Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mixing bowl: Gustaf Mabrouk

Swedish pastry chef Gustaf Mabrouk gets mad props for being tapped to helm the new Chocolate Bar in the Willage (not to be confused with the East Village branch that came and went all-too-quickly) and bringing some international style to the game. But some of his Mixing Bowl answers are rather revealing. No snacking at the movies? But why else do you go sit in the dark for two hours??

Growing up, my favorite sweet was:
Licorice shoestrings

My favorite sweet now is:
Peanut M&M’s

My personal Chocolate Bar favorite:
The Espice truffle, made with cinnamon, dry ginger, cloves and almonds.

What I love about the West Village is:
That Chocolate Bar is BACK! Good coffee, great service and excellent chocolate...

Truffles or pralines:


White, milk or dark:
Can’t discriminate.

Caramel, ganache or cream:

The perfect pairing:
Pigs in blanket and Heinz ketchup.

I'd love to create a flavor for:
There are so many people I would love to create flavors for, but if I were to pick one it would be Antoni Gaudi. What an artist! Classic and daring at the same time...way ahead of his time. I would love to pick his brain.

Kitchen essentials:

Style essentials:
Style is so personal...No essentials.

Chocolatiers I admire:
More pastry chefs: Oriol Balaguer, Frederic Bau, Ramon Morato, Stefan Johnson-Petersen.

I'm most inspired when:
I can sit down after a long day and think back on the creations I made that make people happy; that the effort and love put into the decadent treats will pay off!

How much is too much?
Never enough.

Favorite movie snack:
I don’t snack in the movies.

Guilty pleasure:
Domino’s pizza and Cool Ranch Doritos.

Other favorites:

Everything that Curtis Mayfield recorded—I love funk…any cookbook over 400 pages!! And I love Stockholm, admire Barcelona and respect New York.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Oh la la Ladurée

The story goes like this: in the late 19th century, when Paris was being perfected by Baron Haussmann, and café culture was for the first time in full swing, Jeanne Souchard, Louis Ernest Ladurée’s wife, decided that ladies needed a little something more for their social outings. She had the idea of mixing the styles of her husband’s elegant pastry shop with that of a classic Parisian café, thus transforming Ladurée and giving birth to one of the first salons de thé in the city.

Later, in the early 20th century, M. Ladurée’s second cousin, Pierre Desfontaines, had another brilliant idea—this one edible: Join two macaron shells with a delicious ganache filling. Voila, the macaron was born, the family’s second groundbreaking contribution.

Today’s Ladurée—with three proper salons de thé in Paris as well as other locations in posh cities such as London, Tokyo and Monaco—is best known for these sweet and sublime treats. Indeed, walking around the Paris, you’ll notice locals and tourists alike toting the pastel green shopping bags with pride and anticipation. If you’ve never sampled one, book your ticket to Paris tout de suite.

Macarons are little, round cakes made primarily of ground almonds, egg whites and sugar that manage this pitch-perfect balance of slightly crispy on the outside and soft and cakey in the middle. At Ladurée, they come in flavors that are dreamt up in a “laboratory”: lily of the valley, black currant, violet, licorice… and of course there are the classics like chocolate, vanilla and raspberry.

Once the macarons are baked and filled with creamy ganache, they’re set aside for a day or two. This allows them to achieve that sublime balance of texture and flavor.

With that whole build-up, it’s crazy that I wouldn’t sample a plate of macarons after enjoying a beautiful lunch at the Champs-Elysée location and rhapsodize here about the flavors. But, you see, I haven’t even touched on Ladurée’s pastries and cakes yet. For as wonderful as the macarons are, the desserts are really something to be savored.

Take, for example, the Religieuse Griotte Amande.

The Religieuse is an exquisite puff pastry dessert that comes in several varieties: violet, raspberry-rose and cherry. We got the cherry. Paired with heavenly whipped blanc manger and tart morello cherries, it was, in a word, sublime. Fruity and creamy, light yet decadent, it was a masterful example of how elegant a puff pastry can be.

The Savarin Chantilly was no less impressive. Made with Baba pastry and soaked through and through with dark rum, it was a potent little number, softened by beautiful Chantilly cream.

And then there was the Saint-Honoré.

Another house specialty, this one is made with two different kinds of pastry, two different kinds of cream, and, with their newest version, two different flavors: pistachio and strawberry.

Imagine the lightest confectioner’s custard and Chantilly cream, flavored with pistachio, paired with a fresh strawberry stew and enclosed in light, flakey puff pastry. It was heaven. Another deeply moving experience with each forkful.

