Two of the best croissants in Paris

France is known as a food-lover’s paradise and Paris is the capital. So it is expected that once in Paris, I would seek out many of “the best” food experiences. Of course, “the best” is an enigma, but I did turn to a number of resources including the excellent Paris by Mouth website. First on the list was to seek out some of the best croissants.

Tout Autour du Pain

As we were staying in Le Marais, an historic district that straddles the third and fourth arrondisements in Paris, we chose a nearby top-10 winner: Tout Autour du Pain. A fifteen-minute walk from our apartment near Centre Pompidou, Tout Autour (formerly known as 134 RdT) was two locations around the corner from each other.

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The store front fits neatly into the row of buildings at a tiny roundabout composed of a single tree. Next to it sits the Hotel Americain. The inside of the shop has room for only a half-dozen customers at a time and there is no place to sit and linger: it is a functional place.

We ordered two regular croissants and one ham and cheese croissant, taking them outside to a bench facing the roundabout.

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There we enjoyed one of the finest, most complex croissants I’ve had. It was not as neatly shaped as most croissants, a bit lumpy to look at. The exterior was crisp, crunching underneath the weight of your bite. The layers were distinct but the interior was pillowy and slightly resistant. The flavor was a tad saltier than normal, which allowed me to appreciate its flavor without the need for butter, jam or any other accompaniment. In short, it was a great croissant.

 

Du Pain et Des Idées

We stopped by another of the award-winning croissant bakers after a breakfast choice in the Canal Saint-Martin neighborhood was closed due to a public holiday. Called Du Pain et Des Idées (the bread and the ideas), it is on another corner in a otherwise typical block of houses and shops.

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It is a far cuter shop, though, looking a bit like it was designed by central casting at a movie studio. Racks of freshly baked goods line the windows and you can smell the bread baking, luring you into the shop. One of their specialties are these huge loaves of bread, which are sliced into large blocks and sold individually.

The older gentleman running the shop is welcoming and was patient with those speaking English and with my poor French. I tested the limits of his patience, though, when I ordered two croissants (and an apple tart). He confirmed the order in French but I wasn’t listening closely… and he proceeded to load up two bags with a dozen croissants! (I forgot to deux and douze are similar…)

When I saw what he was doing, I apologized and clarified my order. There was the briefest roll of his eyes before he said “Pas de probleme” and set the large bags aside.

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Sitting on the bench outside in the cool but pleasant morning air, we had our first look at the comely croissants. The layers are very distinct as is the twisted, knot-like shape of the pastry. When you bite into these croissants, they shatter sending shards of crumbs about and attracting the attention of a particularly aggressive peg-legged pigeon. The inside is soft but not as much as at Tout Autour. I would argue that the croissants are also less salty.

Now, I understand that I am spoiled with riches to be nit-picking the differences between various Parisian croissants. But such is my lot in life.

We also picked up an apple tart, which was wonderfully caramelized and luscious. In short, both are worth a visit: Tout Autour for the croissants themselves but not for the atmosphere; Du Pain especially for the atmosphere.

 

Thorough Bread and Pastry – San Francisco

Our trip to Kansas City for my grandparents’ 70th anniversary lasted just three days. Bright and early Monday morning (after an 80-minute mechanical delay), we were on our way to San Francisco for a few additional days of rest and relaxation before returning to Bangkok. Arriving late in the morning, we headed around the corner from our friend Anita’s house (where we were staying) to a newer bakery we hadn’t yet tried, the cleverly named Thorough Bread and Pastry.

The bakery is housed in the space formerly used by Just Desserts. It has a lovely brick wall and an open ceiling (which you can’t see in this picture). Lots of light comes in from busy Church Street, making it an inviting and warm place to stop for a while.

The selection of baked goods is wide and all of them look tasty. We arrived late in the morning so some items were down to just a handful of remaining pieces.

In addition to pastries, Thorough Bread and Pastry lives up to the “bread” part of its name. The baguettes were beautiful and the olive and sourdough loaves had me want to go on a carbohydrate binge.

