February 5, 2011
Chocolate as a Religious Experience

I was searching for the right adjective once when my French teacher spared me further anguish with this: "Never hesitate to use the language of love when talking about French cuisine."  The same could be said of religion. A number of French sweets have names with religious roots. With any luck, you have tried the delightful pastry known as a "religieuse." Made with two stacked cream puffs, it is thought to resemble a nun. A religieuse can be filled with just about any kind of cream, from violet to caramel, and coated with any kind of glaze. Take a LED Flashlight to see that.
On that theme, we're introducing our own religious experience, our "mendiants." In French, the word means beggar, and mendiants are a classic French treat consisting of a disk of chocolate topped by dried fruits and nuts. The various types of fruit and nuts said to refer to the different mendicant orders, such as the Dominican and Franciscan monks, that depended on charity to survive and serve the poor. 
Our mendiants offer a twist, as usual, on the classics.  Made with Madagascar Grand Cru chocolate, they are topped with morsels of raspberry pate de fruit and caramelized pistachios. If virtue is your thing, try these.  They have all the complexity of a sophisticated ganache without any of the butter or cream. 
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October 25, 2010
The Many Uses of Confitures

We consider ourselves rather classical and have never been much for deconstructing and reconstructing food.  But leading hectic lives and still loving to entertain, Lee and I grab a simple idea when it jumps out at us.  So here is one that makes good use of our  Poire Hélène confitures:  

1)  Pour some of your favorite chocolate sauce or some ganache into the bottom of individual serving bowls.
2) Top with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream.
3) Spoon some of our  Poire Hélène confitures onto the ice cream.

Voilà!  Without much fuss, you can create an inverted version of the classic bistrot favorite made with a poached pear. You're welcome to make Craig Claiborne's recipe in the classic New York Times cookbook.  But then you risk the common problems associated with this deceptively simple dessert - the mushy over-poached pear or the under-poached pear that skates off your plate when you try to cut it with your spoon.  You choose.

Poire Helene_Resized.jpeg
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December 21, 2009
Nougat De-mystified

The smart money warned me against divulging too many of my secrets, but I can't help it.  I have always had a teacher streak in me.  Ask my kids.  I have always been, in youthful parlance, "TMI" (too much information).  Besides, there's nothing original about most recipes as one of my teachers at the French Pastry School always insisted.  It's all in the execution.

It was in that spirit that I agreed to the request by Working Class Foodies to be filmed making my favorite confection - French nougat. 

Getting this recipe right was not so simple. When I prepared it for my candymaking exam in pastry school, it was so brittle, morsels went flying across the room the minute I cut it.  My table partner told me to stick it in the microwave to soften it up, which helped me cut enough to turn in on the exam. But there was no fooling these chefs.  By the time it cooled for the chef to grade, it was as hard as it had been before. 

The moral of the story - go easy!  Don't overbeat this.  Three minutes is three minutes.  

Most of all, be inventive. Tradition is so comforting that it was at first hard for me to toss in the 50 grams of dried Michigan cherries from my friend Pete Klein, who owns Seedling Fruit.  But once I re-grouped - and contemplated the possibility of selling nougat at Chicago's Green City Market - I eventually dispensed with the traditional toasted almonds and pistachios altogether.  It didn't hurt that I had been munching on the Tennessee pecans of my market "neighbor" Tracy Vowell from Three Sisters Garden.  It should be obvious, given the amount of honey, that a good honey is absolutely essential.

Let me know what you come up with. I'd love to add it to this entry.
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December 16, 2009
Finally - Locavore Candy at the Farmers Market

