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 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: 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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Confessions of a Macaron Hater

20 12 2012

Okay, it’s probably never been anything as strong as hate.  But “Confessions of a Macaron Ambivalent” isn’t as good a title, now is it?  My general reaction to the macaron-mania of the last few years has been a combination of eye-rolling and ignoring (not unlike what I went through with cupcakes around 2007, but that irritation has mellowed with time, and now I only roll my eyes at stupid cupcakes, by which I mean ones that are more about looking cute than tasting good, or ones that are clearly made just because they’re trendy – red velvet, I’m talking to you here, if people would just take a second to consider how much dye it takes to color a chocolate cake red they would just order a devil’s food cake with cream cheese icing which is a million times better – but I digress, please pardon the run-on parenthetical but I really do hate red velvet cake which is another post entirely).  About the macarons, here’s why.  The grand majority of macarons are composed of the same four ingredients: egg whites, sugar, almond meal, and food coloring.  You whip the egg whites to a meringue, fold in the other stuff, pipe out a gajillion little circles, let them rest so they develop the proper “feet” and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.  Sorry, I fell asleep there.  Frankly, the things bore me silly.

Except.

my downfall

I don’t know how it happened.  I might have Heather to blame, a known macaron-lover at whose birthday party last year they were unavoidable.  Or maybe all those pictures on the internet finally wore me down.  Probably not, though.  No, I think the answer is simpler.  Pierre Hermé.  His book on the topic was so pretty I almost wanted to buy it.  Seeing them lined up in his shop, all shiny with luster dust (which I should be opposed to, but it’s just so pearly and delightful to look at… when it’s used correctly, that is), I couldn’t help but smile.  And then one day, hungry for a little sweet snack, I wandered in for a pastry and thought how gorgeous and interesting all his flavor combinations are and how it was a shame I couldn’t take them all home and it hit me that the macarons offered many of these same flavor combinations in bite-size format – I could try three flavors for the price of one individual cake!  So it began.  One of the flavors I chose that day was white truffle and hazelnut, and I admit I picked it because I thought it would be disgusting and therefore justify my dislike of the macaron in general.  Oh, how wrong I was.  The thing is marvelous – you start with a nose full of truffle and you think it’s going to be too turpentiney-strong, but then there’s a crunch of rich, buttery hazelnut and the whole thing is brought into balance.

So I could no longer justify my annoyance with the macaron based on its taste. (Which is not to say there aren’t hordes of really bad, too-dry or too-sweet or too electric blue examples out there.  There are.)  However, I learned something a couple of weeks ago that might just blow the top off this whole macaron charade.  You see, IT’S ALL A LIE!

According to L’Art Culinaire Français, a classic tome of French cookery published in 1950, macarons aren’t macarons at all.  While poring over said book with my good friend Jennifer, a fellow Macaron Eye-Roller, we discovered that the traditional macaron is a much more rustic affair – no meringue, so they’re denser, and the almonds less finely ground, so they have some texture.  There’s also no filling in this classic recipe.  Pictured next to the macaron in the accompanying photo was something called a “patricien” which was identical in looks and method to the little pastry we know as the macaron today.  It’s not really all that scandalous, I admit, but when and why did the name change?  Was “patricien” too snooty?  Did someone misread their pastry history book at some point and the whole misnomer spiraled out of control?  At any rate, I have a new reason to scoff at my secretly-not-hated macaron, and will continue to do so, even as I nip into Pierre Hermé for another fix.

On this day in 2009: Worthwhile French Beers: Ninkasi IPA

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

* In case you’re wondering about the flavors of the macarons pictured here, they are Quince & Rose (gorgeous), Chocolat Porcelana (yes, Hannah-who-also-buys-foods-she-thinks-she-won’t-like, you read that right, he made a macaron out of the Precious, and it was wonderful, with cocoa nibs pressed into the cream filling), and the afore-lauded White Truffle & Hazelnut.





