Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pastry on the Brain

It’s been a doughy two weeks in Paris – much pastry, French and Algerian, professional and homemade.

I made my first without-baby outing when Augustin was 3 weeks old (forgot the pictures – bad mommy), to go to, of all things, a board meeting of the Cornell Club of Paris. As luck would have it, I was sitting next to a new arrival – a tall, blond, half-Swedish pastry chef (sorry gents, she’s engaged to a lovely Frenchman). She is working at Dessirier, a brasserie in the 17th. She began describing their Baba au Rhum, served with poached dried fruit – which sounds worth a trip in itself. She sounded slightly frustrated by having to make French classics all day, but I’m hoping to scam a lesson in how to make proper crème patissiere.

My next post baby outing was to meet Bob, fellow foodie and blogger (Bobby Jay on Food)– at Le Bague de Kenza, the best Algerian bakery in Paris. (The pyramids of pastries and marizpan above are their creations. Bob arrived with a doudou (that’s French for baby blankie) for Augustin, and an exquisite little sachet of pates de fruits for me. I am still shocked when I eat these delicate candies - they taste like (and are made with) actual fruit. I grew up as a sincere lover of Chuckles, Sunkist fruit gels, fruit rollups and Jujubees; who can resist a new friend bearing classy fruit chews?

We ordered a sampling of pastries and went through two pots of sweet mint tea – enough sugar for a diabetic coma. La Bague de Kenza has a cookbook – we sampled the pastry on the cover – called a Bourse de Kenza, which looks like a little sack of gold, tied with a string and stuffed with honey soaked almonds with a touch of orange flower water.
I was editing the galleys for my book this week, so this is my last chance to tweak any recipes before Lunch in Paris is published in February 2010. I’ve been retesting my chouquettes; the simple things are always the trickiest to transcribe. Chouquettes – essentially empty cream-puffs sprinkled with small pebbles of white sugar – were my first and most beloved Parisian breakfast. When I started coming to Paris for the weekend (10 years ago, OMG) G. would go hunting in the morning, while I was still face down on the pillow. He would return with a small wax paper bag, crimped at the edges. Inside were perfectly puffed chouquettes – chewy on the outside, hollow in the center – like biting into a sweet breeze. I’ve been playing with the salt in my recipe. I’m having trouble with the conversion between coarse and fine grain sea salt. I think it’s perfect now. At least for my palette.

My third pastry encounter this past week was slightly more disconcerting. Let me say this: I’m never wearing an Empire waist dress ever again. I was walking down the street and a homeless man called me fat. That’s right. Up til now, I’ve been feeling pretty good about the post-natal pounds. I’m back in my regular jeans (not my tiniest pair, but hey, it’s only been 5 weeks). The dress in question is not even a maternity dress, just a DKNY black wool number that gathers under the bust. When you are twenty, this sort of outfit makes look like you are filming a Jane Austin movie, at 35, apparently, all it says is “soon-to-be-breastfeeding”.

It happened like this: It was 6:30 pm, I was on my way to a meeting, and I hadn’t eaten all day, so I grabbed something from the boulangerie and ate it right out of the little square of paper while I was walking down to the metro at Republique. As I was crossing the street, the homeless man who stands by the bank machine muttered “Attention aux kilos” – Pay attention to your pounds. I turned around in disbelief (I could have gotten hit by a car, by the way), and there he was on the curb, shaking his finger at me. Maybe I was asking for it, as the French never eat and walk at the same time, and it was 6:30pm, so clearly I was spoiling the sacred French ritual of dinner with my forbidden pastry. But only in Paris do people feel morally obliged to mention this stuff to you on the street.

When I got to the party, three well-meaning older women asked me if I was pregnant. The dress is going in the garbage.

My Beloved Chouquettes

Adapted from LeNôtre: Faîtes votre pâtisserie (Flammarion, 1975)

Chouquettes in Paris are dotted with small pebbles of white sugar called sucre perlé; you can get the same effect at home with a last minute dusting of powdered sugar.

½ cup whole milk
½ cup water
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, diced
¾ teaspoon coarse sea salt (or 1 scant teaspoon fine sea salt)
1 ¼ teaspoon sugar
1 cup flour
4 eggs (total weight of approximately 250 grams or 9 oz.)
¼ cup powdered sugar

Additional powered sugar for decoration

Preheat the oven to 425 °F.

In a heavy bottomed saucepan, over low heat, combine milk, water, butter, sugar and salt. Bring just to a boil, turn off the heat and add the flour while stirring continuously, until flour is incorporated and the dough comes away from the sides of the pan. It will look like a lump of marzipan.

Quickly add two eggs and stir to incorporate.

Quickly incorporate the remaining 2 eggs, stir until smooth. The batter will be thick and sticky. It can be refrigerated for up to a day.

Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Using two teaspoons, dole out heaping dollops of batter, widely spaced. You should have about 24. (If you have space in your freezer, you can freeze the individual puffs at this point. I wouldn’t recommend freezing and thawing a big lump of batter.)

Bake one sheet at a time. Before you put them in the oven, sprinkle each puff generously with powdered sugar. No need to break up the lumps in the sugar, it's actually better if some of it doesn't melt.

If baking immediately: Bake for 12 minutes at 425°F. Then turn down the heat to 400, and bake for 12 minutes more with oven door slightly ajar (I stick a wooden spoon in the door to hold it open just a crack.)

If baking straight from the fridge: 15 minutes at 425°F, 12 minutes at 400°F with door ajar.

If baking from the freezer: 17 minutes at 425°F, 12 minutes at 400°F with door ajar.

You’ll want to watch them the first time, every oven is different. Grab one out of the oven to taste if you like (I always do). They should be fully puffed and highly colored – don’t worry if the sugar caramelizes on top or underneath.

Eat right out of the oven or cool on a wire rack. If you like, dust with powdered sugar just before serving.

Makes approximately 24 chouquettes


  1. Elizabeth:

    Since you love chouquettes, you must read Muriel Barbery's Une Gourmandise (just released in translation as Gourmet Rhapsody). I won't tell you why because that would spoil it.

    I heartily recommend this book to all food lovers, even those who don't appreciate chouquettes.

  2. Just found your blog and I love it! I will be back. I am a closet foodie having gone to the Cordon Bleu in London while living there with my husband. These days I just read about food instead of making it. And, write when I can. Congratulations on getting a book published.

  3. What a nice blog! Chouquettes are MY FAVORITE!!!!
    Please, let's meet in Paris next September!