January 2006 archives

le Quignon: Bazin Bakery

Americans often wonder how French people some know we’re American before we even say one word. It used to be our sneakers; they were the dead giveaway. Nowadays, wearing sneakers, or les baskets, is as French as carrying a baguette.

The other way they can tell us-from-them is that Americans tend to smile. A lot. We are a rather happy tribe. And Americans tend to eat and drink while walking (or while driving, which I’ve explained to some of my French friends, but they look at me in disbelief). Even though in Paris it’s becoming a bit more common, it’s still unusual to see someone chowing down while walking on the street or in the métro. It’s just not done and people will definitely give you funny looks if you’re – say, cramming a Pierre Hermé pastry into your face while sitting on a sidewalk bench. Or shoving a sublime, cream-filled éclair au chocolat from La Maison du Chocolat into your mouth, trying to make sure not one precious drop of bittersweet chocolate pastry cream lands anywhere but in your tummy.

But one little nugget of Parisian tradition still amuses me every time I see it. It’s the yank, twist, and pull of le quignon.

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You’ll see it 99% of the time someone leaves a bakery with a freshly-baked baguette. The moment they exit, they grab the crackly knob at the end of the loaf, le quignon, and yank it off. It’s a quick twist and snap, then it gets popped right it into their mouth as they hurry on their way. I tend to think of it as an instant, on-the-spot, quality-control check.

I usually end up with a mess of flour on my dark overcoat, since one of my favorite breads in Paris, le Bazinette, has a fine dusting of flour on it’s crackly crust, and permeating all the little brittle crevasses. If you’re lucky enough to get to Bazin early in the day, a favorite baguette of mine is available with a hearty mixture of grains; flax, sesame, and poppy seeds.

The one shown above is their baguette de tradition, a hand-shaped baguette, slightly sour from the addition of un peu de levain, natural sourdough starter, which gives the bread a hearty, earthy character and allows it to remain fresher longer than the usual 4-hour lifespan of a regular baguette.

Bazin

Bazin is one of the prettiest bakeries in Paris too, overlooking what I am sure is the smallest (and most unnecessary) traffic rotary in the city. In order to get a Bazinette with grains, you need to get to the bakery early in the day, since they always seem to sell them out quickly.

Bazin
85, bis rue de Charenton
Métro: Ledru-Rollin
Tel: 01 43 07 75 21
(Closed Wednesday and Thursday)

Culinary Crime Scene

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Le Rubis: Paris Wine Bar

It’s perhaps not much of a secret anymore that some of the best places to eat in Paris are the wine bars. Unlike some of the ‘wine bars’ in the US (where that glass of oaky California Chardonnay will run you $14…not including tax and tip), Paris’ wine bars are gathering places, where people might stop in the morning after the market for a friendly chat with the counter person or in the afternoon for quick glass of red to get you through the rest of your day…not that I ever do that…

After work, the wines bars in Paris hum as people leave their jobs, and you’ll see businessmen in dapper suits (and the aforementioned cartoon-emblazoned socks) as well as sales clerks from the local shops propped up against le bar zinc, cigarette in hand, sipping a glass of red wine while thinking whatever it is they’re thinking as they focus their gazes somewhere off into space. It’s a skill I’ve yet to master.

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One of my favorite wine bars in Paris is Le Rubis. Located just off the fancy-schmancy rue Saint-Honoré, Le Rubis occupies a little corner of this quartier, better known for handbags, jewelery shops, and all the other necessities of life for les bourgeoisie.

I like to go at lunchtime, especially in the cold winter months, where the friendly owners will squeeze you into a seat at one of the tiny tables covered with crisp white paper, a folded napkin, some utilitarian silverware, and an overturned wine glass, ready to be filled. After lunch of later in the afternoon, Parisians gather outside by the wine barrels covered with red-checkered cloth, drinking, smoking, and talking on their mobile phones, while absent mindedly polishing off a couple of glasses of Brouilly or Beaujolais.

Most of the wine bars in Paris that serve food keep it authentic and simple: peek into the kitchen at any of them and you’ll find most are the size of a phone booth. It’s all charming and convivial, reminding me of the old diners that have mostly disappeared in America (except the bottomless cup of bad coffee’s been replaced by red wine…and people still ask me why I live in France!)

Lunch can be anything from petit salé, braised salt pork on a bed of nutty green French lentils, or a rich wedge of tarte au legumes, a quiche-like slab of eggy-custard, baked with vegetables and diced smoked bacon, served with a mustardy green salad.

