Friday, February 20, 2009


So most of you who read this blog know that, J'adore les macarons. Seriously, they are my Achilles' heel. There are several shops here in Paris that are famous for the macarons, and in fact they are in almost every patisserie. I had been meaning to go to one shop in particular, Pierre Hermé, and finally put it on the itinerary for after class today. I have to confess that it was exhilarating being in that shop, and the experience seemed ritualistic. I joined the back of the queue, and examined the other pastries as I waited my turn. I didn't have my camera and oh boy, did I miss some good photo ops!! The Canelés were so dark (that's another field trip entirely), the tarts so shiny! Finally it was my turn, and although I had planned on ordering just a few, I found myself asking for a box of seven. Well here goes nothing!

I ordered (listed as pictured, top to bottom):
-Truffe Blanche & Noisette
White Truffle & Hazelnut
-Chocolat Pure Origine Mexique (aka "Mexique")
Single Origin Mexican Chocolate
-Vanilles du Mexique, de Tahiti & de Madagascar (aka "Infiniment Vanille")
Blend of Mexican, Tahitian and Madagascar Vanilla Bean
-Rose (I think you can translate that one)
-Fruit de la Passion & Chocolat au Lait (aka "Mogador")
Passion Fruit and Milk Chocolate
-Thé Jasmin

Problem was, I was with a friend and we were going to get a drink, and I wanted to wait until I got home so I could properly photograph my treats. Even I was impressed by my self restraint, waiting several hours before opening the box, then having to wait a painful twenty minutes more for my camera battery to charge! This I had to document, my first experience eating the famous Pierre Hermé macarons.

The box they came in was very thoughtfully designed. The seven macarons fit inside comfortably, not one was smashed, but close enough together to prevent them from rattling around. The four flaps open up to present the macarons waiting to be enjoyed. And enjoy them I did, very very slowly. I laid them all out on the open box, so they could breathe, if you will...they had been cooped up with that truffle macaron, and this ain't your chocolate truffle macaron. This is a macaron with real white truffle, the fungus that grows under ground that dogs or pigs search for. Needless to say, I HAD to try one, but I was a bit worried the other macarons would have 'essence de truffe'. I felt a bit like a surgeon, carefully maneuvering the macarons, placing them one by one on the plate for a photo, then slicing each one in half to savor. I ate half of each in the order I thought would be best for a tasting, such as you would with cheese.

The Cassis Macaron was surprisingly intense. I love fruit and fruit desserts in general; however, I didn't have high expectations for the cassis, but I will gladly be proven wrong any day by this cookie. There were even bits of real berry in the creme, for an extra punch of flavor, although it was never lacking. Cassis is simply french for blackcurrant, a very common berry in Europe, and similar in flavor to other dark berries; black berries, raspberries, blueberries.

Next was the rose, and I had high hopes for this one because I always love rose scented pastries. Well, Pierre Hermé did not let me down. Not only was there a perfect amount of rose aroma and flavor, but the buttercream! The buttercream was so buttery, and perfectly salted too. What makes a good pastry a great pastry? Salt. Seriously, nothing irks me more than a bland under-salted pastry, whatever it be; cookie, buttercream, ice cream, cake, don't even get me started!! This Rose Macaroon was perfect, and it will be hard to top.

Now, onto Vanilla. "Infiniment Vanille" that is. There are chocolate people and there are vanilla people, and I am neither. Granted as a kid, you couldn't get me near vanilla, I always had chocolate ice cream, but now as an adult, I have taken after my mother and fallen in love with almond and lemon desserts. However, whenever vanilla is done properly, it gets my attention. This macaron had three types of vanilla bean in the cookie and the creme, and it was intense! I mean this is how you do vanilla, not some softly scented cookie, but a bold, bourbony and floraly vanilla cookie. Wow, this could convert some chocolate folks.

