Pierre Hermé’s Aztec Entremets

Pierre Hermé's Aztec Entremets

As many of you guessed, the dessert for our dinner party last Saturday was ever so kindly contributed by pâtisserie expert and enthusiast Ulrich, he-who-works-with-Pierre-Hermé. You see, Pierre Hermé is a perfectionist and it really shows in the simple beauty of his creations. Extreme and skillful care is taken in the preparation, but once in a while of course, something goes wrong. In that case the product cannot possibly be sold as is, and whoever in the staff is interested (and the quickest, I guess) can have it.

And this is how Ulrich was able to bring a large Aztec cake (more precisely, Pierre Hermé’s cakes are called “entremets”). I will describe the Aztec cake for you, but before I do so, I feel I have to warn you to please take any action you deem appropriate to protect your keyboard from accidental saliva spillage. Ready? Here we go. The Aztec cake starts with a bottom layer of muesli biscuit, crunchy and tender at the same time, with teeny tiny bits of dried fruits and nuts. Then come several intermixed layers of flourless chocolate cake, dense and moist ; orange compote with balsamic vinegar, zesty and aromatic ; and chocolate mousse with specks of fleur de sel, mellow and soft with the subtle shadow of salt. These layers are topped by a final thin layer of macaron-like almond meringue. All of this is wrapped in a shawl of glossy frosting, of a deep dark chocolate color, luscious and velvety. The final touch of beauty on this cake is a disk of caramel, delicate and thin, brushed with a smooth and shiny sugar coating, the color of copper with specks of gold, deposited on four small dice of ganache, and seemingly floating just a few millimeters above the cake, like a nimbus.

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Which Came First Donburi

Which Came First Donburi

And this is the delicious main course that Maxence concocted for our dinner party this past Saturday! The recipe is from the same “Cooking Class Japanese” cookbook as his last cooking stint. I have taken the liberty to rename the dish though. Well, yeah, if I don’t cook, I have to at least do something!

In the book, the recipe is called “Chicken and Egg on Rice“, but the original witty Japanese name is “Oyakodon”, meaning “Mother and Child Donburi“. In case you’re not familiar with the term, “Donburi” means “bowl”, and in a typical case of metonymy, it is also the name of any dish served atop a bowl of cooked rice. This mother and child thing sounded somewhat morally disturbing, so I took matters into my own hands and decided, with no disrepect whatsoever for this traditional dish, to call it the Which Came First Donburi. Just because it amuses me. So there.

If anything (other than his talent of course), Maxence’s take on cooking a main course for eight proved this : we have two very different approaches to menu planning. Where I spend a whole week consulting, researching, thinking, leafing, jotting, striking, imagining and just generally obsessing, here’s what Maxence does : picks up the recipe book at 4pm on D-Day, two whole minutes before we are to go to the Japanese supermarket. Flicks through the recipes. Finds one that’s appealing. And… stops right there. Writes down what he needs. Closes the book. Gets up. Says “ok, let’s go!”.

I am Jack’s flabbergasted befuddlement.

And I must say, his style yields excellent results. We found everything we needed at the Japanese supermarket – a great store but pretty crowded on a Saturday afternoon – including a beautiful set of large shiny black bowls. Maxence prepared all of the ingredients ahead, and started the actual cooking after we were done with the first course.

We all enjoyed this very much : the eggs, still a little runny, have a creamy texture that complements the strips of chicken very well ; the shiitake pieces are their chewy and tasty selves ; the chives are very aromatic ; and all these elements, together with the excellent California rice, make for a very satisfying dish. With the added bonus automatically awarded to anything served in a bowl and eaten with chopsticks.

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Fig and Pear Salad with Bresaola

Salade Figue et Poire à la Bresaola

[Fig and Pear Salad with Bresaola]

While planning the menu for our Saturday night dinner party, I realized I hardly ever serve salad as a first course. I’ll often use salad to accompany the star item, like a tartlet or a bruschetta or a mousse or a slice of terrine or what-have-you, but it is rarely a salad in its own right. I’m sorry.

