April 29, 2011 § 2 Comments
You have to wonder what the point is of the tourist office in Pithiviers. After 10 minutes’ browsing the leaflets for various châteaux, parks and gardens I was none the wiser about the two things for which Pithiviers is most famous. The first is its eponymous cake, an indulgent confection of buttery puff pastry with an almond filling, and the second is its notorious second world war transit camp where French Jews were rounded up and detained before being sent on to Auschwitz.
We were spending the easter holidays in France based in and around Paris and Fontainebleau. On a sunny Monday morning we decided over breakfast to head off to Pithiviers, a typical French market town some 50 miles South of Paris.
A: a rather frivolous excursion to try and track down a genuine Pithiviers pastry.
The less frivolous outcome was that we learned a little about an unedifying episode in French history, one that the tourist office was keen to airbrush away. I’d read about the French internment camps before, specifically Drancy on the outskirts of Paris. This was not in a history book but in Sebastian Faulks’ moving wartime novel “Charlotte Gray”.
It was another novelist, Irène Némirovsky, the author of the sensational “Suite Française” who’s partly responsible for putting Pithiviers on the map, for all the wrong reasons. Némirovsky was interned here before being sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1942 leaving her epic novel unfinished, its manuscript undiscovered until some 60 years later.
Back to the original purpose of our visit. The Pithiviers has a special place in our family history as I ate a stunning chocolate Pithiviers at London’s Bibendum restaurant the night before our eldest son George was born. It features in chef proprietor Simon Hopkinson’s book “Roast Chicken and Other Stories” if you fancy making one at home.
Finding a Pithiviers proved surprisingly easy. Having found a parking space in a sunny square (the Mail Ouest) in the centre, we found ourselves just across the road from an inviting-looking pâtisserie, “À la Renommée” (the Renowned).
Heading to the window, we realised we’d struck lucky with a picture perfect example of a Pithiviers feuilleté (puff pastry) with its distinctive scalloped border and sculpted lid not just once:
but twice, with its more gaudy iced cousin, the Pithiviers fondant:
Of course, we had to buy both, the fondant version to enjoy there and then with a cup of coffee and the feuilleté version later after our evening meal.
The fondant Pithiviers, with its virginal white icing and old school glacé cherry and crystallised angelica decoration, bore more than a passing resemblance to a Mr Kipling Cherry Bakewell, but without the pastry case. Beneath the icing was a dense and crumbly almond sponge, satisfying in its simplicity. Apparently this is the original version of the cake, an ancient Gaulish speciality, its origins lost in the mists of time. Maybe Asterix ate one of these…
The origins of puff pastry in France are generally dated back to the 17th century so the more familiar Pithiviers feuilleté is a relatively recent upstart. We followed the bakery instructions to warm it through gently for 15-20 minutes before serving. It needs no accompaniment (other than a strong cup of coffee). The puff pastry layers were featherlight, belying the huge quantities of butter that went into its manufacture, and the almond cream filling rich and sweet. It reminded me just a little of its more rustic cousin the English Bakewell pudding – the real dense almondy version you find in the Peak District town rather than the more usual tart I mentioned earlier. Maybe Pithiviers and Bakewell should be twinned?
You’ll find recipes for the regular puff pastry Pithiviers in any fat cook book with a pâtisserie chapter. Recipes for the fondant version are harder to come by so here’s one I hunted down:
Recipe for Pithiviers fondant – iced almond cake from Pithiviers
From the recipe section of the website http://www.loiret.logishotels.com with quantities halved to make a more manageable sized cake.
250g blanched almonds, very finely chopped
250g caster sugar
1.5 cl rum
6 or 7 eggs (depending on size) beaten
White fondant icing
Halved glacé cherries and angelica to decorate
Mix the sugar with the finely chopped almonds and beat in the softened butter. Incorporate the eggs gradually and the rum. Spoon into a greased and floured Pain de Gênes mould (a deep fluted flan tin – use an ordinary round cale tin not a shallow flan tin as a substitute) and baked in a moderate oven (180 degrees C fan) for 30 to 35 minutes. When cool, ice with white fondant icing and decorate with glacé cherries and Angelica.
