Saturday, March 13, 2010

Day Thirty: Le Rosemary, Pain Du Sucre

As promised, for the final day of the Pastry-a-Day Project (which was actually yesterday, but as noted I was just too too full after dinner at Cave de L'Os a Moelle to eat or blog) I trekked over to the Marais to investigate Pain du Sucre. Far too many people both French and expatriate, had insisted it was not to be missed to, well, miss it.

I easily find the shop, on a wonderful stretch of Rue Rambuteau, chock-full of food shops, notably a fresh-pasta-and-deli called Little Italy. Not surprisingly, I once again join a long queue of Dorrie Greenspan and Clotilde Dusoulier acolytes, which gives me time to browse the gorgeous patisserie cases and even chocolates! I also see their famous scented marshmallows.

Finally, it's my turn, and I ask the salesclerk, in my halting French, which is the very best pastry? He answered - bien sur - "all of them." When I asked him to hone in just a bit, he suggested the "Rosemary," a lovely panna cotta with a raspberry and sprig of rosemary on top. I do love me some rosemary, so, intrigued, I bought it, and photographed it in its natural habitat, on a bench next to some hipster twentysomethings daintily eating fro-yo.

Blah blah, too much dinner, blah blah fast forward to today, when I opened the Rosemary for a taste. I had (wrongly) assumed my frigid, unheated kitchen would help the pastry keep its shape; it had definitely fallen and oozed a bit. My bad! It was nonetheless fresh, light and yummy - very interesting. I noticed a few of the Pain du Sucre reviews mentioned their unusual flavors, combinations of sweet and savory, etc. In this case, the rosemary, infused throughout the panna cotta layer somehow manages to taste sweet, certainly blending very well with the raspberry creme layer underneath as well. The crust is flaky, very neutral so as not to overpower any of these subtle flavors. Very unusual! And not in a bad way (you know, like how we Midwesterners say we don't really care for something by saying "that's... different"). A nice way to (sniff) end this project.

But must the project end? Yes, because I've gained six pounds. But must the blog end? Let me rack my brains for ways to fill the page going forward. Maybe each day I'll share one of my favorite things about Paris... which could evolve into general expatriate observations of life once we land in Merry Olde England. Hmmm. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Day Twenty-Nine: Un Petit Pause

So, I promised that I would blog a 29th day with a pastry from Pain de Sucre, and I will... but I absolutely can't tonight. I'm just back from a gluttonous evening with friends C, S, M, M and C at Cave de L'Os a Moelle, and I can't eat another bite nor write about no eats. Except to tell you that Cave is lovely, like eating at a French farmhouse (or what I imagine one might be). We sat at a large communal table already tricked out with slaws of every color (rapees, as they call them here, carrot, beetroot, celeriac), gorgeous country bread, roasted cauliflower, cornichons, 2 different terrines. On the wall behind are wines of every region and every price range, organized like a wine store, actually, and you just choose what you like and they open it right up for you. Amazing!

After gorging on these appetizers for 45 min. or so we sauntered up for the mains, which were served in big pots on a vintage stove: beef tripe, pork stew, and fish soup, all delicious. Well, the second two were... still not brave enough to try tripe on my best day. After another 45 minutes of that nonsense we staggered over to the dessert buffet - about a dozen different offerings, but as full as I had become I settled on a lovely chocolat-banane pot au creme. I even had to pass on the incredible-looking cheese board she put in front of us, then looking somewhere between miffed and nonplussed when she took it back again, nearly intact.

The best part... even with the 2 bottles of wine it came out to 30E each. What a bargain! And of course, to sit elbow-to-elbow with great friends, drinking and gossiping and eating real French fare, really priceless, isn't it?

Back tomorrow with my review of Pain au Sucre. My unheated cuisine is so cold I know the pastry will keep beautifully until demain!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Day Twenty-Eight: Adagio, Eric Kayser

Firstly, let me reassure you, gentle readers, as my onetime neighbor Judith "Miss Manners" Martin would call you, that today is not my final post. I was told by numerous patisserie experts not to miss Pain du Sucre in the 3eme, which is closed on Wednesdays - making tomorrow my sole day to go and my final blogging Leap day (on this topic anyway, absolutely necessary as I have already gained five pounds).

Today's pastry comes from another of our household's essential shops: Eric Kayser. Since we moved to Paris Master Kayser -usually the branch on the Rue du Bac near the Musée d'Orsay but more recently his new shop on Rue de Sevres as well - has provided us with sustenance via delicious sandwiches, dozens of "baguettes Tolbiac," brownies, cookies, and patisserie. Kayser opened his first Paris boulangerie in 1996 and owns multiple shops around Paris and around the world, where they offer 80 varieties of bread and 50 different pastries.

You can therefore imagine how difficult today's task is: to choose a pastry that truly represents Maison Kayser and everything this wonder bread has meant to our Parisian experience. That choice is the gorgeous Adagio: White chocolate squares over dark chocolate fondant over chocolate mousse over raspberry ganache over chocolate cake. Need I say more?

Well, of course I will anyway. I have sampled many chocolate creations during this project and this one certainly ranks near the top. The fondant is rich, only slightly bittersweet, enough to tickle the back of the palate. The chocolate mousse is a bit too sweet for my taste, but only a bit, and as it is likely intended to balance the more bitter fondant I excuse it. The raspberry ganache is tart, a terrific complement to the intense chocolate flavors. The chocolate cake layer is a bit bland and dry, but it's really my only complaint, and given the richness of the other layers it's more an observation than a criticism.

I've heard from those in the know that pâtissiers make terrible bread and boulangers make terrible pastries. I have to say if that if this is indeed generally true, Eric Kayser is a notable and wonderful exception. His delectable baguettes and nuanced pâtisserie are among the Parisian delights I will miss most.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Day Twenty-Seven: Le Cheesecake, Secco

As much as I've loved living on our side of the Septieme - it has many perks, including proximity to the Louvre and D'Orsay, not to mention the Latin Quarter and shops on the Rue du Bac - but for fooding, part of me is always envious of those who live on the Champs-Mars side. Dear daughter and I spent our morning, as has become tradition, with design guru-stylish Brit friend C and her daughter, who live on that lovely, neighborhoody, western side of the 7th. After two lovely hours trolling design websites, poring over catalogs, downing multiple lattes and dishing, we left to pick up C's son from preschool. C offered to take me to one of her favorite spots for today's pastry - Secco off Rue St. Dominique.

Once again, I am at once dazzled and heartbroken to be discovering a place like Secco just weeks before our departure from Paris. The tiny shop - divided into two smaller shops, actually - is jammed with quiches, sandwiches, a bubbling pot of potage, salads of every design, and - of course - desserts. I skim over the options - a glistening tarte au citron, a luscious-looking tarte au chocolat, macarons - finally settling on the cheesecake, which C has highly recommended. I can only describe it as adorable (don't you agree?). Perky, tucked into a perfect crust, gorgeous raspberry nestled in the center.

I spent the afternoon - also on Catherine's recommendation - at the Jeu de Paume, a terrific gallery opposite the Orangerie known for cutting-edge photography and multimedia expositions. This month's offerings include a retrospective of Lisette Model, a photographer born in Paris and best known for her observations of New York nightlife, Paris' streets and the Cote d'Azur. It's a relatively small but wonderful exhibit - my favorite part was a story she shot for Harper's Bazaar about the 1944 elections and the potential power of the women's vote; I make a mental note to go home and contribute to EMILY's List. Feeling inspired, I walk through the Tuileries and take some shots of the trees, benches, pools. All working up a terrific appetite for...

Cheesecake. One of my favorite desserts. One of the few desserts I can actually make fairly well. One of the few desserts I've really missed while living in Paris. Diving into this Secco confection I'm immediately thrilled with my choice (thanks, C!). The crust is absolutely delicious - one of the better basic vanilla crusts I've had throughout the project. The cheesecake itself is delightfully light and fluffy - due, I read in a pastry article, to the use of 0% fat fromage blanc in the filling - and infused with a very delicate lemon flavor. Despite the cheesecake's lightness, I feel satisfied after half of this rich-tasting, creamy dessert and offer the rest to dear husband.

