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Feb 7, 2021

French Bakery in my Kitchen: Saint André

THE STORY: 

We have been sheltering in place for nearly a year now: San Francisco has been particularly conservative about regulations, and our kids haven't attended one single day of school in person since the beginning of March 2020! So, during this past year we have -- like all of you -- spent an inordinate amount of time inside our own house (and missed our summer in France). Perhaps inevitably, we have turned to a lot of home-made solutions for fulfilling our French cravings, some with more success than others. I tell you unashamedly that the amount of butter, sugar, and flour we have gone through these past twelve months is astonishing, verging on revolting. It's not great for the cholesterol, but it does help lift the spirits when the whole house smells like a patisserie or boulangerie. If you, too, want a patisserie or boulangerie in your own home, here are some of our tips, discoveries, warnings, and favorite recipes.


Chouquettes are a common after school treat for French children. When the girls were growing up in Paris, we would just pop by the patisserie and grab a bag for the practically-official, national 4pm goûter (snack-time). Simple and puffy, you're almost paying for more air than pastry here, with some crunchy big sugar grains on top. Here in our own kitchen, Pippa recreates these perfectly using -- not surprisingly -- a recipe from France. Here's the English-language version for the Chouquette/Choux recipe. And here's another good Chouquette/Choux recipe (nearly identical) with pictures and instructions. Chouquettes are surprisingly simple and very rewarding. 


Without the sugar crystals, this is exactly the same recipe as what you would need to make cream puffs, which we've also done. And when I say "we", I mostly mean "Pippa". Pippa has only a mild sweet tooth, yet she's the one that enjoys baking the most out of all of us. 


Like chouquettes, one of the benefits of choux à la crème is that they are not overly sweet, heavy, or large. They can be filled with any flavor of whipped cream or custard or both and are usually topped with a dusting of powdered sugar. These are miniature ones, easily popped into the mouth in one single bite. They get stale quickly but are extremely addictive when they're fresh, so there shouldn't be many leftovers anyway.


The same recipe will make its not-too-distant cousin, the éclair, which is the same choux pastry made into an elongated oval and then filled. These are very simple to make, so simple that as Pippa said to her sister, "You can't go wrong." Which, of course, means that Ginger found the one possible way to go wrong, which is to accidentally substitute whole wheat flour for all of the white flour. I don't care how healthy you like to be, do not go down this road: the pastries ended up limp, flat, and in our garbage bin. Ginger, who is one of the most even-tempered, happy people I know, had her one truly explosive pandemic meltdown moment over these failed éclairs, and we were all banished from the kitchen while she stormed about and violently threw them all into the trash can, which explains my lack of photos. Using white flour, Pippa did manage to make better éclair shells, but then proceeded to waste inordinate amounts of milk trying to make a pastry custard (which failed to thicken for reasons unknown), then a chai-flavored custard filling (which failed because she meant to thicken it with cornstarch but for some reason insisted on using baking soda instead), then finally got filled with simple whipped cream (because nobody was willing to make another masked, socially-distanced trip to the grocery store for more whole milk). Apparently, our éclair-making is still a work in progress.

While her éclairs may have been a disaster, Ginger has become our very successful boulangère -- our bread baker -- and what could be more wonderfully French than that? The secret to getting close to that deliciously boulangerie crust at home is to bake it in a cast-iron Dutch oven, when possible, and to introduce some moisture into the oven (a little spritz of water into the hot oven as she puts in the bread to bake). Truth be told, because of the delicious crust in the Dutch oven, we prefer to have our homemade bread more in boule de campagne form than baguette, but the smell, texture, and taste are mighty close to a real boulangerie. Sometimes they are classic French, sometimes sourdough based (how San Francisco of us), and sometimes dotted with fruit and nuts (popular in both Paris and San Francisco). Our Dutch oven is an old brown Le Creuset I bought for about 20 at a vide grenier in Paris, and it just doesn't get any Frencher than that.