April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment
Actually this is not a macaron but vrai Parisien Philippe, expert instructor for the pâtisserie class I took last Saturday, entirely devoted to the making of the perfect macaroon.
The venue was the Lenôtre amateur cookery school in the grand looking Pavillon d’Elysée in the heart of Paris’ 8th arrondissement.
On the agenda were three classic macaroon recipes: vanilla, coffee and chocolate. I’m feeling too lazy to write up all 3 recipes in full, so here they are as photos. I’ve translated and annotated the base vanilla recipe below, but have taken the liberty of halving the quantities to make the numbers more manageable for the home baker.
My fellow course participants were 3 Parisian ladies and 1 man who turned out to be a professional pastry chef. I decided to share my workbench with him and pick up some extra tips. The 6 of us shared a spacious kitchen nattily decorated with orange walls, sleek white cabinets and lots of chrome and stainless steel.
Chef Philippe was a little stern at first and asked for no photography. As the morning went on, he gradually warmed and melted and by the end of the session, the no photography rule was relaxed as you can see.
All was of course in rapid Parisian French. This was clearly going to be a workout for my schoolgirl French as well as honing my pâtisserie skills.
So, what did I learn?
1) All the recipes include a mystery ingredient “tant pour tant amandes” which is nothing more than a 50:50 mixture of ground almonds and icing sugar. This is a mix that the professional pastry kitchen already has on hand as it’s the starting point for a number of recipes. It’s not something that the domestic cook needs that often so I’ve restated the recipe in terms of the underlying quantities of ground almonds and icing sugar.
2) The base recipe specifies vanilla powder rather than the more usual extract or paste. Ever wondered what to do with old vanilla pods other than them into a jar of caster sugar? Once the old pods are thoroughly dry, you can crush them in a spice grinder/ mini food processor to make a fragrant powder perfect for use in baking. I haven’t tried this at home yet but will give it a go with my next batch of old pods.
3) The egg whites are weighed for an accurate result. A medium egg white weighs a little over 30g so you’ll need 3 eggs for the base recipe I give below.
4) I need to mention the nasty subject of additives. Although not listed amongst the ingredients, Chef Philippe casually added a couple of pinches of white food colouring to his macaroon mix. On closer inspection, this turned out to be E171 titanium dioxide. At best this seems entirely unnecessary – the finished macaroons were an attractive toasty gold colour – and at worst possibly dangerous.
Philippe also added yellow food colouring to his coffee macaroons, again not in the recipe, and again unnecessary as the coffee extract used to flavour the macaroons (make your own by dissolving instant coffee granules in a very little hot water or consider that old standby Camp Coffee Essence) will also lend them a little colour.
Finally, the chocolate macaroon recipe specifies a massive 82 combined drops of black, red, blue and yellow food colourings to turn the mix into the requisite rich dark brown. When I try these at home, I will make do with a more delicate brown colour provided by the cocoa powder alone.
5) I learned to use a much smaller piping nozzle than the one I’d used previously. The recipe specifies nozzles in the range between nos. 7 to 10. I’d estimate that the one we used in the class was about 12mm in diameter.
6) We used very convenient big disposable clear plastic piping bags. I’ve stocked up on these to bring home with me.
7) We used a powerful professional food processor to pulse the ground almond and icing sugar mix. I’m not sure if a domestic processor works quite as well but I’ve had good results from my Kenwood liquidiser.
8) Talking of my Kenwood mixer, this was the machine of choice in the Lenôtre kitchen. Chef Philippe prefers it to the more modish Kitchenaid.
9) To bake the macaroons, we used doubled-up (one stacked on top of another) baking trays lined with unbleached non-stick baking paper, again just like the stuff I use at home. The double trays mean a more even heat distribution.
10) The most versatile kitchen tool we used was a little plastic scraper, the kind used for bread making. This was a fantastic stand-in for a spatula and dead handy for filling piping bags, emptying bowls, rubbing ground almonds through a sieve etc. I’ve brought one of these home with me too.
