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.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Tarte au citron

Following on from my last blog post, this weekend I decided to learn how to make tarte au citron, a luscious lemon tart using the recipe from Christophe Felder's Pȃtisserie. The classic tarte au citron, consists of a wafer thin sweet pastry case, filled with a mouth-puckering lemon cream, the contrast between the sweet and sharp making a refreshing ending to any meal. This recipe included a garnish of lemon slices braised in syrup and an apricot jelly glaze.

Felder's instructions for the sweet pastry, or pȃte sucrée were very clear and easy to follow. His only advice was to not mix the pastry too much, so as soon as it came together, I scooped it up with my hands, made it into a ball, wrapped it in plastic film, and put it in the fridge. It needs to chill for a minimum of two hours before it is firm enough to roll. As I was wrapping it, I was delighted to see small black flecks, the grains from a vanilla pod, distributed evenly throughout the dough. Unfortunately this is where my pleasure ended since I was about to discover that pȃte sucrée is very hard to handle.

The main problem is that it's very sticky and also very weak. It's prone to adhere to the work surface, unless you are lucky enough to have a chilled marble pȃtisserie worktop—I'm not—and it also breaks easily when you are placing it in the mould. As per the recipe, I was using a traditional French pȃtisserie ring, harder to line than a tin but the best way to avoid so-called soggy bottoms to your pastry cases. The base of the pastry touches the baking tray directly and so there's less chance of condensation building up underneath as it cools. It's also quite hard to get a perfect edge on the top of the pastry unless your ring is perfectly buttered. If it is, the advantage is that the pastry will shrink slightly and you can just lift the ring off. I will confess that I baked three pastry cases before I was happy with the result, which still was not perfect. There were some small imperfections in the sides which I think were caused by over-buttering the ring.  I feel I still need to practise.

The two other main steps were more straightforward. The lemon filling, made by whisking lemon juice, sugar, and eggs into a cream and then melting butter into it, was very similar to making a lemon curd. Then you had to the boil slices of lemon in sugar syrup which would eventually act as a garnish. By the time I had placed the lemon cream into the cooled pastry case I was feeling much better as it had begun to look just like the one in the pictures in the book. Always a rewarding experience.

After chilling the assembled tart in the fridge for one hour, I was ready to place the slices of lemon on the tart and then glaze it with melted apricot jam. The recipe called for a mixture of apricot and quince, but I couldn't find the latter without visiting a speciality shop in the centre of the city. I will try it next time and report if it makes a huge difference. I also need to find apricot jam without pieces in it, as I was a little disappointed that I managed to paint some pieces onto the tart. You'll see those in the pictures. However, it added a beautiful glossy lacquer to both the pastry and the filling which sparkled in the light.

The finished tart garnished and glazed. 

Then came the moment of truth. Felder says to keep the tart in the fridge until it's ready to serve. I did this and tried the first piece the evening of cooking it. The pastry was still very crisp and broke a little while I was cutting it, but the taste was divine. The perfect balance of citrus and melt in the mouth cream. Leaving it overnight in the fridge made the pastry soften to the perfect consistency and the flavours really infuse into the cream. I would recommend leaving it overnight before serving next time. My last tarte au citron had been in a bistro on the Rue du Bac a couple of weeks ago, and I would have been more than happy if they had served me this one.

My next step now is to rethink this into something original, retaining, as per Philippe Conticini's rules, all the original elements. I already have some ideas, but let's see how it goes. Come back next week to find out. 

Friday, 31 January 2014

An interesting perspective

Since I started this blog, I have learnt so much about pȃtisserie. The weekly challenges have lead me to research how many classical recipes have been made and to learn the basic techniques, and it's been a whole load of fun sharing them with you here. However, this week, I read an interview in a French magazine that has seriously altered my outlook about how I go about this.