Of course, though, the wine is important here. But not so important that it draws wine snobs. Thankfully all he pretention from the neighborhood is left outside the door. I like to come in the afternoon when the place is empty. I sit with friends, or by myself, sipping a glass of fruity Chinon accompanied by a plate of their outstanding charcuterie, served on dark-crusted slices of pain Poilâne, from the nearby bakery of Max Poilâne. Country hams, fat-rich rillettes, and slices of dry sausage are always a treat, and a welcome accompaniment to the wine.
By the time I’m ready to leave, the table’s covered with bread crumbs, the paper table covering is stained with red rings from the bottom of the wine glass, and I’m feeling much better, no matter where I’m going afterwards.

Usually it’s straight home for une sieste, another jour perdu

(UPDATE: Read more details about Les Rubis.)

Le Rubis
10, rue Marché St. Honoré
Tel: 01 42 61 03 34
(Full-meals served only at lunch)

California Caramels: Little Flower Candy Company

Last year I read about a pastry chef-turned-candymaker in Los Angeles. She was becoming known around those parts for her tender caramels, blended with wisps of sel de mer (sea salt.)

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Inspired by the amazing CBS, caramel-beurre-salé caramels produced by the master himself, Henri LeRoux, Christine Moore’s caramels are indeed the best I’ve had in the US.

A friend drove me out to the Silverlake region of Los Angeles. It’s a rather funky area, full of shoe shops, stores with second-hand clothing racks on sidewalks, just-opened bakeries, and a music studio that Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) opened for the young folks of the neighborhood.

And there’s the The Cheesestore of Silverlake, a small shop with wheels of cheese piled high on the counter, and a carefully chosen selection of ‘gourmet’ foods…although I hate to use that word, which seems so pretentious, and this shop is anything but. They’re incredibly friendly (and yes, I seem to be the only one who truly likes LA…) and we spoke a bit about what they carry, their cheese and wine selection – and, of course, the creamy, wonderful caramels.

Although a few might consider them a tad salty for their taste (I love them), The Little Candy Company caramels were cooked to just the right temperature…not too tough, not too sticky and meltingly-soft, cooked just enough to that chewy stage to give them some ‘bite’. As we ripped open the package, unwrapped a few tender morsels and popped them in our mouths, we did concede that it was impossible to reproduce the French caramels exactly. But boy, those caramels sure were good. No matter where they’re made.

-Sea Salt Caramels from The Little Flower Candy Company can be ordered via their website.

-Check out the recipe for Christine Moore’s Chocolate-Caramel Tartlets.

Winter Fruits

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Pears

Good pears are in danger of disappearing. The best-tasting varieties (Comice, Bartlett, and French Butter) become easily bruised as they ripen, so large stores are reluctant to carry them. So what can you do? Buy them when you see them. Don’t be afraid to purchase rock-hard pears of these varieties: unlike most other fruits, pears don’t ripen well on the tree and should be ripened at home for the most succulent, juicy flavor. I carefully cradle my pears when I carry them home, then let them rest on the countertop, standing upright on a kitchen towel, until slightly soft to the touch.

Bartlett pears are amazingly aromatic, and in Normandy, folks who distill Calvados add a few along with the apples (about 10%) to heighten the aroma. Pear eau-de-vie, or Pear William (sometimes recognized as the clear liquor with the whole pear in the bottle) is a distillation of Bartlett pears. It takes about 60 pounds of pears to make a small, precious bottle of Pear William. The steam of the cooking pears is captured and that little trickle of liquid is bottled as eau-de-vie.
So stop complaining about the price.

Most pears can also be checked for ripeness by sniffing the stem end. I bought some perfectly-ripe Comice pears last week that were as perfumed as the most divine roses (which are relatives of apples and pears.) Each time I passed them on my countertop, I couldn’t resist picking one up for a sniff.

For cooking and poaching, Bosc and Winter Nellis pears are the best choice as they hold their shape once cooked. These varieties have little fragrance. Although other cooks use them, I’ve never tasted an Anjou pear that was any good.

(And don’t curse those little plastic labels that are stuck on pears. Without those, many of the supermarkets wouldn’t sell the lesser-known varieties of pears, since it’s difficult for the cashiers to know which are which. )

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Dried Apricots

When I visit the United States, I always return loaded down with at least three or four pounds of California dried apricots (right). I’m not xenophobic, but the Turkish apricots (left) are tasteless, bland, and sugary-sweet. If you come visit me, that’s what I ask my friends to pack for me.

I grew up snacking on California dried apricots and I used to call them ‘dried monkey ears’. Their puckery tang makes them ideal when simmered in a light sugar syrup until soft (1 part sugar or honey to 4 parts water, perhaps with a stick of cinnamon or vanilla bean) and served alongside a savory meat or chicken stew. I love them in desserts and I’ll often make a simple (and healthy) soufflé of dried apricots plumped in white wine. Once cooked, I puree them, fold in some whipped egg whites and sugar, and minutes later I pull from the oven a tray of apricot soufflés.

