J’adore Paris. It’s as simple as that. After my first trip, 27 years ago, not so much. But we’ve both mellowed a bit, Paris and I. She is more accepting of visitors, especially if you make an attempt at being polite in her language – bon jour madame or monsieur goes a long way. As does s’il vous plait, or please. I am more tolerant of her idiosyncratic bureaucracy – things open and close according to forces that are not in my control; if someone can’t help you, wait 10 minutes or 24 hours, and, often, they can or will. I don’t know why. C’est la vie.
Terrorism has changed a lot of life. There are now threat alerts posted at major locations. There are armed – as in machine gun armed, military personnel in the subway checking ID and at attractions patrolling. The Eiffel Tower base is now barricaded do prevent explosive vans from blowing the whole thing, along with the people visiting, up.
But a lot hasn’t changed. Parisians get up. Get on the subway. Stop at cafés. And have croissants – some much better than others. But nearly all better than what we can buy here. Our guide noted, however, that doctors recommend eating no more than 3 per week.
We weren’t there to listen to doctors. We were there to eat and drink in all things Paris – from the croissants, to the metro, to the churches, to the museums, to the shops, restaurants, cafés, and, to even have a picnic dinner in the park watching the Eiffel Tower put on its nightly light show while men with green plastic bags hawked Champagne, wine, and beer to fellow visitors. It was heavenly. Where else could you buy a salted caramel and chocolate Pot de Crème in a supermarket.
This visit, in addition to buying the Seine River cruise and the Catacombs tickets (if you buy in advance the line is only about 30 minutes instead of the normal 90 minutes to 2 hours or more), I booked a 3-hour croissant class at La Cuisine Paris. The cooking school, which offers classes in English and was highly recommended in a New York Times review of cooking classes.
It certainly lived up to its reputation. La Cuisine Paris offers many classes, including a market shopping class that includes making lunch or dinner, macaroons, baguette, etc. But, for my daughter and I, learning to make the basic French pastry was the ultimate experience.
Our teacher, Guillaume, was from Marseilles and trained in Lyon – the epicenter of French cooking. His English was perfect, as was his ability to teach to all levels in our class, which included a Canadian student who had spent the year in Paris and whose mother told him to come home having learned how to cook something. There were several amateur pastry makers – American and Canadian, two novices (including my daughter, 14), and a Paris dweller.
We learned the three keys to the perfect pastry – butter (must be at least 82 percent butterfat which is typically found in European butters but not American, which requires 80 percent), technique, and time.
About the butter – this is really crucial. Guillaume recommended we buy President in the United States. Or basically any French butter. I didn’t really understand until I read Dorie Greenspan’s article on the difference in how the French make their butter. Here is an article on the various types of butter you can usually find in American grocery stores and how they stack up. They aren’t cheap – you are going to pay about 150 percent more for half the butter. If you are going to make pastry, this is not the time to go cheap. I’ve done it. You will regret it. Because you will have about 24 hours invested in the process of rising, rolling, laminating, baking, etc. If you are going to do all of this, don’t try to save $2.
This goes back to the basics of cooking. When you have one star ingredient – in this case butter – make sure it shines.
I’m giving it a shot here in my U.S. kitchen. I bought butter yesterday – and I’m being daring using a U.S. butter cultured in the European fashion (the ratings are recommended, but not as high as Plugra, which is the best and I couldn’t find). The dough is rising as I write.
Right now, though, the best ingredient you can find in our area is strawberries. I went out on Sunday – complete with jet lag and 84 degrees – and picked 8 quarts. I will be back this afternoon because all of those berries are turning into fancy little shortcake cakes. Not the biscuit kind, but the ones made with a sponge cake, a lemon simple syrup, lots of whipped cream, and berries. Lots and lots of berries.
I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. And I’ll keep you posted on the croissants.