If a baguette shape is really important to you, however, you could try out this product I've found (but not purchased or tried): https://www.baguettebakingbox.com/store/

While we're on bread products and things you can buy, I highly recommend frozen croissants and pain au chocolat from Trader Joe's, but -- sigh -- called "chocolate croissants" because they're sold in America. Unfortunate Anglophone name aside, they are about the closest we've found to pain au chocolat that taste just like in France. The quality is very, very high and yet the cost -- especially compared to US-based bakeries -- is very, very low. We happen to live blocks away from the croissant named the best in the US by Bon Appétit magazine, Arsicault bakery in San Francisco. One pain au chocolat there is  $4.75 -- plus lots of CA tax. Yes it's American-size monstrous and comfortably feeds two people (we sometimes buy one to feed the entire family!). But these Trader Joe's pain au chocolat are honestly just as authentically French tasting, just as delicious, and much cheaper ($4.49 for 4 normal-sized, single-serving pastries). The frozen Mini-Croissants are not quite as perfect as a bakery-bought croissant in Paris, and the size and shape are frankly a bit wrong, but they still absolutely bring back the taste of France and more than do the job. The instructions on the Chocolate Croissant package are perfect. The instruction on the Mini-Croissant package are wrong, however: you must indeed preheat the oven and still cook for several minutes longer than the package states.


On the other end of the effort spectrum...Pippa's attempt at macarons was admirable if not a huge success, but we think we know where she went wrong: food dye. The problem was that it very obviously altered the texture of the dough and then flattened out too much on the baking sheet. So, we recommend either powdered food coloring, finding a recipe that specifically calls for food coloring and compensates accordingly, or just enjoying white macarons (though really, where's the fun in that?). The other problem is the cookie part of the macaron is only half the dessert. The filling -- which could be fruity or creamy -- is harder to make than a normal frosting, and regular cake frosting is too sweet and not nearly French enough. This is probably the highest effort product Pippa has tried to bake -- even more finicky than time-consuming layered cakes. Here is Pippa's attempt at macarons, resulting in what we dub "macathins". She is holding up the lone "macaronut" which resulted from the middle of two of the cookies sticking to the baking paper.


But having made them before myself (with the help of a Cordon Bleu trained baker!), I can tell you that when they do work out, they are very rewarding. (OK, let's be honest: the Cordon Bleu trained baker was responsible for 98% of the success of these perfect Parisian macarons...)


Pippa also made this year's Galette des Rois. The puff pastry is thawed from frozen from the grocery store (we are not masochists when it comes to home baking...) but she made the inside from scratch according to this Galette des Rois recipe and even remembered to put in the fève for the lucky prize winner. The lesson we can pass on to you here is that while it's very easy to make, it's also very easy to mess up the shape. The outside edges must be carefully and thoroughly crimped and bonded together to avoid the explosion that happened to me last year, when I made the less popular pear-and-chocolate version, and to Pippa this year for the classic frangipane almond paste version. Still delicious, but the outside edge was a mess.


With probably hundreds of delicious Meyer lemons growing in our backyard (and still there, as I'm picking them as slowly as is humanly possible), it's only natural we have made a Tarte au Citron, using the Lemon Creme Tarte recipe from Tartine, a local San Francisco treasure of a bakery. And when I say hundreds of lemons, I don't think I'm exaggerating for effect. As you can see from the photo of just one branch on the smallest of our trees, there are literally more lemons than leaves. This recipe is not actually difficult, though Pippa does accidentally quadruple it. Let's just say multiple neighbors each get a mini Tarte au Citron, we eat a huge Tarte for a week, and we still have another one in the freezer. Yes, they freeze perfectly -- not solid -- so that they can be cut and eaten straight from the freezer.


With all the egg whites leftover from making the Tarte au Citron (which is essentially curd-like filling), it's only natural to make some meringues, also very French. It turns out that meringues are very fun to make, especially for Pippa, but none of us actually like to eat them, especially not Pippa. For us, they are fun decorations on a plate and possibly good additions to a mish-mash sort of trifle dessert. But you might like meringue a whole lot.


If you're thinking this is a very unnatural color for meringues, look no further than this photo from a bakery window in central Paris.


Speaking of egg whites, I also have made soufflé for the family during our (seemingly endless) pandemic lockdown -- in this case using a classic Cheese Soufflé recipe. Notice the perfectly risen, cracked top: my pride is almost as puffed out as my perfect soufflé. While soufflés have the reputation of being particularly challenging, the trick is just not to keep opening the oven to check on them. Trust the process. And also to beat the living daylights out of the whites then carefully fold to keep in all the air. It's not quite like being at Le Recamier (in the 7th) or the informatively-named Le Soufflé (in the 1st), two very famous and excellent soufflé restaurants in Paris. Mostly the difference is that I am quite capable of making one soufflé for the family for a meal once in a rare while, but at one of the Paris restaurants, we could order 3 savories and 2 dessert flavors for the 4 of us at one meal and sample them all.