11) The consistency of the macaroon mixture is key to the shape of the finished product. The ground almond and sugar mix was folded into the meringue mix using a spatula in three phases, with 10 turns of the bowl for each addition. Then comes the key final mixing with a spatula, a further turning and folding of the mixture until it becomes smooth and glossy, holding its shape but only just. There is a special word for this final mixing “macaronner”. If you don’t get it quite right, the mixture will be too stiff and the piped discs won’t flow to a nice flat circle and will have little tails instead of being smooth on top.
12) When piping the discs, hold the tip of the nozzle directly above (90 degrees) and very close to the baking tray. Squeeze using the palm of the right hand against the top of the piping bag for a count of 3, stop the pressure then execute a quick flick of the wrist as if writing a comma with a fountain pen to release the nozzle.
13) Pipe in neat rows and keep a good distance (3cm or more) between the discs in order to ensure a good airflow and even baking. We piped 28 discs on a tray, a row of 6 then a row of 5 in the gaps, another row of 6, another of 5 then a final row of 6.
14) To ensure that the cooked discs with their still soft centres peeled off the paper easily, we carefully poured cold water onto the hot baking tray as soon as it came out of the oven. To do this, you need to set the tray at a slight slant over the sink and carefully lift up the edge of the paper before pouring water beneath it from a small jug.
15) I’ve never paid special attention to filling macaroons previously. I’ve simply spread them with buttercream using a small crank-handled palette knife. I’ve now learned to make a silky-textured buttercream with a crème anglaise base which is piped onto a macaroon disc in a similar way to piping the disc itself. Sandwich with a second disc, press lightly and you have a level filled macaroon with a perfectly even line of filling around it’s circumference.
16) Finally, the completed filled macaroons should be left to mature overnight in the refrigerator before eating. As if!
Apparently they can be frozen successfully if you need to make a big batch for a wedding, party, family celebration or similar.
OK so that’s the rather lengthy preamble. Time for a couple of pictures of the finished product. First, our neat rows of filled vanilla macaroons:
Next, the top layer of our very desirable Lenôtre cake boxes filled with the chocolate and coffee macaroons ready to take home:
Recipe for vanilla macaroons
Makes 25 to 30 filled macaroons
For the macaroon discs
125g ground almonds
225g icing sugar
100g egg whites
25g caster sugar
2 to 3g vanilla powder
For the vanilla buttercream
37g whole milk
15g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod
30g egg yolks
Further 15g caster sugar
100g softened unsalted butter
Method for the macaroon discs
Mix the ground almonds and icing sugar together. Liquidise or pulse in a food processor for 10 to seconds and push the resulting mixture through a sieve.
Put the egg whites into a mixing bowl with about one tenth of the caster sugar. Begin whisking at a medium speed (level 3 on a Kenwood electric mixer) until the mixture reaches the soft peak stage. Gradually whisk in the remaining caster sugar and whisk until the mixture becomes a smooth, glossy, stiff meringue.
Gradually fold in the sieved ground almond and icing sugar mix using a spatula. Do this in 3 or 4 batches. Continue to fold the mixture with the spatula until it becomes smooth and glossy and a little looser but not too runny for piping well.
Using a piping bag fitted with a nozzle in the range 7 to 10 (10 to 15 diameter) pipe individual macaroon discs 2cm in diameter onto a tray lined with silicone paper. Space them at least 3cm apart. Leave the macaroons to dry for 15 minutes or so before baking.
Place a second tray beneath the macaroons than place in an oven preheated to 160 degrees C. Turn the heat down to 140 degrees C and bake for anywhere between 12 to 18 minutes until the macaroons have puffed up a little and have coloured lightly. They should have cooked, crisp bases but still be soft in the centre. Start checking after 12 minutes.
Remove the cooked macaroons from the oven and immediately pour a little cold water onto the hot tray UNDER the baking paper to form steam and help release the macaroons from the paper. Allow to cool for 5 minutes or so then remove from the paper onto a cooling rack with help of a small crank handled palette knife. Leave to cool completely before sandwiching together with piped vanilla buttercream.
Method for vanilla buttercream
Heat together the milk, 15 g caster sugar and the vanilla pod. Bring to just below boiling point then remove from the heat, cover and allow to infuse for a few minutes.
