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Letters from Abroad: Macaroons, baguettes and pastries, oh my!

My time living in Paris has been one continual exploration of baked goods, and after three and a half months, I feel ready to share some of my findings with the world.  Although the quality of cuisine in Paris is generally very high, there are definitely stand-out bakeries, and typically each bakery has one thing that it does particularly well.

I will start with one of the most famous bakeries in Paris–Ladurée. Ladurée is famous particularly for its macaroon, a pastry that is made by beating egg whites to a stiff peak, adding almond flour, sugar, and flavoring, baking the the resulting fluff in dollops, and making a sandwich of two of these meringue-like cookies filled with a flavored crème. The result is a pastry that is slightly crunchy on the outside, and soft and chewy on the inside. I have eaten many a macaroon from otherwise very good bakeries in Paris that are complete failures. The biggest mistake is that the cookies are over-baked and the barely-edible result is something between a bad meringue and a rock. But when the macaroon is done right, it is ambrosia.

Ladurée certainly does theirs right. They have wonderful, creative flavors too—including chestnut, ginger-rose, black current-violet, orange blossom, and salted caramel. They were some of the best macaroons I’ve ever had, and I would recommend going to Ladurée to anyone visiting Paris.  However I can’t really justify ever eating there again on my student budget. Along with the brand-name-ness of the bakery comes the posh customers, the swanky shopping bags, the elegantly uniformed servers, and of course, the sky high prices. I paid over eight euros for five little macaroons, and as much as I loved them, I won’t be doing it again.

Walk 50 feet down the street from Ladurée on Rue Jacob and you get to Prud’Hon Maillard Catherine, a cute family-run establishment with incredible baguettes and cheap espresso. Truly a staple of the traditional French diet, finding the perfect baguette (especially near your house) is sort of like finding the holy grail.

Of course, saying “baguette” is a little vague. There are whole wheat baguettes, country baguettes, baguettes with seeds on top – really anything the baker dreams up. The delicacy of Prud’Hon Maillard Catherine is their chocolate baguette, which I haven’t seen sold anywhere else.

The chocolate sandwich has not really hit the States, but the principle isn’t much different from Nutella on bread, and the result is delicious. The bread of the chocolate baguette is not sweet, and the chocolate is dark and high quality. If you want to try something similar at home (though not as good), try microwaving a piece of good chocolate on top of your favorite white baker’s bread for about 10 seconds. Come to Prud’Hon Maillard Catherine right at 5:00 when the evening batch of bread is being taken out, or you’ll miss your chance. They sell out of their chocolate baguettes in about 15 minutes, and their bread in about an hour.

The bakery nearest my apartment is L’essentiel, which is organic but very reasonably priced. The viennoiserie here are the best I’ve had in France, and pretty cheap. Viennoiserie are called as such since the technique of folding butter into flour and making this kind of puff pastry came from Vienna (that’s right, the croissant is not French). Thanks to the French adoption of the art – viennoiserie are the quintessential French breakfast food – we now have pain au chocolat, almond croissants, ham and cheese croissants, and my favorite, chausson aux pommes. This pastry is basically a rectangular croissant filled with thick, spiced apple sauce. L’essentiel has the best chausson aux pommes I’ve had yet, and they’re only 1.20 euros.

A note about viennoiserie in general: do not wait to eat them, even for several hours. Because it’s a type of puff pastry, it dries out and deflates fast, and a filled viennoiserie gets soggy from its filling. You’ll be fine getting a bag of croissants two or three hours in advance, but don’t even think about buying your breakfast the night before.

I have not talked much about French pastry, so I will leave you with this thought: go to any bakery around five in the afternoon that has a few people in it. It will be a good place. Order an eclair or a paris-brest (a specific type of eclair that is doughnut-shaped and has pralines in the pastry cream). Or, if you don’t love eclairs, order a fresh fruit or lemon tart. Both of these desserts are classic, and chances are the baker has made sure that he is an expert at making both. It will probably cost you between two and three euros. You won’t regret it.