Sunday, 11 May 2014


As a child who hated sport, born into a family of sport lovers, having my birthday in the opening days of July was pure torture. If my birthday was at the weekend, it fell on the same day as either the women’s or men’s tennis final at Wimbledon. While other children would have spent the afternoon being sung ‘Happy Birthday’ and eating cake, I was constantly told to be quiet or asked to go and play with my toys in the other room. And every four years, there would be a couple of World Cup football matches thrown in like the bonus ball.

Ironically, it was a tradition associated with Wimbledon that was the one shining light for me: the tradition of strawberries and cream. Late June, early July is the season for English strawberries, plucked fresh from the Kentish garden of England and, in my opinion, the sweetest, most fragrant strawberries on the planet. These would be served on my birthday weekend, either with an oozing blanket of double cream, or more deliciously, with an oblong of Wall’s dairy ice-cream—vanilla flavor—which looked like a golden stick of butter melting into a frosty crème anglaise.

My love of strawberries has remained with me all my life, and even though they are available earlier in the countries where I have lived as an adult, I often wait for my birthday to eat the first strawberries of the year. So when I moved to Paris, and started to frequent the pâtisseries, the first cake to catch my eye was the fraisier or French strawberry gateau.

Rather resembling a drum, the fraisier shouts ‘look at these lovely strawberries’ which are displayed, cut in half, all around the outside, standing to attention like the guards at Buckingham Palace (or should that be Versailles?) Held together with a white crème mousseline—crème patissière with added butter—the whole is usually topped with green marzipan and decorated with strawberries.

Cutting into the gateau you discover two thin layers of genoise cake and a centre literally packed with more strawberries. In fact, a good fraisier is really a vehicle for strawberries, the other elements being just enough to hold it into a cake shape. There is a debate as to whether you should be able to see the genoise layers or not from the outside, with the consensus being that if the genoise is hidden it looks more professional; however I have seen genoise clearly on display in some of the top pâtisseries in Paris.

I always imagined that a fraisier would taste like cake with strawberries and so was pleasantly surprised to discover it actually tastes like strawberries with a little cake, in fact, like strawberries and cream. Notwithstanding the large amount of butter, the crème mousseline tastes like fresh clotted cream, a trick performed by adding the butter in waves rather than all at once.

Late April is when the first French strawberries of the season arrive in the markets of Paris. The variety, known as la gariguette, is produced in the south, mostly in the region of Aquitaine. So as this is the current fruit of season, I decided not to wait until my birthday, but to attempt a fraisier now.

For my first fraisier, I followed the traditional recipe which can be accessed here (in French). This was the recipe used as one of the technical challenges in the last series of Le meilleur pâtissier (the Great French Bake Off). It was surprisingly easy to replicate and I was delighted with the result. I did find the addition of the marzipan a little sweet and so next time will experiment with some more original toppings. I have two months to get it right as I will definitely be enjoying a fraisier on my birthday, which happily falls midweek this year—no tennis finals—and on a rest day for the football World Cup. It seems for once that I will be the only winner that day. 

Monday, 24 February 2014

Strawberry and cardamom macarons

In France, people still can't get enough of macarons. Available in their current form since the beginning of the last century, Paris is still in the grips of a macaron craze that started around about the time of the cupcake craze in the USA.

I am pretty good at macarons even if I say so myself. I wrote a blog post about them a while ago which you can find here, but all this time I have been using the so-called French meringue method, which involves whisking egg whites with sugar as the basis for the macarons, as opposed to the seemingly more complex Italian meringue method. This involves whisking the egg whites and then adding a sugar syrup which you have heated to 118°C. The latter, method, even though more complex, is supposed to give you more reliable macaron shells with less of a tendency to crack in the oven.

Until this week, I thought I was perfectly happy with the French method, until, while making the Paris Brest from the last post, I realized that making the Italian meringue was a lot easier than it sounds. So, I started experimenting with Italian meringue macarons and haven't looked back since. Not only are they much more reliable, they have a better texture and the characteristic gooey centre that you find at Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, here in the city.

I am not going to go into details about how to make the macaron shells here since you can find that plastered all over the Internet. However, I will share the recipe for the filling for these Strawberry and Cardamom macarons which I made this week. Also, I was given a tip by a French pȃtissier which I will share with you. When filling the macaron shells, gently press the inside of one of them so that it caves in. You can then get more filling inside the macaron and the filling will help to turn the inside of the cookie all gooey. Try it. It's amazing.

Cardamom, a spice best known in Indian savory cooking, adds a delicate sophistication to the strawberry ganache in this recipe. It's quite subtle, but the overtones of honeyed eucalyptus are a perfect partner to the strawberries' sugary sourness.

Strawberry and Cardamom Macarons

Active time: 10 mins
Total time: 1 hr 10 mins

50ml / 1/4 cup heavy cream
3 cardamom pods
100g / 3 1/2 ounces white chocolate
4 large strawberries
20 macaron shells

1. Crush the cardamom pods and place them in a saucepan with the cream; bring to the boil and then leave to infuse for at least 30 minutes. Remove the cardamom pods and discard.

2. Bring the cream back to the boil; then remove from the heat, add the white chocolate and leave for 10 minutes. Then stir the chocolate until it has all combined with the cream.

3. Blitz the strawberries in a mixer and then add them to the chocolate and cream; stir until combined and then refrigerate for at least one hour.

4. Put the mixture in a piping bag and use it to fill the macarons; place in the refrigerator overight before serving.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Paris Brest

The Paris Brest is a relative newcomer in the constellation of French pȃtisserie, invented as it was in 1891 to celebrate the annual bicycle race between Paris and the town of Brest in Brittany, some 600 kilometres from the capital. As such, it is rubs shoulders with the like of the Saint Honoré and the Opéra in the club of celebration cakes.

The traditional Paris Brest is a ring of choux pastry, sliced through the middle and filled with a special cream which is a mixture of crème pȃtissiere, meringue, butter cream, and praline. The top of the cake, which symbolizes a bicycle wheel, is topped with flaked almonds and dusted with confectioner's sugar.

The recipe I followed here, in Christophe Felder's Pȃtisserie! is the traditional one, but nowadays, most shops in France carry one based on the version by Philippe Conticini, where the flaked almonds are replaced by craquelin, a kind of crispy brown sugar caramel. You'll have to wait for my custom version next week to find out all about that.

The recipe was relatively easy to follow. The complexity lies in making the different creams, which all come together in the end in an extravaganza of sweetness, not particularly suited I might say to the modern French taste, which favors a lighter amount of sweetness. I am also afraid that Felder's measurements were right out  for this one. The recipe says that it will make 20 pieces, whereas I actually managed to make 6. Also, the recipe calls for 3 eggs for the pȃte à choux. I blithely added three eggs and found the mixture far too liquid. I have a lot of experience with pȃte à choux and realized immediately that this was wrong. Therefore, I had to start again and noticed that the correct consistency was achieved with 2 eggs. Next time I will trust my usual recipe for the proportions.

The cream filling was delicious, even if, as I said, a little rich. The original idea was to provide energy for those taking part in the bicycle race. The modern taste in France has moved away from really sweet things sometimes even mixing the sweet and the savory. The almonds added a lovely crunch to the cake which balanced the fondant cream inside perfectly. You can see why this has been a winner for more than 100 years. 

Monday, 10 February 2014

Tarte au citron et gingembre meringuée

The task this week was to take the classic tarte au citron that I made last week and update it into something original. Following the rules I set myself from the interview with Philippe Conticini that I blogged about, I had to include all the original ingredients but to put my own slant on it.

So, the classic tarte au citron has two main elements: pȃte sucrée (sweet pastry), and the lemon curd filling. For the pastry, the classic recipe contained ground almonds. For a twist, I substituted ground pistachios, a packet of which had been sitting in my cupboard saying 'use me, use me' for a few months. I then decided to add fresh ginger to the lemon curd. Ginger and lemon are a classic combination and this added a slightly spicy kick to the curd which was very welcome: add a kick to the curd will now be my motto.

Finally, I wanted to do something contemporary with the presentation, influenced by two of my patisserie idols, Christophe Michalak and Cyril Lignac. I therefore added a french meringue topping, a common combination with tarte au citron, but which I piped into little balls on the top of the tarte and finally grated lime zest a common Michalak touch, which looked like a rain of emeralds.

Here is how it turned out, and the recipe is below. If you end up making it, send me pics. I'd love to see them.

For the pȃte sucrée:
120g / 1/2 cup butter
80g / 2/3 cup icing sugar
1 sachet of vanilla sugar
25g / 1/4 cup powdered pistachios
a pinch of fleur de sel
1 egg
200g / 1 1/2 cups flour

For the filling:
1 lemon zest
1 5cm / 2-inch piece of ginger cut into matchsticks
120ml / 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
3 eggs
120g / 1/2 cup caster sugar
175g / 3/4 cup butter cut into cubes

For the meringue:
3 egg whites
100g / 1/3 cup caster sugar

Make the pȃte sucrée:
1. Soften the butter with a spatula in a bowl; sift the icing sugar, vanilla sugar, and powdered pistachios. and mix with the until fully combined.  The mixture should be fluffy.

2. Beat in the egg; sift in the flour and gently stir with the spatula; as soon as the flour is combined, bring the mixture together with your hands into a ball. Do not knead or work the dough.

3. Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic film and refrigerate for at least two hours.

3. Heat the oven to 180°C / 350°F.

4. Roll the dough out until it's about 2-3mm thick and then place it into a 20cm / 8-inch buttered pȃtisserie ring, placed on a piece of baking paper on a baking sheet; prick the base of the with a fork and then bake for 20 minutes. Alternatively you can use a 20cm / 8-inch tin.

5. Leave to cool completely.

Make the filling:
5. Place the lemon zest, ginger, lemon juice, eggs, and sugar in a saucepan and stir to mix all the ingredients together; stirring all the time, bring gently to the boil.

6. Pass the mixture through a sieve and then add the butter; mix together with a hand blender until you have a smooth mixture.

7. Pour the mixture into the pastry case and smooth over the top with a spatula; place in the refrigerator for an hour.

Make the meringue:
8. Whisk the eggs whites using a stand mixer until stiff peaks form; add the sugar and beat on high speed until the mixture is glossy, about 5 minutes.

9. Using a piping bag cover the top of the tart with balls of meringue; place under a grill until the top of the meringue begins to turn a light brown.

10. Grate the zest of a lime and some fresh ginger on the top of the tart.