Sunday, May 31, 2009

A feast for the eyes

What do you think the best job in the world is?

I used to think it would be a travel writer, getting paid to explore the chicest cities and most backwards, far-flung pockets of the world. But then I looked at these photos I took at Gerard Mulot yesterday and wondered how anything could top being a pastry chef.

Each one of these cakes—these, just a small representation of what beckoned from the never-ending display cases of his Left Bank patisserie—is a little work of art.

Each one has personality.

Each has its own color palette, design and distinctive details. Fresh berries. Crushed pistachios. Whipped cream. Chocolate fondant. Cocoa dusting.

Seriously. To use a really lame joke, I think being a pastry chef might take the cake.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Top 10 baked goods in Manhattan

I was asked a couple times recently about my to very favorite baked goods in New York. Obviously this is no easy task: it depends on the neighborhood, the time of day, the season, my mood, and if I’m wearing an elastic waistband. But, then again, let’s be honest: there’s always room for baked goods.

Here’s my top 10 countdown*:

10. Blackout cake doughnut at Doughnut Plant.
9. Baklava at Poseidon Bakery.
8. Almond croissant at Café Margot.
7. Ooey gooey cupcake at Sugar Sweet Sunshine.
6. Chocolate bread pudding from the Dessert Truck.
5. Peanut butter cookie at City Bakery.
4. Walnut chocolate chip cookie at Levain.
3. Banana cupcake with cream cheese frosting at Butter Lane.
2. Pain au chocolat at Patisserie Claude.
And, if I could eat just one beautiful, chewy, chocolatey, earth-moving thing every day for the rest of my life…
1. Cornflake marshmallow chocolate chip cookie at Momofuku Milk Bar.

* As difficult as this list was to create, it was made easier by not including chocolate or gelato. Or frozen custard. And sadly, it was a wee bit easier because Batch and Amai are no longer around (though I expect I’ll have to revamp after Pichet’s return later this year!).

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Biarritz chocolate train

How do I explain this one? A sixth sense for cacao? An exquisitely attuned nose that enables me to detect almond paste from over 400 miles away? Faith that any place in France is going to have to-die-for bonbons?

When I booked my trip to Biarritz, I knew rugby, pelote and thalassotherapy spa treatments were big. But I had no idea that the region had a storied chocolate history. I swear.

It was only on the TGV from Paris, furiously cramming to create my two-day itinerary, that my eyes came across this info and my heart skipped a beat: a chocolate museum? Vraiment?? And when I was searching for my hotel and passed three chocolatiers within 100 yards of each another, well, it was only then that I believed my beach weekend was taking a delicious detour (bikini be damned!).

The chocolate museum, Planete Musée du Chocolat, is (no pun intended) a sweet little place. It starts you off with a film about where and how chocolate is produced and then offers a handful of galleries devoted to chocolate molds and sculptures (created by Serge Couzigou), vintage advertising and packaging, and tools and machines from around the world and through the eras. At the end of the visit, you’re rewarded for your attentiveness with a cup of rich hot cocoa. And, of course, you’re spit out into the museum shop, where you can buy the house chocolate bars, bonbons, cocoa and cakes.

I skipped the shop to do my chocolate shopping at the local chocolatiers.

Henriet and Adam are located across the street from each other, reminding me of separated lovers—Henriet, traditional and decorated in pretty blue.

And Maison Adam, dark, sleek and contemporary.

Both have similar selections—chocolate bars, bonbons and bouches; marzipan molds and bricks, and pastries including the regional specialty, Gateau Basque.

The Gateau Basque comes in several variations. One, a drier, circular shortbread cake is filled with cherry preserves. The other is also made with shortbread pastry, but it’s a flatter, denser square slice that sandwiches a lemony custard filling. The former is from Maison Adam, the former from Henriet.

At both chocolatiers, the pates d’amandes—one of my favorite things—came in a spectacular array of flavors and varieties: raspberry, lemon, pistachio, pine nut, vanilla, chocolate…

Sometimes it was sliced and packaged like a chocolate bar, sometimes smaller bite-sized pieces were rolled in sugar and sold like a bag of suckers. It was delicious both ways.

And the chocolate bonbons were equally adventurous and divine: milk chocolate with passionfruit ganache, dark chocolate with African tea, praline with lemon and coriander, salty, floral, spicy… really, had I known I was training straight into chocolate paradise, I would have stayed for more than a weekend.

There was no time for La Maison de Kanouga or Daranatz (with those cheerily wrapped chocolate bars).

But, now that I know Biarritz’s sweet secrets, I’ll make sure the next visit is for an entire week.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A trio from Eric Kayser

Seven boulangeries, three chocolatiers and a gelato shop. That’s what I’ve unofficially counted in my neighborhood. (What can I say? I know how to pick ‘em.) While I have yet to make all the rounds—believe it or not, I’ve been to fewer than half of them—the ones I have tried have definitely not disappointed. Maybe that’s why it’s taking me so long to sample the others: I keep returning to the ones I already know and love.

