snacks


Yes, I admit I missed it — the Feast of the Macaron Day last week, to announce the burgeoning Spring. It was on March 20th and I was elsewhere, no doubt shopping in some department store.

This lovely Macaron day tradition was instilled five years ago at the initiative of Pierre Hermé, a French pastry chef formerly of Ladurée fame who invited you to taste free macarons in his Parisian shops or any of the participating Relais Desserts boutiques in support of rare illnesses.

Charitable causes aside, it is a little heaven to bite into a lovely, bright macaron – and there is every color in the spectrum of a rainbow. Past that crunchy shell of meringue, you are met with a downy softness like smooth velvet that explodes into an exuberance of flavor – be it sensual chocolate, light lemon, tangy raspeberry, heady vanilla, or exotic jasmine. It is the perfect pastry companion for an espresso, a cup of tea, or a flute of champagne. Or just by itself, followed by another, and another.

The macaron came into vogue in France about a decade ago when its appearance in restaurants and on dinner tables were de rigueur. With the years, they evolved into myriad sizes and shapes from little hearts to the double-decker version and even to the size of a cheeseburger, and available to epicureans all over the world. Flavors can range from the most traditional chocolate to exotic like rose petals, green tea, and ketchup (!).

But what exactly is a macaron?

What it’s not is a macaroon (with two ‘oo’s) made of egg whites, sugar and shredded dried coconut baked into a soft peaked mound.

The macaron at hand (with one “o”) is a small cookie the size of a half dollar consisting of crunchy egg white meringue, almond powder and sugar exterior and soft cream filled interior. Its origins are obscure and contested. The macaron appeared in Europe in the Middle Age where it would diversify and find new shapes and flavors. Its simplest form can be traced back to Italy during the Renaissance, according to “Larousse Gastronomique,” an encyclopedia of food, wine, cookery, and culture which suggested that this little pastry, also known as a monk’s navel, was invented in 791 in a convent near Cormery in the Loire region.

Filled with jams, spices, liqueurs, this crunchy soft cookie would come to be known as the Parisien macaron or “Gerbet” starting in the 1880s in the neighborhood of Belleville in Paris. It was made popular in the Latin quarter by the now defunct salon de thé Pons, as well as by the Ladurée house, which introduced the concept of “macarons season” corresponding to fragrances that are available only for the limited season. Ladurée also takes credit for the double-decker macaron variety.

Ladurée features a permanent collection of flavors to suit your tastes: chocolates – dark, bitter chocolate – vanilla – coffee – rose petals – pistachios – raspberry – violet cassis – caramel with salted butter – red fruits – orange water – licorice – lemon – coconut – icy mint – almonds – spices & dried fruit – chestnuts – praline – mocha…

So readers, what would be your pick for the day?

Pierre Hermé, 72 rue Bonaparte
La Durée, Boulevard des Champs Elysées
Paris
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In the pastry hall of fame, an éclair (formerly a duchess’ bread in the 19th century, or a ‘small duchess’ because it can be eaten in dainty mouthfuls) is a patisserie originally from Lyon, France.

The éclair is filled with chocolate or coffee cream, or sometimes pistachio or vanilla. The top is glazed with icing to match the filling. When glazed with caramel, it is called Jacob’s [magic] wand. The most common éclair is composed of puff pastry exterior that envelops a crème pâtissière.

Its average size is about that of a small hot dog bun (just right for an afternoon tea break), although there a mini pastry version (petits fours) of the éclair called “Caroline” according to the late premier pastry chef Gaston Lenôtre.

But the French are never known to leave well enough alone. Fauchon, a vendor of the finest of fine groceries and delicacies in Paris, has come up with the “Eclair Mona Lisa”, filled with almond cream. A jaw-dropping and mouth-watering combination of art and gastronomy that’s just… too good to eat.

Bon appétit!

Eclair Mona Lisa
Fauchon, 26 place de la Madeleine 75008 Paris
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For decades green tea has touted health benefits, with some evidence suggesting that regular green tea drinkers may have lower chances of heart disease and developing certain types of cancer. Green tea has also been claimed as useful for “weight loss management”.

