The Best Thing I Ate in Corsica

12 06 2013

You might expect me to wax rhapsodic about the array of sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses, or gush about the intensely flavorful charcuterie, or rave about the freshness of the just-caught fish, but no. I’m here to extol a pastry. (And if you think about it, is that really so surprising after all?)

Almond " matchsticks"

Upon entering Ajaccio’s Boulangerie Galéani (for no discernible reason the only bakery there mentioned in any of the guide books I read) on the first morning of my weekend there in late May, I was met with the sight of these tempting allumettes aux amandes. Sure, we picked up some of the supposedly great canistrelli (like a smallish scone or thick shortbread cookie, but barely sweet and extremely dry), and some awesome cheese tarts made with the local brocciu (fresh sheep’s cheese, similar in texture to ricotta), but the allumette was the star of the show.

Imagine a thick twist of  puff pastry, probably made with salted butter, dunked in sweet meringue and sprinkled with salted almonds, then baked until crisp and caramelized. Alternately flaky, tender, crunchy, sweet and salty, it was truly one of the most surprising things I’ve eaten in quite a while. We visited other bakeries during our stay, and sampled many delicious things – mostly on the savory end of the spectrum, now that I think about it: turnovers filled with cheese, onions, and Swiss chard, sausages wrapped in croissant dough – but never saw another allumette aux amandes. So my recommendation, if you’re ever in Ajaccio, is to visit the Boulangerie Galéani, skip the canistrelli (which were pretty unimpressive) and the bread (I didn’t see a single good baguette the whole time I was there), and load up on these sweet-and-salty delights.

Of course, the setting in which we ate this pastry could have something to do with it. After hiking up and around a gorgeous peninsula…

Up

…we sat down to a picnic lunch high on a cliff overlooking the Iles Sanguinaires…

sunshine and sea air...

 

…which probably made everything taste better.

On this day in 2008: Nick’s Provençal Eggplant – a delicious ragoût, which I’m excited to make once eggplant comes back into season…hopefully only a few more weeks now.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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Paris Pastry Crawl 2013: Chocolate Mousse Omnibus

9 04 2013

Perhaps I was a touch ambitious with my plans for the Paris Pastry Crawl. Eating all that pastry is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for people who are used to working in kitchens but now find themselves leading a much more sedentary lifestyle, nor is it for people who are trying to write their own baking books and therefore need to be baking and recipe testing (read: eating) at home, nor is it for anyone who can’t afford to replace her entire wardrobe with bigger clothes. Which is not to say I’m quitting.  But I think the monthly format might be a bit too much, despite my slowly increasing jogging and yoga habits.

I had wanted to talk about chocolate mousse for February, because of Valentine’s Day, but I think I was a little pastried out, and then that holiday came and went, and a few others, and here I am, two months later, finally ready to write about this incredibly versatile dessert.

You see, chocolate mousse is rarely seen as a stand-alone dessert in Parisian pastry shops. (It’s a different story in restaurants.) But it plays an important role in many of the elaborate tarts and cakes for which French pâtisseries are known. The one where I used to work, for example, had at least five different chocolate mousse recipes – not counting the milk and white variations – all with specific destinies as parts of various entremets. But we’ll talk about recipes another day. Today we’re playing catch up with the handful of chocolate mousse-based treats I’ve eaten over the last few months.

swoops of mousse

I wasn’t too impressed with Laurent Duchêne’s éclairs, but this chocolate-caramel tart went some way towards redeeming his work. The artful swoop of mild, smooth milk chocolate mousse concealed a filling of gooey caramel, cooked nice and dark, just like I like it. The crust was firm and crisp, but didn’t bring much chocolate flavor to the party. At 4.50, it’s one of the more expensive pastries in Duchêne’s shop, but still very reasonably priced.

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Pantry Cake, with a Beautiful Ratio

12 03 2013

Who among us has opted not to cook or bake something because the ingredients aren’t at hand?  I am especially guilty of this, mainly because I wait until I want to eat something before I decide to cook.  Leave the apartment?  Go shopping?*  No, I want something to eat NOW.  On the up side, this forces me to be creative, and tests my understanding of the way ingredients work (science!) on a pretty regular basis.  Here’s an example from yesterday. I was catching up on my blog reading, and found this delightful post about olive oil cake from The Hungry Dog.

