Saturday, September 22, 2012

French Shortbread Cookies and my story of Pâtisserie Lerch

Some years ago in September, when summer tourists were gone and the air was getting cooler in Paris, I went there to visit a friend and gave myself a grand tour of dozens of great well-known patisseries, chocolatiers and boulangeries.

Every day for a week I bicycled all over Paris to taste the world’s great pastries and breads. Paris is pretty flat, so bicycling is the perfect mode of transportation. No worries about traffic, parking or the many narrow one-way streets, plus you can stop whenever you want for a cup of tea, take a short break to enjoy picture-perfect scenery and more easily make new discoveries.

Most of the shops are concentrated near the center of the city, on either side of the Seine River.
Some of them are old and classic, some are young and modern, and some are gorgeous and grand in scale, but they are all in Paris, which means everything is perfectly, harmoniously melted into one great city. Think about the huge glass, modern pyramid of the Louvre Museum surrounded by centuries-old buildings. Paris is the only city in the world that can create such artistic dynamics. The French are very good at that.

Each day I visited 4-5 shops, and bought as much as I could eat or carry to enjoy later in the day or even share with strangers. I often bought way too much. Every moment was a great pleasure, of course, but I work in food for a living, so it was my business and educational duty – I had absolutely no guilt doing it.

Frankly, I am more of a wine and cheese person than a lover of sweets, but I never got tired of tasting and enjoying endless varieties of delicious, hand-crafted baked creations that week.

Pastry and bread are great throughout France, but Paris is very special. You can find almost anything you can imagine in Paris, and not only at famous shops. There are many excellent small pâtesseries and boulangeries in every neighborhood.

My first visit was to one of the oldest shops in Paris, Stohrer on Livery Street near Les Halles.
I loved their famous puits d’amours, or “wells of love” – small round puff pastries filled with vanilla cream and caramel. The baba au rhum were so delicious; Criolo, layers of chocolate, mousse, biscuit and almond cake, was to die for.

The classic and elegant Laduree on rue Royal near Madeleine, with their dark wood paneled tea
room, brought me back to the late 19th century, and their beautiful classic French pastries and famous macarons in the display case are irresistible. I also enjoyed a cup of tea and tea sandwiches at the upstairs cafe... heaven!

The most gorgeous and grand-scale of the pâtesseries is Lenotre. Dalloyau is famous for its
gateau opera. The former head chocolate maker from La Maison du Chocolat, Michel Chaudun, has his own high-end collection of shops, as does Jean-Paul Hevin, former pastry chef at the Nikko Hotel and winner of many pastry awards/competitions in the ‘70s and ‘80s

Then there’s the small but very wonderful neighborhood pâtisserie Gérard Mulot in the 6th arrondissement – I loved their rectangular-shaped brioche pastry filled with pastry cream and small chocolate chips. Marcel Haupois’s creations are simple yet classic, and very delicious. The shop was located on rue des Deux-Ponts, on The Ile Saint-Louis (island in the middle of the Seine) and is a solitary but splendid store, and Marcel is truly an artisan. Berthillon is also located in Ile Saint-Louis. Their ice cream was excellent, especially the chocolate.

The renowned boulangeries of Max Poilâne, Maison Kayser and Jean-LucPoujauran on the Left Bank and Ganachaud in the 20th arrondissement baked not only great bread, but the pastry was equally delicious.

But... a tiny, rustic shop called Pâtisserie-Boulangerie Alsacienne Lerch on rue Cardinal-Lemoine, a quiet street just a block from the Seine on the left bank in the 5th touched my coeur deeply. I had heard about this shop and its artisan chef/owner André Lerch and his wife,
Madame Dénise. However when I arrived at the shop, I was a bit surprised by the simple, rustic storefront and tiny interior. 

It was around late morning... I parked my bike just in front and entered the shop. A white-haired old man in a white chef jacket welcomed me immediately with a friendly smile, and his wife
Madame Dénise greeted me from behind the pastry display case. The inside of the shop was decorated simply but neatly in a style typical of their home province of Alsace. It felt very homey and comfortable. I was the only customer at the time. I didn’t speak French and they didn’t speak English, but they tried very nicely to answer  my questions, and gave generous samples of their goods... it was such a joy.

André was a well-known and regarded pastry chef in Paris, but he was just like a nice old man in the neighborhood. I was a bit ashamed, because I was dressed too casually (shorts and t-shirt) to be talking to a great Parisian chef. I purchased croissants, madeleines, apple tart, raspberry tart, small kugelhopf, pain d’Epice, cheese cake, onion tart... I can’t really remember. And they started to worry about how I would carry everything while riding a bike. I told them I would get a taxi. I ate (or at least tasted) quite a few things right in the shop, and after every bite I would show a big thumbs up, upon which Monsieur and Madame Lerch would break into big smiles. 

It was such a wonderful experience, one that I will never forget. They were so modest and kind. And just when I was leaving they gave me some cookies in a paper bag – some very delicious, small “sables,” soft, light and delicate. I sampled them on the Pont de la Tournelle looking down the Seine with the tour boats going by and Norte Dame right in front of me. I had been thinking that my first stop for my next trip to Paris would be to visit Pâtisserie Lerch again, but I heard he and his wife closed the shop more than a few years ago, and nobody knows where they are. 

Note: Pâtisserie Lerch was just across the street from the legendary 3-star restaurant Tour d‘Argent. I learned later that M. Lerch’s pastries had many famous fans, including former French presidents, singer Georges Moustaki, actress Catherine Deneuve, and well-known café and restaurant owners, besides a faithful coterie of neighbors in the Latin Quarter (Left Bank).

