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2 December 2014

I have just come back from a beautiful long weekend in Paris. An eclectic mix of old and new, Paris never ceases to blow me away as it continues to ooze culture and romance at every corner. Whether your artistic taste leads you to the Louvre or the Moulin Rouge, the French capital is chic and addictive - and that's even at a measly 4 degrees above freezing.

Paris has been immortalised in classical and popular culture alike, and I found myself thinking of numerous favourites of mine as we perused the streets of the city. From Carrie Bradshaw to Ernest Hemmingway; Paris charmed them all.

Hemmingway once described Paris as 'a moveable feast' and, while he undoubtedly had the city's legacy in mind, this writer was a literal interpretation of this assertion as I gave into the fat girl inside of me and gorged on moules, baguette, steak and macaroons.

It's probably no bad thing that our trip was just three days long, but we still managed to squeeze in a trip in Laduree on the Champs Elysées. It's crowded, expensive and far from undiscovered, but boy oh boy do they do patisserie well. While queuing for my macaroons I had a chance to inspect a smorgasbord of religiuse, fruit tarts and gateaus.

I came home with Paris in my heart and choux pastry in my head, and so it was that my Christmas choux wreath was born. I've never dared to make a croquembouche, but this might be a good starting place if you're tempted. Choux has a bad name in the pastry industry, but it really is easier than you'd think. Filled with homemade crème patissiere and covered in caramel and chocolate, this wreath is the perfect way to bring a little Parisian charm to your Christmas table.

choux pastry
75g butter
75g plain flour
2 medium eggs
crème patissiere 
250ml whole milk
3 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
30g sugar
15g cornflour
10g plain flour
to finish
100g caster sugar
50g white chocolate
25g dark chocolate
10-15 hazelnuts (optional)

Preheat your oven to 220C, and line a baking tray with parchment. Put the butter in a pan with 150ml of water, and heat over a medium heat until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat when the mixture is just boiled. Tip in the flour, and stir quickly until the mixture comes into a soft ball. Return to the heat for a further 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. 

When cool, add the eggs and beat well, the spoon the shiny paste into a piping bag and pipe into even round disks on the paper, smoothing any peaks with a damp finger. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 190C and cook for 12 minutes more. Remove the buns and piece each with a skewer to release the steam, then return to the cooling oven for 4-5 minutes to allow them to dry completely. 

To make the filling, pour the milk and vanilla into a pan, and slowly bring to the bowl. Meanwhile in a freestanding mixer, beat together the egg yolks and sugar until pale, then add both flours and whisk until smooth. When the milk is just boiling, pour into the egg mix and whisk quickly. Transfer the whole mixture into the pan, and return to the heat. Whisk constantly for a minute or so, and as it thickens pour into a bowl. Cover with paper or cling film and leave in the fridge to chill. 

When the creme patissiere is cold, spoon into a piping bag. Fill each choux bun with the custard. Next, pour 100g caster sugar into a pan, and heat until the sugar has formed a deep golden caramel. Carefully dip each choux into the caramel, and use it to fix the buns together into a wreath. If you are making spiked nuts to decorate, fix each hazelnut to a skewer, dip into the caramel, and lay over a work surface to allow a spike to form. Make sure you protect your flooring with kitchen paper first! 

Finally, melt the chocolates and use them to decorate the wreath. Finish with caramel nuts or other festive decorations. 

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