I don't know if this is, as one website cited, "the best.cheesecake.ever" (I vainly hold my own peanut-butter cheesecake in pretty high regard) but it's the best I've had in Paris (sorry, Pierre Hermé ...yours melted). Now I'm not only bubbly, I'm officially pro-Secco.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Day Twenty-Six: Le Tonka, La Grande Epicerie

Egads! Hubby was a bit late getting home from work tonight, leaving open only La Grande Epicerie. While typically their patisseries are not our favorite, this gives me an excuse to wax poetic about the gastronomic epicentre that is our neighborhood grocery store. I ran the block and a half over to find the patisserie cases still nicely stocked at 8:15 p.m. Torn between the Opera and the Tonka, which looks like a chocolate bombe, I chose the Tonka.

But first, a moment about La Grande Epicerie. Affiliated with (and attached to) the Bon Marche Department Store, it is truly a culinary wonderland, and I shop there at least two or three times a week. From day-to-day essentials like rice, canned goods, dairy products and - hard to find in Paris - flavored coffee, to a gorgeous, partly-bio fruit and vegetable section, to a "traiteur" section including a range of hot and fresh foods in a wide range of ethnic flavors (Chinese, Middle Eastern, Alsatian, Japanese, Indian to name just a few). There's a wine section - always offering tastings - stocked with vintages from every region in France, a huge uber-gourmet section of foie gras, caviar, and smoked fishes; a fully-stocked fromagerie, a boucherie, an amazing charcutier, and a fishmonger who will prepare a variety of fish to your needs. It's the place you're comforted to know is there - just in case you're suddenly charged with hosting cocktails or need to pick up a delicious and gourmet dinner for eight.

And of course there's the patisserie counter. Our beef generally has been with the macarons and chouquettes - both slightly chewy and "not-so-fresh" tasting. Always an optimist when it comes to dessert, my hope is that the Tonka is different. And... it's not bad at all!

The outside chocolate fondant layer is creamy chocolate noir - its richness amplified, I am guessing, by traces of the mysterious Tonka bean (banned in the U.S. for use in food because it contains the anticoagulant coumarin). Inside, a double layer of cream: milk chocolate and vanilla. And holding it all up, a crunchy, buttery crust. Top to bottom, the bombe produces the perfect bite, and a slightly dizzying chocolate euphoria.

If I had to rank the top five things I will miss about Paris, the Grande Epicerie would be one of them. I already dread the first Friday night that I can't send Jeff over to pick up the dinner I didn't have time to make, the first Valentine's Day that I can't buy him those perfect fruit jellies he loves, the absence of 50 different kinds of yogurt and fromage blanc. Ain't life grande...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Day Twenty-Five: Tarte aux Cerises, Boulangerie Jacky Milcent

We're lucky -- we discovered the best boulangerie in the area, Jacky Milcent, very early in our Paris stay. So for nearly sixteen months we've enjoyed the Septième's best baguettes, galettes des rois (according to many, the best in Paris), terrific sandwiches, roses de sable (chocolate-covered cornflake no-bake cookies) and more.

Last summer I took a fabulous class on the History of Paris at the American University of Paris, and, in order to pick up my student ID, I -- hilariously -- had to go through Student Orientation. It was largely geared of course towards college students, many of whom were visiting Paris for the first time, but the orientation leader did say something that stuck with me -- something to the effect of, "You'll want to know, where is the best baguette in Paris? Where is the best croissant in Paris? The answer is, the best baguette is the one you love the most, and the best patisserie is the one you find the most delicious." That was actually really wise - and so true. Jacky Milcent bakes many of our favorite things.

I had my dear British copine and her daughter and new baby over all afternoon, so I asked dear hubby to pick up today's pastry. He headed right to Boulangerie Jacky Milcent (though I confess I never knew the name until I looked it up on the internet), which is on his way home from work. The popular place was nearly sold out, but he brought back an amazing baguette tradition and a cheerful Tarte aux Cerises.

I think the Tarte was probably terrific earlier in the day, and in some ways it still was. The crust was crumbly and just-sweet-enough, and the vanilla custard was delectable. The crumble on top was sweet, but a little soggy, and the fruit flat, nearly sour-tasting. But it is still a sweet end to a long day, and does nothing to deplete my love and affection for the Boulangerie. Nor, of course, for the cutie who brought it home.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Day Twenty-Four: Les Macarons, Pierre Hermé

I know... macarons again?

After a frigid afternoon watching the marionettes (a fairly trippy version of Pinocchio, complete with dancing mushrooms, a ravenous lion whose tail is amputated by the title character, uh, puppet, and creepy goblins that spring at random from beneath the stage) with husband and daughter at the Luxembourg Gardens, we shuffled, teeth chattering, over to nearby Pierre Hermé. Along with the Ispahan about which I posted earlier in the project I had also brought home a couple of macarons, which hubby had loved. My plan was to show him the lovely shop and pick him up some macarons with a fancier patisserie for me, but after waiting in a loooong line that ran out the shop's door, we finally squeezed in to find the patisseries nearly cleaned out. A couple of Ispahan creations and macarons were all that remained. I say "all" - with more than a dozen flavors ranging from traditional (caramel) to exotic (jasmine), there are certanly worse dregs with which to be left!

On the way home dear daughter begged for a "baneee" (her version of "vanille"), the vanilla macaron which she is accustomed to getting on the way from the Grande Epicerie or any long string of errands that require a bribe. Pierre Herme's small macarons on offer today were for the most part exotically flavored - the tamest flavor I'd gotten on this trip was the Arabsesque, which is an apricot-praline macaron covered with pistachio dust. We had to pause and laugh, watching our two-year old daughter, reclined in her stroller and smacking contentedly on a world-class patissier's Sunday wares. "You know what, kid? You've got a pretty nice life," dear husband mused.

After a dinner of Ina Garten's roast lemon chicken (thanks to the Barefoot Contessa) and one of the last remaining bottles from our Loire visits, a punchy Borgeuil from Jacques Druet we bring out tea and the macarons. We both ate a hearty dinner, so we just try a few. I've sampled the rose macaron a few times now, so I'm prepared for the burst of rose flavor and creamy filling that explodes in my mouth. My friend M and I will fight our Laduree vs. Hermé battle to the bitter end, but for my money these are the best rose macarons in Paris. I pause and pledge to give her a blind taste-test the next time we are together in Paris (I think somehow that there will be more macarons together, even after I move). Husband tucks right into the grande macaron vanille I got him (afraid his cautious palate would be overwhelmed by the more exotic flavors) and proclaims it "terrific." I snag a quarter of it and agree - the middle tastes almost like homemade buttercream vanilla frosting (in a good way), the outside is perfectly crisp, the vanilla flavor full without being supersweet.

I also sampled the metallic-dusted Jasmine macaron - yet another floral flavor, this one is much more subtle than the rose, but almost as delicious. Next was the Magnifique, flavored with raspberry and a hint of wasabi - I was prepared to be smacked in the face with the latter but really it was just a slow burn on the back of the throat, long after the raspberry note. I could have used a little more zing, but overall the flavor is tangy and refreshing.

I'm saving Mogador (passion fruit and milk chocolate) and Chuao (chocolate noir with cassis) for tomorrow.... maybe I'll even give one to that lucky kid o'mine.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Day Twenty-Three: Crème Brulée, Mon Vieil Ami

Mon dieu. Shield your eyes. Keep the children back.

The unthinkable has indeed come to pass. I have had my first terrible Parisian dessert.

Let me start by saying Mon Vieil Ami is a lovely restaurant. The service was courteous, and while they have two seatings (and we - yeah, the two couples with kids under 5 - were in the first) they did not by any means make us feel rushed. They place a strong emphasis on vegetables, ensuring they are always high quality and in season. My pâté en croûte was perfectly seasoned, my skate with roasted winter vegetables delicious. The decor is lovely, the ambiance relaxing, but... my dessert was awful.

Let's begin with my acute embarrasment in even having to post this photo (notice for the first time I am pasting it further down in the post, to give you time to prepare yourself emotionally for the visual). I wish I could blame my Canon Elph, which due to perpetual "goldeneye" and poor focus I daily long to chuck out a bus window or slide under some doggie's tush. But really, the fault is mine. I don't know what I was thinking, ordering creme brulée with pamplemousse sorbet and sliced pamplemousse (grapefruit). I wish I could chalk it up to a booze-infused mis-order (we've all had those), but we were without warning pressed to order our desserts at the beginning of the meal, before the wine had really started flowing. I also acknowledge that creme brulée is not a pastry, but the alternative was tarte au chocolat, which as you know I made, ate and posted yesterday, so... several minutes of panicked menu scanning later, I heard a voice somewhat like mine, but more like Jennifer Tilly's, ordering the creme brulee with pamplemousse, and the rest is, as they say, "dis"tory.