The interview in question was one with Philippe Conticini, whose Pȃtisserie des Rêves in the Rue du Bac, I have visited a couple of times. Conticini is perhaps the most revered and admired pȃtissier in France today and his influence is widely felt. He was the first person, back in the 1990s to serve a dessert in a drinking glass, a practice so common in France today that they sell special glasses just for this; his reinvention of the Paris-Brest, a choux bun in the shape of a bicycle wheel filled with cream, has now become the standard version of the cake and has been copied by all the top pȃtissiers in the country. I could go on, but basically, Conticini is the closest thing that France has to a pastry god, and he's only fifty. 

Pȃtisserie des Rêves, 93 Rue du Bac, Paris

In the interview he talks about how he approaches recipe development: 'I have a golden rule when I revisit a traditional French pastry: I have to include absolutely all the principal ingredients of the original recipe ... I immerse myself completely in the original recipe until I understand all the steps involved in making it. Once I have grasped and analyzed the method, I finally begin to work on my own way of doing things.'

It has become clear to me that this is what I need to do. I need to perfect the traditional recipes first and then I can start to add my own ideas and flair, taking the work of my favorite pȃtissiers  like Christophe Michalak for inspiration. 

For Christmas, I received a copy of the amazing Patisserie! by Christophe Felder, which is like a textbook of the classic french pȃtisserie techniques. I am going to work my way through the recipes in that, and blog about them, and then start to create my own versions and post the recipes. A slightly new twist, a little way into the New Year, but then today is the first day of the Chinese Year of the Horse. 

This weekend, I am going to make a traditional tarte au citron from page 38 of Felder's book, which features pȃte sucrée, one of the basic pastries. Then later in the week, I will create my own version and post the recipe.  So watch this space for both of them and enjoy the photos to come. 

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Challenge of the Week #5

Like most French patisserie the true origin of the small cakes known as madeleines is lost in the mists of time. However, also like most French patisserie, there is creation myth, in fact two. It’s generally agreed that they were named after a cook called Madeleine Paulmier, but one version has her living in the 19th century and the other has her working in the 18th century, for Stanisław Leszczyński, ex-King of Poland, Duke of Lorraine, and father-in-law to King Louis XV.  Leszczyński subsequently introduced them to the court at Versailles ensuring their entrance into the canon of French cuisine. 

The second story rings true, because the town of Commercy, within the Duchy of Lorraine, claims them as their own a claim supported by the early 20th century writer Marcel Proust who mentions them in his classic À la recherche du temps perdu. ‘Mentions’ in fact is an understatement, since Proust devotes no less than 1,043 words singing the praises of this little cake, which he finds a most sensual experience.

As Proust puts it, the cakes are baked in a special tin that makes them look as if they were ‘molded in a fluted scallop shell’. The top of the madeleine is supposed to rise dramatically in the middle which Proust describes as ‘richly sensual under the severe and pious pleating’. If you look the photographs, I think you can see what this typically French man was thinking about. One side is like a ridge bishop’s mitre, while the other has a baby bump.

The baby bump is formed by creating a ‘thermal shock’ achieved by cooking the cakes in a very hot oven and then lowering the temperature for the rest of the cooking. The cooking time is very short, which combined with a process of resting the batter, contributes to a very light but moist cake which can actually be heard to sigh when you bite into it. You, see, I am turning into Proust.

To make madeleines properly you need a special mold, which is available all over France, quelle surprise, but also widely available elsewhere. Here is a link to, for example, You can flavor the madeleine with vanilla, orange water, or as is traditional lemon zest. Whatever you choose the flavor should be subtle and delicate just suggested in the background to the, sumptuous, elegant sponge.

The recipe below is a classic one, but in future weeks I plan to revisit the madeleine perhaps taking it to some very surprising places. But for now, sit back and enjoy the taste and perhaps compare it to Proust’s experience.


