Remember when I was in Paris and my friend Meg Zimbeck, the founder of Paris by Mouth, went zipping around town shopping for dinner at my place? Remember when she returned with a fabulous assortment of pastries? Minutes after she took pictures of them, we served them to friends and whoooosh, they were gone. All that was left was the smiles.
Well, Meg's done it again. This time, she's rounded up some of the season's first strawberry pastries from shops in Saint Germain des Prés, my neighborhood and one of Paris by Mouth's most popular neighborhoods for their tours. And yes, I wish I were there to taste them all, but I'm so happy to look at them, to marvel at their beauty and to be inspired by their flavors.
My first taste on my first trip to Paris was a strawberry tartlette and I'm convinced it changed my life. (It's a story I'll write for you one day.) When a taste, a dish, a pastry makes such a powerful impression, it's easy to think that nothing will ever be as good. But hooray - Parisian strawberry tarts continue to be heart-capturing. The classic is a crust of pâte sablée or sucrée, like a shortbread cookie, a little pastry cream and some fresh berries. But there are new takes on the tart. Take a look at these.
Hugo et Victor is one my favorite patisseries in the neighborhood - I love their crusts. This tart is called by its most traditional name, but tucked into the pâte sablée is almond cream/frangipane, lemon crémeux (crémeux is a blend of crème anglaise and chocolate - here, I'm guessing it's white chocolate, which would hold the flavor of lemon nicely) and candied strawberries. On top there are French gariguette strawberries (a favorite variety among pastry chefs) and some zest.
I know this doesn't look like a tart, so stretch your imagination and think about how these elements come together: pâte sucrée, a round of lime sponge cake, a crispy almond round, vanilla mousse, a compote of strawberries, whipped white chocolate-vanilla ganache and a gariguette strawberry. I'm imagining some crunch (the crust and almond disk), some softness (the sponge, mousse and ganache), some sweetness (mousse and ganache) and some acidity (the lime sponge and the berries, both cooked and fresh). I think I could love this - a lot!
The classic charlotte is, most simply, a band of ladyfingers encasing a mousse or a cream of some kind, often a bavarian cream - think trifle or a kind of berry tiramisù. For the traditionalists, there are specific charlotte molds that are round and tall with small heart-shaped handles that you can grip with your fingertips when you turn out the pastry. Modern charlottes are not often made in these kinds of molds, but are more likely to be constructed of layers of syrup-soaked ladyfingers or light sponge cake and cream, encircled by ladyfingers. I love that they're sometimes finished with a ribbon around their middles. Of course, today there aren't any rules.
This charlotte is more like a trompe l'oeil - inside there are two slim layers of almond sponge (standing in for the more traditional ladyfingers) sandwiching a compote of fresh strawberries. There's a dome of mousse and then that gleaming glaze. Don't you love the little hull at the top of the pastry?
The word fraisier means strawberry bush, and Le Fraisier is the French cake that celebrates the fruit. It’s a classic in pâtisseries all over the country, and as close to a strawberry shortcake as the French get, even though there’s nothing short about it. It’s a grand cake that heralds spring and the arrival of the first berries from Provence.
The base of the traditional cake is a génoise (a sponge cake) which is often baked in a thin sheet and then cut into two squares and moistened with syrup. This sweet is all about the berries and cream and the skinny cake is just there to frame them. For the classic Fraisier look, some berries are halved from top to bottom and stood up all around the outside of the cake, their cut sides facing out, and then whole berries are lined up snugly to cover the bottom layer of the cake. In the "old days," the strawberry forest was enveloped in buttercream before the top layer of cake was settled over the filling. Back then, the top was sometimes decorated with a layer of rolled-out almond paste, often colored green.
Here's a look at two fairly traditional Fraisiers.
This fraisier stands on a base of almond dacquoise (an almond meringue). The strawberries are planted in a swath of lightened vanilla pastry cream and it's all topped with a spread of candied strawberry gelée, a rick-rack of whipped cream and a few fresh red currants. (Why don't we see currants more often in America?) It's got an old-fashioned look, which I find charming.
The pastry chef Philippe Conticini, who is known as an innovator, calls this pastry regressive, meaning it will take you back to your childhood (if only I had a childhood that included such pastries - refer back to my mom). The cake part is a soft pain de Gênes, a biscuit made with almond paste. There's a jam of blueberries, strawberries, cassis, rasberries and currants, inside and on top. Cut strawberries are pressed into a vanilla cream and, in an echo of the old-time fraisiers, there's a circle of almond paste on the crown. Here's an annotated cross-section of the sweet - when you get to the page, scroll down for it.
And here's a new spin on the classic:
Michalak, he of the looks-like-a-berry charlotte (scroll up), has a style that's often dubbed "rock 'n' roll" - partly because of his personal style and mostly because he plays fast and wild with color, shape and flavor combos in his pastry. Nothing about this small pastry - which, at first glance, I thought might be a beverage of some kind - calls out fraisier except the berry on top. It's almost as much a pistachio dessert as a strawberry sweet. Inside, there's a little layer of pistachio biscuit topped with strawberry compote (he uses Ciflorette berries) and surrounded by pistachio diplomat cream - a light pastry cream that's stabilized with a little gelatin. The whole thing is wrapped in a chocolate band and topped with lots more pistachios and that one, beautiful strawberry.
IN A COUPLE OF WEEKS, I'm hoping there'll be local berries here and that I'll be able to make my own little tarts. (If you want even more inspiration for strawberry-tarting, take a look at how it's done at Maison Aleph in Paris.) Until then, I'll be dreaming of these beauties.
Dream! And if you have sweet dreams - or make sweet desserts! - let me know. And if you have a favorite strawberry dessert - do you? - let me know that too.