Me vs. Gateau St. Honoré, the Hardest Dessert on Earth
Like everything, it began innocently enough with an episode of Great British Bake Off. It ended with a panic attack, a domestic dispute, and a stack of sullied dishes as high and insurmountable as K2. In between, there were YouTube videos, hasty Amazon orders that never arrived in time, one-and-a-half pounds of butter, and fantastical visions of the mythical Gateau St. Honoré dancing in my head.
But let’s start from the beginning.
I’ve always believed that 90 percent of cooking and baking is just blind confidence. (The same maxim also conveniently applies to life.) If you go into the kitchen and say, “I am going to make a Gateau St. Honoré” and you purchase the ingredients with which to make a Gateau St. Honoré, chances are, you’ll get somewhere in the ballpark of a Gateau St. Honoré. You might be in the farthest tailgating lot with the people who started drinking Jim Beam at 9 a.m., but you’d probably still be in the ballpark.
When Great British Bake Off entered the American cultural lexicon, that blind confidence and utmost faith I’d long had in my ability to bake bloomed exponentially. If a group of mild-mannered and perennially terrified-looking English people can pull of Saverins and Dampfnudels, then why couldn’t I? If a goateed man whose actual real last name is Hollywood thinks he’s good enough at baking to repeatedly jam his meaty finger into polite strangers’ desserts and breads, then I’m basically Julia Child. If you lack confidence in your culinary skill, I recommend you watch a few episodes of Bake Off then pick out a recipe you’ve always wanted to try, buy the ingredients, and just do it. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Your kitchen burns down? You torch off your own fingerprints? An undercooked egg poisons your whole family?
With deluded self-assurance, I’d tackled cookies, cakes, breads, biscuits, pastries, several botched panettone loaves, and all manner of savory foods and dishes throughout my life. Only once in recent history had I thrown something in the bin—like Viking-adjacent weepy Iain and his runny Baked Alaska—but not before storing the crystallizing orange jelly cake (I know) in the fridge to see if it would miraculously morph overnight. (It didn’t.)
What I was curious about now, after years of being in the ballpark, was to see if it were possible to push myself above and beyond incremental advancement in the kitchen. I wanted to test if blind confidence was just as effective if you attempted the most challenging dessert in the world. All you need to do is follow the directions, right?
So I decided to attempt Gateau St. Honoré, a revered classic of French pastry that’s one of the most challenging desserts in the world. First, I emailed Stella Parks, author of the recently published cookbook BraveTart, for guidance. I asked her what makes a recipe a “difficult recipe.”
“Some recipes are tricky simply because there are so many elements to combine and each requires technical mastery,” she wrote back, adding that Gateau St. Honoré fits this profile exactly. “But others are just physically daunting.” Parks’ homemade Butterfingers were so difficult—a combination of candy-making, folding and turning like croissants, and chocolate tempering—that she cut the recipe from her book.
Parks said that the Gateau St. Honoré was a three-day timed baking project that she had to undertake prior to graduating from the Culinary Institute of America (this did not encourage me). “The key is planning, planning, planning!” she said.
It only occurred to me as I was beginning the first of five elements of the pastry that I had never even eaten one before. I had no idea what it tasted like. My confidence began to waver. The Gateau St. Honoré is also quite literally named for the patron saint of pastry and baking. If I messed it up, there’s a chance I’d be going to hell.
The Gateau is a dessert of four, sometimes five distinct elements: puff pastry, choux pastry, Chiboust cream (which itself is a mixture of creme patissiere and Italian meringue), whipped cream, and caramel. If you happen to have all of those things on hand and already baked, it can be constructed in barely 15 minutes. I know that you don’t have those things on hand, because I certainly didn’t, so I had to start from the beginning.
I watched a Martha Stewart cooking video of a polite man practically manifesting perfect puff pastry from thin air. I read a 1962 recipe for the dessert that breezily offered a concise four hundred words of instruction, making the process seem as painless as day by the pool. I discovered that, unlike a recipe for chocolate chip cookies or lemon tarts, there was not a recipe for Gateau St. Honoré on every cooking site, and there were none in my cookbooks at home.
Blind confidence turned into blind baking. I had an image in mind of what it should look like: sort of like the pastry version of the teacups ride at Disneyland. A few weeks prior, I tried making choux pastry and pastry cream for the first time, and did OK, so I knew I had some knowledge of how to make at least two-fifths of the dessert.
I had also made puff pastry once before, but knew within seconds this time that I had bungled it. (Actually, I bungled it the first time, too, but I was so excited that I had even tried to do it that I didn’t care.) Your layers as you roll the butter in are supposed to be seamless and smooth—mine looked like a marble countertop. I considered the bin. I soldiered on. (“I can’t go on. I’ll go on” and all that.)
The following day, the pastry looked just as bad, but I kept rolling and turning and folding until I, more or less dejected, decided it was ready to become the base of my Gateau. I had purchased a cheap piping bag from Amazon, the tips for which were too small for anything that I actually wanted to accomplish, and with a janky and unsteady hand, I piped choux pastry around the edges and into the center of my puff pastry bottom. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Quietly pray.
Italian meringue is also finicky and requires careful attention toward precision, thermometers, and incremental mixing speeds. I folded the meringue into pastry cream, which had to be done carefully as to not deflate the whole thing. Once it was ready, I filled about 12 choux puffs with what was now considered Chiboust cream (allegedly). I very much did not know how to use a pastry bag, so the cream kept squirting out the other end. My hands were covered in eggy goo. My whole kitchen was covered in eggy goo. My partner sat on the couch, keeping his distance, eyeing me wearily.
As it tends to be, the construction of my Gateau was the most rewarding part. All of the disparate elements that you’ve spent so much time making can now be brought together into their full picture. This stage of the dessert-making process is also great for covering up mistakes. And if I am an expert at anything, it’s covering up mistakes. I made caramel, just nearly burning it, and dipped my puffs into the syrup, my partner reminding me that it was “very hot.” In all seriousness, I had actually forgotten. The caramel worked like glue for the puffs, sticking them to the surface of my Gateau, the bottom of which had actually puffed up in the oven, though butter had expectedly leaked out like a broken faucet.
As I was piping—nay, dumping—chiboust cream into the well on top of the Gateau, in my other hand, I was calling a cab. I had not timed this experiment well (two full days was apparently not enough time) and I was going to be late to meet a friend. Frenzied, I elected to store the minimal remains of the cream and choux pastry in the fridge, thinking, “Oh yes, I’ll definitely try this again tomorrow.” I left the pot of quickly hardening caramel with my partner, who wordlessly watched me bolt out the door. Later, we would reconvene at a friend’s house, where he would bring the Gateau, now constructed, and our friends would be the first to try my creation.
In the end, Parks was right. You could have all the knowledge in the world or none, all the best ingredients or the cheapest, no tools or the finest of tools, but if you didn’t plan meticulously, the odds for making a delicious dessert, particularly an elaborate one, were not in your favor. The minute I locked the door behind me, a deep shudder emitted from an extremely remote part of my soul. This was a supposedly fun thing I will almost certainly never do again.
Like sweet things tend to, my Gateau went over well with the crowd at the dinner party. Before tucking into a bite, a friend turned to me and asked, “Why don’t you become a pastry chef?” I said that she had not yet tried the Gateau and therefore could not know yet if it was tasty or trash. Privately, I considered the question: why do I do this to myself? Why even try to bake the most challenging dessert in the world just to give over two straight days to stress and mania, then vow to never do it again?
It had to be that blind confidence, I guess. If something can be done, why not try doing it?
Also, more generally—I love to eat dessert.