They taunt you from behind shop windows. They dare you to step inside and have a closer look, knowing full well that you won’t be able to resist their charms when you see them in their full glory. They are French desserts: dangerous and delicious.
We had an ambitious agenda for my final cooking class in Paris: crème brûlée, dark chocolate soufflé, tarte tatin, pistachio financiers, and Grand Marnier frozen soufflé.
We began with a seasonal twist on crème brûlée, flavoring it with speculoos, a spice mixture which includes cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and black pepper. Our French chef went on a mini-rant that Americans call this mixture “all spice” despite the fact that it does not actually contain all possible spices. Not surprisingly, the French call it the much more accurate “four spices” (although I would like to note that the recipe she gave us includes the six spices listed above….). In any case, I got very excited about the chance to blow torch my food and transform a layer of pure sugar into a bubbling caramelized shell that was so satisfyingly crackly and delicious that it almost made me forget about the quantity of sugar I had used to create it.
One of the results of seasonal cooking is that you wind up using the same ingredients in multiple dishes. In my case, this resulted in the hardship of two days in a row of chocolate soufflés and caramelized apple dishes. We had a bake-off between the chocolate soufflé I had made the night before in the market class using French meringue and the one we made in the dessert class using Italian meringue. The main difference between the two is that Italian meringue whips hot sugar syrup into the egg whites as you are beating them, resulting in shiny, stiff peaks that retain their shape; in contrast, French meringue beats the egg whites until they are stiff but then folds them into the rest of the batter so that they collapse a bit. Italian meringue has come into vogue for macarons because it is more stable and predictable (see my macaron post to learn more about the perils of macaron making). The result is that Italian meringue creates more height in the soufflé than a French meringue and does not collapse as quickly when it comes out of the oven but it also creates a denser texture throughout. My verdict: the French soufflé – it was much lighter and let the chocolate flavor shine through; the Italian soufflé was a bit more like a flourless chocolate cake but without that satisfying fudgy, stick-to-your-teeth density.
And with that, we were on to the tarte tatin, a caramelized upside-down mini apple pie. For any kind of cooking with apples, it’s best to use firmer varieties like Golden Delicious that won’t turn to mush when they are heated (applesauce is, evidently, quite easy to make, even when you don’t mean to!) We started making caramel by browning sugar on the stovetop, then added the apples, and for an additional dramatic flair, we flambeed them with Calvados, an apple brandy from Normandy (which, in case you are interested, Trader Joe’s sells at this time of year for a very reasonable $20). We pressed the cooked apple slices into a mold, covered them with a buttery pie crust, and then baked them. The result was sticky, sweet, and very seasonal – it was a bit too sweet for me (although to be fair, I was juggling eating it with four other desserts at the same time), but it is a beautiful preparation and much more straightforward to make than most of the other French desserts I’ve encountered.
Next up was the financier, which is basically a tea cake that can come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. We opted for a pistachio financier, made with a deep green pistachio paste that I have definitely never seen in the US (not that I have looked, but it just seems like one of those “only in France” items). We topped the cakes with an apricot glaze to give them that professional, patisserie window come-hither look.
And we saved the best for last – the frozen Grand Marnier soufflé. This was basically an orange-flavored frozen custard and it was delicious. We started by zesting an orange and then cutting sections into the bottom of little chilled glasses. We made the custard by whipping Grand Marnier into heavy cream and then folding in a sabayon sauce, which was made from whisked eggs, sugar, and orange zest cooked over a bain marie (which steams rather than cooks and is often used for fragile ingredients like eggs, butter, and chocolate). After portioning out the mixture into the glasses, we let it freeze before eating. The alcohol prevents the mixture from becoming totally solid so that it stays light and easy to slide onto your spoon and wolf down.
Needless to say, I left class in a massive sugar coma and with a huge box of leftovers that I will have to figure out some way to consume before my flight tomorrow morning back to Los Angeles.
And so ends my European culinary exploration (for now…). I can’t imagine a better way to have spent the last five weeks. Stay tuned for Southeast Asian adventures and cooking coming in December!
As a random aside, I saw this painting in the Musee de Carnavalet in the Marais and thought it was hilarious. Could have just as easily been set in a modern day movie theater – not much has changed!