When I was in Brooklyn a few months back doing a booksigning with the lovely folks from The Brooklyn Kitchen, a friendly woman came up to me bearing a box of treats from her bakery. I don’t like to eat in front of people, because, frankly, no one wants to meet up with an author while he is shoving pastries in his mouth. And in this day and age of people wanting pictures, I’ve learned that absolutely no one looks good when they’ve got a mouth full of food. And I have a hunch that there are a bunch of photos tagged with my name on them, around the internet, that will prove that.
Recently in Chocolate category
The French do a lot of baked goods very well. if you’ve been to Paris, you don’t need me to tell you that with over 1300 bakeries in Paris, it’s not hard to find a pastry or baked good on every block that will be more satisfying than you can imagine.
One of the rare baked goods that the French haven’t quite mastered are les brownies. If you see them in bakeries and try one, you’ll find they’re often on the pas humid side. I’m not sure why, because they’re simple to make, and don’t require any special techniques: You just stir everything together, scrape the batter into a pan, and bake them. The only astuce (cooking tip) is that it’s important to watch them like a hawk, taking them out of the oven at the point where they’re still going to be soft and crémeux à l’intérieur.
In August, we were visiting some friends who live on an organic farm in the Poitou-Charentes, and after dinner, Hélène, presented us with a large tart-like creation that looked like a big, flat chocolate cake that she’d baked up in between her other chores. I was told they were les brownies, but hers were different. In addition to a little bit of coconut that was added, which gave them a slightly elusive tropical flavor, they were moist and uber-chocolaty. I couldn’t keep myself away from them.
The French don’t usually snack with the same fervor that Americans do (Romain’s father was once shocked to learn that I ate between meals), but I spend a good part of my day picking at any and all desserts that are within arm’s reach. And when everyone else was out in the fields down on the farm, weeding and working on hedges, I stayed back in the house, reading in a comfy chair — and found myself circling back around and around the pan of brownies, cutting off une lichette (a sliver), to help myself.
I’m very excited to announce the release and relaunch of my Paris Pastry App. There are over 370 bakeries and pastry shops listed, with descriptions of what to get where you are there, opening hours, a glossary to common terms and pastries, links to websites and contact information, as well as multiple pictures from each delectable address, and maps to get you there. That’s over 700 photos of Paris pastries — so even if you don’t have a trip to Paris planned right now, you can savor the pastries until you come visit and sample them in person!
The new app features a sleek interface, and conforms to the most up-to-date iOS7 guidelines. All information is retrievable without a WiFi or internet connection (except, of course, GPS coordinates.) With the app, you can roam Paris and locate specialty ice cream shops, find the perfect tarte au citron or macaron au chocolat, and use the Top 25 function to find what are the top twenty-five places that you absolutely shouldn’t miss. (The Top 25 list is also listed in the free Lite version of the app.)
Well, this is quite a baking book. Starting off with the first thirty-one pages, which contain some of the most profanity laced – and best – advice I’ve read about baking. (Hmm, maybe I’ve been doing it all wrong.) But I couldn’t put Robicelli’s: A Love Story with Cupcakes down as I read through the fore matter, which the authors admonish that you’d better read because they “spent the better part of two freaking years” writing it because they “don’t want you jumping in like a lunatic and do(ing) something stupid.” Fair enough.
So it’s a good idea to drop any reluctance you have to strong language – and cupcakes – if you want to enjoy this book, which I couldn’t put down and is truly laugh-out-loud funny. After dropping a number of f-bombs, the Robicelli’s warn you right off the bat that you’re probably thinking that cupcakes are stupid. And they agree with you, that many cupcakes are. But they make their case saying cupcakes are basically individual-sized versions of cake, which they say is one of the top five things in the world. And everyone likes cake – so why the hate?
One of the things about living in a city like Paris is that you spend a lot of time – well, dealing with life. Bills to pay, paperwork to do, typos to avoid, stolen bikes to replace, smokers to dodge on sidewalks waving lit cigarettes (I got nailed the other day – ouch!), or buying a pair of shoes, can easily take up much – or all – of your days. It’s too-easy to get wrapped up in all that minutiae and let all the things you love to do get overwhelmed by the other things that tend to take over, if you let them.