Lemon Butter Cookies -- Sablés

Recipe adapted from Pâtisserie Lerch from Paris Sweets: Great Desserts from the City's Best Pastry Shops by Dorie Greenspan.

Prep time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Yield: Makes about 50 cookies 

Cookies don't get simpler or more satisfying than sablés, the basic butter cookie of France. They are homey, simple cookies that are sometimes flavored not at all (the better to show off their wholesome all-butter goodness) and sometimes given a spot of flavor, subtle or bold. At old-fashioned Pâtisserie Lerch, M. Lerch, whose affection for cookies is evident, generously flavors his sables with lemon zest and coats their edges with sugar so they emerge from the oven with a touch of sparkle.
Because the dough is made with confectioners sugar, the cookies are softer and more tender than most butter cookies, but because they are rolled into logs and sliced-and-baked, they are easier to make than many of their buttery brethren.

There are just two things you must remember when you make these sablés, tips M. Lerch passed along to me. First, be gentle when you mix in the flour. Tender cookies depend on a tender touch, so you don't want to rough up the flour and activate the gluten. Second, give the logs of dough a nice long rest in the refrigerator. Refrigerating the dough relaxes the gluten and also helps the cookies hold their shape during slicing and baking.

2 sticks (8 ounces; 230 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup (70 grams) confectioners sugar, sifted
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1 to 1 1/2 lemons (to taste)
2 cups (280 grams) all-purpose flour
Approximately 1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar, for coating

1. Put the butter in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat at medium speed until it is smooth. Add the sifted confectioners’ sugar and beat again until the mixture is smooth and silky. Beat in 1 of the egg yolks, followed by the salt, vanilla, and grated lemon zest. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour, beating just until it disappears. It is better to under beat than overbeat at this point; if the flour isn't fully incorporated, that's OK—just blend in whatever remaining flour needs blending with a rubber spatula. Turn the dough out onto a counter, gather it into a ball, and divide it in half. Wrap each piece of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

2. Working on a smooth surface, form each piece of dough into a log that is about 1 to 1 1/4 inches (2.5 to 3.2 cm) thick. (Get the thickness right, and the length you end up with will be fine and should be about 10-11 inch long.) Wrap the logs in plastic and chill for 2 hours. (The dough can be wrapped airtight and kept refrigerated for up to 3 days or stored in the freezer for up to 1 month.)

3. Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

4. While the oven is preheating, work on the sugar coating: Whisk the remaining egg yolk in a small bowl until it is smooth and liquid enough to use as a glaze. Spread the sugar out on a piece of wax paper. Remove the logs of dough from the refrigerator, unwrap them, and brush them lightly with a little egg yolk. Roll the logs in the sugar, pressing the sugar gently to get it to stick if necessary, then, using a sharp slender knife, slice each log into cookies about 1/4 inch (7 mm) thick. (You can make these thicker if you'd like; just bake them longer.) Place the cookies on the lined baking sheets, leaving about 1/2 inch (1.5 cm) space between them.

5. Bake the cookies for 12 to 14 minutes, or until they are set but not browned. (It's fine if the yolk-brushed edges brown a smidgen.) Transfer the cookies to cooling racks to cool to room temperature.
Keeping: Packed airtight, the cookies will keep for about 5 days at room temperature. Because the sugar coating will melt, these cookies are not suitable for freezing.

Chocolate Sables: I used 1/4 cup Valrhona's unsweetened cocoa powder instead of lemon zest.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Making Fresh Soba Noodles

I am Japanese – I was born and grew up in Tokyo. That means I love soba (buckwheat noodles) and I have all my life. Soba is a truly unique Japanese noodle. It is served cold with dipping sauce in the hot/steamy summer, or in a warm broth with a flavorful variety of garnishes in winter.

There are a few Japanese restaurants serving soba in the San Francisco Bay Area, but none has ever satisfied my palate like the soba that I grew up with. Perhaps because soba here (in restaurants and stores) is the dried product imported from Japan.

I met Minami-san the first time about 5 years ago. I had gotten a call from a good friend who told me that one of his sailing boat crew loved soba and knew how to make Teuchi soba (hand-crafted soba) AND he was going to show us soba making and let us taste his craft. I was so excited. It was a great time watching the soba making and then tasting it. His soba had a perfect firm texture, and the taste was what you can only get from freshly-made hand-crafted noodles.

Minami-san is truly into soba making. He works for an IT company for a living, but soba  is his passion. He not only has all the traditional tools (purchased in Japan), but has everything authentic, from the head scarf to the apron, just like a professional soba maker.

I recently asked him to teach me soba making and he generously accepted my request for a private lesson. On Labor Day I visited his home in the heart of Silicon Valley. It was a hot day – perfect for tasting cold soba. I was again impressed with his perfected technique and fast movements... just like a professional soba maker with many years of experience. It was a joy to watch and learn his craft. I’ve been a chef for many years and can make pretty good Italian-style pasta, but I am now a bit hesitant to make my own soba noodles. It is truly hard, artisan work!

This photo is Zaru Soba, I made it next days at my home, served with cold dipping sauce (made from dried seafood, mirin and soy sauce), finely sliced scallion, sesame seed, wasabi and Shichimi (seven taste) chili pepper as condiments.

Traditional Japanese flour sifter

Zaru soba is typically served with shrimp and vegetable tempura.
Minami-san's Oku-san (wife) made very tasty tempura.

Minami-san is a great sailor, too. He is my new hero!

Click the site below for Soba Making PowerPoint slide show: