June 01, 2011

Sweet Surrender…

…where in Paris do grown men and women go weak in the knees?

Just as Rome has the Colosseum, and London its bridges, Paris will always have pastries.  A cornucopia of cakes, mounds of chocolate, mousse, buckets of Bavarian cream, and candied fruit by the bushel. 

When Parisians slip out of their offices between 5 and 7 P.M. - the traditional hours for a romantic rendezvous - they have an appointment with an entirely different kind of cookie.  They may be thinking sweet thoughts about the marvels at Mulot; a crispy croissant, perhaps, an éclair au café, a luscious chocolate macaroon at Ladurée, the subtleties could fill a thesis.

Parisian pastry lovers will crisscross the city in search of the perfect pastry they may patronize six or seven different pastry shops, each for a particular specialty. Dalloyau for eclairs au café; Carette for chocolate macaroons; at Lenôtre, the pistachio macaroons are the best; the pain au chocolate 'made with a thousand calories of butter' in Neuilly.

The cliché would have these fabulous French pastry shops filled with ladies of a certain age – and certain girth - tucking into creamy concoctions. The reality is that the Gallic passion for patisserie is a national obsession and arouses a craving no mere member of the opposite sex can satisfy. Nobody is immune as Marcel Proust famously proved. Would Swann ever have gotten on his way without the madeleine?

The ravenous French sweet tooth is sunk daily into the most ravishing and imaginative pastries ever devised by a pastry chef. A mille-feuille is never just a mille-feuille, but distinguished by the flakiness of its layers of puff pastry, the voluptuousness of its confectioner’s custard, and its choice of toppings; a dusting of powdered sugar, crunchy praline, or marbleized frosting.

Chocolate charlottes sport hats of sculpted black chocolate. Fruit tarts are constructed with the colorful complexity of a stained-glass window. Style is matched by substance. Haute patisserie is the creative celebration of the best-money-can-buy ingredients, which explode on the palate in a banquet of natural flavors. Made fresh each day, destined to be eaten immediately, these pastries bespeak a light hand with flour and sugar(elements necessary for longer conservation), which may account for the otherwise unaccountable slenderness of French pastry fans.

Here is a selection of talented pâtissiers concoctions that are the very pinnacle of this wondrous art, the best of the best.

Gérard Mulot is as well known for his croissants, served in luxury hotels all over Paris, as for his pastries. His pastry shop is an Ali Baba's cave of plump macaroons, glistening almond croissants, melting mille-feuilles bulging with custard and crushed raspberries.  Mulot's window displays are so tantalizing that drivers on the congested Rue de Seine pull right up onto the curb and dash in for instant gratification.

The clients of Millet, a small shop on the Rue St. Dominique, provides no clue that the cakes on display are very special indeed. Is it a sign of the times? Couturiers, perfumers, and a platoon of politicians and diplomats from the neighboring ministries are regulars here. Madeleines, the tea cakes beloved by Proust, can still be found, but the tea cake of the era is the almond financier, Millet’s version, deliciously chewy, is ample reward for the new 'greed generation'.

Lines up on a tray in the window of Peltier, small pools of glossy, dark chocolate encased in golden crust beckon like beacons of sheer indulgence.

Even the most well-bred Parisian child will lose his cool when confronted with a window full of these pastries.


Stohrer’s smart navy lacquered storefront, with gold lettering and a sunshine-yellow awning, promises good things.

Stohrer’s aristocratic past – it was founded in 1730 by Louis XV’s own pastry cook - is sustained by the patrician pastries of its present. Cakes designed to please a king will also captivate the commoner.

For more than a century, Paul Baudry’s murals have decorated the walls.

Gaston Lenôtre's father was head chef at Paris’ Grand Hotel; his mother cooked for Baron Periere. Gaston took up the metier of pattissier at age 13 and has founded an empire.

But even his rivals admit that expansion has not eroded the superb Lenôtre quality. Like a couturier, Lenôtre introduces new creations each season, selected after tastings by loyal customers.

With shops all over Paris and a pastry school bearing his name, Gaston Lenôtre is indisputable the godfather of French patisserie.

You get the message as soon as La Maison du Chocolat comes into sight: Chocolate-colored exteriors. Chocolate-colored awnings, windows crowded with chocolate treats, and maidens in chocolate unmentionables, announce La Maison du Chocolat as the answer to a chocolate lover’s dream. The rest is, well, chocolate…

Here, you may cross the line into chocoholism, sipping one of several sumptuous blends of hot chocolate, made with melted chocolate bars, along with your truffled cakes.

A cullinary version of the little black dress, the Gateau Opera, lavishly layered in coffee and chocolate, is the most celebrated cake in the French repertoire. At Dalloyau it reaches its apogee, a stunning syncopation of thin almond biscuit and succulent coffe-chocolate truffle interiors, frosted in satiny dark chocolate and decorated with gold leaf.

A very French alternative to cookies and milk. Mineral water and petits fours, at Dalloyau, across the street from the Luxembourg Gardens.

Ladurée is one of the prettiest pastry shop tearooms in Paris.

The turn-of-the-century décor is equalled by Ladurée’s legendary macaroons. When Marie-Antoinette counseled her starving subject to “eat cake,” what she actually said was “brioche.” Laduree’s raisin-filled Cramique brioche is just what she had in mind-or perhaps the mousse de fois gras brioche sandwich.
Like Maxim’s, Ladurée in an institution. As you are practically on your neighbors lap, you are never alone at Ladurée. “ When I’m feeling lonely, I pick up a book and go to Ladurée," says Clive. “It’s warm and cozy, with all those really lovely old ladies. It makes me feel good, like having tea with your granny.”
“The croissant d’almandes is to die for,” confides Clive. He is right. Savor every sinful bit of one of the most delicious croissants ever made.

What a blessing that I had only a very short time to explore,
but a la prochaine as the French say...next time...


Anonymous said...

I have come to the wrong place if I’m looking for an intervention! What would we do without our pastry fix????
mmmm, I am drooling
What a delicious post! Next time I have the pleasure of visiting I will have to check these sweet treats out - thanks:)

Anja said...

Have you heard the news? Laduree will be opening up on Madison Avenue in July! Paris in New York! I can't wait!

Alistair said...

I should have eaten before reading your post... I will be thinking about these beautiful treats all NIGHT. :-)