Farmers markets with strict local and sustainable ingredient rules can be tough on even the most ardent of locavore confectioners. Chocolate is verboten and local nut options are extremely limited, especially if you're in the Midwest. What does a French-inspired chocolatier make for a tightly-regulated farmers market such as Chicago's Green City Market without chocolate, hazelnuts, and almonds? I stumbled on the answer trying to source ingredients for pate de fruit, a simple yet subtle confection I had fallen in love with in France. Eaten on their own as a candy or as an accompaniment to cheese, these little sugar encrusted fruit treats with a name that has no good translation, come in every imaginable flavor from raspberry to mirabelle plum to date. Whether they are the confection of French royalty, as history books suggest, or simply high-class "Chuckles" as one of my customers has called them, they are as common in a French chocolate shop as croissants in a boulangerie. But they haven't yet enjoyed the same level of name recognition in the United States as, say, the macaron. That's too bad because they not only make jewel-like holiday gifts, but they highlight the best of local fruit.
Pate de Fruit- HPost.JPG
I learned this during a recent trip to France when I was offered a box by a leading pastry chef - one recently selected as one of the ten most influential in the field today. He is a so-called "MOF," a recipient of the "Best Pastry Chefs in France" award that is the subject of a recently-released DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus film, Kings of Pastry, that I helped produce. After two years of following these masters of their craft for the film, I readily concede virtually the entire category of chocolate, and I was ready to throw in the towel on pate de fruit as well. But something told me to wait until I tasted, and when I did, Julia Child's old injunction about cooking with bad wine, came roaring back. When I tasted these treats, something essential seemed to be missing - the sparkle of fresh fruit. As a student in pastry school, we learned to make pate de fruit with commercial frozen fruit purees. That's how they're generally made in France. Fortunately for my quest to find "locavore" confections that would feature local ingredients and pass the Green City Market's strict rules about local sources, these purees were not a realistic option. The big suppliers - Boiron, Ravi Fruit, and Cap Fruit - are all based in Europe, so they were out of the question as local sources. Besides, they remain relatively inaccessible to the small producers and the culinary enthusiast. Even web sites like Lepicerie.com require rather large quantity purchases since they are sold and shipped frozen. So as I was preparing to launch my confections business and searching for ways to get a foothold in the Green City Market, I decided to do some experimenting and spent the better part of the summer and fall pureeing my own fruit from local farms in southern Michigan. The results - a confection that is not only more economical but more flavorful across the board. Apple Pate de Fruit Recipe For the apple puree: 8 apples peeled and quartered 1 good quality vanilla bean 500 grams apple puree 500 grams sugar or evaporated cane juice 12.5 grams pectin (preferably yellow) 100 grams corn syrup or glucose 7.5 grams of tartaric acid or lemon juice 1. Make the puree by placing apples in a large saucepan with a small amount of water to prevent them for scorching. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the pot. Steam apples until the apples are soft and can be pureed easily. 2. Lightly oil an 8 by 8 square baking pan with an unflavored oil like grape seed oil. 3. Mix 50 grams of the sugar with the pectin, making sure no clumps of pectin remain. 4. Heat 500 grams of the apple puree in a 5 quart saucepan until it reaches 40 degrees Celsius. 5. Add the pectin and sugar mixture, stirring with a wire whisk to make sure it is well dissolved. 6. Add the remaining sugar and the glucose and continue to stir vigorously. 7. Continue stirring until the mixture reaches 106 Celsius. The mixture will begin to pull away from the sides of the pot and you will be able to see the bottom of the pot briefly when the whisk traces a line across it. 8. At 106 Celsius pour the mixture into the baking dish and let it cool. 9. When the mixture is completely set, spread some granulated sugar on it to make it easier to handle. Cut around the edges to release the fruit paste in a single piece from the pan. The bottom will be tacky, so spread some additional sugar on it. 10. Cut into 1 inch squares and dust all edges of each square with additional sugar.
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October 28, 2009
For Chocolates, I'll Still Take France

