Tarte au Citron: A Perfect Tang

The perfect tang.
The perfect tang.

I have put off writing for some time, in part due to a recent development in my living arrangement that has left me in partial distraught, and in another part, I was bothered about the legitimacy of writing about food. The former was an unexpected incident of which I am scarce with explanation in respect for privacy. The latter happens to all of us every now and then.

With the return flight in sight at the end of this month, my fervent search for the most inspiring pastry in Paris went up a few notches. While I have tasted a couple of chocolate entremets recently, and made some notes for writing about them, I haven’t had the motivation to churn out a proper post, for all that has happened. They were good, of course, but that’s all I could bring myself to say.

My practical exam in school looms ahead, followed by a trip to Rome next week (with good chance I could witness the emergence of the white smoke from the conclave). I’ve been busy, and I still am, but that is no exemption from a Saturday morning of pastry and coffee.

That led to my first tasting of pastries at La Chocolaterie de Jacques Genin. It wasn’t until this January that he had stopped daily production of his impressive repertoire of pastries, preferring to focus on chocolates instead. Foodies familiar with Paris would know his eclairs and tarte au citron are legen-wait-for-it-dary, and fate ordains (pardon for the cliche  that the tarte au citron was available today. It was the only thing that could pull me out of my current existential crisis, and will me to write this post.

I have had a number of lemon tarts that I could easily give a D – for disappointment. In fact, I’ve never had a satisfactory one, so perhaps my prior disappointments were unfounded. At long last, a work of genius justified just how perfect this simple tart could be. Having read a couple of food blogs, I’ve picked up the advice of not using superlatives to describe food, but this would prove to be difficult.

So what makes a perfect tarte au citron? No doubt, the key lies in the lemon cream, although a notable effort must be invested in the tart shell. There was nothing to complain about that of this particular tart – it was crisp, fragrant with butter, thin and crumbly. Going back to the lemon filling – lemon is a difficult flavor to work with. Choosing a wrong variety, or incorporated too much will warrant decaying teeth. One could either use sugar or butter, or both, to balance out the acidity and draw out the refreshing sparkle of the exemplary citrus fruit. Unfortunately, it is hard to come by one with the perfect equilibrium. Some have it too sweet; they have ‘sugar tarts’ instead. Some have it too buttery, which weighed down on the palate. Many others err on having an excess of both. Fortunately, there was Monsieur Jacques Genin.

A friend of mine would say that I’m a die-hard fan of this contemporary master. He’s a fan of Jean-Paul Hévin, and I could understand why. That said, I might have thrown him into disarray, having suggested a session of pastries at M. Genin’s. I could be biased, so having someone else to taste the tarte au citron was a reassurance. To my delight, we ended up with a consensus, that the lemon cream held a delicate harmony. It was smooth, yet it wasn’t greasy. It was light, yet the citrus taste was strong and tangy. The best part – the acidity was well sequestered with the sugar and the cream, and precisely only at the end of every mouthful, so one could appreciate the full glory of lemons without having to shrivel up one’s face. The artful balance saved the tart from a meringue garnish – something too sweet for my liking. Instead, it had fine slices of fresh basil that imparted a herb-y dimension to the lemon cream. Perfect. Period.

My words doesn’t justify his genius, so I could only implore my readers to hunt down this tart should opportunity allow. On my part, I would try to replicate this back home, but this is certainly a tall order. M. Genin used lime for his lemon tarts, or so I’ve read from various sources. I could get a book he has published, solely on his tarte au citron, but secrets would remain as secrets. On a side note, my friend had the ‘made-to-order’ millefeuille with chocolate, and it was also a masterpiece. I needn’t say more.

I've never liked millefeuilles. This changed that.
I’ve never liked millefeuilles. This changed that.

Grand Cru: A splendid ensemble.

Grand Cru from La Pâtisserie des Rêves
Grand Cru from La Pâtisserie des Rêves

Over the past few days, I have busied myself with revision for a theory exam that passed yesterday. I didn’t have time to write until now. That is a partial truth, because there is always time for pastries. To my horror, I am starting to sound like an addict, with an unhealthy obsession for sweets. Call it an occupational hazard being a culinary student, but the thought of not having enough pastries before my return irks me. In just over a month’s time, I would no longer run into a boulangerie or pâtisserie on every other street. Nonetheless, I still hold some hope for decent pastries back home, with all sincerity and faith.

Sometimes, the idea of decadence bugs me. Am I being a downright hedonist, self-indulgent in good food and turning a blind eye to the cruel realities of others? In all honesty, I am unprepared to answer this question here, and I don’t wish to go any further in this series on food. To keep it simple, I’d rather savor food than hoard personal effects. Paris may be the capital of fashion, the city of love, but I would have none of that. It is certainly not the only city where one can find good food, but it is one of the many places. Short as my stay may be, I have come to hold greater respect for food, not just necessarily the superfluous, but also the basic. I will leave my reflections nearer to the end of my stay, and now I’ll begin on that which has first captured your attention to this post.