So no - you do not need to adjust your televisions, the brulée did arrive with this slightly greenish tint, topped with what looks unsettlingly like the specimens we saw suspended in formaldehyde at the Musee d'Histoire Naturelle earlier today and malheuresement, the problems didn't stop there. This is when I step up and take some responsibility (see, look what logging hours of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew has done for my psyche) for my own choices. What was I thinking ordering a vanilla custard with such a strong, acidic citrus fruit? They just do not go together. Or at least, this brulée and this grapefruit did not. On the contrary, they were about as believable a pair as Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen. The sweet, vanille custard only made the pamplemousse taste more sour (even the sorbet!) and vice versa. And compounding the symbiosis (or lack thereof) issues was the distinctly yolky taste to the dish - the kiss of death for any brulée, because it means the eggs had scrambled during preparation.

I'm such a nice Midwestern girl at heart that it pains me to post a negative review about anyone - all I can say is, MVA caught a break when my husband smartly passed over this dish in favor of the (excellent, lovely) roasted pears with Chantilly cream and caramel beurre salé. Hubby is an unapologetic brulée snob and would have sent it back in a heartbeat. Instead, he mocked my kryptonite-colored bastard cousin of a brulée along with everyone else at the table.

I hold Antoine Westermann in high regard (our meal last year at Drouant is in our top five, no question) but this old friend needs a new creme brulee recipe. To quote Simon Cowell, "It just didn't work for me. Sorry."

Friday, March 5, 2010

Day Twenty-Two: Tarte au Chocolat, Paule Caillat (inspired by Joel Roubuchon) et Moi!

I've just finished the most relaxing, inspiring day I've had in recent memory. Dear husband kindly stayed home with - these days - incredibly trying daughter so I could finally take a cooking lesson with the oft-lauded Paule Caillat (she is not related to Colbie, I asked). The day began on Rue Montergueil (a fabulous pedestrian shopping street near Les Halles) at Stroher, a traiteur (caterer) and pâtisserie on that's served up delicious pastries, savory treats, and chocolates for nearly three centuries, where we met our market "promenade" guide S, along with Paule's intern A. My fellow students J and K were terrific guys from D.C., with whom I (of course) share at least one mutual friend. S took us to a poissonerie, a boucherie, a fromagerie, and a boulangerie/patisserie, teaching us along the way what to look for, how to order, what to buy in season, all information I could have used a year ago, but hey - better late than never.

After our market walk we journeyed to Paule's sunny, welcoming loft in the Marais for our day of gastronomic discovery. Paule fixed us up with aprons and knives and put us to work chopping, peeling, and "sweating" leeks. We made watercress velouté with scallop carpaccio and twice-cooked veal shank with a delightful sauce. We then took a break from cooking for a wonderfully informative cheese course, learning about terroir, appellations and wine pairings. Paule then showed us what I believe to be an idiot-proof (but we'll see when I try it next week!) tarte au chocolat with raspberry coulis, making today's pastry a creation by moi! Well, ok, all I really did was stir chocolate into hot cream, but it's a start.

The tarte, inspired by Joël Robuchon's recipe, starts with a homemade pate sucree (the Caillat family crust, which Paule made appear effortless) and a filling of 63% Cacao bitter chocolate mixed with hot cream and egg. Paule also showed us how to make a raspberry coulis to decorate the top of the tarte. Shocker: it was actually enjoyable to make!

After our amazing luncheon - the soup was fresh, delicious, perfectly seasoned, the veal tender, juicy, the sauce a rich and tangy puddle of perfection - we (I!) decorated and served the tarte. It was still warm, the chocolate melting on the tongue, the crust crumbly and delicious, the coulis a tart and fruity complement to the rich chocolate. In my book, cinquante times better than the tarte from Thevenin!

I've participated in several walking tours, wine tastings, and classes in my year in Paris and every time I do, I wish I had the time to engage in more academic and culinary pursuits. I can never decide which I love more: getting to see Parisien(ne)s in their natural habitats and learn their shopping, drinking, cooking and eating secrets; or meeting other really interesting ex-pats and/or tourists and learning their stories, what brought them to Paris...always engaging and enlightening - and vaguely familiar - in some way.

I left Paule's full of energy and inspiration - hubby met me back on Rue Montergeuil for a coffee and a pastry (from Strohers, bien sur) and I dragged him to Dehillerin to purchase a stainless (my first!) saucepan and stock pot and various culinary gadgets and tools to take to Bath. I may be leaving Paris, but I'll be taking a little of Paule's spirit and some damn fine cookware with me. The dream goes on!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Day Twenty-One: Tarte Tatin, Prego Bistrot Italien

Today's report - and pastry - come from the road! Jeff took the day off and we hopped in a rental car and motored up to Chantilly, an unforgettable chateau and village just an hour's drive from Paris.

Recommended in Annabel Simms' terrific guide, An Hour from Paris, Chantilly has something for everyone: the art lover (the Chateau houses the Musée Condé, an impressive collection of Flemish, French, Dutch, and Italian art, including a tingle-your-toes Raphael); the history nerd (the estate was held by the same family from 1386 to 1897, the house razed during the Revolution and rebuilt); the literature snob (Molière, Marcel Proust, Madame de Sévigné, M. de la Fontaine all frequented Chantilly); and, bien sûr, the green thumb (the grounds were designed by world-class landscape architect Le Nôtre in the 17th century and contain numerous gardens and hamlets). It is certainly worth a trip if you are staying in Paris for an extended period; be sure, as Simms recommends, to jump onto a (French, sadly for us) guided tour, as it's the only way to see the Chateau's private apartments.

Sadly the weather was not ideal for wandering the grounds (and not much blooms in France in early March anyway), so after our tour we headed to the town center to scrounge up some lunch. As pizza is one of the three foods dear daughter will currently mange, an Italian bistrot seemed the perfect choice. And it was great, actually, really fresh pastas and pizzas, a Euro 7.50 kids menu, and high chairs. Though we were quite full, partaking of the region's famed Chantilly cream - allegedly developed by the Chateau's maître d’ in the 17th century - is apparently mandatory, so we ordered a tarte tatin with Crème Chantilly.

Tarte tatin is a favorite chez nous: an upside-down tart of carmelized apples, apparently invented par hazard in the late 1800s by hoteliers and sisters Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin. Pâtisserie legend says that one day Caroline, overworked and overtired, accidentally burned apples in butter (finally, a culinary skill I've actually mastered!) , and in an attempt to rescue the dish plopped a pastry crust on top and shoved it in the oven. The result is a French classic. Or, an Italian classic, as Prego's tarte tatin (though they may well have procured their desserts from one of the several amazing-looking pâtisseries in town). The crust is flaky, tricky given all the apple juice and sugar it has to absorb, the apples are perfectly browned (yes, I can taste the butter), and the goo quotient is spot-on.

As for the cream? I mean, it's delicious - obviously, it's cream - slightly sweet, but I can't say it's memorable or really reflects the terroir, like, say, Champagne, or Alsatian choucroute, or Cretan olive oil. Still, it complements the tarte quite nicely, bringing a sweet end to a memorable visit.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Day Twenty: Le Baiser, Ladurée

Well, I think I logged about three miles in pursuit of today's pastry, which is probably a good thing because it contains approximately 1,837 calories. My lovely friend C (I love how my friends are getting into this and making suggestions, even taking me to their favorite haunts!) kindly passed along a suggestion from "Chocolate and Zucchini" author and blogstress Clotilde Dusoulier about Baillardran, the renowned Bordeuax canelé maker relatively unknown Parisian outpost, tucked away on a platform "facing Track 13" at the Gare Montparnasse, no less.

