La Tarte Infiniment Vanille de Pierre Hermé

Tarte Infiniment Vanille
Tarte Infiniment Vanille

For some students in my school, it’s a delight to hear that there’s a Pierre Hermé Boutique just two metro stations away. Once in a while, a box of pastries from the shop would appear in the school’s common fridge. Some who live near the school for convenience’s sake become regulars as they pick up a box of macarons on their way back home. While there are plenty of food, sweet and savoury, available in the school, (thanks to the students who prefer not to bring home everything they made in class,) temptations are hard to resist. On resistance, my body has now a higher electrical impedence, apparently a way to measure body fat percentage, from all that butter, cream and sugar.

Apart from all that, I had a great deal of vanilla too. If you were to open a cabinet of a random pastry chef, there is an astronomical chance that you would find vanilla. For all its ubiquity, vanilla turns out to be the second most expensive spice*, after saffron. Such rankings may be tenuous, but be prepared to pay a substantial amount if you want the cream of the crop. Just two days ago, I saw a bag of 45 Bourbon vanilla beans selling for 24 at G. Detou. It is a steal, because back home in Singapore, good quality vanilla beans can go for €1.5 for every bean. (Botanically, it’s a pod. Vanilla is not a legume; it’s an orchid. But ‘bean’ is the common name.) If that’s too much for your wallet, you can consider the extract or the powdered form – both considered to be inferior to the actual bean itself.

So I have to suppose that with a hefty price tag to this vanilla tart, Pierre Hermé used top-notch quality vanilla beans. For sure, it has a pompous name, Tarte Infinitment Vanille, and it has a matching white marble-like surface. You can see the tiny little black dots, and that’s vanilla beans. I suspect that the same effect can be achieved using vanilla powder, but vanilla powder has more of a brown hue to it. Nonetheless, for an amateur, I could tell that there are genuine vanilla beans in there in my first mouthful. Unable to make out what went into the tart, I have done some research and found that three types of vanilla were used – Bourbon, Mexican, and Tahitian vanilla, for their “different properties”.

This tart is so delicately constructed that its architecture eluded me. The white marble-like surface was made with a vanilla glaze comprising white chocolate and titanium dioxide. Beneath it lies a mascarpone-based cream. Molded into a disc, it sits on the tart filled with vanilla ganache and a biscuit cuillere (lady’s finger) soaked in vanilla syrup. It will take forever and a mess to make this back home. I like tarts because they’re supposed to be a simple dessert. Nonetheless, Pierre Hermé’s complicated rendition has been a hit amongst the gourmands, the Parisiens and the non-Parisiens alike.

The first bite was explosive, to say the least. The deep vanilla taste blended into the sophisticated texture slowly worked its way into its full bloom, like a budding flower. However, as I worked my way through this dessert, the taste of vanilla turned out to be too overwhelming. Till the end, the taste saturated and didn’t turn on the palate as it did at the beginning. Perhaps I would make one with just the Tahitian vanilla, a more subtle and floral flavor. Or I could have it with a cup of strong coffee, that would make it perfect. So perhaps I didn’t have it right. I will, the next time round. I would imagine the satisfaction of having a cup of espresso, the tart, and a book to read on a lazy Sunday afternoon, after painstakingly putting together this masterpiece the day before. The day will not come soon, but it will come nevertheless. Till then, it is hard to forget the aroma of this vanilla which still lingers at the corner of my mouth.

*Le Cordon Bleu Cuisine Foundations (2009)

P. S. Here is where I found out about its construction.

Croissants I

Croissant from Des Gâteaux et du Pain
Croissant from Des Gâteaux et du Pain

Croissants. The classic viennoiserie that every boulangerie should aspire to be proud of their own. Be it in France, Singapore, or anywhere else, the croissant can be representative of how much the chefs in the kitchens respect their products. It is not extremely difficult to make a decent one by hand, but to craft the best takes years, if not forever. While the typical neighbourhood boulangerie might have fallen to the temptation of using factory-made, frozen croissants, there are plenty more chefs who take pride in making their own, and some from scratch.

The croissant is made with feuilletée. It is a type of dough made from layering the détrempe (the water dough), with butter. The butter is wrapped in the détrempe, rolled out, folded, rolled out, and folded again and so on. It takes effort and time, having to let the dough rest every two turns. In the end, the layers of dough and butter work in some miraculous symphony, along with yeast, to give a golden, flaky and buttery crescent. It also comes in many variations, filled with almond paste, glaced with chocolate or re-interpret it entirely with candied rose petals and rose pâte.

Following the despair over my sense of taste, I have decided to compare two croissants. Putting aside the grandiose debate about relativity in all things, standards of food are relative. It is easy to tell which is a good croissant from the perfunctory ones, but it’s not the case, at least for my untrained palate, to the distinguish the good from the better, and then the best. I had one from Des Gâteaux et du Pain, and the other from Moulin de la Vierge. Both are familiar names in the Parisien boulangerie scene, so I had guessed to start from these.

