With some crackle on top and cream inside, an old, stuffy French pastry is turning heads in the United States. The Paris-Brest (pronounced “pah-ree-breast”), a circle of cream puffs filled with buttery hazelnut custard and often topped with a cap of sliced or slivered almonds, crunchy sugar, or a crumbly cookie crust, is popping up on menus across the country, including Petit Trois, a bistro with two locations in LA, and Le Coucou, a more formal dining room in New York City. But it’s not just at French restaurants: At Jungsik, a Korean restaurant in NYC, there’s a Paris-Brest flavored with toasted rice; at Houston’s Theodore Rex, a casual American spot, it’s spiked with Swiss cheese.
The Paris-Brest is picking up steam, but it’s possible the dessert would be as big as its cousin, the creme brulee, if not for a bit of a marketing problem. “Our servers are constantly correcting misconceptions about it,” says pastry chef Daniel Skurnick of New York City’s Le Coucou, where, despite most diners’ unfamiliarity with it, it’s one of the most popular desserts on the menu. “First, there’s the name... people are like, ‘Can I get a Paris-Brest?’” Skurnick enunciates every consonant, including the hard “s” the French wouldn’t pronounce: pair-iss-breast. “And then they have this image of it: They’re thinking it might look like, you know, like a dome-shaped dessert or something.”
Unlike the Sicilian pastry minni di Sant’Agata, which translates literally as “St. Agata’s breasts” and uses cherries to stand in for nipples, the French Paris-Brest has nothing to do with a woman’s bosom. It was named for the route of a bicycle race that runs from the French capital, Paris, to Brest, a naval town in Brittany. The commonly held origin story says that in 1891, newspaper editor Pierre Giffard hoped to encourage bicycle use in Brest by launching a race to Paris. In 1910, Giffard asked a local pastry chef, Louis Durand, to create a dessert to help promote the race.
Durand, of Patisserie Durand, came up with the Paris-Brest, a wheel-shaped pastry made from cream puff dough, or pâte à choux, topped with almond slices, baked, split, and filled with hazelnut mousseline — pastry cream flavored with hazelnut praline paste and fortified with butter. (Hazelnuts grow wild in North and Western France and have long been a popular addition to pastries and cakes.) The cream is piped into the pastry with a fluted pastry tip to mimic, roughly, the spokes of a bicycle wheel. In his book, The Art of French Pastry, written with Martha Rose Shulman, Jacquy Pfeiffer, dean of Chicago’s French Pastry School, notes that the crown shape may also “represent the head wreath that Greek athletes wore after a victory.” (Another story says that a ringed olive-wreath-like pastry was created before the Paris-Brest in its current iteration was developed.)
Patisserie Durand, which is still owned and operated by the Durand family, claims it alone has the precise recipe. A bit of reverse engineering has yielded a thousand copies; the dessert is now made all over the world. And eight years after its 100th birthday, it seems Americans are ready to fully embrace it.
In popularizing the Paris-Brest in America, chef Thomas Keller might have been a bit ahead of the trend. His version of a Paris-Brest landed on Bouchon Bakery’s menu sometime in the early aughts, and was in the display case at Bouchon LA when it opened in 2009. Keller’s recipe for a Paris-New York, which can be found in the Bouchon Bakery cookbook, features chocolate and a cream flavored with peanuts instead of hazelnuts.
But Ludo Lefebvre, the chef at LA’s Trois Mec, Petit Trois, and Trois Familia, was one of the first to put it on a restaurant’s dessert list. “It was a selfish decision at first,” Lefebvre says of when he introduced the Paris-Brest to his Petit Trois menu four years ago. “I was missing this dessert from France. I put it on the menu right after we opened as a special, but everyone loved it — staff, guests, everyone. Now it is a permanent item. I can’t take it off.”
Lefebvre’s version, which he learned to make at culinary school at Le Castle in Dijon, adheres fairly strictly to tradition — with one exception. “My little twist is the chopped hazelnut nougatine that I sprinkle on the top to give it added crunch,” he says.
Skurnick, who worked with legendary New York pastry chef Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern, put Paris-Brest on Le Coucou’s lunch menu when the restaurant opened. Because the restaurant straddles Chinatown and Soho, Skurnick thought about flavoring his version with peanut, but he ultimately decided to go with the classic hazelnut flavoring, though he uses a creme legere (hazelnut praline pastry cream lightened with whipped cream instead of enriched with butter). “It’s one of those things that when it lands on someone else’s table everyone just goes, ‘Oh, I want that. Whatever that is, that’s what I want.’”