In a large bowl, using a balloon whisk, whisk together the egg yolks and the other 15g sugar until the mixture lightens in coloured just a little. Remove the vanilla pod, scrape out the seeds and add to the mix. Pour the warm milk over the egg yolks and sugar and whisk together. Return the mix to the pan and, stirring the mixture with a spatula or wooden spoon, heat gently to 82 degrees C to make a custard/crème anglaise which has thickened just a little to the coating a spoon stage.
Pour the cooked custard into the bowl of a Kenwood mixer or equivalent and whisk at high speed until cool. The mixture should now be much thicker, pale in colour and softly creamy in texture.
Gradually incorporate the softened butter which you have previously creamed to ensure it’s the right texture for easy incorporation.
Keep cool if not using immediately and bring back to the right soft consistency for piping by gently warming OVER hot water.
That’s it – good luck with making these at home!
École Amateur Pavillon Elysée Lenôtre
10 avenue des Champs Elysées
Tel +33 (0)1 42 65 97 60
April 7, 2011 § Leave a comment
I’ve spend quite a long time hanging about in Zürich over the years returning home from various trips to the alps and much preferring to fly from Zürich rather than Geneva. If you find yourself in the same position and are feeling a bit hungry, then read on.
First of all, how long do you have before your flight home?
A trip to the Steiner bakery, Migros supermarket and Confiserie Sprüngli, all in the airport shopping complex will provide you with the wherewithall for a cheese fondue plus dainty dessert for your return home, or a superior snack to produce on your aircraft tray table to the envy of your fellow passengers.
And it’s your last chance to grab a Brezel, the chewy knotted bread addictively flavoured with lye (aka caustic soda – I kid you not) which was the European forerunner to the American pretzel. A far cry from the packets of dry industrial snacks we know as pretzels back home. Pick up a plain one or, if you prefer, a split and buttered one filled with cheese or ham to make a superior sandwich, at the “Brezel Koenig” (Pretzel King!) outlet at Zürich airport. Fast food with a Swiss twist…
Probably worth breaking your journey to the airport by getting off a couple of stops early at Zürich’s magnificent main station the Hauptbahnhof. Enjoy a last taste of Swiss food together with some great people-watching opportunities at the stately institution which is the Brasserie Féderal within the main station concourse. It makes me wonder why we don’t have decent restaurants in stations back home in the UK. We have to make do with a snatched stale baguette and a half gallon of overpriced milky coffee. I would love to see a proper station brasserie within Manchester’s characterful Piccadilly or Victoria station buildings but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon…
After your meal, you’ve probably still got time to wander into Zürich’s main shopping district to the Jelmoli department store, a bustling glass and steel building:
which hides its secret food hall, the Gourmet Factory, in its basement:
It’s a great place for browsing and for picking up odd delicacies like Hawaiian black salt, a handful of imported wild mushrooms, a pack of Piedmont rice to pop in your hand luggage.
Lucky you! It’s worth heading off to Zürich’s atmospheric Old Town for a light lunch or spot of afternoon tea at the glamorous Café Péclard at Schober. Café-Konditorei Schober was an old Zürich institution given a makeover in 2009 by restaurant entrepreneur Michel Péclard. Think of Péclard as a Swiss version of Oliver Peyton or Terence Conran. The building has been completely renovated but keeping the quirky charm of its various rooms – think chandeliers, exotic murals and red velvet chairs.
Péclard’s next step was to hire French master-pâtissier Patrick Mésiano, the 36 year old Niçois with a Joël Robuchon pedigree who now has outlets of his own in Antibes and Monaco as well as this new Zürich venture. Mésiano’s influence is immediately apparent in the displays of elegant macarons, pâtisserie and chocolate in the shop which fronts the café interior.
Gaze first of all at the elegant wedding cakes in the window:
Then head inside past the pâtisserie and chocolate displays and wait to be seated:
And enjoy a signature hot chocolate and a dainty morsel or two in one of the café’s elegant rooms.
A place to see and be seen, not just for entertaining your maiden aunt.