Not long ago The Daily Candy wrote a piece about my chocolates entitled "Forget Paris." Having spent two years on a film, "Kings of Pastry," for which I was treated to (or endured, depending on your stamina) the confections of French chocolatiers with the coveted title of "Best Craftsmen in France" (or "MOF" to the French), I was naturally flattered. But, I was skeptical, even if I, myself, had spent the better part of the summer trying to write about home-grown, "stay-cation" sweets -- those that matched the quality of French chocolates without the airfare. Now that I am turning out my own hand-made artisan chocolates daily rather than observing others, I wondered if my decision to attend the recent Salon du Chocolat in Paris would confirm the idea that we can really "forget Paris." After all, even some of the legendary chefs of France, such as Paul Bocuse, have been trying to prove that America has finally arrived as a culinary force. With New York's own Chocolate Show coming up soon -- same organizers, different vendors -- I am compelled to report that for confections, France is still "vaut le voyage," or worth the trip to borrow the language of the Michelin Guide. Unlike its New York sister, whose exhibitors are more a mixture of "rustic" confectioners, chocolate bar makers, and industrial fabricators like Leonides and Baci, the annual chocolate salon in Paris is a veritable "who's who" of France's leading artisan chocolatiers.
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To be sure, the assembly of MOFs, recognizable by their blue, white and red collars, is a function, at least in part, of the concurrent "World Chocolate Masters" competition held during the Salon. Visitors at the recently concluded Salon could sample the fine confections of the everyone from the eminences grises of the craft like Jacques Bellanger, who earned the MOF title nearly three decades ago, and Jean-Paul Hevin, awarded the title three years after Bellanger, to younger MOFs like Franck Kestener from the Lorraine region and Parisian Arnaud Larher, awarded the title by Nicolas Sarkozy in the most recent competition.
The show offered the occasional item the French head of my pastry school used to call "food strange" -- cigar ganache from Swedish chocolatiers Malarchocolaterie has replaced the now more pedestrian bacon truffle of the American Vosges chocolate makers. The new Japanese force on the Paris chocolate scene, Sadaharu Aoki, showcased his make-up line, pinky-length ganache resembling a department store lipstick palette. And chocolate lovers who are satisfied with a simple square of chocolate had a dizzying array of tablettes or bars to choose from -- everything from the sublime "Atlantique" of Kestener, with 66 percent cacao from Venezuela, to the single-origin chocolates of Francois Pralus, selected this year by Gault Millau as the Best Chocolatier in Paris. But for the most part, the Salon was a study in finesse -- the tenderness of ganache, the subtlety of the flavor infusions, and the delicacy of the layering. Even the simplest items betrayed a technical mastery that we still rarely see in American-made chocolates. Take, for example, Kestener's Atlantique, on the surface just a chocolate bar. Hiding within, however, was a layering of chocolate, paper thin butter cookie, caramel, and fleur de sel. Learning to create layers of texture and flavor this fine takes years, according to my friend Franck Fresson, a MOF pastry chef and chocolatier from Metz. Where are these so-called sorcerers of chocolate when the New York Chocolate show rolls around? Many pack up their wares to go half-way around the world to the Tokyo Salon du Chocolat, but as a display of pure talent, the New York Chocolate show still trails far behind. I have been searching for some evidence to shatter my timeless rationale -- the unrivalled quality of the sweets -- for travelling to France. But the recent Salon du Chocolat, with its dazzling display of chocolate virtuosity, did little to confirm that we can yet "forget Paris."

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July 29, 2009
4 Big Myths About Jam Making

Farmers markets around the country are screaming with color right now and magazines are full of recipes for preserving.  But many habitues of these markets demur at the prospect of making their own fruit preserves.  It may be the 10-quart pot of boiling water or the terrifying images of spoilage indelibly imprinted by home economics teachers that leave serious cooks and local food proponents content to try elk and goat but too timid to try jam-making.

If professional training in French pastry-making taught me one thing beyond candy-making, it certainly de-mystified and simplified preserving.  Market devotees deserve to know they've been unnecessarily intimidated.  The techniques I learned from pastry chef Christine Ferber, France's queen of confitures, and from my chefs at the French Pastry School, have almost nothing in common but fruit and sugar with what I had learned in the past.  These guys have had some pretty sensitive jobs -- like working for the French president and the Sultan of Brunei -- so I am confident that this is not casual advice.  In this time of seasonal bounty, it seems unfair not to share what I learned and debunk a few myths.

Myth 1: Jam Jars Must be Sterilized in a Water Bath Before Filling 

Most cookbooks will tell you to wash your jam jars in soapy water and then submerge them in a large pot of boiling water for about 15 minutes to sterilize them.  Get rid of the pot!  There's no need to cap a glorious day at the market with a steamy day in the kitchen. 

