On any morning, stroll up to the pastry case at Lafayette, Andrew Carmellini's French restaurant in Downtown Manhattan, and you will feel transported to Paris: the hushed atmosphere, the blue and white tiles, the rainbow display of macarons, perfect entremets and petit gâteaux in straight rows like the girls in Madeline.
The pastry case, however, is an optical illusion: Pastry chef Jen Yee's desserts and morning viennoiserie aren't as traditional as they appear at first blush. Coconut and banana find their way into the folds of chocolate croissants, while at Thanksgiving, pumpkin pie flavors snuck their way into éclairs. And this winter, we spotted little plastic vials of alcohol protruding from mini boozy cakes, ready for diners to add a drunken dose. Yee's culinary playfulness matched by her mastery of classic technique has become the bakery's signature since it opened in 2013.
Photo: Courtesy of Lafayette
And this Valentine's Day is no exception. "I thought for all of the valentine pastries, we should have a blue valentine pastry," Yee explains while making a batch of lightly sweet raspberry cream puffs (see the recipe) in the restaurant's chocolate room, a sardine can-size space off to the side of the large subterranean kitchen.
At the restaurant, the blue valentines take the form of éclairs, stuffed with cream and house-made raspberry jam, and topped with white chocolate conversation bubbles that spell out playful phrases like "swipe left," "stop texting" or "I'd rather be single." They're intended for "valentine's grinches," Yee jokes, or for those who aren't celebrating. And to "poke fun at the holiday that so many people treat as a very romantic day," she adds. It's a welcome alternative to the cloying treats that pop up this time of year.
Her friends helped her come up with some of the phrases: "I got 'swipe left' from one of my friends. . . . I have no idea what that means, because I've been married for so long," she says. "We work with a lot of young people in the kitchen, and they help me with the modern vernacular," she adds, laughing.
The raspberry cream puffs she's making for us are an easier version of the éclair (Yee explains that making éclairs at home, even for an experienced chef can be tricky), and while you could adorn them with candy hearts, like we did, you could certainly make them a bit more tongue in cheek.
Valentine's Day isn't a particularly special day for Yee and her husband—like most people in the restaurant industry, she's usually working. Outside of the pastry kitchen, Yee says, "I'm actually not super feminine. . . . I'm a jeans and T-shirt kind of person. I'm more of a tomboy, so maybe I get that dainty pretty outlet through my pastry."
We have to agree—her desserts are spectacularly beautiful. But Yee herself is anything but a cream puff.
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