As you leave, you can’t fail to notice the inviting shopfront of Heinrich Schwarzenbach, tea and coffee supplier to Péclard at Schober plus supplier of groceries sourced from all over the world. A great place to browse by all accounts but sadly as it was a Sunday when I visited I had to content myself with window shopping:
8001 Zurich, Switzerland
+41 (0)44 217 15 15
+41 (0)44 220 44 11
Péclard at Schober
+41 (0)44 251 51 50
Schwarzenbach Kolonialwaren Kaffeerösterei
+41 (0)44 261 13 15
April 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
A second post from our recent ski trip to Engelberg in central Switzerland. Truthfully, it’s not too difficult finding handy places to eat here because of the more compact nature of the resort compared to say Klosters or Zermatt. Also, the piste map helpfully lists contact details and thumbnail photos for all 16 mountain restaurants.
Nevertheless, here’s my choice of four of the best, just right if you’re planning a long weekend here perhaps?
At the top of the Stand cable car, or, if you prefer, at the end of the itinerary run down from Klein Titlis, you’ll find the traditional-looking Skihütte Stand. Don’t be fooled by the wood-cladding – it’s a relatively newly built structure which is just a little too close to the cable car for comfort as gazing out of the window at the metal gantries intrudes on the mountain idyll just a little.
The interior is rustic too – lots of wooden beams, bare slate and spectacular hunting trophies.
They do a reasonably priced dish of the day here, plus lots of Swiss classic dishes including, unusually, a refined version of the Vaudois speciality Papet, braised leeks and potatoes topped with a whole smoked sausage:
The Bärghuis (a central Swiss spelling of the Haupt Deutsch Berghaus) is a proper mountain hut with bedrooms as well as functioning in the ski season as a busy and popular restaurant. You’ll find the sturdy dark wood shingle-clad building at the top of the Jochpass chairlift.
Inside, you’ll be seated on shared refectory style tables and served by waitresses with the latest electronic gadgetry – no paper orders and bills here. The food is a mixture of hearty Swiss classics plus lighter pasta dishes and salads. Here’s the pretty-as-picture rösti with smoked salmon and horseradish which I ate here:
From the Jochpass, continue over the Graustock ridge taking the blue Engstlenalp run down to the chairlift. Incidentally you are now in the new canton of Bern with stunning views to the Haslital and beyond. Now follow the signposted path to the Rossbodenhütte, a 20 minute or so skate, push and shuffle along a lakeside path where you might see fisherman patiently sitting beside the holes they’ve cut in the ice, eskimo style.
We arrived here for an afternoon snack after climbing up and skiing down the nearby Graustock. Here am I basking on the sunny terrace with local guide Frédy.
They do a skiiers’ and walkers’ lunch here and lots of homemade goodies at other times of the day. We tried the apple tart and local speciality Haslikuchen, a dense Bakewell style start but made with ground hazelnuts:
A plate of the prettiest homemade biscuits arrived afterwards on the house. They were as fresh as could be, still warm from the oven. I would love to get hold of the moulds to try making these at home:
Finally, the Flühmatt, a farmhouse on the Brunni side of the valley. The Brunni ski area is rather under-represented in my mountain restaurant round-up as we skiied exclusively on the other side of the valley where the best snow was to be found. I’m not even sure you can reach the Flühmatt easily on skis but you can certainly walk there through the fields and forests. This is what we did on an evening outing organised by our hotel.
After a descent from the Brunni cable car our party of 40 hotel guests floundered through fresh snow half an hour or so before the welcoming sight of the Flühmatt came into view round a final bend. We were greeted on the threshold by steaming glasses of mulled wine (hot apple juice for the children):
We took off and hung up our snow-covered outdoor things and were ushered through into the cosy low ceilinged wood-panelled dining room. Just one dish was on the menu, the central Swiss speciality of Älplermagronen, pasta tubes baked with cheese and cream, topped with crispy brown fried onions and served with generous dollops apple sauce. Sounds weird but it hits the spot after a hike in the snow.
A riotous torchlit walk (or rather, slide) home through the forest rounded off the evening perfectly.
+41 (0)41 639 50 85
+41 (0)41 637 11 87
+41 (0)79 810 55 55
+41 (0)41 637 16 60
April 2, 2011 § Leave a comment
Peter and Susanne Kuhn are the charming and mildly eccentric (in the nicest possible way) couple who run the Hotel Edelweiss in Engelberg, central Switzerland, where we spent our half term skiing holiday this year.