Croissant from La Moulin de la Vierge
Croissant from La Moulin de la Vierge

The croissant from Des Gâteaux had a darker caramelized exterior, evenly coloured. The fine layers were very obvious, and the flakes followed the shape of the layers. It had that essential aroma of a rich butter which lingers between your fingers from touch. On the other hand (not literally), the crust was dismal. It did look like a croissant, but the unexciting layering on the outside seemed bleak in comparison to the Des Gâteaux croissant. The worst thing was the patchy flakes that didn’t seem very appetizing. Though it smells good, it has a more plain frangance missing the butter aroma. If I had only my nose to rely on, I would choose the Des Gâteaux croissant any day.

Cross-section of croissant from Des Gâteaux et du Pain.
Cross-section of croissant from Des Gâteaux et du Pain.

Before putting them into my stomach where they truly belong, I “dissected” the croissants to study the cross-sections, as I previously did with plant specimens in biology class. What made the croissant from Des Gâteaux amazing was that it was airy, yet it has structure. When I placed a little pressure on the top of both croissants, the Des Gâteaux croissant didn’t flatten, only to bounce up firmly.

Cross-section of croissant from La Moulin de La Vierge
Cross-section of croissant from La Moulin de La Vierge

The Moulin croissant, in contrast, could be flatten easily. So I when I took a bite on each of them, both were light and moist, but the Moulin croissant didn’t feel as airy as the Des Gâteaux one. I’m not sure how they managed to have something so firm yet so moist at the same time. To add on to that, the flakes on the Des Gâteaux were consistently crunchy, while the patchy flakes of the Moulin croissant didn’t fare that well. Needless to say, the one that had the smell of rich butter, tasted so much better. To put the final nail to the coffin for the Moulin croissant, the underside had a slight burnt taste. It was perfect for Des Gâteaux.

I have placed one croissant so high up on the podium, and the other in a coffin. To be fair, both are decent and they taste much better than the average croissant back home in Singapore, and perhaps in Paris too. The Moulin croissant, though lacking in the butter taste, hits off well with its moist and light texture – perhaps a better choice for the health-conscious who prefer less fats. As for me, I could never resist the smell of the buttery croissant from Des Gâteaux et Du Pain. I will taste more croissants from elsewhere, and till then, this croissant will retain the throne on my palate.

La Baguette: Prelude

La Baguette

Even the most basic can be most beautiful. This is gold.

This is my first post, in a new food series La Baguette, because I simply love these 26-inches of goodness. I don’t claim to be a connoisseur, nor am I gifted with a fantastic palate. In fact, I’m inspired to write about food – especially pastry, because I am clueless sometimes on how to taste good pastry, despite my enthusiasm for these sweet little things.

Living in Paris isn’t easy, not to say living alone for the first time. I’ve figured that good food picks me up, and this is probably true for everyone else. Truffles and foie gras are exuberant affairs, but I prefer the simple (perhaps not-so-simple) delights from the boulangeries and the pâtisseries. So over the course of the past week, I’ve made up a hit list of just where to get the créme de la créme in such a gastronomical city.

Two days ago, with some spare time in between lessons, I’d decided to visit a boulangerie/pâtisserie near school, just two metro stations away. It was Des Gâteaux et du Pain, located along Boulevard Pasteur. The shop presented itself in elegant black, standing out from its neighbours in pastel colours. I stepped into the shop, and the bread counter stood right in the middle, with generous spotlights bestowing radiance to the caramelized shells of the viennoiseries. “This is not your not your typical neighbourhood bakery,” I thought.

The pâtisseries were tucked in a corner of a shop, but that didn’t make them less attractive. Having spent a little over-budget on groceries the previous week, I quickly diverted my attention to the viennoiseries. It then occurred to me that I didn’t know what this shop was famous for. On my list, I have the names, the address, and the famous ‘thing’ for each shop, and I didn’t have my list with me. I knew I was on my own. The chausson aux pommes were wonderfully glaced and scored, and I could almost hear the madeleines calling out to me through their bumps. In the end, I chose the classic – the croissant. Nothing beats eating baked goods fresh, so I began tearing away at the fluffy shell. It was good, in fact, it was probably the best I’ve tasted. The pity was, I was in the dark.

Pity what? Dark what? When I had access to my list once again back home, I saw “Des Gâteaux et du Pain – Croissant au beurre.” The horror, the shame. I’d just tasted one of the best croissants in Paris to my ignorance. The pity wasn’t about me not knowing what others had thought of the croissant; it was my inability to tell the best, or the better, from the good. As hard as I’ve tried to reconstruct the croissant in my mind, imagination has its limits. Diets would be unnecessary if I was satisfied with what I have had in mind. I couldn’t understand why it was one of the best. I would have failed a blind-tasting test if I were a connoisseur.

And so with this lengthy story, I have explained my motivation to write about food. I’m not aspiring to be a connoisseur, or a food critic; I am more keen to understand how to taste, and what makes excellent food. Not coincidentally, I will begin with the croissants. Today, I went back again to the exquisite boulangerie, and grabbed the croissant once more, along with another one from a different shop.

A comparative study of croissants – stay tuned, “stay hungry , stay foolish.”