Olive oil cake is one of those things I’ve always wanted to try, and this recipe sounded pretty great.  Until I started looking at the ingredients, and making mental substitutions: “Let’s see, I don’t have blood oranges, but I do have a jar of sour cherries I should use, maybe I could substitute those. Oh, wait, you need the juice, too, and I think the syrup the cherries are in will be too sweet. It would be easy to go get some oranges, but wait, it’s Monday and the fruit stand on the corner is closed. Besides, it’s sleeting…”

So I started casting around for another olive oil cake recipe. My cookbook collection was surprisingly silent on the subject.  I found a couple more recipes online, but they wanted me to separate the eggs and whip the whites and fold them in and it all sounded like kind of a hassle. But it occurred to me at some point that the olive oil is simply playing the role of the fat in a regular cake recipe. And I started to wonder if I could make an olive oil pound cake (quatre quarts in French) with a straight up 1:1:1:1 ratio of eggs, sugar, oil, and flour.  So I preheated my oven to 180C, weighed my eggs and got to it.**

My three eggs weighed in at 200 grams, so I scaled out 200 grams each of granulated sugar, cake flour, and extra virgin olive oil (pretty good stuff, but not the very best) in separate containers, and I drained that jar of sour cherries, which gave me about 2 cups of fruit, weighing about 350 grams.  I wanted some insurance that the cake would rise, so I added a teaspoon of baking powder to the flour, along with 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  Eyeballing the ingredients on the counter, I guessed that this cake was going to fit best in my 10″ tube pan, so I oiled it and dusted it with flour.

Mise en place done, I started whipping the eggs in my second biggest bowl with my new hand mixer (I didn’t want to buy it, but now that I have it, I’m really glad I did), adding the sugar as I whipped.  I kept whipping the eggs and sugar until they lightened in color and  got thick and creamy looking.  (In some circles, we call this the “ribbon stage”, where drizzling the whipped eggs over themselves results in a thick ribbon that remains distinct for at least three seconds before melting back into the whole.) Whipping the whole time, I slowly drizzled in the olive oil and a teaspoon of vanilla extract.  I thought it looked like airy mayonnaise, which it basically was, and all of a sudden those cakes made with mayonnaise made more sense and sounded less disgusting.  Finally, I sifted the cake flour, baking powder, and salt together over the batter and folded them in with a rubber spatula until the batter was smooth.

I spread about half of this in the tube pan, sprinkled about two-thirds of the cherries over it, and topped with the remaining half of the batter and the rest of the cherries.  At this point, I thought it might be nice to put some pistachios on top for crunch and because they’re so good with cherries.  So I grabbed a handful of shelled pistachios and scattered them over the cake.  And a sprinkling of cassonade for added sparkle.  After 45 minutes in the oven, the cake was a lovely golden brown, springy to the touch, and a toothpick stuck in the center came out clean.  I let it cool a bit and dug in.

a sunny cake on a snowy day

The cherries had sunk to the bottom, as I feared they might, but the cake is still marvelous.  The crumb is velvety-fine and tender, with just a hint of crunch on top from the pistachios and cassonade.  The olive oil lends a subtle, earthy fruitiness, and the sour cherries offer bright bursts of juicy flavor.  It was as great for dessert as it was for breakfast, and makes a fine snack as well.  Interestingly, the flavors seemed to solidify overnight, so the olive oil notes are more pronounced the next day.

I’m kind of in love with this cake.  Only problem is, now I’m out of olive oil and sour cherries.  I suppose a trip to the store will be in order soon…

*In Paris, this can be a serious time commitment.  It’s rarely the case that you can just pop out really quick and grab that one ingredient you’re missing, because even though the shop downstairs always has the kind of flour you’re looking for, the one time you really need it fast, they’re out. So you walk to the next store, probably a few blocks away.  They don’t even carry what you need.  And it goes on like that, until you finally find the flour, but in the meantime you’ve thought of a bunch of other things you need, and then you call home to make sure you’re not forgetting anything, load up your shopping bag and lug it home.  By then any energy you had for cooking is sapped, so you scrap the whole idea and decide to try again tomorrow.

**I weighed the eggs first because they are the least flexible of the ingredients – I can weigh out any amount of flour, sugar, or olive oil I wish, but if I arbitrarily decide I want to use, say 150 grams of each, and then my eggs weigh 60 grams each, well, it’s not going to work so well.  Weighing the eggs first means I can just scale everything else to match their weight.

On this day in 2010: Wadja (A cool little bistro.)

