French People Don't Bake
Whether it's learning to tie a scarf or how to eat croissants and maintain a slender figure, we always seem to be looking for ways to be more like the French. It might not ever happen, but when we attempt to bake like the French, there's no better guide than Dorie Greenspan. The James Beard Award-winning cookbook author spends part of each year living in Paris, and in her latest book, Baking Chez Moi, she shares the recipes she's collected from nearly two decades of eating, baking and making friends in France.
Given the title of the book, it's little surprising when Greenspan declares, "Real French people don't bake." Greenspan may be an expert in the art of classic French pâtisserie—she's written books with Julia Child and Pierre Hermé—but as she spent more and more time in France, she came to realize that the locals never make the fancy, time-consuming desserts we associate with French pastry. They go to bakeries for that sort of thing and, instead, make simple cookies, cakes and tarts at home.
Baking Chez Moi does include cannelés, éclairs and other more elaborate French pastries, as well as some chef creations, but most of the offerings come from Greenspan and her friends and are perfectly suited to the average home baker. The recipes can seem long, but that's only because they're so thorough. It's also because Greenspan's style has more in common with prose than standard—some might say robotic—recipe language.
Vanilla-Bean Sablés are edible proof of Greenspan's expertise when it comes to classic French pastry. Don't even think about straying from her step-by-step instructions, which deliver the most perfectly crumbly and tender cookies you can imagine. Vanilla beans are expensive, but for this recipe, they're worth it, adding tremendous flavor and giving the cookies an attractive speckled appearance. I second Greenspan's tip to use the leftover pods to make vanilla sugar; it's a versatile extra to have in your pantry and gives you a little more return on your investment.
Petite Apple Croustades are Greenspan's streamlined interpretation of a dessert by the late Jean-Louis Palladin. In place of the chef's multistep broiling process, Greenspan butters and sugars sheets of phyllo dough before layering and wrapping them to create fruit-filled bundles that are baked in a muffin tin. The resulting pastry delivers a pure and satisfying apple experience; it's also delicately textured, generously buttery and slightly boozy. You could skip the Armagnac, but I wouldn't. Whether you use that or one of the substitutes, liquor makes this dessert more sophisticated and all the more French. The croustades can be made a few hours ahead and warmed before serving, but they're really at their best when baked fresh. And as Greenspan mentions, adding vanilla ice cream would not be a mistake.
Marquise au Chocolat, a sleek frozen chocolate mousse, is the kind of dessert every host should have in their repertoire. Chocolate is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, and people are always impressed with anything homemade and frozen. Still, the real genius of this recipe is that it's both incredibly easy to prepare and is made completely in advance. In fact, if well wrapped, you can freeze this beauty for a full month. (I recommend using a chocolate that you really love, because that will be the most prominent flavor.) The steps mainly involve beating and folding—be gentle but thorough. While you don't want to deflate the mousse, any unmixed sections will show up as streaks, which will only detract from the dessert's deep, dark handsomeness.
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