So, after finally seeing the Doisneau exhibit at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson (small, but lovely! no bisou at the Hotel de Ville though), I began my quest by hoofing it over to the imposing Gare and searching the platform. Not seeing much besides a Quick (kind of France's version of Hardees), and a newsstand, I went to the information desk. The pleasant station worker told me Baillardran had closed. Zut! I don't know what a canelé is (do you think it's like a cannoli?) and I guess I never will. Racking my brain, I remembered a place David Leibovitz had recommended on his blog; couldn't remember the name but did remember the address, 76 Rue de Seine. Another nice, 20-minute walk, at the end of which was....shuttered. That's right, Gerard Mulot (right, that's his name) is closed on Wednesdays, to honor children who have the day off from school. Zut deux, Boogaloo electrique!

In a moment like this, there's only one thing to do: pick oneself up, and head directly to the nearest Ladurée , which fortunately for me was only about 6 blocks away on Rue Bonaparte. I waited in a typically long and crushing queue of tourists and Parisiens alike, finally settling upon a Baiser, because as my Laduree-lovin' friend Michelle can attest, we always stare at it, saying "What the Halles is that?" These big, luscious lips stare up at you from the case, and you just expect them to start purring, "Voulez-vous..." When informed it contained chocolat blanc, blah blah, framboise, yada yada, vanille, I was sold.

When I opened the box chez nous I was appropriately mocked by my husband (I mean really, this is Paris, admit you're dying to stick a cigarette in the center), but when we cut it in half to share, he stopped laughing. A crisp, white-chocolate coating held two layers of raspberry ganache interspersed between layers of macaron biscuit (which explains the perfectly chewy consistency), and crème mousseline, which added lightness and just the right amount of sweet to a very rich combination.

Wow, really delicious and something different from Ladurée. If you can get past the goofy, puckered lipsh, and order it with a straight face, over the raised Parisian eyebrows, you won't regret it for a minute. I didn't get my bisou from Doisneau, but Ladurée sealed my day with a kiss. Mwooah!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Day Nineteen: Le Ceylan, La Pâtisserie des Rêves


Today I used a lovely playdate at one of our favorite playgrounds on Rue de Bac as an excuse to return to La Pâtisserie des Rêves (translation: Pastry Shop of Dreams. And is it ever). The beautiful weather had clearly drawn out the Septieme's carboholics; the place was fairly cleaned out. Still, I spotted somethin I had not previously seen or heard of: the Ceylan.

The salesclerk was sure to, beaming, display the pastry to me before she closed the box, and now I know why: I would never see it so perfect again. After two attempts to adopt Conticini pastries, the verdict is in: despite their best efforts (pretty neon toothpicks anchored in styrofoam, attempting to hold the pastry in place) Patisserie des Reves' creations just do not travel well. I should have photographed the poor Ceylan in the store, because just look at it now...

Anyway, smooshes and all, I dig right in. God this Phillippe Conticini is a master. This isn't just dessert, it's a multilayered patisserie event. The outside is pulverized white chocolate, just covering a light, fluffy layer of creme patisserie cream. Next, another layer is patisserie cream with an interesting flavor, which I'm guessing is ceylan, followed by a layer of chopped noisettes (hazelnuts), a layer of gateau citron, then a nutty, crunchy praline layer, and a final, rich, lemony gateau citron layer. Lots of different flavors, but they really work together, like... well, like tea with lemon, I guess!

Another exquisitely rich and layered creation from Conticini. I really hadn't planned to eat the whole thing, but... uh oh.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Day Eighteen: Les Macarons de Christophe Roussel

Jeff is traveling (his last trip! hooray!), so it's girls' night. Tara has given me a reason to more intensively explore a Parisian classic - one which we've just touched upon here: the macaron. Or rather, 12 reasons - and 12 macarons to be exact.

I know -- you're likely to mutter to yourself, "Macaroon? What's the big whoop? Coconut dipped in chocolate. We eat them at Passover every year." Ah, but you would be so, so wrong. Les macarons Parisiens are a universe away from those supersweet holiday munchies of affliction. The best are light, slightly crisp on the outside, giving way as you bite in to some delicious filling of cassis, caramel, or even something more exotic. I'll just quote David Leibovitz on the origin of the sinful little orbs made famous by Bakery-to-the-Stars (rent Marie Antoinette with Kirsten Dunst and you'll see what I mean) Ladurée:

"Ladurée gives credit to Pierre Desfontaines, a distant cousin of founder Louis Ernest Ladurée, who they claim first joined two disks of crisp macarons together with buttercream and ganache fillings in mini-sandwiches to create the now-classic Ladurée."

My first Parisian macarons were from Ladurée - I'll never forget that first bite, still standing inside the storefront on the Champs-Elysees with college (and still dear) friends Melissa and Michelle. We returned two days later for a dozen each. A lasting and fond Parisian memory is spending my last afternoon before my flight just walking up and down the Champs eating macarons. I probably mentioned in my Dalloyau post that rose is my favorite flavor. Word to the wise: you can get me to do just about anything with a rose macaron.

But Tara has not brought me macarons from Ladurée - she has brought me an eclectic selection for a chocolatier/patissier named Christophe Roussel. Thankfully, we have 2 other friends to share the interesting flavors - ginger/caramel (sweet, yet with a slight burn from the ginger in the aftertaste), chocolat-banane (very banana-ey, and not in a Wonka-candy kinda way), lavender/apricot. Each is delicious and that great combo-of-crisp-and-chewy consistency - and goes fabulously with champagne. As I continue to eat my way through the sampling I am hoping the collection includes one of his famous foie gras macarons!

Roussel is also apparently a rising star in the chocolat market - so I'll have to stop by his shop before we leave Paris...

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Day Seventeen: Mille-Feuille, Le Moulin de la Vierge

The weather in Paris these days is incredibly mercurial. In the fifties one day, the thirties the next. Rain, flurries, sunshine. The only solution when Mother Nature is this temperamental is layers...a term that in this city of incredible patisserie applies as easily to pastry as clothing.

The word mille-feuille means "a thousand leaves," doubtless referring to the many layers of pastry interspersed with crème pâtissière (custard) that compose this delicious dessert. The mille-feuille is also called a "Napoleon" -- not, it is believed, for the incomparable emperor, but as a derivation of the word "Napolitain," and the pastries originating from Naples, Italy, where layering was always in fashion (remember the ice cream?).

True confession: Napoleon is my least favorite Emperor (I prefer Constantine, with Peter the Great running a close second) and mille-feuilles are usually my least favorite dessert. I was first disappointed by the whole concept at the now-shuttered C.P. One, the restaurant that used to sit on the west side of the Plaza complex. I still remember how the whole structure crumpled when I stabbed its gummy pastry with my fork. Still, I find myself on this chilly, intermittently drizzly Sunday drawn into Le Moulin de la Vierge on Rue St. Dominique and the immediately attracted to its mille-feuille. Hubby is thrilled as Napoleons are his favorite.

Confession number two: I was so wrong! That, or Le Moulin has managed to accomplish something entirely unique in the Napoleon category. I have a feeling the former is closer to the truth. As you can see, the pastry is incredibly flaky. When I cut into it the layers hold up beautifully. The pastry is light, with a toasty, buttery flavor. The pastry cream is rich, just a bit sweet. Napoleons are often layered or served with fruit but this specimen proves that if the pastry and cream are as exquisite as they should be, no accessorization is necessary.

Most emperors, as history has shown, fall. This one stands tall, proud, delicious - and has officially conquered my heart once and for all.



Friday, February 26, 2010

Day Sixteen: Paris-Brest, Joël Robuchon

Silence in the Peanut Gallery.

I know -- hee hee, ho ho, "Paris Bre(a)st." My husband could not stop giggling like a ten-year-old at a Michelin-starred restaurant. We decided this week to finally celebrate Jeff's new job in the UK with a special dinner at Atelier Joël Robuchon, the no-reservations, bar-seating-only gastronomic destination in the Seventh. This was the one restuarant I refused to leave Paris without experiencing. And boy, was I right to stick to my guns! The service was incredible, every waiter cuter than the last, and the food inspired.

Here's the skinny -- whenever Jeff and I go to a chef's-menu type of place, Jeff, with the more discriminating palate, refuses to go with the tide and selects his own menu. I, on the other hand, can consistently be counted on to go whole-hog. And, irony of ironies, after seven courses that included chestnut soup, soft-shell crab, sauteed foie gras, eggs poached in truffle oil, caviar, sole, and foie-gras-stuffed quail, my two desserts did NOT include a pastry!