The One Where I Get Podcasted

30 05 2011

Just a quick update, because this week is pure insanity, but I got to spend Saturday with the lovely Katia and Kyliemac, of K&K Podcast fame.  We took a field trip to the pâtisserie where I work, picked up some tasty treats to sample, and went back to the studio to record a couple of shows.  The first one, episode 441, is already up, and the second one should be posted midweek.  I hope you’ll listen!

In fact, I think you should be listening to Katia and Kyliemac anyway.  I dare you to read one of their show titles and not want to listen.  They are a dynamic duo, whether they’re interviewing “interesting people doing interesting things” or just chatting about the expat life or current issues in Paris.  It’s easy to spend the whole afternoon listening, and I expect you’ll soon consider them friends, as I do.

UPDATE: Episode 442 is now up, in which we talk about some of the secrets of the pastry shop and the life of a pastry chef!

On this day in 2008: Calzone at Home

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Rugelah

11 01 2011

It’s easy to forget, with all the snow and holiday hoopla, just how much of winter is still yet to come after the new year.  The French use Epiphany as an excuse to keep eating sweets throughout the month of January, in the form of the galette des rois.  And I think they’re right.  Gloomy January days are no time to give up the pleasures of rich, buttery doughs baked to an appealing golden brown or sweet, nutty fillings.  Besides, Philly cream cheese has finally arrived in France!  I think we should celebrate with some rugelah.

Cover your bench in powdered sugar

You might spell it another way (I most often see “rugelach”), but orthography aside, this is really a wonderful little pastry.  Crumbly cream cheese dough, sticky fruit and nuts, and ridiculously easy to make.  Rugelah come from the Eastern European Jewish baking tradition, and I first learned to bake them in a Jewish-owned, European-style bakery in Dallas, of all places.  The ones we made there were filled with walnuts, which I can’t eat, so I had to sate myself with the incredible smell of roasted flour and caramelized jam when I pulled them out of the (enormous) oven every night.

Rolled out thin and long

One Thanksgiving the chef took pity on me and let me use the filling for the pecan rings in the rugelah so I could finally taste them.  My nose had not let me down – they were fantastic.  Since then, I’ve had to make my own walnut-free version at home from time to time.

Smeared with apple butter and sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar nuts

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Colored Tiles and Custard Tarts

19 12 2010

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted here.  December is brutal on pastry chefs everywhere.  I figured out that my workday is a solid three hours longer during the holidays than it is in the summer, and lunch breaks are shorter or nonexistent. Naturally, when I come home at the end of the day I’m exhausted, and it often comes down to a choice between blogging or showering and eating dinner.  I don’t think anyone can blame me for choosing the latter.  That said, this is going to be a big post, and I hope it will make up for my absence.

I believe I mentioned that Nick and I took a weekend trip to Lisbon a few weeks ago.  We had a fantastic time, and it makes me wonder what took me so long to visit Portugal.

beautifully patterned tiles

I was struck immediately by how colorful the city is.  I took tons of pictures of the tile-covered and pastel-painted buildings, and I know Nick got at least twice as many.  I’ve put some of my favorites up in a Flickr set, which I invite you to browse.  Compared to the gray of Paris in winter, the sunshine and bright colors of Portugal were just what I needed.

tile-covered building

We flew in on a Thursday night, and after grabbing a cheap cab to our hotel, we whipped out our guidebook in search of a nearby restaurant.  Cervejaria Ribadouro turned out to be just across the street, and was a good introduction to typical Portuguese restaurants.  They had several tanks of live seafood in the front, with market prices by the kilo listed nearby.  In addition to the lobsters, crabs, and cod, the menu had a large selection of meats, most of which were pork.  Nick made up his mind to order the pork with clams as soon as he saw it, and we later learned that this is a very traditional pairing in Portuguese cuisine.  I had the black pork, which was juicy and flavorful.  We started with bread and a stuffed crab, and washed it all down with a couple of big, cheap beers.

The next morning, we began on a quest that would carry us through the weekend: eating as many custard tarts as possible.

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