That same dessert drama plays out between tables at Frenchette, across town in NYC’s Tribeca neighborhood. Pastry chef Michelle Palazzo says she’s heard “about customers looking over at other tables, and being excited to order it.” For pastry chefs, who almost always work behind closed doors, Palazzo admits the buzz was “super cool to hear about.” Veering slightly from tradition, she tops her cream puff round with a layer of craquelin — a thin, cookie-like dough that, once baked, gives the pastry a crackled appearance and extra crunch — before it goes into the oven. After it comes out of the oven and cools, it’s split latitudinally and filled with a pistachio buttercream. “It wasn’t on our opening menu, but then I got some beautiful Sicilian pistachios,” Palazzo says. “It was a no brainer.”
Next door, at Bâtard, a restaurant that serves Austrian-inflected fare and has one Michelin star, pastry chef Julie Elkind took the Paris-Brest apart and put it back together as a composed plated dessert: Her miniature ring of cream puffs also gets a craquelin cap, but changes with the seasons. It’s currently filled with caramel mousseline and black cherries and served with a spoonful of vanilla bean ice cream.
At Theodore Rex in Houston, chef Justin Yu likens the Paris-Brest to a blank slate. “I think it’s one of those things chefs are always looking for — something recognizable but versatile that has the ability to turn into something unique.” Yu’s Paris-Brest goes salty and sweet: He gives it the craquelin treatment, and then makes a pastry cream with Swiss cheese. To build the dessert, he slices the pastry open, drizzles in some burnt honey caramel, and fills every crevice with that cheese-y cream. “It’s rich enough to be shared, but I’ve seen more than one person eat the whole thing themselves,” Yu says.
Over in Portland, Oregon, James Beard Award-winning chef Gabriel Rucker says he decided to put a Paris-Brest on his menu at Canard after seeing Lefebvre make his version on Mind of a Chef. “I saw Ludo go to France and make it and I thought, ‘That’s the kind of dessert I want to make for Canard.’”
But Rucker likes to buck convention. At Le Pigeon, his restaurant next door, the dish to get is his foie gras profiterole, a thing that doesn’t exist in classic French cuisine. “I don’t do anything really true to tradition… I think the French would have a heart attack if they knew I put fresh and dried fruit in my Paris-Brest,” he says.
Rucker’s show-stopping pastry bicycle wheel is seasonal, like Elkind’s, but everyone seems to love the one he put on his opening menu, a strawberry-coconut concoction where a toasted coconut pastry cream enriched with cream cheese fills in for the hazelnut mousseline. “To give it some texture, we layer freeze-dried strawberries on top, followed by a Meyer lemon icing and macerated Mount Hood strawberries,” Rucker says, also noting that it’s finished with coconut flakes “for more texture” as well as strawberry powder, which amps up that fruit flavor.
Back in New York City, pastry chef Eunji Lee might just be having the most fun with her version, which, once plated, looks like a surrealist’s vision of a tandem bicycle. Born in South Korea, Lee trained in Paris under pastry-chef-of-the-moment Cédric Grolet. When she landed in New York to head up the sweet kitchen at the two-Michelin-starred Jungsik, she knew she wanted to put a spin on the French classic. Hers is called “New York-Seoul” — there is a Jungsik in Seoul as well — and incorporates a variety of harmonious flavors: The round puffs are shaped more like doughnut holes than doughnuts. They get a brown rice craquelin hat before going into the oven. Once out, they’re spliced and filled with hazelnut-pecan praline and toasted brown-rice cream. Lee plates them with roasted corn sable, candied pecans, and an oval scoop of vanilla ice cream.
“I wanted to make the cream lighter — it’s not a buttercream, and not a traditional pastry cream — but also wanted to use a flavor I grew up with, the brown-rice cream,” Lee says. The flavor of toasted rice is a little bit like the scent of nuts roasted in butter, making Lee’s cream filling taste like an homage to the classic.
There might be more riffs on the Paris-Brest than spokes on a racing bicycle, but the popularity doesn’t seem to be waning. This month in Portland, Rucker is putting a roasted-peach version on his menu, and will dress it up with peach syrup and browned butter powder. “It’s really going to make French people twinge,” he says with a laugh.