As previously mentioned, I had gotten the Grand Cru from La Pâtisserie des Rêves. As a new learner of the language, trying to grasp French from everyday conversations and unstructured self-study (what’s worse – a lack of discipline), the name befuddles me. A direct translation gives “the great raw”. Perhaps a better interpretation would be “the great vintage/vineyard,” but that doesn’t really help in the context. Google searches tell me that this term is used primarily in the wine industry, to refer to a land with great potential for great wine. And a somewhat helpful definition from ChocoParis: Grand cru chocolate – Chocolate made with beans from a particular region. Mystery solved? Not quite. But a visit to the patisserie’s website (a well-designed and comprehensive one) explained it all. All the chocolate in this cake is from Samana and nowhere else. Well… that’s an anti-climax answer for all that Sherlock action, but I was rewarded with a wonderful video, which I have embedded at the end of this post.

Cross section of the Grand Cru
Cross section of the Grand Cru

While I cannot (at least not yet) translate what is explicated in the video by the chef himself, M. Philippe Conticini, here’s my own take on this petite dessert. I have above a (perhaps unprofessional) photo of its cross-section. Underneath the chocolate glaze lies the chocolate mousse, enveloping a chocolate ganache layer atop a chocolate biscuit cuillère (the same type of biscuit as in lady’s finger), with a chocolate coustillant sitting at the base. Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. If you’ve watched the video first, impatient you, that’s probably the only thing you would understand if you don’t know French.

It would seem uninteresting and plain, in terms of taste, to have everything made with the same chocolate. It wasn’t. The catch was in the coustillant; it had a fair amount of fleur de sel incorporated. (FYI: “fleur de sel is a hand-harvested sea salt collected by workers who scrape only the top layer of salt before it sinks to the bottom of large salt pans” – wikipedia). That complex flair of saltiness worked out perfectly with the dark and intense Samana chocolate. With every mouthful comes the chocolate taste that chocolate lovers would die for, only to be succeeded by a refreshing kick of salt to the top of your palate. For sure, the use of salt instead of an acidic fruit as a contrast to chocolate isn’t new. But it has to be done right. In one other pastry I’ve tried, of which I wouldn’t name because it was a shame to a good reputation, the salt overwhelmed everything and it was immensely awful. The balance for the Grand Cru was done just right – the chocolate had ample time to work its magic before the salt comes in just in the end to make its presence known.

The rest of the layers didn’t just stand by and watch. They were skilfully textured; even with the same chocolate used throughout, it certainly doesn’t feel like having a bite from a chocolate tablet. The moist biscuit with the crumbly coustillant, and the dense ganache with the light mousse, all play their part to make a splendid ensemble, not forgetting the dark glaze that draws the curtain at the lips. The play of taste and texture… it was a performance deserving of an encore.

All that high-flown rhetoric aside, the Grand Cru is a well-made dessert and I would pay for another one. It might not be the best chocolate entremet I’ve tasted, but it has earned a place on my list of “pastries I would miss back home.” Take a minute to watch the video below, but be warned not to drool. Food is a universal language. And what I really admire is the humble pride and passion the chef holds for his creations.

Cake Framboise et Thé Matcha

004 Cake Framboise et Thé Matcha

From time to time, a simple dessert can hit the right spot. Some, like the Opéra, take laborious effort and time to piece together, while others only require a little more than mixing the ingredients together and baking in the oven. I may be over-simplifying, but it’s a matter of relativity. Yet, simplicity does not excuse one from demanding creativity and skill. In fact, sometimes, the simplest of things necessitates the greatest of ingenuity.

It is always difficult to choose something from a pâtisserie, especially when most pastry chefs are more than eager to display their culinary prowess with an eye-dazzling array of pastries that line their glass cabinets. My rule of thumb: when in a dilemma, choose something with raspberries. I’m more of a “fruit person” than a “chocolate person”, and the raspberry has just the right taste over any other berry on my palate. That said, this time round, I knew what I wanted from La Pâtisserie des Rêves along Rue du Bac – the Grand Cru, which will come in the next post.

The more elaborate pâtisseries were illustriously presented on a podium in the middle of the boutique. Each of them were encased in a glass jar-like capsule (not that I liked it though,) with a description printed in readable, large print. On the contrary, the viennoiseries and the rest were tucked at a corner, somewhat un-appetizingly  Having made a decision beforehand, I briefly glanced over the other capsules, and ordered a Grand Cru at the counter to take away. The sales-lady smiled and walked into the kitchen to get my order, and that left me exploring the boutique’s less-attractive corners. I found this, the Cake Framboise et Thé Matcha, sitting on a plate at a corner. It didn’t come across as strikingly beautiful of course, but I was intrigued to find something that married two favorite flavors of mine. It’s a simple cake; it was relatively cheap and so I succumbed to temptation.

