Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Paris Trip 2012 - Sweet Treats

I recently visited Paris with my mom and sister (Sis and I had been there before, but not Mom, who was taking the trip of a lifetime to see Impressionist Art). Here is what much of our visit looked like:

For those of you unaware, Paris is in many ways a giant open-air museum that attracts travelers from far corners of the globe, all of whom seemed to descend upon it at the same time as we did. We stood in line pretty much everywhere: 30 minutes for the Louvre, 45 minutes for Versailles, 1 hour (in the rain) for the Musee d'Orsay, 2 hours for the Eiffel Tower, lines for food, lines for transportation, lines to pee. I went to brush my teeth one morning in our hotel bathroom and had to wait for a man from Brunei to finish trimming his nose hair (or that could have been my sister - it was early). Anyway, Paris also happens to be one of the world's great food cities and, although I didn't get to experience as much local cuisine as I'd hoped (Mom has a lot of dietary restrictions and Sis is, well, somewhat choosy about what she'll eat), I still managed to do a fair amount of damage for a 5-day trip. Unlike many of my trip postings (which are broken up chronologically), I decided to organize this one a little differently, namely by category. This particular posting will focus on the many sweet treats I encountered across the pond.

Allow me to introduce you to the humble macaron (many of which are pictured above), which is a confection found throughout France resembling flying saucers or the round connecting pieces in a Tinkertoy set. Each macaron consists of two pieces of meringue-like cookie with a frosting sandwiched in-between - almost every chocolatier and patissier in Paris seemed to have their own version offered in a multitude of colors and flavors (even McDonald's has them. And no, I didn't try theirs). I didn't eat a ton, but my personal favorites came from a very unique shop near the Luxembourg Gardens run by Japanese pastry chef Sadaharu Aoki, who fuses Japanese ingredients with French techniques. I tried his yuzu (Japanese citrus), houjicha (roasted green tea), and genmaicha (traditional green tea with roasted brown rice) macarons, all of which were delicious.

After the macarons, I decided I needed to bring home a few goodies for Mrs. Hackknife. The Japanese clerk in the shop (who spoke no English) was very helpful and tolerant of my mangled French, steering me towards a package of off-spec bonbons (examples of which can be seen in the little brochure above), some chocolate-covered macarons, and some dark chocolate cubes filled with a delicate sesame paste, sold like sushi in a gold bento box (complete with mini-chopsticks). I'm already fantasizing about my return visit to M. Aoki's atelier.

Just as beguiling, but more traditional French was a shop on the other side of the gardens operated by French pastry chef Franck Kestener, whose website touts him as some sort of Grand Champion in the world of the chocolate arts (now that's a title I can respect). His wares included some interesting macarons (like banana) and a specialty bar called "Atlantique" (featuring 66% dark chocolate covering shortbread and salted caramel), singled out by no less an authority than American pastry chef/author David Lebovitz, who blogs about the quirks of living in Paris (there's also a great review of it in this chocolate blog here, featuring a photo of the very same item that I'm currently holding in my dirty little hands) (ummm...ok, it's gone now and it was fabulous, a sweet, gooey, crunchy mess. The missus and I completely decimated the thing in about a minute).

Chocolate stores seem to be ubiquitous in Paris, found somewhere on almost every street. My guide for an afternoon, Monsieur Girard (a greeter in Paris just like me in Chicago), showed me several of them scattered throughout his neighborhood in the 10th Arrondissement (like this one, for example):

Although I was tempted to stuff my pockets full of goodies at every opportunity, I managed to restrain myself to buying only a single set of two creme brulee-type pastries from M. Girard's favorite bakery (located conveniently on the first floor of his apartment building). Which brings me to another point - good pastries are everywhere, too. During a long afternoon of sightseeing, we ducked into a random cafe on the Place de la Madeleine so Mom could sit for a spell. Next to our table was a silver tray on which rested some rather pretty objects:

The rich and buttery tartes tatin (pastry topped with caramelized apples) can be seen at the far back of the tray, one of which the three of us made disappear in quick order. Oh, I also might have consumed the house's last mille-feuille (three layers of puff pastry interspersed with two layers of custard) just before the tray picture was taken, its delectable appearance lost to the mists of time. There's really nothing better to recharge your batteries than a couple of decadent pastries washed down with a glass of pink wine (we desperately need some of this cafe culture back in the States).

Not all of the sweets were uppity. Just across the street from our hotel in the St. Michel district was what appeared to be a Tunisian pastry shop:

You probably know that I'm a sucker for anything that we're unlikely to find in Chicagoland, like Tunisian pastries (France has a close relationship with North African countries, being an ex-colonizer and all; hence, the occasional presence of African food). I picked out four different types of sweets, trying to avoid the ones obviously resembling baklava (we can get that at home, of course), and dragged them upstairs to share with my roommates.

I did ask the store's proprietor exactly what I was buying; however, the names didn't translate well and his English wasn't so good, so all I'm left with is descriptions. The one in the upper left of the box contained coconut and pistachios, almost like a little layer cake (maybe a type of baklava?). Below that was a crunchy sugar cookie in the shape of an enlarged Hershey's kiss (Mom liked these so much she went back to buy more the next day). The upper right pastry was like a honey doughnut, only heavier (and almost too sweet). My personal favorite was the last, a dense, moist cake tasting of sweetened rice and nearly dripping with honey, crowned with a single almond. I'm sure the amount of calories involved with this treat could have fueled an entire rowing team, but it was just me and it was damn good.

I think that pretty much covers the dessert portion of our tale. My next posting will feature nosh that's a bit more substantial...

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