So, I will certainly return to Ladurée and report on the macarons. But when you sample three desserts such as these, even sweets of historic importance demand just a little less attention.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Angelina, Angelina

In New York, the debate over who has the best hot chocolate is almost as fierce and divided as that of the best chocolate chip cookie. (Is it Jacques Torres or City Bakery? Neither?—MarieBelle, you say?)

In Paris, the best can usually be summed up in one word: Angelina.

This 1st arrondisement salon de thé is indeed a tourist trap. But it is well worth dealing with the fanny-packers—not for the Mont Blonc, a dome of sweet chestnut flavored meringue and cream, and definitely not for the service, which makes you feel they’d rather be home, filing their nails. But simply for a pitcher of le chocolat Africain, the house’s specialty hot chocolate.

Smooth and velvety, it’s thick enough to coat your tongue, but not so thick that it sticks to your teeth (an important line not to be crossed). It’s rich and chocolaty, and served warm, not hot—another distinction that’s important to me. I don’t like my hot chocolate to be scalding.

Served in china, with a side of pure whipped cream, it’s the perfect way to warm up on a rainy spring day. And a decadent way to get your day’s chocolate quota.

226 rue de Rivoli

Sunday, April 19, 2009

All croissants are not created equal

In Paris, you can wave your scarf in any direction and brush the croissant-filled window of a boulangerie. Of course this doesn’t mean that those croissants are worthy of your attention. It can be a tough job, searching for a perfect croissant.

My checklist: Buttery, flakey, soft and squishy. Ideally, a titch warm from the oven. And on the small side, rather than oversized—the better to break off into chewy little pieces that leave you both happy and wishing for more.

I had read about La Flute Gana in Travel + Leisure and, after Googling “best croissant Paris” and seeing this 20th arrondisement boulangerie come up on numerous sites and blogs, I added it to my must-eat list. I take it as a good sign when street warriors rhapsodize about a neighborhood spot.

I knew the bakery would have an awesome assortment of breads—the founder, Bernard Ganachaud, is legendary for his baguettes. Indeed, “flute” is another word for baguette and “Gana” is the founder’s abbreviated last name. While Ganachaud is retired, his bakeries (a second one just opened in February) are still run by his daughters.

The bread certainly looked and smelled beautiful—god, how I love that warm, yeasty smell inside a good Parisian boulangerie—but I was there for a one thing only: a croissant. After standing in line and feeling more than a little anxious about seeing so many gorgeous pastries and not being able to sample all of them, I made my modest purchase and escaped outside.

I knew before even taking it out of the bag that it was going to be buttery—it was weeping through the paper. The size was perfect. And when I bit into it, it was that heavenly combination of light, spongy and flakey. And, yes, buttery. If I had to criticize, it was just a little overdone. I should add to my checklist that I prefer my croissants just a wee bit undercooked. Nevertheless, it was demolished in about six bites.

226 Rue des Pyrenees

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cupcakes come to Paris

I find it equal parts insane, idiotic and exciting that as soon as I move to Paris, looking forward to the miellefeuille cakes, pain au chocolate, artisinal chocolates and good old Nutella street crepes, I find myself seeking out a seven-month-old, cupcakes-only bakery as if I were in New York.

I arrived at Cupcakes & Co in the afternoon with the sun spilling through the window, onto the one in-store table. The bakery is tiny. The menu, however, is not.

Choosing between, say, five or six cupcake flavors is hard enough. But at Cupcakes & Co, there are over 20 varieties and they all sound heavenly. Coffee and hazelnut? Poppy seed with orange cream cheese frosting? Vanilla bourbon cake with glazed figs and pine nuts?? Mon dieu.

My gaze darted back and forth between the descriptions on the chalkboard and the pretty creations in the display case. As per usual, I was won over by a raspberry. I ordered the Scheherazade, an irresistible combination of pistachio cake, a raspberry center and cream cheese frosting.

The two sisters who started the bakery, Rebecca and Maggy, pride themselves on using natural and organic products. And, even though the concept came about from travels to the states, their recipes are French in origin. That is, they are delicious. Dare I say, this cupcake may be one of the best sweets I’ve had here.

I took it to the park so I could enjoy it beneath the cherry blossoms. The cake was moist, the jammy center was bright and fruity, and the frosting was thick and savory.

And it was all topped with crushed pistachios and a perfect raspberry.

It was a little piece of New York, with the elegant touch of Paris.