I therefore had no choice but to beg said discriminating husband to order the Paris Brest. I did feel fairly confident he would enjoy the dessert - not just because he's a brest man, but because he loves choux pastry and nutella, and because he's the guy who ran, breakneck-speed, to catch the end of the Tour de France and this pastry was inspired by (and named after) a famous bicycle race between Paris and the town of Brest.

I offered Jeff bites of my Parfum des Iles (cream of passionfruit and banana, with rum granité and coconut milk ice cream) and my "Pomme," a carmelized apple with a breton biscuit and a green apple sorbet. But he passed, waiting for his brest - which he then did kindly let me sample. Perfectly flaky choux pastry - in a ring shape said to be fashioned after a bicycle tire - filled with praline (hazelnut-flavored) creme. What made this particular Paris-brest memorable was the cube of lemon curd-gelatin in the center. Lemon and hazelnut don't necessarily make sense together on paper, but when tasted together they are as natural a pair as George and Gracie. The tartness of the lemon perfectly sets off the rich creaminess of the praline cream, each flavor intensifying the other.

This is what makes chef Joël Robuchon a genius. Not the foie gras, not the caviar, not the perfectly cooked lamb (though they were all sublime). It's lemon and crème prali. The best of the Brest.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Day Fifteen: Victor chocolat, Hugo & Victor

About two months ago, this dusty, expensive flower and plant shop directly across the street from our apartment closed. We were not surprised; after an entire year we had not once shopped there. The window displays were consistently unappealing, the arrangements overblown and overpriced. We would miss the cute dog that barked at my daughter through the window, but otherwise this closure did not affect our lives one bit.

Or so we thought. After six weeks of complete inactivity, this corner shop suddenly brimmed and bustled with architects, designers, carpenters, electricians, painters. And during the last few days, the doors were thrown open, curtains around the window gradually coming down. The eagerly awaited sign-painter meticulously announcing in the windows the identity of our new neighbor: Hugo and Victor.

Our British New Mum Friend's husband had postulated the new shop would be fancy sandwiches and upscale deli food. Given the name and the display counters being set up I thought perhaps pricey ties. Thankfully, we were both wrong. Hugo and Victor is a new chocolate and patisserie shop. So new that its website isn't up and running; the domain name is merely parked.

What I can tell you is that they sell a number of breakfast pastries; chouquettes, pains au chocolat, etc., very fancy and delicious looking chocolates, and other patisserie organized by flavor (praline, litchi, vanille, chocolat, to name just a few) and category (these are still a bit of a mystery). Several of them looked extremely appealing, but I had to choose one - I went for the Victor (which seems to be the tarte category) in chocolat. I won't go into the boring details of my day, except to say that it a) began with me locking daughter and myself out of our apartment and b) could only be rescued with a rapid infusion of chocolate.

The extremely helpful and lovely salesclerk took my order and rang me up (a quite reasonable, I thought, 5E); I happily welcomed her to the neighborhood, took a card, and bolted across the street (let's pause to marvel - just across the street! My last several weeks in Paris will be spent with a new patisserie across the street!).

Hugo, Victor, whomever you are, bienvenue! The chocolate tarte is a subtle yet still decadent-tasting wonder. The crunchy chocolate cookie crust, the bittersweet chocolate ganache, the thin, crisp layer of dark chocolate on top - all fab. Paris is filled with numerous desserts, many with layers, different flavors, meringues, fillings, garnishes... but sometimes you just want chocolate. The Victor chocolat is tailor-made for those times. Victor Victorious. Welcome to the 'hood.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Day Fourteen: Tartelette à la banane et crème brûlée, Bread and Roses

My child-free afternoon was planned to the nanosecond: first, Doisneau exhibit (you know, the guy who took the famous shot of the couple snogging in front of the Hotel De Ville) at the Fondation Cartier-Bresson, then a quick workout, then perhaps coffee with today's pastry and my new New York Magazine. But, yeah, best-laid-plans, yada yada. I got to the HCB Fondation and the line was around the block. I thought about waiting, but about 10 seconds later the heavens opened. I quickly ran in the other direction; after a block I turned around to see if the crowd had scattered, but those wacky, now soaked, photography fans were hanging in there, god bless 'em. Zut, alors!

Started heading toward the gym but my route led me past the Montparnasse shopping center. Somehow though - or perhaps because - I had nothing I needed to buy and saw nothing I wanted to buy, I managed to waste over an hour. By the time I'd finished my workout there was only time to run to a nearby pâtisserie before nursery pickup. I remembered that before we hit Christian Constant last week my friend Mei had also pointed out Bread and Roses, an adorable little place a block from the Jardin du Luxembourg. While we had only quickly peered in the window that morning, I distinctly remembered seeing something about banana and creme brulee - the former of which is my favorite and the latter is my husband's.

Again escaping the rain I ducked into the cozy little shop, which is also a restaurant/cafe - one that clearly does a brisk business all day because there are fewer than a dozen pastries left. Thankfully, one of those is the Tartelette à la banane et crème brûlée (phew!). I place my order and while I wait to pay, I overhear several Americans delivering a business pitch behind me. I had been curious about the name - yet another in English, attributed by Wikipedia to a Massachusetts textile strike - quoi? - but am reminded Americans flock to this area, rich with upscale hotels and shops, not to mention the Gardens.

Hubby is psyched to hear the words Crème and Brûlée (I confess I quickly mumble through the rest) and after the first bite it's an out-and-out war for the remains. The three or four forkfuls I manage to grab are absolutely divine. The crust is crunchy, grahamy, delicious. The custard is rich, creamy, an incredibly authentic vanilla flavor. Given how refined French custards usually are I'm surprised - and pleasantly so - to find chunks of fresh banana. My one criticism would be that the top is not at all crunchy - as the word brûlée implies.

As it turns out, Bread and Roses is a "bio" bakery - and I am forced to once again retract my sweeping condemnation of organic pâtisserie. I think the flavors and the pastry at B/R are terrific. Despite its soggy beginning, this day got its photo finish!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Day Thirteen: Cupcake "Black and White", Synie's Cupcakes

As I walking to visit my friend Mei this morning, a pastel sign with a flirty font just across the narrow Rue Abbe Gregoire caught my eye. Could it be... cupcakes?

That's right, the cupcake craze has made its way to the highly discriminating, proudly snobbish - when it comes to pastry, among other things - sixième. Synie's Cupcakes, open since September 2009 (which information I gleaned after asking in such horrible French she initially thought I was asking what time they closed) is doing gangbuster business here - I am guessing largely from tourists and American ex-pats given the cupcake names (Mister Black, White on White, Sunny, etc) and Synie's English-language blog.

I confess, given the plethora of terrific baked goods in New York, I have always found the Cupcake Craze mystifying, little more than a convenient collision of overblown - and forgive the pun, but half-baked - publicity schemes (see New York Magazine's 2005 expo of the Buttercup/Little Cupcake showdown), and frankly, I would have thought the French would be immune to Frosting Fever. But from my research, the first cupcake business, Cupcakes and Co. opened here - in the ultrahip 11th arrondissement - in 2008, followed by several others. I give in, both to curiosity and an incredibly powerful sweet tooth - besides, I'm off to see my friend E's new baby this afternoon, and cupcakes seem like the perfect offering.

The shop is just as cute as can be - beautifully and tastefully styled with every shade of pink. Big heart-shaped cakes. Bouquets of cupcake "roses." Cupcake candles, earrings, notecards. This woman knows her merchandising!

I select six: Valentin Rose, Black and White, White on White, Mr. Black (do I see a pattern?) Vanille Vanille with a Fleur, and Citron. Slung over the handlebars of a stroller they again do not travel perfectly, with Valentin Rose leapfrogging Mr. Black, but really, is a famished and sleep-deprived new mom going to notice? (spoiler alert: the answer is no). My daughter is obsessed these days with all things New York, so I mention to her that these are cupcakes, just like those we can get in New York. I draw a snort from a patron seated behind me, so I assure the owner that hers are clearly superior to American cupcakes.