Although the Turkish (and Chinese) varieties are less than half the price, they’re no bargain. If you substitute them in a recipe that calls for dried apricots, you’ll be sadly disappointed. The California growers are having a hard time competing, since so many people seem to shop solely on price, not quality.
So have one less Vente Mocchachino a year and splurge on good-tasting dried fruit. Please.

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Limes

The most widely available lime in the US is the Persian lime. Since it’s seedless, it’s the one most commercial growers cultivate. Often found solidly green and bullet-hard (they’re picked underripe and gassed to preserve their unripe green color), they yield little juice.

As with all citrus, select limes that feel heavy for their size. If you live in France, where they vendors don’t like it when you handle the produce, you risk getting scolded with, “Monseur! Ne touchez pas!” (and in the old days, they would add a petit slap if you were in striking distance). So to avoid the humiliation, I scout around ethnic markets and root around the citrus bins, elbowing aside the Arabic and Chinese women, touching every fruit, and tossing back those that don’t feel hefty and full of juice.

If you pick one up and it feels light, that’s an indication there’s little juice inside. Look for limes that are yellow-golden with a greenish hue. As mentioned, ethnic markets seem to offer golden limes that are valued for their taste, not their looks. And don’t be put of by appearances: older, punky-looking citrus often tastes best since it’s spent the maximum time ripening on the tree rather than sitting in cold storage.

To get the most juice from limes, make sure your limes are at room temperature. Roll them firmly on the countertop with your hand to rupture the juice sacs, then squeeze. While some cookbook authors advise popping them in the microwave for a few seconds, I’d feel funny about heating fresh limes. It jus doesn’t seem right.

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Pineapples

While everyone loves pineapple, no one seems to remember the last time they actually bought one. They seem to make an appearance only for special occasions. So next time you’re at the market, why not pick one up? Personally, it makes me feel better to have something around the house that’s a reminder of the tropics during the long, grey days of winter. (Especially if I pick up a bottle of dark rum at the same time!)

I buy pineapples often during the winter. I like to cut them up and keep pieces in the refrigerator for snacking or to add to a fruit salad with grapes and tangerines. And blended with some dark rum and lime juice, served in a nice glass with some chips and guacamole, I don’t know of a better way to beat the winter blahs. (Luckily, for some reason, they have the best tortilla chips in France. Avocados are plentiful as well.)

The most common varieties of pineapple are the Cayenne and Esmerelda, although you’ll rarely find pineapples listed by variety. Harold McGee suggests buying pineapples grown as close to the equator as possible, although I’ve had exceptional pineapples from Hawaii, the Ivory Coast of Africa, and Costa Rica.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing that plucking out the center leaf of a pineapple will tell you about ripeness. Pineapples don’t ripen after picking so buy one labeled Jet-Fresh, or with a ticket stating that it’s been picked ripe, if possible. Take a sniff: a good pineapple will reveal if it’s ripe by a tropical aroma at the stem end. Lots of yellow on the skin is another indication of ripeness. Avoid fruits with soft spots and mold.

My Le Creuset Casserole

i love my loewy casserole

There’s always much debate over when it’s okay to telephone someone at home. How late is too later? How early is okay to call? Are they friends, or family? When I moved to Paris, a friend told me, Never call anyone before noon on Sunday.” I made that mistake once, and that was all it took.

So I’m sound asleep at 8am this Saturday morning (after getting home from dinner last night at 2am), there I am tucked into my bed, so warm-and-cozy, nestled between my linen sheets and goose down duvet, by little head dreaming of….
….and…“…..brrring….brrring….brrringbrrring!….Bbrring!….

Grrrr. So since I was up, I decided to hit the Marché aux Puces, or flea market. By the time I finished my coffee and got there, I’m sure most of the good stuff was gone. But this week I managed to pick up something I’ve been admiring for a long time.

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I’ve been eyeing this casserole whenever I’d come across one over the past few years. Designed in 1958 by Raymond Loewy for Le Creuset, I love its combination of modernity and French utilitarianism. Vintage examples in good condition are rarely found since most have been well-used by French cooks. And recently it’s been re-issued, although in newer colors, not like the classic orange that you see.

Raymond Loewy was born in Paris, but made his mark in corporate America. He became the most influential designer of our time and designed so many things that we just take for granted. But during his era, the Industrial Revolution, people were fascinated by all that was new and liked products and designs that suggested a better, more modern, future. What he designed suggested speed and forward-thinking, an emerging machine-age where everything was sleek and streamlined, and this casserole for Le Creuset is no exception.

(This piece of cookware is called La Coquelle and was reissued here in France in several colors, but they have since taken them out of production.)