And how could I not? One of the boulangeries is the famed Eric Kayser.

A fifth generation baker, Kayser opened his first boulangerie in 1996 in the fifth arrondisement and now has a half dozen locations in the city. He invented a machine that creates and maintains a liquid leaven that he uses in his breads in lieu of yeast, which enables slow rising and causes a lactic fermentation that gives delicious hints of milk and honey. He makes over 60 kinds of bread—using preservative- and additive-free flour—including a simple baguette that is crusty, doughy, springy and sublime. All that is to say, Eric Kayser is best known as a breadmaker.

But because there’s usually a line snaking out the door, I’ve found myself all too often staring at rows of beautiful croissants, tuiles, madeleines, financiers, biscuits and cakes while patiently waiting to buy my baguette.

All this while being enveloped in the irresistible smell of fresh baked goods. How could I not be seduced? They must be good, right?

Right. Good does not even begin to cover it.

The pear grapefruit cake was thick with almond paste—one of my favorite flavors—which was cut by the bright juicy slices of grapefruit. Citrus and savory: a winning pair.

The opera cake was a beautiful blend of chocolate and praline in several forms: mousse, glaze, fondant and a crispy, airy wafer. So many flavors and textures emerged, so rich and dreamy…

I’m such a chocolate devotee, it’s rare that another dessert trumps the chocolate option, but the raspberry pistachio cake did just that. More almond paste, more shortbread, but made better by the delicious combination of fresh, fruity raspberries and nutty pistachio.

I’m lucky I had a little help with these heavenly numbers. Next time, I fear, I may be on my own.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A local legend

Denise Acabo. The name doesn’t mean much to 99.9% of the world’s population, but those who do know it are fanatical about the woman, her Parisian chocolate parlor and her devotion to France’s best chocolatiers and candy makers.

With a daily uniform of long blonde braids, a tartan plaid skirt, and the sexy-schoolmarmish blend of bifocals and Chanel No 5 that only a middle-aged Frenchwoman can pull off, Acabo is a cult character here in Paris. But for more important reasons than her signature look, or even her choco-knowledge. It’s her irresistible charm and infectious enthusiasm that reels them in.

Everyone who walks through the doors of her SoPi (South of Pigalle) boutique is treated like the most important person in the world. She grabs you by the arm and gushes about her products: that they’re the best of the best and that she’s the exclusive carrier in the city. She’ll tell you how the cab drivers come in and clean her out of Le Roux caramels and that Japanese tourists fax her magazine articles in which she’s appeared. She talks a mile a minute and is as much an entertainer and theatrice as a chocolate connoisseur. She could prattle on about pralines for hours—and she will if you’re not careful. I looked at my watch when she paused for a breath and was shocked to see 30 minutes had passed. It’s a shame I could understand only a fraction of what she was saying.

But, importantly, what I did understand is that, outside of Lyon, she is the sole carrier of Bernachon chocolates.

This famed chocolatier, Maurice, and his son, Jean-Jacques, operate a bean-to-bar factory that churns out dozens of flavors of delicate bonbons and hunky tablettes. So how do you choose between so many amazing flavors—espresso, orange, hazelnut, rum raisin—when you’re in that enviable position? For me it was simple: I let Denise do it.

And thank goodness. When I unwrapped my Pâte d’Amande Pistache at home, I was suddenly inhaling vats of fresh chocolate in a factory. Delicious without even taking a bite. Between the richness of the 62% cacao and the sweet grittiness of Sicilian pistachio paste, I thought I had ascended to chocolate heaven. It’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever eaten.

She was equally pointed and strong-willed with my bonbon selection. After careful consideration, I had selected six from the case, but she shot two of them down. She wanted to make sure I had the best of the best so I wound up with a selection from all over the country (Gevrey-Chambertin, Bourges, Lorraine) from masters including Henri Le Roux (salted caramel), Bernard Dufoux (balsamic vinegar truffle) and more from Bernachon (a praline noisette).

There were so many exquisite sweets that I didn’t get (this time), including the Breton caramels. But I was happy to see she also carries Jacques Genin’s caramels—more proof that Acabo only carries the best of the best.

30 rue Pierre Fontaine

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Encore, Jacques Genin

I must return to Jacques Genin soon, very soon.

When I go back, should it be for a caramel eclair?

Or the sublime chocolates?

Friday, May 01, 2009

More, more, more!

There can never be enough chocolate in the world. Nor too many cupcakes.

Chocolate Bar is now open (again) in the West Village.

Billy’s Bakery is sending its banana cake goodness downtown to Tribeca.

And stay tuned for even more truffles with Roni-Sue’s expansion in the Essex Street Market next month.