As I suspected, cupcakes are just what le médecin ordered for new mama, who dives into Vanille Vanille. I carve my daughter half her chosen citron cupcake, suspecting (correctly) that she won't finish it. I then choose the Black and White. What I like right away is that the icing isn't a three-inch pile of supersweet swirl. It's minimal, nicely flavored (vanilla) and doesn't leave a layer of sugar on my teeth. The chocolate cake underneath is rich and chocolatey, not dry as many French chocolate cakes tend to be. After DD deposits the remaining quarter of the citron cupcake into my palm I give it a try as well - it's delicious, actually - the cake is nice and moist, pleasantly lemony - and the icing again is nicely flavored and complementary rather than overpowering.

At the end of the day, even a hardened cupcake skeptic like me has to admit nothing says "Let's celebrate," "cheer up," or "Je t'aime" like a cupcake. So don't overanalyze it. The French have so much over us when it comes to cuisine. Let them eat (cup) cake.








Monday, February 22, 2010

Day 12: Cheesecake Ispahan, Pierre Hermé

Truth be told, I had never heard of Pierre Hermé until Catherine, Katherine and I went to see the talk on pâtisserie (see my first posting) at the American Library and Dorrie Greenspan waxed poetic about his Ispahan. According to Dorrie's blog, the Ispahan - an exotic combo of rose, raspberry and litchi - is an Hermes invention. For my money, the mayor of Paris should replace the statue of Benjamin Franklin - "Inventor" - in the 16eme with one of Pierre Hermé. I mean, bifocals are nifty, but compared with a rose-raspberry-litchi ménage à trois? S'il vous plait.

Dorrie writes that every few weeks Hermé works his selection around a particular "fetish." His current fetish is clearly the Ispahan flavor trio itself. There's a basic Ispahan (a large rose macaron sandwiching litchi, raspberries and raspberry cream), an Ispahan Tart, an "ultimate Ispahan" in a glass, and my choice -- adopted New Yorker that I am -- the Ispahan cheesecake.

I trot home, place the bag on the kitchen table, rush over to my daughter's school to pick her up, rush back to photograph, and... the whole thing has melted into a soggy mess. I don't want to denigrate Mr. Hermé or his staff on my first trip, but they might have warned me the cheesecake should go RIGHT into the refrigerator. Forgive today's photograph... I was afraid that if I "undressed" the cake it would just run all over the plate.

One bite and all is forgiven. The layers (rasberry topping, vanilla "cheesecake", rose-litchi gelee, a rose-raspberry creme, and unusual-for-Paris graham cracker crust), topped with a triangle of white chocolate and a rose petal, comprise what Barbra Streisand calls in The Mirror Has Two Faces the "perfect bite." The combo is a bit too "flowery" for Jeff, who instead happily munches the fallback macarons I got him (he pronounces them "nice and thick... like little burgers"). So lucky me, I get the whole cheesecake to myself. Actually, I must stop typing now and completely focus on my "fetish." Oh Pierre, I do care!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Day Eleven: Tartelette Caramel, Le Pain Quotidien

After a leisurely meal of raclette, Jeff and I are settling comfortably into our ex-pat bubble, preparing to watch our DVR-ed Meet the Press and This Week, and tuck into today's pastry.

Why, what's raclette, you ask? I'm happy to tell you, as it's one of the most fantastic winter meals a dairy-lover can ask for. Actually invented by the Swiss (sacre bleu!), what most Parisians refer to casually as "raclette" is actually an assortment of charcuterie (meats) and vegetables with a thin layer of melted raclette cheese dripped over it. Raclette restaurants, similar to fondue restuarants (and often one and the same) are popular here, but all the key ingredients are readily available at the neighborhood supermarket. All you need to make this delectable meal at home (and yes, I mean Port Huron, Chicago, Washington, Seattle, and Bath as well as Paris) is a raclette maker. Tefal makes an inexpensive model you can purchase in the U.S. for this fun cold-weather treat. Each person gets his or her own tray (or trays) on which they can arrange a selection of meats and veggies topped by a piece of raclette cheese and then slide under a heat element to melt and meld. I like to serve a salad alongside (mostly to assauge the guilt that follows eating so much melted cheese) as well as champagne or a crisp white wine to balance the richness of the cheese.

Now that we've discussed raclette, we'll move along to our pastry of the day. But before we get to that, I must reveal the most dreaded, the most reviled, the most feared word to any Parisian gastronome. That word is....

Sunday.

That's right, Sunday. Why dimanche? For starters, scarcely anything is open: no grocery stores, few wine stores, few restaurants in which any self-respecting Parisien would want to dine (MAJOR EXCEPTION: Cafe Parisien, in which we had an amazing "American Brunch" today - with a line of about 20 Parisiens going out the door). The single bright spot in this bleak 24 hours is the Raspail Marche Biologique (organic farmer's market) just a block from our doorstep. There we can procure fresh potato pancakes, "English muffins" made by an American-sur-Loire and his wife, gorgeous produce, fair trade coffee, amazing meats and fish.

For the large part, patisserie are also closed. There are a few, like Laduree, that are open, but the majority of your neighborhood places are shuttered for the day. Another exception convenient to our end of the Septieme? Le Pain Quotidien. Je sais, you've been to Le Pain Quotidien in Manhattan, Belgium, St. Louis, etc. Parisians probably consider it "chain food." Still, it's a decent bakery and great brunch place also - which also usually has a line throughout Sunday. The highlight at LPQ, as those of us in the know call it, is their line of amazing butters: praline, hazelnut, "blondie"... but I digress. I'm there for two things: a baguette to go with my raclette, and today's pastry. I briefly survey the options and decide on a tartelette caramel (still craving that beurre-sale combo since last night's Riz au Lait).

The word tartlette of course never fails to remind me of the "Friends" episode in which Monica is visited by restauranteur Jon Lovitz. Not knowing he has smoked marijuana before her audition dinner, she prepares a seven-course meal beginning with an amuse bouche, an onion tartelette - and finding the word tartelette hysterical, as any stoned person would, he keeps repeating it over and over.... before diving into a box of Golden Grahams.

I wouldn't let Jon Lovitz near this tartelette - it's light and delicate, perfectly balanced layers of crunchy, buttery pâte brisée, vanilla custard, and salty caramel. Accompanied by a kir (white wine and creme de cassis), it's the perfect end to a lazy, Sunday night dinner.

Bon dimanche, tout le monde!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Day Ten: Riz au Lait, Chez L'Ami Jean

Wow - getting this just under the wire, and also a bit of a cheat because today's entry isn't a pastry, it's a Riz au Lait, or Rice Pudding. Went to dinner with friends Catherine and Jo at Chez L'Ami Jean, a fantastic Basque restaurant a stone's throw from the Eiffel Tower on Rue Malar. Feeling brave, we agreed to the "tasting menu" of two entrees (what we would call an appetizer in the States) a main dish, and three desserts.

The meal kept making me think back to what Chef Aoki said in yesterday's entry about simple, delicious food, and how difficult it can be, but when you really hit the mark, how wonderful. Everything we ate - from soupe des poissons to a grilled seabass, tangy vegetable purees, succulent free-range chicken - was simply prepared but flavored beautifully.

The holy grail of the evening was the promised "three desserts." We were sure we had heard wrong when the waiter described the tasting menu, but sure enough we were served - without much ado - a foamy mint concoction with a pool of hot fudge - for lack of a better description - at the bottom, a pear custard, and the piece de resistance: Riz au Lait, or rice pudding. Had I not scarfed down the first two desserts before remembering to photograph (oops!) you would have seen those as well, both lovely.

So no, Riz au Lait is not a patisserie per se, but chef Stéphane Jego (ably assisted for part of the evening by his two year-old daughter, sitting on the counter beside him!) brought what I had previously thought of as diner fare to the level of haute French cuisine. A huge, communal bowl (as shown in the photo!) of creamy rice deliciousness, with several accompaniments: a chopped nut-toffee mixture and a melted beurre-salé or salty butterscotch cream. The story behind the dish - the recipe is the chef's grandmother's - again plays on the idea of simple and delicious flavors. You bite through the crunchy, toffee-nut topping, let the salty butterscotch linger in your mouth, and finish with the rich pudding. Incroyable!

I would love to recommend L'Ami Jean as an off-the-beaten-path, really authentic Parisian place. Especially if you don't love really precious, very traditional French food - Basque presentations tend to be more rustic and the flavors more intense. Just be sure to book - it took me 6 months of trying with various guests to actually get a Saturday night reservation. Worth the wait, absolument.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Day Nine: La Forêt noire, Sadaharu AOKI

Gaston Lenotre. Jacques Torres. Pierre Hermes. Sadaharu Aoki. Wait -- who?

