissière who lives in Lyon. I shared the recipe on this site in December, 2015. My recipe and those I've seen call for a very different filling.
https://food52.com/recipes/39848-paris-brest
 
Author Comment
Caroline W. May 25, 2019
This one isn't traditional, as none of the recipes I eat these days aren't. Thanks for sharing your more classic version as a reference point for those learning about the dessert for the first time.