During cherry season in May, around three months into quarantine life, I made clafoutis, which is a personal favorite (less popular with the rest of my family but that just means more for me!). I am afraid I will still be in quarantine life for round two of cherry season this coming May. Can't say I'm looking forward to many more months of the pandemic, though at least I can look forward to more cherry clafoutis. I've written about cherries and cherry clafoutis before, along with a great recipe from chef Nathan Lyon.


Anthony's contribution to our family's French cooking is an attempt or two at baguettes and pot de crème, which is a rare and luxurious treat. Pot de crème is related to pudding, crème brulée, flan, custard, and panna cotta but is richer than all of them. It's silky, unctuous, and utterly decadent. This Caramel Pot de Crème recipe is for pot de crème au caramel beurre salé -- salted caramel pot de crème -- which is probably our family's all-time favorite, though we wouldn't say no to just about any other flavor.

The reason Anthony takes it upon himself to make pot de crème is probably that he is the resident fan of the chocolate-y, creamy desserts. So it's no wonder that he was the biggest fan of the dark chocolate mousse that Ginger made using this Chocolate Mousse recipe.


We all agree it's delicious but only Anthony is perverse enough to eat starting from the center first. He knows he is torturing us all with his weird eating methods, and just look at how pleased he is with himself.


He is also the biggest consumer of Pippa's fondant au chocolat, also called a mi-cuit au chocolat, (less commonly) a gâteau au cœur coulantand (most frequently) a moelleux au chocolat, or a molten chocolate lava cake in English. She uses this French-style/English-language Moelleux au Chocolat recipe to great success. The most important thing here, of course, is to not overbake it. If it's not oozing, it's just regular cake, and where's the fun in that? I think Pippa nails it here. Her own personal tip is to line the ramekin with parchment paper because it makes it so much easier to release from the pan and serve individually on a plate. 


If you look carefully at the photo, you'll see the reflection in the spoon (accidental, I assure you) of Anthony with his own spoon in hand, ready to dive in for more. He is our family's least enthusiastic baker and French-speaker but most enthusiastic French baked-treat eater. This past year, during the pandemic, there's certainly been plenty of French treats for him to enjoy, right here in our own California kitchen.

THE CHEESE: Saint André

Saint André is a triple cream (or triple crème, as it says on the package) Brie-related cheese made in Normandy and primarily exported, often to the US. As a soft cheese ripened but aged less than 60 days, that means it must be made from pasteurized cows' milk according to American import laws. Despite the pasteurization, the cheese manages to achieve a delightful ooze and mild stinkiness and is almost always one of the first cheeses to disappear from the platter.


The appearance, texture, and flavor are somewhat reminiscent of a tall, fluffy Brillat-Savarin, and that's nothing to complain about. It's a buttery, salty, slightly tangy, mildly stinky cheese whose texture falls between just crumbly (think dry cheesecake) when cold to positively thick and goopy when warmed up to room temperature. Saint André tastes like nearly pure fat, in the best possible way. It turns out, at 75% butterfat, it literally is nearly pure fat.


For a pasteurized, imported cheese, the crust is unusually delicate -- not the thick, white furry coating of many other pasteurized cheeses. It can be found at Costco and Trader Joe's and Safeway, along with smaller cheese shops and other grocery stores that I don't even know about in other regions of the country. It may just be the best soft, imported, easily-available, mass-produced French cheese. All in all, when we're looking for French cheese in the US, this is one that is easily findable, reliable, and delightful.

THE CONNECTION:

Like the frozen croissants and pain au chocolat (that's chocolate croissants to the non-French speaking Trader Joe's shoppers), Saint André can be found at Trader Joe's and also at the Safeway just up the block from our house. That makes this cheese one of the easiest ways to bring those nostalgic tastes of Paris and France into our pandemic kitchen. We have served it -- many times over the past year of near-quarantine --- with Ginger's bread (not to be confused with gingerbread) from our home boulangerie. It is not a coincidence that I photograph a chunk of the cheese on my platter with the chef, wearing her hat: we've definitely got a chef/baker thing going on chez nous in the pandemic.

While we're on the subject of cheese and homemade foods in quarantine, I would also like to give special mention to Pippa's cheesecake, which is outrageously good, even if nothing about it is particularly French (NY style cheese cake made with Philadelphia cream cheese, and only served in France as an American dessert).



To be entirely honest, we've all hit the pandemic wall and are, at the moment, rather tired of baking, eating, and all house-bound hobbies. I can't say that we're still as excited about all this baking as we once were but, on the other hand, we do have to keep eating, so we might as well try to enjoy it.


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