I guess this is because salads don’t sound like they’ll be much fun to prepare : they’re pretty easy, it’s just a lot of ingredient preparation before the final tossing-together. But this time, I reflected that they can be nicely colorful and light, a fresh and satisfying opener served with good bread. And the added value is really in the pairing ideas, so I decided to explore that route, and composed this fig and pear salad with bresaola.

The idea came from a sandwich I recently ate at Cojean, a trendy healthy fast-food place that serves deliciously fresh products. It’s one of my absolute faves for a quick lunch, and I have written a review for Bonjour Paris (Note : it is in the premium content area of the site, for which you need a subscription, but I encourage you to consider getting one : it will open the door to a wealth of interesting and witty articles — and there is a money-back guarantee if you don’t like it).

Last time I had lunch there, in addition to my delicious spelt and green bean salad with hazelnuts, I enjoyed a mini-sandwich of fresh fig, pear, bresaola, and Fourme d’Ambert, on a loaf of whole-wheat walnut bread. Bresaola is an Italian specialty of dried beef, lean and moist, cut in paper-thin slices ; Fourme d’Ambert is a blue cheese from Auvergne. It was excellent, and the idea stuck in my mind, to be transformed into this salad. I substituted mozzarella for the Fourme d’Ambert though, because I thought blue cheese was a little too sharp for the ensemble.

This salad turned out pretty and tasty, and I loved the way the different elements came together : sweetness from the fig and pear, saltiness from the bresaola strips, mellow and tender mozzarella, crunchy slightly bitter walnuts, and tangily dressed greens.

We served it with fresh baguette, or more precisely the beautiful fresh heart-shaped baguettes the Boulangépicier makes for Valentine’s Day this year!

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Fresh Goat Cheese Truffles

Fresh Goat Cheese Truffles

Truffes de Chèvre Frais

On Saturday night, we threw a little dinner party at home. A “little” dinner party for eight dear friends : Joseph (originally from Nashville but living in France, whom I met two years ago at an IT recruiting show — we were struck by a sense of recognition, being equally bored to tears) and his wife Séverine, our almost neighbors Olivier and Anne, whom we had met at Joseph and Séverine’s wedding last May, as well as Ulrich and Carine, whom we had met at Olivier and Anne’s housewarming party, Ulrich being the friend who works with Pierre Hermé. Pictured here from left to right are Maxence, Carine, Ulrich, Séverine, Joseph, Olivier and Anne (Thanks for lightening up the pic, John! :).

We had the most lovely evening, and it actually wasn’t as much work as it may sound : Maxence took care of the main course, and one of our friends (I’ll let you guess who that was and wait patiently for the post about it) had kindly offered to bring the dessert.

This felt very unusual, since I’m usually more than happy to take on the whole caboodle, but I’ll admit it’s really nice that way too, once in a while! So my mission that night was to take care of the pre-dinner nibbles and the first course, and this is what I made to eat with the apéritif : mini balls of fresh goat cheese, rolled in various coatings.

As always in this kind of recipe, the limit is the sky on what coatings to use : rummage through your pantry, check your vegetable drawer or your herb garden, browse through your spice rack, and come up with your own personal selection of nuts, spices, chopped herbs, dried herbs and various seasonings. I used paprika, breadcrumbs and garlic powder, bicolor toasted sesame seeds, and herbes de Provence.

Anything more or less dry and more or less powdered will work. Just keep in mind that it should have enough flavor to shine through the goat cheese and compliment it, but not so much flavor that a full coating of it will choke your guests (unless of course this is your intention). For instance, if you want to use cumin or ginger or red pepper flakes, which is an excellent idea, do mix these with something milder, like dry breadcrumbs or a chopped herb or crumbled plain crackers.

Make sure the marbles are equal in size , choose coatings of different colors, and you will create the prettiest plate of amuse-bouches.

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Where Else to Find Me

Where Else to Find Me

To my great pleasure, I have been asked to contribute to another website, called Bonjour Paris. Bonjour Paris is a gateway for people who love France in general and Paris in particular, where you can find great articles on the culture and language and food of France, on the Parisian way of life, as well as great ressources to plan your trip, what to see and where to stay.

The Bonjour Paris team is great to work with, and I will happily write a bi-monthly column there, called “A Parisian Home Chef“. My latest article is about the goodies you can get in Paris for Valentine’s Day this year…

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