Clean jars can be effectively sterilized by placing them on a clean cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes.  That's enough time to kill bacteria and provide a sanitary receptacle for your fruit jam.

Myth 2: Leave Some "Headroom" in Filled Jars

Jars should be filled to within an 1/8 of an inch of the top, according to most recipes.  Think about it.  This makes no sense at all!   Fill the jars as full as you can.  That's what Ferber, who turns out over a million dollars of hand-filled jars a year, does in her small Alsatian kitchen.

Less space will leave less room for funky things to grow. You just need to make sure the outer rim of the jar is clean so that the lid will seal tightly.  As soon as you fill the jar, seal it.  Don't leave a jar open while you fill others and then seal them all together at the end.

Myth 3: Cutting the Sugar Won't Affect a Recipe

Maybe, but sugar helps preserve fruit.  Reduce the sugar, but know that you may also be cutting the preserving power.  As a guide, consider that in France, by law, preserves need to consist of roughly 60 percent solids after cooking. 

Myth 4: Jars Need to be Re-boiled Once Sealed

If standing over a large hot pot to sterilize empty jars is not enough of a nuisance, conventional wisdom says you also need to boil the filled jars to create a tight seal.  Not true!  All you need to do is turn the filled jars, while they are still hot, upside down on a wire rack or sheetpan.  Then let them cool completely.

When you turn them right-side-up, check the vacuum by giving a gentle push with your thumb in the center of the lid. If you have sealed the jars properly, you will not be able to depress the lid further as you will have already created a vacuum.  However, if you have not sealed the jars well, you will hear a slight click and feel a slight depression.   You can still forget about the terrifying lessons of your home economics teacher, but I'd stick the preserves in the fridge.  Once any preserves are opened, even those that have been sealed properly, they always belong in the refrigerator.

  Colored Jars on Speed Rack.jpg

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June 18, 2009
All Roads Lead to Lenotre

I always wanted to be a French pastry chef, long before I went to the French Pastry School of Chicago at age 50 to become a professional confectionery and pastry chef.  As a teenager, I taught myself to bake with the aid of a single orange book by a French pastry chef who seemed obscure to me at the time.   Little did I know until many years later, that I was just one of generations in France, Japan, and the United States -- indeed around the globe -- who fell madly in love with pastry through the inspiration of the book's author, the "God of Desserts," as Washington chef Michel Richard referred to Gaston Lenotre.

Since one of my great pastry heros, Jacquy Pfeiffer, the co-founder of the French Pastry School, famously tells aspiring pastry chefs that there is no such thing as inventions in French pastry, I thought it would be worth launching this blog with a few words instead on inspirations.  Everything to come in this blog is intended to offer inspirations - visual and literary - from my own heroes who, apart from the precious few who have made their way into Parisian travel guides, still too often labor in relative obscurity in restaurants or in their own shops in "second cities" like Metz. (Stay tuned for a word on my friend Franck Fresson in Metz.  His shop in the center of the old town is, as the Michelin Guide would say, "vaut le voyage" or worth the trip.) 

But the story has to start with Lenotre, who died earlier this year after a long and influential career.   His contribution to the style, flavor, and production of modern pastry can hardly be overestimated, even if he is not quite the household name in the United States that he is in France.  Creator of now-commonplace products such as multi-layer cakes with mousse and macarons, Lenotre is widely considered to be the greatest pastry chef of the twentieth century.  An artist as well as an astute businessman, Lenotre revolutionized French pastry in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and along with three-star luminaries Paul Bocuse, Michel Guerard, and the Troisgros brothers, helped found the "nouvelle cuisine." 

Few aspiring French pastry chefs in the 1970s would turn down an opportunity to work in the Lenotre pastry empire, which now includes shops in Paris, Japan, Korea, and the Middle East.  If their parents could afford it, young French patissiers from family pastry shops across the country would be sent to Lenotre's school outside Paris for professional "perfectionnement," California pastry chef and cookbook author Alice Medrich recalls.  

Americans in the know followed close behind.  Lenotre was New York restaurateur David Bouley's first link to French cuisine, teaching him for a solid week how to whip egg whites so they would not break.  A good baguette, Lenotre told Bouley, who went on to work with many of the legendary French chefs of the 70s and 80s, is "caramel on the outside and meringue on the inside."