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Paris Pastry Crawl 2103: Éclairs: The Recipe

8 02 2013

I do believe I promised recipes to accompany my Pastry Crawl so that those of you not in Paris can enjoy along with me.  With the exception of Christophe Adam, French bakers in general adhere very strictly to the rules of éclair making: e.g. If  it’s a chocolate éclair, it has chocolate filling and chocolate icing.  If it’s a coffee éclair, it has coffee filling and light brown, hopefully coffee-flavored icing.  Rarely is it anything else.  And yet, in the United States, a chocolate eclair is almost always filled with vanilla pudding (yes, pastry cream is hardly more than a fancy name for pudding (in the American sense.  Don’t make me open the British pudding can of worms.)) and glazed with chocolate.  So I suffer none of these compunctions, instead viewing the éclair as a canvas for whatever flavor combination strikes my fancy.  On this particular occasion, inspired in part by a recent post on Not Without Salt extolling the virtues of butterscotch pudding, I chose to make my filling butterscotch.

unadorned

I am admittedly out of practice piping éclairs, my muscle memory being confused between the lusty behemoths we used to make in the States and the skinnier, more uptight ones I became accustomed to making in Paris.  You can see examples of both in the above photo, insert fat American joke here.

!#@%*

Let it be noted that the fatter an éclair is, the greater the cream-to-pastry ratio.  Do with that what you will.

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Paris Pastry Crawl 2013: Éclairs: L’Éclair de Génie

1 02 2013

Somehow January is already over.  But éclair month is still going (I got a bit of a late start, and then my internet was down for ten days, so I figure I can borrow a few days from February).  I think at this point, a little history of the éclair is in order.

rows of éclairs

I went to the library to do my pastry research, but it turns out that the best information I found was right on my own bookshelf, in Dorie Greenspan’s lovely Around My French Table.  She explains that they were invented and named by Carême.  One of the first celebrity chefs, Carême gained fame in the late 18th and early 19th centuries because of his elaborate pastry creations called pièces montées.  The tradition lives on today, mainly in the form of the croquembouche, still popular for French weddings and other celebrations.  So it’s safe to say the guy liked his pâte à choux.  Dorie writes that Carême was the fist to pipe it into “long, fingerlike shapes.”

Once the pastry was baked, he sliced the strips in half, filled them with pastry cream, and glazed their tops, creating an enduring classic, which he christened éclairs (éclair means lightning).  No one’s certain why he called the slender pastries lightning…I hold with the camp convinced that the name described the way and éclair is eaten – lightning fast.

Dorie Greenspan, Around My French Table

yes, please

Like most French words, éclair can be translated more than one way.  I’ve always thought of it as a flash, which makes the name of éclair guru Christophe Adam’s shop a cute play on words: L’Éclair de Génie becomes “the flash of genius”.  Adam, probably best known as the pastry chef who made Fauchon a destination for éclairs with his collection of imaginative takes on the classic pastry, now has his own shop which sells éclairs and truffles.  I found out about it on Dorie’s delightful blog (where would I be without her?) and knew that I would have to include it in my éclair tasting.  I am not disappointed.

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Paris Pastry Crawl 2013: Éclairs: Laurent Duchêne

28 01 2013

One of the purposes of this Pastry Crawl (yes, there’s a purpose beyond eating ridiculous amounts of dessert) is to get out into this glorious city and sample treats from shops unfamiliar to me, and add to my ever-growing list of favorites.  To that end, David Lebovitz’ Paris Pastry app has come in incredibly handy.  Without it, I might never have learned that MOF Pâtissier Laurent Duchêne had a shop not far from my apartment, and only a couple blocks from the library where I am spending an increasing amount of time.

colors!

The shop is lovely, and I regret that I could only buy four desserts (two éclairs, two others to be revealed at a later date), because the galettes des rois looked wonderful, as did the croissants.  But it was evening, and I knew it wouldn’t do the croissants justice to eat them the next morning, so I’m just going to have to get myself out of the house in the a.m. hours one of these days (I can hardly imagine how I used to get up at 5!) and grab one fresh.

I have another hope for the project as well: that by trying the same pastry at different shops, I can get an idea of each chef’s style, and an interesting cross-section of the many ways to interpret a classic.  That I can continue to hone my palate, identify what makes a particular dessert great or less so, how the elements of a given pastry contribute to its ultimate success or failure, and how they can be manipulated to achieve the desired effect.  So, you know, I’m not just stuffing my face.  It’s for science.

