O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind? – Percy Bysshe Shelley
Winter rolls in on a wave of misty white, the fog hanging heavy and cruel over the city. The icy chill penetrates every pore of one’s body and no matter what one does, no matter how many blankets or pairs of socks, the cold has simply moved in. But the gloom and gray of a December day doesn’t dampen my excitement for the onset of the season and the coming of the festivities. The holiday spirit seems to have arrived and settled in, as the bustling marketplace is alive with shoppers pushing their way towards stalls overflowing with seasonal treats. The city sparkles with twinkling lights. Garlands of gold and silver sneak their way in, Santas pop up on velvet hills of snow and visions of sugarplums, smoked salmon and oysters dance in my head. The first strains of Winter Wonderland and Rudolph signal the beginning of the Christmas season.
I’ve been as busy as an elf since late last spring and now that Christmas and Hanukkah approach I actually have been slowing down. The hotel is quiet and peaceful, the tree glitters in reception, the jams are spread out in a dazzling array, jars shimmering in the blaze of a roaring fire, cozy and quaint. I settle into the peaceful lull between having dispatched my cookbook manuscript and receiving the first edits and thank heavens that it is winter.
The last 6 months have been a whirlwind of activity, non-stop motion all hustle and bustle. Hotel high season is no laughing matter in and of itself but add to that mountains of spring, summer, and autumn fruit to be turned into jam by the hundreds of kilos, and add to that a cookbook to be written (and all that this entails) and a writing workshop to organize and you are able to count to minutes and hours during those crazy 6 months that you actually spent sitting and resting. I can look back on those hectic, frantic months now and smile, and wonder at my capabilities and resilience.
The hotel was closed for one week early December during which time JP pruned and trimmed the garden, raked up sack upon sack of fallen leaves, damp and sticky, gathered into corners and strewn across the remaining branches and winter greens. We spent an afternoon pulling off the surviving persimmons from the tree, one by one snagging them into the contraption made just for such purpose, pulling off fruit from the tippy top branches of fruit trees. Snap, plop into the basket hanging below the hook, one by painstakingly one, to my triumphant cheers. Three times as many as last year. On the other hand, our harvest of kiwis is pathetic; no kiwi jam this year. Raymonde surprised me with 6 pumpkins that were duly chopped into cubes and stuffed into the freezer waiting for the arrival of our new stove.
Ah, yes, the new stove. We demolished our kitchen during the hotel’s week off early December, planning on having most of the new kitchen installed before reopening a week later. Much to our chagrin (and, yes, we should have known that kitchen renovations never ever go as planned) we are, 3 weeks later, still living with only half a temporary countertop, albeit sitting on a row of gorgeous new cabinets, and no cooker, no kitchen range. The one we had ordered to be delivered 2 days later did indeed fall off the back of the truck. And we are still waiting for its replacement, our old oven perched on sawhorses, and no stovetop in sight. No stovetop, no jam.
Yet, mid December and life continues. Mr. B stands out in the alley that runs alongside the hotel past his gate, in slippers, raggy old sweatpants and a winter coat open to the chill, washing his car oblivious to the frigid morning air. Raymonde scurries by in front of the hotel, head down, shoulders hunched, nose as red as Rudolph’s, trying to beat the cold home. The new butchers have moved in, young and handsome, Chinon’s very first true-to-life hipster butchers. Cafés and wine bars are overflowing with good cheer. We drive by Mme. Lainel’s house, slowly, reverently, her name erased from the front gate, and we miss her very much.
The fortress hangs over the city like a specter, suspended in the night sky. Driving back into town late last night, turning onto the bridge that would carry us into the center of Chinon and home, I was stunned by the ghostly apparition of the towers and old stones rising majestically, mysteriously from the white obscurity, thousands of years of history hovering over the city. Christmas lights glitter and shimmer in the inky night and we take comfort in the hotel’s calm. Busy workers have begun renovating the annex but all activity and noise are muffled by distance, the little alleyway separating the annex from the main building, and the thick, 15th Century stone walls. Let the elves continue with their work and I will find the time to bake.
Now is the time to be merry! Fruit cakes and stolen and tables piled high with cookies. I up my pastry game by creating something absolutely, utterly festive. The Saint-Honoré is a spectacular French dessert named after the patron saint of bakers.
A ring of pastry cream-filled puffs (choux) sit atop a base of puff pastry or another pastry crust, the center of the ring of choux is filled with more pastry cream and topped with a simple, lightly sweeted whipped cream. It takes time to create and assemble, and although it seems complicated, taken step-by-step it is rather simple and quite fun to make. And it is so very much worth the effort, especially during the holiday season. Vanilla, rum, chocolate, and chestnut infuse my own Saint-Honoré with the Christmas spirit.