I’ve let them and decided to do a little turn-around by revisiting the places and eating the things that I love in Paris. It’s easy to forget the pockets of wonderfulness that people see when they come here for a week – the parks, the boulevards, the chocolate shops, and just taking a stroll and getting some air (in between all the sidewalk maneuvering) and take in the city.
Macarons aren’t new. Macarons gerbet, or filled macarons are distinctly Parisian and have been around for about 150 years. True, they are available elsewhere nowadays. But like a New York or Montreal bagel, or Chicago deep-dish pizza, certain foods get designated with an appellation because they are so closely associated with where they were first made. (Bagels and pizza are from neither of those places mentioned, originally. And macarons, which were originally from Italy, then came to France and are usually available as simple, crispy cookies made with egg whites, sugar and almonds.) But that’s getting back into minutiae, a word I had to look up the precise spelling for, twice (more minutiae!) and I’m more interested in tasting pastries. So I took a stroll over to the relatively new Pierre Hermé macaron boutique in the Marais.
Macarons kind of had their day in the soleil. Everyone wanted to either make them, or come to Paris and sample them. For a while, almost every day a question or two would land in my Inbox from people who were making macarons, wondering why their macarons didn’t have the ruffled “feet”, or why their tops cracked – and could I diagnose them? Interviewers were astonished when they’d ask me what flavors of macarons Parisians made at home, and I responded that I couldn’t think of anyone that made macarons in Paris because no one had the space for a baking sheet on their kitchen counter. And honestly, it’s easier for people to get them at their local pastry shop or bakery.
When it comes to baking and desserts, one doesn’t necessarily think of salt as a flavor. But more and more, I keep considering, and reconsidering, the role that salt plays in just about everything I bake. And because I keep both salted and unsalted butter on hand – I can’t imagine my morning toast without a little salted butter spread over the top – I’ll sometimes reach for the salted variety when tackling a baking project or making dessert.
I wasn’t the first person to put salt on dessert; people from various cultures have been sprinkling salt on fresh fruit for ages. And many pastry chefs, as well as some big chocolate companies, have gotten in on the “salt in chocolate” act as well.
But I’ve gotten so used to sprinkling it on sweets that sometimes if I’m having my last course in a restaurant and I think the dessert needs a little perking up, you’ll find me looking around the table for a little bowl of flaky sea salt. Salt is so important to me that I’ll sometimes carry a little wooden box of fleur de sel, which when I’d bring out in restaurants, my co-diners would give me a look as if I was being pretentious. (Then – of course – they’d ask if they could have a pinch too.)
I’m often asked about upcoming trends and each time it happens, I am sorely tempted to respond, “If I could see the future, I’d be buying lottery tickets.” I guess it makes good press – but the unfortunate thing about most trends is that they are often temporary. (In many cases, it’s a relief to see them go when their time is up.) Yet other times, a trend brings something to the foreground, allowing us take a fresh look at it.
One trend that isn’t necessarily something new in Paris, is l’éclair, a torpedo-like pastry stuffed with a creamy filling then dipped or brushed with glaze. I’ve been eating them ever since I was a child, loving the tender, eggy pastry contrasting with the sugary icing striped down the top. Most bakeries in Paris have them and I pick one up every once in a while since they make a nice snack. They’re not overly rich, nor are they too-filling; they seem just enough to satisfy me without bogging me down. And they’re also easy to handle when navigating sidewalks riddled with walking people diagonally. (Although in spite of my holding on for dear life, I’ve almost lost a few in the fray.)
Where I grew up, we were neighbors with the Hepburn family. They were very nice people and were considered “walkers”, those curious people who live in suburbia that walk, rather than drive everywhere. We used to see them walking all the time and we’d always give them a wave. And then, we’d hit the gas pedal and keep driving.
We didn’t mingle much, and I didn’t see the most famous member of their family since she lived down by the seashore. Perhaps it was a mixed blessing that she didn’t live all that close because she was reputed to be a handful at the neighborhood meetings where she lived, and was said to be pretty sharp with a retort. But I don’t deal in celebrity gossip and as they say in New England, “High fences make good neighbors”, and we all kept to ourselves. Although word has it that she made excellent brownies, which I never got to sample from her oven, unfortunately.
Years later, when I went to chocolate school in Belgium, I asked why unsweetened chocolate, which we frequently use in recipes in America (especially brownies), wasn’t easily available – or used – in Europe baking as well. And the folks at Callebaut Chocolate Academy didn’t really know either but told me that almost most of what they made was for the American market.