But what some people are afraid to admit to is that it can be pretty awful tasting. I am one of them. I’ve tried it hot and cold, sweetened and unsweetened. But it always went down with a grimace.

Then one day a friend told me to brew a pot of green tea in a thermos and add two slices of fresh ginger (or a teaspoon of powdered ginger) with either artificial sweetener or sugar. There were two advantages to this: one, the ginger took the edge off the sharp bitterness; and two, the combination of green tea and ginger is an energy booster not unworthy of a firecracker placed under your chair. On cold winter days, I make a pot to last me all morning. It keeps my hands warm and sure beats typing with fingerless gloves.

Santé!
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Contrary to popular assumptions, the French toast’s claim to fame was not laid by the French themselves, as they can rightfully boast about their ingenious inventions such as the French bullet train, Pasteurization, Braille, or the Guillotine.

The appellation “French toast” dates back from 1871 according to Merriam-Webster. As Brendan Koerner wrote in Slate magazine, “Culinary historians disagree over whether French toast has exclusively Gallic roots. The simple concoction of bread, eggs, and milk likely dates back to Medieval times, when the battering process was used to make stale loaves more palatable. The question is whether the French were truly the first to dip and fry their bread, or whether other Europeans stumbled upon the ‘invention’ on their own. For example, a similar dish called ’suppe dorate’ was popular in England during the Middle Ages; it’s unclear, however, whether it was brought over [to them] from what’s now France by the Normans, who may have delighted in something called ‘tostées dorées’ before toppling King Harold II in 1066.”

One thing that almost everyone can agree upon — even among the contentious French themselves — is that this dish was originally poor folks’ fare. You take stale bread, dip it in a simple batter of eggs and milk to soften it up and then fry it. The French call it “pain perdu” or “lost bread” but contrary to Americans, they serve it as a dessert topped with sugar or whipped cream or jam. It would make sense to devise a use for old bread, as it is firmly ingrained in people’s mindset in France to never, ever, waste bread. When it becomes absolutely inedible, you feed it to ducks and rabbits. (I don’t keep ducks or rabbits, so I just toss it out when ZH isn’t looking.)

“French toast” enjoys many international variations according to Wikipedia:

  • In the UK, it’s called “eggy bread” or “Poor Knights of Windsor”. Sometimes the batter has marmite mixed into it. (Unless you’re British, you won’t understand marmite — that’s OK, you’re not alone.)
  • In Italy, it’s a salted version called “mozzarella in carrozza” (“mozzarella in carriage”) and can be topped with tomatoes and parsley to recreate the red, white, and green colors of the Italian flag.
  • In Spain it’s “torrijas” — bread soaked in wine or milk and dipped in beaten eggs and fried, popularly served during Lent.
  • In Canada, patriotic citizens eat their French toast topped with the national maple syrup.
  • In New York, Jewish cooks use leftover challah from Friday night Sabbath dinner to make French toast on Sunday morning.
  • In Hong Kong, French toast is called 西多士, which is an abbreviation of 法蘭西多士” (the pronunciation differs depending on whether you’re speaking Cantonese or Mandarin) and is either served for breakfast or afternoon tea.
  • In India, the batter includes onions and green chili and the bread is deep fried, and eaten with ketchup.

French toast is a good example of how a simple dish can evolve and adopt so many facets to suit different cultural palates. A French friend from the Brittany region has a singularly tasty recipe. She uses sweet-salted butter to fry the bread dipped in batter; then as one side is cooking, she sprinkles the top of the other side with brown sugar before turning it over to cook. The result is a caramelized soft-crunchy toast with a subtle salt-buttery flavor that you can eat without adding any other topping.

But back to our original question — how did French toast get its name despite so many other legitimate national claims? Koerner offers this interpretation: “A highly dubious myth holds that French toast owes its creation to an Albany, N.Y., innkeeper named Joseph French. Legend has it that French whipped up a batch of these golden-brown treats in 1724 and advertised them as “French toast” because he’d never learned to use an apostrophe ’s’.

And that is as good an explanation as any, given how the true origins of French toast have been lost in the darkness of timeTo all you French Toast lovers, bon appétit!