When I first lived in Paris, five years ago, I was amazed by the quality of the cakes in every patisserie I saw. Several years later and, I like to think, a more judicious customer, I think that most cakes aren't worth eating. One reason is that I have been spoilt by many a trip to Ladurée. Another is that, let's face it, with all the fabulous recipe books out there and my fellow bloggers' delectable postings, homemade cake is easy and really very good indeed. So good, in fact, that there is little reason to go elsewhere, unless elsewhere happens to be a very good place for cake indeed.
A place like LeNôtre in Paris, for instance. I was sad to find out that Gaston LeNôtre, the greatest pâtissier of his time, died recently at the age of 88. A pastry genius and family man, a shrewd and passionate innovator, he is a great loss to France and the world, and is respected and admired worldwide. He was known for his passion and experimentation, for having survived shifting trends with his sheer talent. He formed Pierre Hermé, chocolatier extaordinaire (who works with Dorie Greenspan) and worked with the great Alain Ducasse.
The Times published a wonderful obituary for LeNôtre, and it is fascinating because it also provides a lovely background to the world of French pastry. Please click here to read it. There is a LeNôtre shop on the Seine that I walk by on my way from work every day. It is not a touristy area: clearly the clients here are local residents.
The other day I thought I would splurge on some cake, having been disappointed by the relative expense and blandness of my local patisserie's offerings. I said to myself: 'Vanessa, if you're going to buy rather than bake cake (not to mention consume so many calories), it had better be good'.
So you could say that my stop at LeNôtre was a type of experiment. I am enjoying baking so much but I want to test myself and try to understand what makes the better stuff better than the average patisserie's offerings, what differentiates it from the sorts of things I have found in cookery books. And let me tell you: the cakes I bought far surpassed my expectations.
I went in with the intention of buying two cakes. Not the largest, prettiest of cakes (LeNôtre's presentation is indisputably magnificent, but therein did not lie my quest). I thought I'd try my luck with two humbler offerings: a tarte au citron and a chestnut (marrons) cake. How to describe to you the tastes that lingered on my tongue? The Marrons cake was a slim affair, coated in a thin layer of icing (one side white, the other dark brown). Inside was a thick chestnut ganache, nestling on soft almond sponge in the crumbiest most sublime pastry boat imaginable. Pastry is normally the boring part of a decadent dessert; not here.
The tart au citron was smooth and creamy, slightly tart, slightly sweet; in short, perfect. In this photo I tried to show the different layers of citron curd inside. The top layer is transparent, the next layer is harder and gets softer (probably with the addition of crème anglaise) closer to the buttery flaky pastry.
This made me realise - not that I really needed reminding - that there are certain baking heights to which I can't aspire. These are no brownies or sponge cakes, these are cake-desserts with a myriad of layers, delicate steps and meticulous measurements and temperatures involved. I realised that there are cake heights I sadly won't ever reach, a certain flare that cannot be taught. All I can say is this: thank goodness the results can be bought!
PS: I looked into pastry courses at LeNôtre. A five day course costs 1,800 euros! 'Nuff said!