A few weeks ago, I had to bake a traditional Cake aux Fruits at school. Previously, I’ve heard that some people have experienced the problem of having the cut fruits sinking to the bottom of the batter. Instead of having the colorful gems evenly dispersed throughout the pound cake, the fruits cluster in the lower half, to much disappointment. A chef from the school says this from time to time, “there are no problems – only solutions.” The solution we were taught, was to pre-mix the macerated fruits with some flour, which helps to suspend them in the batter. It turned out well for us.

It’s a different story for raspberries, however. Left uncut, the way they are best enjoyed, the berries are too heavy, and they will sink. Are pound cakes and raspberries destined to be incompatible? Apparently the chef at La Pâtisserie des Rêves didn’t think so, and came up with a slightly ingenious answer – cover the barren top half with matcha. It might be an accident, but so be it. The photo can be deceiving; the matcha powder isn’t incorporated into the batter, it is only sprinkled on the cut surface. So there we have, a blissful marriage between two uncommon partners. I thought they complemented each other well. It was a partnership of the freshness of the berries and the subtle flavor of matcha. The juicy berries made up for the dry matcha powder, while the excess acidity was neutralized.

“Awesome!” I exclaimed (silently, of course).

On second thought, and perhaps after a few more bites, an underlying discord disturbed me. The unusual combination was ingenious, it had potential, but it lacked some sort of “synergy.” With partial knowledge of music, I would say, these two flavors belong to different family of chords. Played together, they sounded good but wait, something’s wrong, sort of. There was a “twang” in their harmony; it didn’t work out that well after all… But I wasn’t disappointed; it was a good match; it was delicious. The cake was moist, the sides weren’t burnt and rock-hard. Simple is good. The flavors were great too, I enjoyed it, but it’s not a perfect “happily-ever-after” ending. Hopefully, one day someone would bring together a perfect ensemble of  raspberries and matcha. Till then, I’ll have them separately.

Millefeuille

A thousand layers
A thousand layers

In many contemporary desserts, pastry chefs take painstaking efforts in assembling layers of different ingredients. They imagine how flavors of fruits, spices, nuts, cream and biscuits work in synergy with one another, and put them together in an artful blend. No one knows, but perhaps the concept of layering finds its roots in this pastry called the “thousand layers”.

The millefeuille comprises feuilletée (puff pastry) and pastry cream. Some people call it the Napoleon. It is simple, and basks in minimalism. What troubles me is the difficulty of enjoying the pastry in a tidy manner. Just trying to cut a slice small enough for my mouth with my fork ends with a mess. The layers collapse, the cream falls out, and everything turns into a plate resembling a bird’s nest. Although I am not particularly bothered about dining etiquette, I prefer to have something tidier. Blame it on my intermittent obsessive-compulsive disorder.

As simple as it gets, each and every element of its construction is crucial. Smooth and balanced crème pâtissière with a delicate infusion of vanilla between crisp feuilletée layers baked to perfection will be a quiet delight. There are countless variations of this traditional pastry, incorporating fruits, and perhaps even savory fillings such as cheese and spinach. I have tried once a millefeuille with raspberries and vanilla cream in a Japanese pâtisserie near Tokyo, but old is gold so I would love to taste a perfect rendition of the traditional.

This millefeuille here was from Pain du Sucre. The shopfront is divided into two, one as the boulangerie and other for the pâtisserie. I first stepped into the boulangerie, to be welcomed by the inviting smell of bread, and bought myself a sandwich called Osaka and a croissant. The Osaka was intriguing – it didn’t taste Japanese; it tasted like Japan. The savory little thing had tuna wrapped in smoked salmon, accompanied with a squid ink paste (I think) between a green tea-flavored sesame bread. Pardon me for the photo – I didn’t expect it to impress until I had a small bite. As for the croissant, I’ll write about it another day as part of my croissant study.

*edit: Silly me, I've left out this photo*
*edit: Silly me, I’ve left out this photo*

Let me get the limelight back to the millefeuille. As I enter the pâtisserie section, I chose the millefeuille because it had garnered rather positive reviews from the food blogging community. Sometimes, knowing what’s the ‘specialty’ from hearsay saves me from conundrum of choices. The crème pâtissèrie was well-textured and rich in vanilla; I have no complains about that. I suspect food bloggers occasionally complain for the sake of complaining, or praise for the sake of praising, so as to portray their capacity to be critical. Having said that, I am going to be critical about the feuilletée. One probable reason why I made such a mess of the pastry, despite the best of my efforts to keep it standing, is that the feuilletée layers were too thick. They were undeniably crispy, but if it helps I would make the layers just a little thinner. Moreover, they had a slight burnt taste. Perhaps the same culprit is at fault; thicker layers translate to longer baking times, which in turn leaves the exterior slight burnt and bitter. I had wished it was a bad day, and that the millefeuille from Pain du Sucre is usually way better. Sadly, it only takes one bad experience to deter me from trying it again, due to financial constraints and the vast availability of alternatives. I would reiterate that I’m not an expert on millefeuille, or in pastries in general, but I believe it could taste much better. When I’m back home in my kitchen, this would be a simple dessert that I would like to master.

Happy Valentine’s!