Engelberg is just 50 minutes by train from Lucerne and its encircling mountains are dead ringers for Himalayan peaks.
Talking of Himalayan peaks, more than 200 Bollywood movies have been filmed in and around Engelberg, a peaceful stand-in for war-torn Kashmir. Engelberg is now a Mecca (please excuse inappropriate cultural metaphor!) for wealthy middle class Indians who flock here in droves. This explains the rash of multilingual notices pinned up everywhere:
The monastery which dominates the Engelberg valley adds a further “Black Narcissus” vibe to the village:
The monks who founded the monastery not only gave Engelberg its name “the Angel Mountain” but also endowed the place with its own dairy so you can combine a cultural visit with a little cheese shopping. Both a traditional waxed hard cheese and the newer soft-rinded bell shaped “Engelberger Klosterglocke” are made on site:
Engelberg is a weird mixture of charming family resort – the Belle Epoque architecture lend the village a quaint nostalgic feel – and freeride skiing paradise “It has glaciers, cliffs, endless pillow lines – and some of the sickest snow anywhere” to quote a recent article in Fall Line magazine, the ski bum’s periodical of choice.
Here’s the solid imposing bulk of the Hotel Edelweiss where we spent our week:
And here am I, with mountain guide Frédy, contemplating some of Engelberg’s perfect untracked powder (yes, there really is some truth in the ski mag hyperbole):
Looking at the Engelberg piste map, regular French Three Valleys skiers might be a little sniffy at the apparently scant number of mainly red runs here. But it’s quality not quantity that counts – remember that from the Klein Titlis at 3028m it’s more than 2km of vertical drop down to the village at 1050m. That’s a figure that most heliski operators would fail to match in a day…
The Kuhns promote the Edelweiss as a family-friendly hotel. During half term week the hotel was indeed packed with mainly Dutch families, children of all ages everywhere. This could have been hideous but in fact the comfortable, spacious hotel and Peter and Susanne’s attention to organisation meant that all ran smoothly and calmly. Imagine a Mark Warner or Ski Esprit style establishment but run by experienced grown-ups rather than hung over gap year students!
We had a very relaxed and comfortable week, and as we left, I was delighted that Susanne, hearing of my interest in collecting recipes, handed me a photocopy from her treasured handwritten family recipe book:
Here’s my translation of the recipe from the Schwyzerdeutsch. The picture is a bit of a cheat as it’s not a carrot cake made by either my or Susanne’s fair hands but was taken at the very handy Steiner bakery at Zürich airport. This looks to be a very different version of carrot cake from the American version we’re all used to. It’s got me wondering where the first carrot cake recipe came from – is it a mittel European recipe that was taken to America, made richer, bigger, coated with cream cheese and exported back again?
Recipe for carrot cake
5 eggs, separated
zest of 1 lemon
75g flour sifted with1 teaspoon baking powder
250g finely grated carrots
150g ground hazelnuts
150g ground almonds
Prepare a 26cm round cake tin, preferably springform, by greasing and lining with fine dry breadcrumbs.
Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until the mixture becomes a thick, pale foam (you will need an electric mixer of some kind to achieve this).
Add the flour and baking powder mixture, the grated carrots and ground nuts.
Whisk the egg whites to the soft peak stage and fold in to the mixture.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake tin and spread with a spatula to level.
The temperature and cooking times quoted are for a fan oven. Bake for 15 minutes at 170 degrees C then lower the oven temperature to 150 degrees C and bake for a further 30-40 minutes.
Turn out onto a rack to cool. Then ice with a mixture of 200g icing sugar mixed with 2 dessertspoons of lemon juice and 2 dessertspoons of water and, if liked, decorate with 16 marzipan carrots.
I haven’t tried the recipe yet so would love to hear any feedback. And if you know anything about the history of carrot cake and how it arrived in the US I’d be really interested in hearing about it.
Phone: +41 41 639 78 78
Fax: +41 41 639 78 88
Show Cheese Factory at the Engelberg Monastery
CH-6390 Engelberg, Switzerland
Phone +41 41 638 08 88
Fax +41 41 638 08 87