I was very excited to try the Passion Fruit and Milk Chocolate Macaron for two reasons. First, I love Passion Fruit, it is always pleasantly acidic and zesty. Second, I don't like Milk Chocolate, or very rarely do I. Well, this macaron proves again that Pierre Herme really knows his flavor combinations and I should be a little more trusting of him. The Milk Chocolate mellows that acidity of the Passion Fruit, without muting it at all. What a pleasantly surprising combination. I could eat several of these. The ganache I imagine is milk chocolate and passion fruit puree, since all you need for a ganache is chocolate and a liquid, the liquid is usually cream, but can be substituted for espresso or perhaps passion fruit puree. I will definitely be trying to make these.

"Mexique" is for chocolate people. This single origin Mexican chocolate macaron was sublime. The cocoa in the cookie gave it a red glow, and the ganache in the middle, of which there was plenty, was dark chocolate at its perfection, chocolate made supple by cream and butter. It is much harder for me to describe this macaron, but I think I did roll my eyes back in my head upon tasting it. Any chocolate lover MUST try this one, and in fact, next time I might have to do a sampling of the five chocolate macarons offered.

Finally, there was the White Truffle & Hazelnut Macaron. Now, if you have stuck with me here, and paid attention, you might be asking, wait that is only #6. And you are right, apparently that Jasmine at the end of the counter that I asked for was a misplaced tray of Truffle Macarons. A pleasant surprise for me, as I ended up with two of them, but maybe not so pleasant for the unsuspecting patron expecting a gentle Jasmin Tea Macaron and finding this is their bag. Wow, the aroma was intense enough that I was concerned the other macarons' flavors would be compromised having shared a box with it; however, their time together was short and the other escaped unharmed. Inside the macaron, was a toasted hazelnut, which was a fantastic compliment to the earthy and musky truffle. No surprise now that this is a great combination, but the balance and execution of this macaron was impressive.

This will definitely not be my only trip to Pierre Hermé, and hopefully I won't go too often. Now that I have tasted an assortment of flavors, next time I will do a more focused tasting, perhaps just chocolate macarons. Oh, and if you were wondering, I did eat all of them. And it was fantastic.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I could get used to this...

So my baguette for dinner tonight was still warm when I picked it up. On my way home from the organic grocery store (which also has me elated...more on that later) I popped into a bakery that had a line out the door, always a good sign. While there were still a few customers in front of me, the clerk, and perhaps a baker too, wheeled out a basket of fresh baguettes from the back. I proceeded to the counter, ordered my baguette and presented the 80 cents for it, impressing the woman that I had my change ready. As soon as she placed it in my hand, I think my step got a bit lighter. The baguette was very much still warm from having just been baked. I might end up eating a baguette a day at this rate.

Many have asked "how's the food?" or "what have you been eating??" Well, the short answer is a lot of bread and cheese. Typical, non? However, I do have a chicken leg and thigh roasting with some potatoes and onions that I'll eat with my baguette (ahem, the half that I didn't eat already) and the cheese my flatmate brought home from her trip to Normandy. For those of you that don't know, Normandy is famous for dairy products and apples. No big surprise that I was presented with an ooey gooey Camembert that had been soaked in Calvados!! Calvados is an apple brandy, and delicious! Soaking the Camembert in Calvados doesn't leave it the prettiest piece of cheese, but perhaps one of the most delicious. The brandy compliments the pungency of the cheese nicely, mellowed of course by that crispy baguette. There is a fruity acidity to the cheese, the way orange juice is zippy on the tongue, but not too distracting from the creamy texture. I almost forgot I had dinner in the oven.

So, here's a picture of what I had last night for dinner, no roast chicken, and I didn't even make that soup, but I was pretty happy. There exists here a store called Picard, and it is basically the frozen section of the grocery store, that's it. All frozen food. Many of you know how much I love freezing food. It really is the next best thing to fresh. "That freezes well" is often said by me, and lo and behold many of you have your freezers full of egg whites, slice and bake cookies, even fried green tomatoes. Picard sells frozen soups, which I hope everyone knows freeze well, and you just heat and serve, season if necessary et voila! The soups come in bags, already frozen in little pieces, like a piece of Bazooka gum, so they thaw and heat up quickly. I am definitely a fan. Here you see dinner composed of that soup, carrot this time, and a easy mesculun salad with a whole grain mustard vinaigrette and cornochons - those little pickles, I could eat a jar of - and a goat cheese 'crottin', red wine and a baguette, the one pictured is from another bakery, currently my favorite boulangerie. Unfortunately it is right around the corner...