I know - Tokyo probably isn't the first place you think of when it comes to pâtisserie talent, but my guess is Sadaharu Aoki has caused the culinary world to give the Land of the Rising Sun a second look.

On his website Aoki writes, "I like to create simple things, but it is the most difficult thing to do, since simple things cannot be manipulated." A perhaps obvious but important truth, illuminating what must be the biggest challenge to any chef who lands in France - with its famed regional produce and its inhabitants who love simple, delicious food.

Aoki's flagship store in the Sixieme, just a block from the Luxembourg gardens, is a tiny, minimalist place. The store is buzzing when I arrive - with both Parisians and Aoki's fellow countrymen, whose combined purchasing power and enthusiasm for amazing pastry clearly make the shop a success.

The pastries are exactly what you might expect of a Japanese chef interpreting French classics - modern, clean lines and curves, vibrant colors, blends of French (chantilly) and Asian (green tea) flavors. I'm drawn to the wavy ribbon of chocolate curving across the Forêt noire. Of course, Black Forest Cake, or Schwarzwälder-Kirsch-Torte originates in Germany. In the United States the delicacy is usually made without liquor and frosted with white buttercream frosting.

Thankfully, teetotalers have not prevailed in Paris or at Aoki - but chocolate has; nestled between the delicate layers of chocolate cake and chocolate creme are kirsch-soaked cherries that burst in the mouth. The chocolate flavors in both the cake and creme are subtle so as not to overpower the cherries - clearly pre-eminent in the dish. The chocolate ribbon is also tame and that would be my one criticism - the eater will obviously consume the treat separately from the cake, so why not flavor it with cherry or make it extra-rich and dark?

Aside from this tiny issue, my general impression of Aoki is somewhere between awe and mmm. Germans, Americans, and French bakers could all learn a thing or two from this guy, as this Forêt Noire is, in a word, oishii.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Day Eight: La Praline, Christian Constant

Definitely feeling the effects of eight days of intense pastry consumption, I set out this morning for a power walk with my friend Mei. Now, let me preface this posting by saying the SOLE reason I am able to even contemplate eating 28 of anything is Mei. When I put out a desperate call last spring for a walking buddy she answered, and we've been pushing our poussettes (strollers) around the Luxembourg Garden (or the Champs de Mars), comparing recipes, gossiping (who, us?) and trying to support each other through this Great Parisian Adventure. At times our walks/therapy sessions have been the glue holding seemingly endless weeks together.

Indeed, I credit Mei with one of my best pastry finds, as last summer we discovered what I still believe to be the best Pain au Chocolat in Paris, at a tiny boulangerie on Rue Vavin. And today, glutes burning as I shove my stroller through six inches of post-rain sludge, I am motivated only by her promise to introduce me to another "gem of the sixieme": Christian Constant's tiny bakery on Rue d'Assas. If you have already read this posting, please not this CORRECTION that Chocolatier Christian Constant is not this Christian Constant of, well, just about every terrific restaurant in Paris. Name confusion aside, this is a lovely addition to my repertoire.

But back to pastry - as Mei, our daughters and I arrive at the window of Constant's café and chocolate shop and press our noses to the glass, the clerks are just beginning to put out the day's delights. We decide on what looks like a snickerdoodle-cream sandwich when in the trays begin to appear glistening tartes aux pommes, towering milles-feuilles, cheeky chocolat-marrons... I scamper inside to demand a full description of each patisserial triumph from the exceedingly patient shopkeeper. After about ten minutes of intense scrutiny, I emerge with... the Snickerdoodle-wich, which is actually called a "Praliné."

We both try to appear casual strolling to Mei's apartment, but once inside it's a flurry of jacket-shedding, tea-making, child-busying, so that we can sink into the chairs in her cheery salon and contemplate this upscale, poufy little sandwich cookie. I cut it in half, and we simultaneously have visions of George Costanza eating a Milky Way with a knife and fork and decide it's best eaten, quite delicately, with our fingers. WOW. One really can't call this a cookie. Please don't excommunicate me, Mister Christian. And if my mislabeling weren't sinful enough, get a load of the creme filling - sweet, balanced between intense vanille and nutty (almonds? hazelnuts?). The pastry (see, I've stopped calling it a cookie) does taste like snickerdoodle, but chewier, and somehow when I bite down the cream doesn't squirt out all over the place - the disparate layers hold together quite well.

When I initially chose this pastry for today's post I was a bit disappointed by its size. That too is clearly by Constant's design -- any larger and it would render the customer slightly nauseous. Hopefully Mei will motivate me around the track enough times to earn one of those big shiny tarte tatins...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Day Seven: St. Honore, La Patisserie des Reves

For today's posting I trot just a few blocks away from our apartment to La Pâtisserie des Rêves , the celebrated nouveau bakery run by Phillippe Conticini. The pâtisserie is in itself a work of art - pastries, cakes, tarts all suspended in glass domes. I've attempted to visit Conticini's shop several times since it opened last year but every time was met with a line running out the door. Today - thanks to the dreary, drizzly weather perhaps - I am second in line. I circle the day's offerings several times before choosing the St. Honore - mostly due to its quirky shape and creme on top. The clerk calls back to some hidden pastry magic chamber and about 180 seconds later a man emerges with a lovely rose-colored box, which he then wraps with ribbon. The price is less than I would have thought - 6.20E.

And now, while Jeff and I watch Lost (which I won't even pretend I am really able to follow this season) I remove the lovingly-boxed pastry from its innovative packaging - including plastic, twirled pitchforks holding the pastry upright (remember my complaint about the collided pastries from TheVenin? Bingo!). It's definitely the most unusually beautiful of the pastries I have sampled thus far - reconstructed from a traditional round St. Honore to a double-rectangle topped with three globes of choux pastry.

I plunge my fork into the Chantilly-cream topped side and I need to buy a vowel because O, MG. Yes, I am prone to hyperbole when it comes to most of my Parisian dining experiences but to me, this is French pâtisserie at its best. It's eclair-like, but with that firmer choux pastry outside, filled with vanilla cream. The left side is also filled with cream, and tastes slightly sweeter but maybe that's just the effect of the carmelized-sugar topped, cream-filled "donut holes" on top.

Sadly, I only get three or four bites because Jeff commandiers the rest. He knows I don't want gain too much weight during this project. What a thoughtful man.

Who is St. Honore? He or she was beatified for all the right reasons, let me tell you. I'm predicting now that you will see at least one or two more entries from Pâtisserie des Reves - Conticini has already broadened my experience of pâtisserie. In other words, I see what all the fuss is about!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Day Six: Tarte au Chocolat et Marron, Le Boulanger des Invalides

Today, I'm craving chocolat - for many reasons, including the weather, the day of the week, and the cranky toddler I'm pushing along the narrow streets between the 15eme and the 7eme - and lucky me, our walk home takes us right by Le Boulanger des Invalides.

My first meal as a Parisian-to-be was actually here at Le Boulanger - Jeff and I stopped here with our realtor during our whirlwind one-day apartment search 16 months ago - and I was delighted to re-discover this gem with my friend Catherine as we wheeled our filles through the rain one day in search of sustenance. It's perched right on one of the grand boulevards stretching out from Les Invalides, the military-memorial complex that includes the Army Museum, Napoleon's tomb, and a grand hospital and chapel completed in 1708 for France's veterans. The chapel's dazzling golden dome (one of Josie's favorite sights in Paris) is a lovely view, particularly when enjoying a delicious baguette sandwich and coffee - or, yes, a pastry - at Le Boulanger des Invalides. It's really just a lovely and friendly place that I suggest to anyone visiting or strolling through the 7th.

Unfortunately, due to the presence of aforementioned cranky toddler, today is not a day to sit and sip and stare (it's bloody freezing out today anyway), so we huddle in the warm queue and drool at the offerings d'emporter. Torn between a coffee eclair and a blueberry tarte, I toss both aside when I spot what appears to be a large glob of melted chocolate. "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" I inquire breathlessly of the clerk. "Tarte au chocolat-marron," she replies. The mention of chestnuts give me slight pause, still the promise of chocolate reels me in.