Medrich who did two "stages" at the fabled Lenotre Schoosl outside Paris said she could "see the hand of Lenotre" in small pastry shops throughout France. Lenotre had a rigor, "a way to work, a way to think, and a way to handle ingredients," Medrich said. The lessons she learned there were like "time release capsules" providing her with solutions to problems she didn't realize existed until much later in her professional life, she said.

Countless culinary professionals in France, especially, trace there style and technique to Lenotre -- or Monsieur Lenotre as he was always known because, endearing as he was, he inspired so much awe that no one, rich or poor, weak or mighty, would ever want to call him anything else, Sebastien Canonne, the other co-founder of Chicago's French Pastry School said.  Lenotre's shop and his school are legendary for producing a higher concentration of so-called "Meilleurs Ouvriers de France" (Best Artisans in France) than practically any place else in the country. 

Two of the five 2007 laureates in the tri-annual "MOF" competition, which is akin to winning a Pulitzer Prize or a Kennedy Center Award, had worked for Lenotre.   And of the Lenotre School's current staff of 12 chef-instructors, 8 have the privilege of donning the special "bleu, blanc, rouge"  collar of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France.

But talk to any of these accomplished patissiers -- and I have talked to dozens in the last year and a half for a film and book on the "MOF" - and you will see that what Gaston Lenotre did reached well beyond reformulating recipes, renewing respect for the best ingredients, raising training standards for the profession, or expanding the appetite for fine pastry beyond France.  Even as he built an international global pastry empire that was worth hundreds of millions of dollars when it was sold in the 1980s to the Accor Group, Lenotre breathed fire into generations of young pastry chefs up to the present. 

Michel Richard, who currently owns the much-praised Citronelle Restaurant in Washington, said he was ready to abandon the profession before meeting Lenotre, whom he encountered almost by chance in the late 1960s after admiring a cake that a friend had purchased from Lenotre's flagship shop in Paris' upscale 16th Arrondissement.   Inspired by the then-unheard of possibility that a pastry chef could emerge from the kitchen and travel the world, Richard jumped at the opportunity to work at Lenotre.

Over a decade later, Lenotre plucked Canonne, one of the five pastry "MOF"s working in the U.S., from a promising career in cooking and convinced him to join the maiden class of pastry apprentices at Lenotre's Plaisir facility. "He could look in my eyes and understand how much I wanted to learn pastry," said Canonne, who had bunked down with friends and family in Paris just for the opportunity to work for several months at Lenotre's Pre Catalan restaurant, now three stars.

Most of all he showed the profession the value of generosity.  Sometimes this generosity led his colleagues to question his business judgment.   When Lenotre first opened his school in the early 1970s, many in the field questioned the wisdom of sharing recipes and techniques that might fall into the hands of competitors.  Even with lowly stagiares, Lenotre made sure everyone saw they were number one when he was talking with them, Canonne said.  "He had the ability to build armies and do right," he said. 

By the time I entered the profession, almost exactly three decades after purchasing Lenotre's first recipe book, I had built quite a collection of pastry books so his hold on my imagination had loosened a bit.  But in an ironic twist of fate, Monsieur Lenotre re-entered my life the very minute I set foot in the French Pastry School and met Canonne.   And in a turn of events worthy of Willy Wonka, I found myself in Monsieur Lenotre's living room shortly after I graduated from the school. 

Pushing 90 and ailing, Lenotre had agreed to talk to me and my friends Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker for the MOF  film. The interview would be brief, we promised his solicitous wife in advance.  But after taking us to dinner in a local bistro, Monsieur Lenotre insisted that our team stay for the evening at his Loire Valley "manoir" and eat his famous "Kugelhopf Lenotre" before beating a path back to Paris.

I had not been in the kitchen for several months when I returned to the US after shooting the film.  And although I always return with a stack of new recipes books, the first place I went this time was to the well-worn orange book to make the Kugelhopf that Monsieur Lenotre had served that Sunday. It, like Monsieur Lenotre, was stunningly current.
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