25 rue de la Forge Royale

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter wishes

Last year I was excited for Peeps from Bethlehem. This year, I’m enjoying the over-the-top molded chocolates in Paris.

To be clear: I’m not sampling every chocolate bunny or chick—I have to show some restraint. Besides, seeing the elaborate window displays around town is almost as satisfying as tasting the edibles within.

Michel Cluizel has chocolate eggs by the dozens.

Not to be outdone, Lenotre created an Easter egg tree.

Rocher and Dalloyau also put their eggs front and center, the former under beautiful cherry blossoms, the latter, coupled with teddy bears. Hmmmm…

I love Jean-Paul Hévin’s wacky giant hen.

But, as always, the cake goes to Patrick Roger.

I would call this more of a celebration of spring than Easter specifically. His sculpted display at the Avenue Victor Hugo boutique has a thatch-roofed shed and anthropomorphic vegetable garden.

Smiling chocolate leeks or cabbage, anyone?

Friday, April 10, 2009

The French take on an American classic

I’ve never been a pie nut, but things might change here in Paris.

A colleague who lives in Montmartre told me about Les Petits Mitrons. Since he had also told me about Coquelicot, and mentions Pierre Hermé on a weekly basis, I knew he knew what he was talking about.

There’s certainly no shortage of options at this cute little patisserie: chocolate-walnut, chocolate-pear, apple-pear, straight up chocolate, straight up apple, apricot, peach, rhubarb, fig, fruits-rouges (mixed berries), strawberry-cream, mixed fruit…

and that’s just at this one place. If I get hooked on pie now, there’s no telling what more I will discover.

I figured I had to start with the classic and got une piéce of the apple. God, was it delicious. Not only were the apples fresh and bright-tasting, but the crust was beautifully sweet and moist. Bravo, Francais!

26, rue Lepic

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Centimes candy

This isn’t your traditional Parisian candy store. It’s Karamell, a Swedish candy store, located on one of my favorite streets, rue de Martyrs.

Did you ever imagine there could be so many kinds of gummies? But they also have a decent chocolate selection (yay, malt balls) as well as my favorite, dried pineapple.

If the sugar’s not enough to make you happy, the bright colors should do the trick.

15, rue des Martyrs

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Dueling cakes

It’s been sixteen years since I’ve seen my friend Bessie’s cousin, Bessie, but I had the chance to catch up with her this weekend. After her own stint in Paris, she’s living in Switzerland and came to town to visit friends do a little shopping. With a plan for lunch, I suggested that we meet at the salon de thé at Jean-Paul Hevin.

We were modest and French enough with our meals—quiche for Bessie, salad for me, wine for us both. Less so with dessert. It’s a chocolatier, after all—my favorite one at that. We had to have chocolate cake.

For all its poshness, the salon has these weird oversized, laminated menus with pictures and descriptions of the cakes on it—like something you’d see at a carnival. But they were admittedly helpful in narrowing down the selection. From the 30+ varieties of cakes—most of them chocolate-based—Bes chose the Choco Passion, and I went classic with a Chocolat Framboise.

My chocolate-raspberry cake was gorgeous. Layers of fluffy chocolate mousse and dense chocolate cake rested atop a cacao biscuit and beneath a layer of raspberry preserves. But for all its beauty, it lacked that famous je ne sais quoi. It had nothing on Bessie’s Choco Passion.

The Choco Passion was rich and complex, nutty and fruity. A flakey praline base and dark chocolate ganache made for a thick, savory base that was offset with chocolate mousse whipped with tart passionfruit. It had so much depth and was so irresistible, I just wanted to keep sneaking bites of Bessie’s cake. But I figured that wasn’t very French of me.

231, rue Saint-Honoré

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Poisson d’Avril

To the French, April 1 is “Poisson d’Avril.” The idea is generally the same as April Fool’s—to play practical jokes on others—but they do so by attaching fish to unsuspecting others’ backs (á la a “kick me” sign).

But what really interests me about the French interpretation of the “holiday” are the chocolates everyone gets to celebrate. You can find dime store bags of molded fish, clams, seahorses and the like—either in milk, dark or white chocolate. But the top-notch chocolatiers also get in on the fantasy and fun.

Indeed, these are Patrick Roger’s molded chocolates.

And here are some beauties from Jean-Paul Hevin. You’ll notice this “poisson de bon thon” is 28 euros—a $37 chocolate fish.

Your neighborhood patisseries offer less expensive treats. They just don’t have same omigod factor as the masters.