OK, so it is not quite what I thought. As I bite in (too hard to cut with a fork), it actually has a cake-y bottom, with the chocolate perched on top like a kind of icing. It's like a very upscale chocolate-frosted donut (Dunkin, not Krispy). The cake is really delightful, an extra-firm pound cake kind of flavor, and the thick, fudgy chocolate (tres noir, of course) balances nicely with the cake. Aha, and there's the marron - it's a big dollop of chestnut cream that was clearly piped on first and then the chocolate dripped over top. Now I see what all the fuss over chestnut cream is about. It's lovely - particularly nestled between dark chocolate and pound cake.

I love visiting Le Boulanger because it's like running into an old friend - and gives me such warm, already bittersweet-nostalgic memories of that first trip, that first stepping stone in building our life here in Paris. With friends like these, you can understand why we're so heartbroken to leave! Not only would I recommend visiting Le Boulanger, I'd recommend ordering a Chocolat-Marron with your Café crème. Un bon nouveau ami.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Day Five: Chausson aux Pommes, Le fournil de Pierre

Quels Horreurs! Our international alarm clock malfunctioned this morning, setting an hour back at some point during the night and thus waking us up at 8:20, rather than 7:20! Yours truly, Wonder Woman, still managed to pack all three Davidson-Rothmans out of the house (with both breakfast AND lunch for Josie) by 8:40 and deliver our little musical prodigy to school by 9:03.

That put me, however, in the 15eme unshowered, unfed and un-caffeinated at 9:04. There was rien to do but head to the organic boulangerie on Rue de Commerce. Thus today's pastry is actually my breakfast, a very healthy Chausson aux Pommes. (poor photo quality due to the fact that this is taken with my iPhone under fluorescent lighting!)

Let me preface this review with my general take on organic bakeries. I don't know what the standards are for making baked goods "bio" in France but they generally take whatever the original product was and stomp it into the (windpower-irrigated, composted, biodynamic) ground. It took us several trips to our Sunday bio market's bakery stand to learn our lesson. Generally the baguettes are as hard as rocks, the croissants taste like particleboard and the quiches are limp and, well, tres triste.

Both of the boulangeries within spitting distance of Josie's maternelle are bio, so I chose the one by which I had not been already disappointed, Le fournil de Pierre. And to assuage my guilt at having pastry for breakfast I went for a fruit option: in this case the Chausson aux Pommes (apple slipper). I have tried these at various breakfast outings and they have always reminded me of Hostess Apple Pies (in a good, comforting Dad-got-us-sugary-treats-after-swim-class way). This morning I am particularly famished, so probably not the most sublte palate in the quartier, but I have to say I am pleasantly surprised by the pastry's buttery, flaky outside as well as its quite tender, fresh appley insides. Paired with a "creme" (cafe au lait), it nearly makes up for the morning's hectic start. Nearly.

I may have to retract my general dismissal of organic boulangeries/patisseries. Call me "Cendrillon": Le fournil de Pierre's slipper fits quite nicely.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Day Four: Les Macarons Chocolat et Fraise au Coeur, Dalloyau

Happy Valentine's Day! As the day actually arrived, Jeff surprised me with heart-shaped macarons from our favorite pâtisserie, Dalloyau. Dalloyau was one of our first "regular" places in Paris - the first opened in 1802, but thankfully 208 years later a branch of this fabulous coven of confectionary magicians stands on the Rue de Grenelle, just two blocks from Chez Rothman.

To both friends currently living in Paris and those planning to visit, I highly recommend a visit to a Dalloyau tearoom, such as the one near the Palais du Luxembourg, where you can actually sit and have a tea and pastry. The house tea is incredible, flowery, spicy - and I'm not even a tea person - and the menu not only describes each concoction in tantalizing detail, it gives the date that pastry was first served at Dalloyau. Many reach back into the early 20th century and others the 19th -- revealing the evolution of Parisian tastes and fancies.

We've already discusssed macarons a bit and I'll take this opportunity to reveal my personal favorite macaron in Paris: none other than the delicious rounds turned out by Maison Dalloyau. No, the flavors aren't as exotic as those one might find at Pierre Hermes or Laduree, but the consistency, the balance of crisp and chewy in the classic flavors we care about (chocolate, coffee, caramel beurre salé, vanille) are really tops in my -- no, our -- book. And today's romantic issues are no exception: the strawberry center explodes gently in the mouth, while the chocolate's gooey insides melt like brownie batter, or one of those Jean-Georges chocolate lava cakes. Mmm-mmm-mmm. Makes me want to go over and smooch my husband. I'm guessing that was the idea.

Bonne Fête de St. Valentin!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Day Three: Tarte au Chocolat, Thevenin

On Day Two of what seems to be a three-day Valentine's celebration (why not?), we've finished lasagna, a 2002 Vintage bottle of Veuve Clicquot (a nice combo, I must say) and are tucking into today's entry, a Tarte au Chocolat from Thevenin. Thevenin is a bakery on Notre-Dame-des-Champs in the 6th, a cute boulangerie/patisserie that I always happen to pass on the way home from the gym. Today I stopped to grab baguettes for the abovementioned dinner, and was completely charmed by the heart-shaped raspberry meringues in the window. However, given our framboise extravaganza of last night, I went instead for a classic: Tarte au Chocolat.

The Tarte is nicely presented (though said presentation now includes a big chunk of Jeff's caramel "bombe," as you can see by looking closely at the tarte's rear end, so I think we should probably at some point discuss the finer points of packing pastries for l'emporter), with half a chocolate macaron on top. The pastry itself is quite nice - the chocolate is dark, mostly bitter and just a hint of sweet. And a really nice consistency - creamy, not too sugary. Delish. And the crust, especially compared to the Tarte Citron from Thursday, is sturdy, a bit crunchy. The macaron is an afterthought and not a particularly germane one. Its chocolate flavor is a bit stale - I brush it to the side and don't even finish it.

However, the rest of the tarte is terrific. A really nice chocolatey flavor and the perfect finish to a spicy dinner -- and really lovely with good champagne. But really, what isn't?

Off to spend the rest of the evening with Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker, and James Caan. That's right, Honeymoon in Vegas. A Valentine's classic. Bonne nuit, tout le monde!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Day Two: Le Paris-Toulouse, Josephine "Chez Dumonnet"

Valentine's Day came a little early for the Davidson-Rothman household! Every year we take turns being in charge of making plans. Typically, a romantic Jeff-hosted household involves dinner at home, with him shopping for and cooking at least part of the meal. And equally typically I will flee the kitchen and make reservations at the nicest restaurant in town.

This year it was Jeff's turn, and - having been told Valentine's Day is not widely celebrated by French couples - he waited until late last week to make reservations. So as it turned out we had to celebrate tonight, but no one's complaining. Josephine "Chez Dumonnet" is, as Zagat opines, one of the last great old bistros in the 6eme. Snuggled into a sleepy block on Rue-Cherche Midi, almost to Boulevard Montparnasse, JDC sports lovely tin ceilings, white tablecloths and black-vested waiters. I won't go into too much detail on the menu or the food, but suffice to say I ordered (and consumed too much of) an entire petit sauvage (small, wild) duck, and we were parked there for three and a half hours, reminiscing about our quite romantic year in Paris.

But enough - on to dessert - which was the house special, the "Paris-Toulouse," which was described to us as a pastry with framboises (raspberries) and as you'll see, looked like a huge bagel with cream cheese and, ok, raspberries, and made us laugh out loud. Thankfully we were warned about the restaurant's generous portions and had already agreed to share dessert - and when we sliced into the "bagel" we were not sorry. The pastry was soft, buttery, delicious. A perfect balance to wonderfully fresh and tart raspberries, as well as the cream. Ah, the cream. Where do I start with French cream? If it's any good it comes from a region called Chantilly - and this cream certainly did - rich, slightly sweet, an ideal complement to the fruit and pastry.

Alongside, as you'll see, we were served what I'm guessing was a homemade sorbet but really tasted more like an Italian ice, for lack of a better term - intensely fruity, tart, and refreshing after not only a rich dessert but an absolutely decadent meal. If you visit Paris and stay on the Left Bank we would both highly recommend Josephine "Chez Dumonnet." Just order a nice bottle of wine and get comfy. You're there for the evening - and that's a good thing.