August 8, 2012

In Defense of French Pastry

Yesterday, as I was driving home from work I heard a story on NPR about French bakeries using frozen croissant dough instead of making croissants from scratch onsite. Croissants are like the Tolstoy novel of recipes, long and laborious, with many tedious steps, ingredients that must be at the perfect temperature, waiting time for chilling and proofing and baking, etc. No wonder bakeries want to outsource the labor by purchasing and selling “industrial croissants.” I find it impossible to believe that anyone who’s tasted French pastries made from scratch by artisans could be fooled by these imposters.
NPR: Outsourced croissants outrage traditional French bakers
This story made me think back to my visit to Paris last October. Pastries in Paris pâtisseries were displayed in the storefronts like beautiful jewels. We left our hotel in the morning and strolled up the neighboring block to Au Levain des Martyrs for a petit-déjeuner.

“Bonjour!” Then I did my best to order a pain au chocolat and an almond croissant. Even basic words like those still required some pointing and apologies. I handed over a couple of Euro coins as payment, smiled, “Merci.” Then we walked to the metro stop at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette to catch a train to the museums.

In the evening, we stopped at Stohrer at 51 Rue Montorgueil.

Stohrer Paris

Stohrer was open in 1725 when Marie Leczynska, queen and wife of Louis XV, wanted babas and puits d'amour (wells of love: canelle shell filled with vanilla pastry cream). It's one of those places that has probably been using the same sourdough starter since Napoleon was in power.

Pâtisserie Stohrer Histoire de Paris

Their display cases of pastry were filled with beautiful selections. They also had baskets of croissants and canelés, and jars of jellies.

Stohrer Paris Canelés Croissants

In the end, our two selections were the Tarte aux Framboises (fond de pâte sablée, crème mousseline vanillée et framboises fraîches)

Raspberry Tartelette

and Le Mille feuilles caramel (une délicate pâte feuilletée, une crème légère pâtissière, le dessus caramélisé ou bien au sucre glace, selon votre goût).

Millefeuille au caramel

And good luck trying to say mille feuilles well enough that a French pâtissier can understand you. Despite practicing, I still drew a confused look from the lady waiting on me.

With pastries in hand, you may want to seek out a park bench on which to sit and enjoy the delicious treats, or you might want to eat while walking around the corner to G. Detou. As David Lebovitz said, it is truly pastry paradise. I'm still kicking myself for not buying more French chocolate and Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans. I've never seen any vanilla beans as long, moist, and plump, but still reasonably priced.

Or there are always the iconic Paris sites, that you may have thought were cliché, but in fact deserve all their adoration. I recommend you and your pastry visit the Eiffel Tower at dusk. It will be beautiful as the sun's setting, and after nightfall, the tower sparkles on the hour, which is completely magical.