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Are you ready to rumble?

I don't think I was prepared for the Bocuse d'Or. Now, unfortunately I wasn't competing, but maybe that's for the best. This competition is intense. Intense. 24 Teams, 24 different countries, over two days of competition. Each team prepared and presented a fish dish and a meat dish in just over 5 hours, with the service to the 24 international judges staggered every 10 minutes. As if the action down in the kitchens and on the floor wasn't enough to make your head spin, the noise of almost 1000 fanatic fans, cheering for their country was enough to make soccer fans seem mild.

The group of Japanese fans (pictured) were very impressive. They had signs, matching outfits, an early presence as well as an awareness of when to cheer. They were very loud, but with pleasant cheers. The USA fan section was still mostly empty when I showed up to get a seat. I had stopped by on day 1 of the competition, but decided to roam the expo and go back for Day 2 of the competition, when the US and France would be competing. I saw how the stands filled up, so after checking my jacket at the VIP booth (getting my ticket on line in advance was totally worth that perk!) I made a bee line for the stands. I settled in for the long haul, even brought my own rations of raisins, salted almonds and water, and just started to watch.

The two dynamic hosts, a French man and an American woman, kept us posted and entertained the best they could, as the stands filled up and the chefs prepared their dishes. Eventually, the Norwegians were up, the first of 12 competing that day, to present their fish dish. This is no ordinary dish, but a masterpiece of 12 servings displayed on a giant mirrored platter. This is paraded in front of the judges and the spectators (at one point one tray was almost dropped!!!) and then brought to a separate table where the chef and some hospitality students then helped transfer the delicately assembled works of art onto individual plates which are subsequently given to the judges. By this time, as the judges were tasting the Norwegians fish dish, the next team brought out their platter to be paraded around. It was extremely hectic since the judges are eating the dish of one country while looking at the formal platter of the next country, all the while the fans are competing to bust their ear drums and mine. Turns out I came well prepared with snacks but left my ear plugs at home.

The 10 Spaniards that showed up too late to sit with the rest of their countrymen, squeezed in behind me to provided some unneeded entertainment. I was definitely not amused when the lady to my right spilled a soup sample on me (soup courtesy of the food expo; the competition was unfortunately not giving out samples) nor when the woman behind me repeatedly hit me in the head with her purse. Although all the fans were loud, very loud, the crowd quieted a bit to hear the announcement of each countries dish...except, you guessed it, these 10 Spaniards behind me when Spain was presenting its dish. They were perfectly nice folks though, even providing a towelette for me to wipe the soup off my pants.

Now, there is no shortage of pomp and circumstance in this competition. All the judges were parade out, with a special moment for Paul Bocuse, founder of the competition and famous chef. In this photo, you can see the 12 judges that were to score the fish dish, the other 12 (not shown) scored the meat dish - presented only 30 minutes after the fish dish. The judge to the far right is Thomas Keller, of The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California. The setting was so fiercely competitive, I really don't know how the chefs do it. Many of the European chefs are used to competing, as it is more common here, but this is the creme de la creme of culinary competitions, and I don't think that was lost on anyone there.

I left before the results were announced, even before all of the teams had competed actually. The US had presented both dishes, and by the time France presented the fish dish, I had been there 5 hours myself, and it was time to escape. I found out Norway had won the Bocuse d'Or, which probably was a bit of a relief since the entire competition had to use Norwegian seafood for the fish dish ( and Scottish beef for the meat dish), yet completely deserved I am sure.

The experience was memorable to say the least, to see so many supportive fans, so many chefs who had spent countless hours preparing for this day, so much excitement and obsession over food. Good to know I am not the only one out there...