For snacks with our coffee, I selected a cinnamon roll. Upon request, the bakers will put you food into the oven for a few minutes to reheat it. Of course, that is a must with a cinnamon roll because you want the topping to be just a gooey and molten as possible.

Tawn opted for an almond croissant, which tasted plenty good even if it wasn’t the most beautiful croissant in the world. That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to try my hand at croissant making again, just as soon as this crazy hot season eases off a bit and I can actually cool my kitchen to a workable temperature.

Feeling the need for something passing as healthful, Anita oped for the quiche, which was also very nice. With lots of fresh vegetables, you could almost forget the loads of fat.

In the past several years, there has been an explosion of artisinal, small-shop bakeries and patisseries. From Tartine to Craftsman & Wolves to Thorough Bread, San Franciscans are spoiled with many fine choices for baked goods. It is something we miss about living in the City and I am glad there is yet another place to visit when we are next in town.

 

Cannelés in Bangkok at Le Beaulieu

Widely considered Bangkok’s finest French restaurant, Le Beaulieu serves dishes that would be at home in Paris. It also charges prices that are simply beyond my budget. But when I want un petit goût of that French sophistication without landing in the poorhouse, I stop by the Le Beaulieu cafe and purchase a few cannelés.

Cannelés, a pastry from Bordeaux with a dark, richly caramelized crust and a soft, almost custardy center, are painstaking to make. They require copper molds that are lined with beeswax and butter before being filled with a crêpe-like batter that has rested up to 48 hours. The two-step baking process begins with an extremely hot oven that is later lowered to a more reasonable temperature in order to produce the distinctive crust. Done right, the results are heavenly. Done wrong, they resemble either a burned brick or an eggy sponge.

The cannelés at Le Beaulieu have the ideal texture, the right amount of caramelization on the exterior that makes for a complex flavor without tasting burnt. Served with a tasty espresso drink from Malongo, a family-owned coffee firm from Nice, I can afford to have that French cafe experience without having to survive on crumbs alone.

Kaffir Lime Cheesecake

As dessert for a barbecue with friends last weekend, I baked a kaffir lime cheesecake. Kaffir lime, a member of the citrus family whose fruit and leaves are an essential part of Thai, Indonesian, Laotian, and Malaysian cuisines, is an unusual flavoring for cheesecake. It is very aromatic but also astringent, a quality that I thought would go well with the richness of cheesecake.

To impart the flavor, you boil cream with whole kaffir lime leaves and then let it simmer for about twenty minutes as the cream reduces. The sweet, almost lemony scent is distinctive and you cannot successfully substitute regular limes for kaffir limes. Most Asian markets sell kaffir lime leaves, which freeze well.

The end result was fantastic. The recipe, which I based on this one (but used two eggs instead of one as I think the author wrote the incorrect number), produced a substantial but not overly-heavy cake, rich enough to be a dessert while not leaving you feeling like you ate a brick. Deviating from the recipe, I made a sour cream glaze with kaffir lime zest and sugar. I will definitely make this one again.

Preparing Baked Alaska for the First Time

While in Hong Kong, Gary took us to a fantastic 1960s style restaurant called Sunning. The menu was full of classics including Baked Alaska. This being only the second time I have had the dessert, I was taken by the over-the-top nature of the dish and decided that when I returned to Bangkok, I would try preparing it.

The version prepared at Sunning Restaurant is beautiful, nicely shaped, like something right out of a Betty Crocker cookbook or Better Homes and Gardens magazine. 

The whole video experience is here – pardon the less-than-stellar audio quality.

Baked Alaska is a single layer of cake with ice cream on top – quite a thick layer of it, ideally domed. The whole dessert is then coated with meringue, which provides insulation when the dessert is then placed in a very hot oven for a few minutes to brown the exterior. 

Instead of the traditional pistachio ice cream, I opted for alternating layers of macadamia nut and mango sherbet. For some contrast, I also added crushed raspberries. The kitchen was quite warm when I was molding the ice cream into a stainless steel bowl, so instead of neat layers, there were gaps, air pockets, and swirls. Unmolding the ice cream from the bowl was a challenge the next day. Lining it with plastic wrap did not help.