In addition to this casserole, Loewy designed the Studebaker, as well as the Lucky Strike, Nabisco, Shell, and Exxon logos. One of my favorites, though, was for New Man, a French clothing company.

Not many people realize this, but if you turn it over, it reads the same thing, “New Man”.

Go ahead, flip over your computer and see. I’ll wait.

A Visit to Bernachon Chocolate

Jean-Charles Rochoux has perhaps the tiniest chocolate shop in Paris, located on an unassuming side street off the Rue de Rennes. It’s hard to see and easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. But what causes most passers-by to stop are the window displays, filled with intricately-sculpted statues and figures, crafted entirely of chocolate.

M. Rochoux spent many years in the workshop of Michel Chaudun, one of the best chocolatiers in Paris. And indeed, a look around this sleek boutique reveals much inspiration from M. Chaudin, including his version of Colomb, little disks of chocolate studded with cocoa nibs, and Les Pavés, tiny cubes of chocolate ganache that instantly dissolve in your mouth, the lingering pleasure lasting a few precious minutes. Then you decide it’s time for another. I always buy at least six at a time for that reason.

But stacked discretely in the corner are stacks of chocolate bars, and after we had a lengthy discussion on chocolate one day, M. Rochoux handed me a tablet labeled noisettes to take home as a gift. When I got home, I tore open the wrapper and took a bite.
I was completely surprised by what I found inside.

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Each individual roasted hazelnut was coated in crunchy, crackly caramel, then enrobed in the chocolate bar. The contrast of hyper-crisp hazelnuts and bittersweet chocolate makes this my new favorite chocolate bar in Paris.

Although I love finding something new, sometimes I have the opportunity to discover something nearly forgotten.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of touring the workshop and chocolate boutique of the world-famous Bernachon, in the city of Lyon.

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Bernachon’s Signature Cake: ‘Le President’

Not only does Bernachon make great chocolates, they actually make the chocolate itself. Let’s say you go to a shop to buy filled chocolates, or bars of chocolate. You’re buying chocolate that the chocolatier has bought (and perhaps mixed to his or her specifications). That’s the difference between a chocolatier and a chocolate-maker. There are very few chocolate-makers in the world, only 14 exist in the United States at present. Bernachon is a small shop, but it’s stunning what they’re able to produce.

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Piping ‘Couronne Noisette’: Hazelnut and Praline Paste Blended with Milk Chocolate

I love Bernachon chocolate, although it’s nearly impossible to find outside of their shop in Lyon. But what great chocolate it is and it’s certainly worth the 2-hour TGV ride from Paris.

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‘Les Roches’, Just-Dipped in Freshly-Made Dark Chocolate

Their most famous bonbons are the seriously-rich, ganache-filled palets d’Or flecked with bits of real gold. At the shop, they barely have time to keep them in the showcase, as customers come in, the saleswomen fill boxes directly from the decades-old wooden storage trays.

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A Super-Skilled Chocolatier at Bernachon Making Chocolate Ruffles

But when I visit, I stock up on their chocolate bars, which allow me to commune with the pure chocolate all by my lonesome. I like the Nuit et Jour, the Night and Day bar, where one side is bittersweet dark chocolate. Flip it over, the reverse is smooth milk chocolate. Moka is made by grinding roasted coffee beans along with cocoa beans for a double-buzz, and Extra Amer is a super-dark bar of chocolate with very little sugar. It’s bliss for some, and too intense for others.I fall into the first category. But my absolute favorite is Kalouga.

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Kalouga is a rather funny name for a chocolate bar. It’s the Basque word for ‘Caramel’ (any scholars of the Basque language out there?) But I found the Basque word for tasty, gustagarri, and that’s what this is. I first tasted one of these bars about 5 years ago, but was dismayed to find they stopped making it since. Too much of the luscious caramel would begin oozing out after the tablets were made and it was problematic to store them.

But I kept asking them to make them, and word got back to them that there was an American living in Paris who was insane for them. And lo and behold, they’re back in production! (Yes, that was the story I was told…whether or not I believe it is another story…)
Either way, you may thank me later…once you’ve tried one.

Once you bite inside, the gooey salted caramel immediately begins spilling out, and it’s hard not to eat the whole thing at once. If you’re the generous type, I recommend opening it when you have a bunch of friends over to share the bounty.

Otherwise, you can just eat the whole thing yourself.

Guess which I did?

Jean-Charles Rochoux
16, rue d’Assas (6th)
Paris
Tél: 01 42 84 29 45

Bernachon
42, cours Franklin-Roosevelt
Lyon
Tél: 04 78 52 67 77
Lyon

(Bernachon chocolate bars are available in Paris at A l’Etoile d’Or.)

A Paris Café, in Winter

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