8 Sep 2010

Foregone and Forgotten?

A nostalgic reminiscence of what appears to be the now-forgotten French pastries of my childhood. Although they have disappeared from my environment, if you do happen to spot them when out on your travels, do let me know!

However if these pastries seem to have defected the shelves of the modern pâtisserie shop, I hope that by talking about them I will trigger a mission in others to help me revive their popularity, while at the same time I will be attempting to understand why they simply vanished off the radar in the first place.

L'Etoile (star-shaped cream puff): This one probably stood at the top of my viennoiserie paradise and it held a starry role in my childhood. It was soft, light, fun and uncomplicated, a complete kid-pleaser consisting of fluffy choux pastry shaped into a star the diameter of an adult's hand, and finished with a sprinkle of sucre grélon (thick decorative hailstone-like sugar grains). Why did the stars shoot out of sight and into oblivion? It could be that they were tricky to assemble, easy to tangle or break off, took lots of space on the shelf and didn't fit nicely in a standard paper bag... In the 1980s, they gradually got replaced with the chouquettes (an adult version of the star, according to I, same recipe but without the fun and shape!). The chouquette, a northern speciality, literally means 'petit choux', a miniature choux, sprinkled with grélon sugar.

Le Cornet à la Crème (cream cornetto): I saw this filling viennoiserie as a winter ice cream, available from bakeries mainly. It was made up of rolled puff pastry shaped into a cornetto and filled to the brim with set crème pâtissière. The cornets for sale were handily propped inside a deep flutted brioche tin on the bakery counter. Once I'd bought my cornet, I would eat it the same way I would an cornetto ice cream, for that ultimate pretence! So then, what happened to the cornets of this world? I presume they were made in the first place using a surplus of pastry and cream. Maybe bakers and pâtissiers learnt to be more efficient with their usage and stocks, and the need for those pâtisseries just died out as a result... Or maybe it is a bit more complicated than that.

Le Gland (acorn-shaped cream cake): I remember my grandma treating me to those pretty and incredibly morish pastries. As a child, they were tricky to eat and potentially messy. Those slightly flattened acorn-shaped choux were filled with crème pâtissière (flavoured with a hint of kirsch), and topped with a pistachio-coloured sugar icing and a sprinkle of dark chocolate flakes at the narrow end of the acorn. Although still on the scene today (but less represented nationwide), the gland has encountered competition in the form of other figurines (cute little pig or the green fig in Corsica) which are coated in almond paste (as opposed to sugar icing)...

Le Cygne (praline custard-filled swan-shaped cream puff): If you loved Paris-Brest gâteau (pictured below), but couldn't justify the expense or the size, then your individual portion of Paris-Brest did the trick impeccably: choux pastry (a recurrent theme it seems in our article!) packaged into the shape of a swan - no less - with a delicate filling of praline-flavoured whipped cream, for that moment of indulgence a child could not resist: 'Mum, I promise I'll tidy my room!' The tiny Pâtisserie Courtaux, at the bottom of la rue de Paris, made the best cygnes I could wish for. Since, the swans seem to have defected to sunnier climates after the pâtissier retired. The only Paris-Brests I can source these days are either in their original ring-shaped format or miniature version... The swans were probably too fiddly and fragile to make it into the 21st century...

La crème de la crème: Paris-Brest gâteau

And for good measure, I'll dedicate this last one to my mum who regrets the fact it has been pimped up and replaced by a bunch of colourful impostors:

Le Macaron (macaroon): So no, I won't be praising those scarily perfectly-formed coloured designer fixtures of the pâtisserie scene that play tricks on the colour-blind. The ones my mum is on about were bigger in size, more consistent, and simply white. No naff flavours, no food colourings, just a simple macaron. So simple, a clever soul had to alter it to turn it into a bit of a parody, let's be honest... But the pay-out for the guy has been formidable and he has laughed all the way to the bank ever since!

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