Active time: 20 mins
Total time: 1 hr

1 lemon
90g / 6 tbsp butter
3 eggs
110g / 4oz flour
100g / 1/2 cup caster sugar
1 tsp baking powder

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C / 425°F.
2. Melt the butter in a saucepan and let it cool for about five minutes.
3. Remove the zest of the lemon using a potato peeler; chop into small pieces using a sharp knife.
4. Beat the eggs and sugar together in a bowl with a whisk The mixture should thicken slightly and be very frothy.
5. Add the flour and baking powder and mix with the whisk until incorporated. Then add the butter and the lemon zests. The result will be a batter which falls off the whisk in ribbons.
6. Leave the batter to rest for 30 minutes. During this time you can grease the molds with butter.
7. Using a piping bag, half fill the molds with the batter. Then bake for 4 minutes. Lower the oven to 200°C / 400°F and bake for a further 8 minutes.
8. Leave the madeleines to cool a little before removing them from the molds.

The top side of the madeleines showing the 'baby bump'.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Post holiday vacation

As you will have noticed, I have taken a few days off after all that Christmas baking but will be back later this week with new recipes from Paris. Happy New Year!

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Challenge of the Week #4

The challenge: The classic post Christmas cake the galette des rois

On 26 December, through the magic of Christmas, the bûches de Noël disappear from the pȃtisseries of Paris, and in their place appear flat discs of puff pastry, destined to be eaten on the Feast of the Epiphany or the Fȇte des Rois, celebrated on the Sunday closest to January 6. They tend to come in three varieties, some with plain tops, some with simple geometric designs, and others with elaborate patterns of laurel leaves, rather like the gold, frankincense and myrrh offered to the baby Jesus by the three Kings. 

Biting into the cripsy exterior, your mouth fills with a sweet almond frangipane as flakes of pastry fall like needles from the Christmas tree to cover the floor. But let the eater beware, for one lucky person will have, concealed in their slice the fève, orignally, as the name suggests, a bean, but now more commonly a ceramic figure from the Christmas story. Tradition dictates that the youngest person present must sit under the dining table while the galette is cut and chooses the order in which the slices will be distributed. On finding the fève you have the honor of being crowned King for the day, with a cardboard crown supplied with the galette

A selection of traditional fèves

In keeping with the commercialization of Christmas, you will often see galettes sold in the supermarket with fèves in the shape of cartoon characters, or whichever children's film is popular that year. This year, for example, my local supermarket was touting the rather bizarre concept of galettes concealing Bilbo Baggins. 

The recipe for the galette des rois is quite simple in itself, but it calls for pȃte feuilletée, which as you will remember from my last post, is anything but simple. If making the recipe below, you can either make your own, or do as many French people do nowadays, and buy it ready made from the shop. 

Here is a link to a round of up of the galettes des rois created this year by the top pȃtissieres here in Paris. 

La galette des rois

Active time: 20 mins
Total time: 1 hr

500g pȃte feuilletée (puff pastry)

For the frangipane:
125g / 4 tbsp butter
125g / 5/8 cup sugar
125g / 1 cup powdered almonds
2 whole eggs
1 tsp almond essence

For the glaze:1 whole egg, beaten

1. Make the puff pastry, if you are starting from scratch, and give it four turns only. 

2. Make the frangipane. Beat the butter and sugar together using a whisk or an electric mixer. Add the powdered almonds and mix well. Then beat in the eggs and the almond essence. 

3. Roll and cut out two large discs of the pȃte feuilletée (approximately 8 inches each). Put the frangipane into a piping bag and then, leaving about an inch  at the edge, pipe a spiral into the center of one of the discs. Take the fève and push it into the frangipane in a random place. 

4. Using a pastry brush, wet the exposed edge of the pastry with water. Then cover the whole with the second disk and press down to stick the edges of the disks together. Brush the whole of the surface with beaten egg and leave in the fridge for approximately 30 minutes. 

5. Preheat the oven to 200°C / 390°F Brush the surface with a second layer of egg and then make a small hole in the centre with a knife. Score a pattern on the top with a sharp knife, being careful not to cut through the pastry. 

6. Place in the oven and bake for 40 minutes and then a further 10 minutes with the oven door open. Bon appetit!

I decided on a star design for my galette in keeping with the Epiphany story.