- Puff Pastry for one 8- or 8½-inch (about 22 cm) very thin (less than but no more than ⅛-inch/ 2-3 mm thick) round
- 1 to 2 tablespoons granulated white sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 cup (225 ml) whole milk
- 6 tablespoons (100 grams) sugar
- 1 large egg
- 2 large egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons (30 grams) unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or half a vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped
- 1 tablespoon rum
- 3½ ounces (100 grams) dark semi- or bittersweet chocolate, 64% or 70% cocoa
- ½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
- 3 to 4 tablespoons crème de marrons – sweetened vanilla chestnut cream
- 1 cup (250 ml) water
- 8 tablespoons (115 grams) unsalted butter
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup (140 grams) flour
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup (250 ml) heavy whipping cream, well chilled
- An 8 ounce (250 gram) container mascarpone cheese, well chilled
- Powdered sugar, about 3 tablespoons or more to taste
- Dissolve cornstarch in ¼ cup of milk; whisk until smooth.
- Combine the remaining milk with the sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and immediately remove from heat.
- If using a half vanilla bean/pod, split the pod down the center and scrape out the seeds. Add both the pod and the seeds to the milk in the pot. Remove the pod once the pastry cream is made and before pouring it into a bowl to chill in the refrigerator.
- Beat the whole egg, then the yolks into the cornstarch mixture. Pour ⅓ of boiling milk into the egg mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly so that the eggs do not begin to cook.
- Add the rest of the hot milk to the egg mixture then return all of it back into the casserole and return to the heat. Continue whisking (this is important – you do not want the eggs to solidify/cook) until the cream thickens and comes just to a boil.
- Remove from heat and beat in the butter, vanilla and rum.
- Pour the pastry cream into a heatproof pyrex or stainless steel bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface. Chill immediately and until ready to use.
- Coarsely chop the chocolate and place it in a heatproof bowl.
- Bring ½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream just to a boil and pour over the chopped chocolate. Allow to sit for about a minute, then stir until all of the chocolate is melted and the ganache is smooth.
- Allow to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, and then reserve in the refrigerator. The ganache will firm as it cools.
- Stir about 2 teaspoons of the cooled and thickened ganache into 3 or 4 tablespoons of the chestnut cream. Taste, adding more ganache until desired flavor balance and consistency. Chill until ready to assemble the Saint Honoré.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).
- Roll out the puff pastry to a 8- or 8½- inch (about 22 cm) circle and to a thickness of no more than ⅛-inch/ 2-3 mm. Place on a lightly buttered baking sheet.
- Prepare the choux dough: in a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the water, butter and salt until butter melts and the mixture comes to a boil.
- Remove from the heat and add the flour all at once. With a wooden spoon, stir vigorously until the mixture forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the pot.
- Scrape the dough into a large heatproof mixing bowl and, stirring, allow to cool for a minute or two.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, until mixture is smooth and creamy.
- When the choux dough has cooled to room temperature, place no more than ½ of the dough in a pastry bag with a round tip opening of about ½ to ¾ inch. Pipe a ring of choux dough around the edge of the puff pastry circle then pipe a spiral of dough in the center. Dust the whole with a tablespoon or so of granulated sugar. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes or until the choux dough is puffed and golden and the bottom of the circle is golden as well. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.
- Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Grease a large cookie sheet or line it with oven-safe parchment paper.
- Using a teaspoon, scoop up 11 small mounds (about 1-inch diameter) of the dough and carefully push the dough off onto the prepared cookie sheet. They will rise and almost double in size, so leave a bit of space between puffs.
- Bake for 35 minutes until risen and golden. Working very quickly, open the oven and, with a sharp knife, make a small slit in the side of each puff to allow steam to escape then bake for about 5 more minutes until golden brown.
- Remove the sheet from the oven, gently remove the choux from the hot baking sheet onto a rack and allow to cool completely.
- Once the pastry cream and the choux are cooled, pierce a small hole in the bottom or side of 11 puffs. Fit a pastry bag with a small plain tip, fill the bag with cream, gently nuzzle the tip into one choux after the next and fill.
- Dip the top of each filled choux in the remaining chocolate ganache, touching up with a knife or palette knife until the top half of each choux is lightly coated in ganache and it is smooth with no holes apparent. Place back on the tray or plate and refrigerate until ready to assemble the Saint Honoré.
- Pipe and spread a layer of the remaining Vanilla Rum Pastry Cream evenly over the surface of the Saint Honoré puff pastry base, coming up to but not covering the choux ring around the edge.
- Spread the chocolate chestnut cream on top of this layer of pastry cream.
- Dab a bit of chocolate ganache on the bottom of 10 of the filled and ganache-topped choux and arrange them around the border of the base spacing them evenly, "gluing" each choux down with the dab of ganache. Chill for a few minutes in the fridge to set the ganache.
- Pour the cup of heavy whipping in a chilled medium-sized mixing bowl. Beat on high speed until thickened and peaks hold.
- Beat in about half of the mascarpone, a couple of tablespoons at a time; the whipped mixture should be smooth and very thick.
- Beat in a tablespoon or two of powdered sugar at a time until desired sweetness (it should be only lightly sweetened so as to balance out but not overpower the pastry and chestnut creams.)
- Scoop the whipped mascarpone cream into a pastry bag with Saint Honoré tip. Pipe the cream on top of the creams on the base, filling the space between the ring of choux piping out to fill up the spaces between the choux themselves.
- Place the 11th filled and ganache-topped choux in the center.
- Decorate as desired and serve.