The most showy versions include setting the dessert alight with some brandy. That was a bit too much to accomplish this first time. The most important thing is that the birthday boy and all the guests enjoyed the dessert. Next time, I will work on improving my technique.

Baking Pumpkin Bars for Eighty

Recently, a friend was cooking at a dinner for eighty people, one of these social events where everyone pitches in to help cover the costs of the food. Being from the panhandle of Florida, she was preparing a Cajun-inspired menu and asked if I would help with the dessert. While I was originally going to make sweet potato pie, plans morphed and we ended up with pumpkin bars, which turned out nicely nonetheless.

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Sweet potato pie would have been much more authentic for a Cajun dessert but local sweet potatoes are very small and the larger imported sweet potatoes are ridiculously expensive. I opted instead for pumpkins, which are plentiful and much less expensive. Scaling up from a recipe that serves maybe 16 people, I wasn’t sure just how much pumpkin I needed, so bought six.

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After cutting them, steaming them, and peeling and mashing the flesh, I had a lot of pumpkin puree. In fact, it was about half again what I ended up needing. That’s okay – you can freeze pumpkin puree.

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Instead of a usual pie crust, I decided on a recipe that used shortbread. Shortbread is not only easier to make than pie crust, it also adds a different dimension to the texture – providing a crispier base versus a tender and flaky one.

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Instead of pies, which would be more difficult to transport, I opted for four large aluminum trays that came with plastic covers. I spread the shortbread dough on the bottom and then baked it for about 15 minutes until it started firming up and tanning.

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The filling was pumpkin puree, brown sugar, cream, egg yolks, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger powder, and cloves. I whipped egg whites in a separate bowl and folded them into the mixture, creating a lighter texture.

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The filling baked in about thirty minutes. After cooling to room temperature, I put the four trays in my refrigerator and carried them to the event the next afternoon. A little chilling helps film up the pumpkin pie and makes it much easier to cut and serve.

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The end product, shown from a smaller test batch I did two days before. This version didn’t have the egg whites whipped separately, so the filling isn’t as tall as in the final version. Still just as tasty, though!

 

Baking: Lychee and Rhubarb Pie

Two weekends ago I traveled to Samut Songkhram, the smallest of Thailand’s 77 provinces, located about ninety minutes to the southwest of Bangkok. There I had lunch with Ajarn Yai (literally, “big teacher”), the retired director of the rural school where I previously volunteered as an English teacher. This being lychee season, Ajarn Yai insisted that we take several big bunches of freshly-harvested lychees. Once home, I decided to try something new: a lychee-rhubarb pie.

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Lychee are the fruit of an evergreen tree that grows in tropical and subtropical climates. The fruit is round, about one inch (two to three centimeters) in diameter, and is covered in a leathery rind. Peeling is easy, if slightly tedious.

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The interior flesh has a grape-like texture – firm but slightly squishy. Most lychee have a large, inedible pit but some trees produce seedless fruit informally called khathoey (or ladyboy) lychee by the Thais. The flavor of lychee is sweet and perfumey, not overpowering but slightly astringent – especially in not-quite-ripe fruit.

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It is this astringency that made me think of rhubarb. Since the lychee were sweet and astringent and the rhubarb is tart, I thought they might make a refreshing dessert – kind of in the same way that a lemon sorbet can cleanse your palate between courses in a meal. I peeled the lychee, chopped the rhubarb, and mixed in some sugar and corn starch as a thickener.

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Trying something different for my pie crust, I cut rounds (in honor of the shape of the lychee) to form the top crust. It then went into the oven for about 40 minutes until the crust was golden and the filling cooked through.

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The end result: The filling was a little dryer than I would have liked and quite tart, too. That’s probably because I added only a half-cup of sugar. I liked the flavor, though, and it worked very nicely as a refreshing dessert after a richly flavored meal, cutting through the flavors of the meal better than a heavier, sweeter dessert would. Next time, though, I think a bit more sugar is called for and also a few minutes of pre-cooking the filling to extract more juices.