All this is to say that not every pastry is going to be a winner.  It’s statistically impossible.  There are loads of really bad bakeries out there, even in Paris (maybe especially in Paris, given that there are so many of them here, which is why a good guidebook or app is so important) and I can usually spot them with a simple glance at the case.  If the éclairs are topped with dull, ugly fondant, that’s strike one.  If the tarts look old, with the filling cracking or pulling away from the crust, that’s strike two.  If they’re selling Chupa Chups or Kinder Buenos – there’s a TV ad that infuriates me, where Tony Parker and some lady walk into a bakery, and then they start fighting over the last Kinder Bueno despite the fact that there is a case full of supposedly fresh, handmade sweets and they want the stupid packaged thing… What was I talking about again?  Oh, yes, huge pastries are also generally a bad sign.  But I think I’m getting off track here.

So as I was saying, I picked up two éclairs at Laurent Dubois’ shop, chocolate and vanilla.  I was disappointed to note that the chocolate and coffee éclairs were glazed in fondant, but pleased to see that the vanilla one was not.

two peas in a pod?

You don’t actually see vanilla éclairs that often, which is one reason I chose it.  And I always approve of an éclair that isn’t covered in fondant.  The sugar cookie baked into the top of this one gave it a pleasant slight crunch – a nice textural contrast to the smooth pastry cream inside.

no specks of vanilla bean

I was a bit discouraged to note the lack of vanilla bean in the custard, but overall, this éclair was fine.  Nothing more, nothing less.

The chocolate éclair turned out to be a near-perfect example of the typically shoddy work done by apprentices.  (Éclairs, being classic and relatively simple to prepare, often fall to the apprentices.  It is supposed to teach them some basic skills used in the pâtisserie, such as using a piping bag, how to tell when the fondant is the right temperature, and tasting to see if the cream has enough chocolate/coffee/etc. flavor.)  The kid who filled this one didn’t do it carefully enough, and I got a bite with no filling in it!

nocream!

Also, the fondant.  (Maybe I should take a short aside here and explain that here I am talking about poured fondant, which is used to glaze éclairs, millefeuilles, petits fours, and things like that.  Not to be confused with rolled fondant, which is what they use to give wedding cakes that smooth finish.  I’m not really a fan of that stuff either, but that’s another post.)  I know from experience that this stuff is not easy to work with.  Glazing éclairs with fondant is one of my very least favorite things to do, because if the fondant is too cold or thick it won’t coat properly, but if you get it too hot it will be dull when it cools and in the meantime it will run everywhere and in either case your fingers get really sticky and after the first few nice, pretty, clean éclairs you either have to stop and wash your hands or keep going, knowing that the edges are getting increasingly sloppy and smeared. Like this:

blech

And it doesn’t taste good, either, unless you like gritty, vaguely chemical-processed flavored sugar.

LDchocolat

Those faults aside, the choux pastry was reasonably good, and I liked the chocolate pastry cream.  Although the prices were relatively low – around 3 euros apiece, or a little over half the price of an éclair from Fauchon or La Pâtisserie des Rêves – I probably won’t be back to Laurent Duchêne for the éclairs.  I still want to try that croissant, though.

On this day in 2010: Mora and La Bovida (still two of my favorite places to shop)

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Paris Pastry Crawl 2013: Éclairs: La Pâtisserie des Rêves

23 01 2013

And with nearly three-quarters of the vote, Paris Pastry Crawl is the undisputed winner!  Thank you all for voting, and now, let the gluttony commence.  We’re going to start off the series with the éclair, quite possibly the most iconic of all French pastries, and certainly the first I was familiar with, thanks to a francophile mother and the Beaverton Bakery (hey!  they’re still around!), where she used to take me and my brother after school for a treat if we’d been good… or maybe if she had a hankering herself.  Now, of course, I live in Paris, and finding an éclair doesn’t require a special trip, though sometimes it should.

anticipation...

La Pâtisserie des Rêves has been around for a few years now, but I admit I didn’t feel all that compelled to go.  Something about the bell jars covering the pastries on display just seemed so clinical.  Impersonal.  Sterile.  But just before Christmas, chef Philippe Conticini put out a gorgeous book (with an irresistible puffy cover).  Onto my Amazon wishlist it went, and what do you know? Santa Claus deemed that I had been a good girl.  Flipping through the pages, I realized that these pastries weren’t sterile at all.  The swoop of toasted meringue on the lemon tart, the overgrown rolled brioche, the opulent use of vanilla beans – this is the way I like to bake!  Obviously, a visit was now in order.

inside-out

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