Oh summer. You’ve sucked me in again. How time flies during these warm, happy months. Here it is, mid-August and suddenly I’m looking around at pre-season football fans in their Bears jerseys and shorts, wondering where the time went. Well, I know where the time went. Five glorious weeks in France will do that to you and I’ve been slow to get back up to speed around here.
I’ve wanted to write about my travels but so much happened, so many wonderful amazing things during those weeks, that my thoughts have been a tad jumbled wondering where to even begin. So I thought I’d start with something I made at the beginning of the trip, while I was working in the pastry kitchens of Le Pont de L’Ouysse in LaCave, just where the Dordogne Valley and the Quercy meet in the Southwest.
It really is a wonderful little place, this beautiful inn tucked into the limestone (sandstone?) bluffs underneath the Chateau Belleville. The inn has been in the Chambon family for hundreds of years and I could have sworn they told me it was a stop on the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela from France to Spain but I see no reference of this on their website so it’s quite possible I misunderstood. Regardless, when Chef Daniel and his wife Marinette took over the reigns in 1977, they sought out and eventually received a coveted Michelin star and turned the place into destination dining in the most picturesque of settings. I was lucky enough to hang out in the kitchen for 2 weeks along with Gale Gand, my employer/mentor/friend. We had a marvelous time.
Working in a French kitchen, even for a short period of time, was interesting in a same-but-different kind of way. Sure, once you work in a good kitchen for a while, you can pretty much work anywhere as so much is familiar in that comforting kind of way most cooks know. Yet little things were slightly different –equipment, tools, ingredients, the pace and of course, the language. But we got by. While Gale wanted to practice her French, I was surprised that everyone wanted to practice his or her English. I was the go-to girl for explaining American slang terms. It was often quite funny, maybe a touch bawdy and I’m sure my laughter could be heard across the kitchen.
At first, it was a little slow-going as I don’t think the pastry chef Arnold really knew what to do with us. Were we there to work? Were we visitors? Were we on vacation? Well, yes to all of the above. It took a few days to strike a balance and fairly quickly, I hit my groove. I’d show up at 9:15am (kitchen start was 9 but I learned Arnold needed a few extra minutes to get settled before I descended upon him, full of questions.) I’d start right in on one task or another. Working in someone else’s kitchen, especially for a short period, can be tricky. You have to strike a balance between being helpful, not standing around like a dope, staying out of the way and most certainly not creating additional work for those you’re there to assist. The last thing they want from you is more work and that’s a sure way to not be invited back.
Their desserts were lovely, in the typical French fashion. I was most impressed that the Chef, Stephane Chambon, even did pastry. I spent the better part of one lunch break watching him deftly work a chocolate puff pastry dough through the most fascinating tabletop sheeter (I really want one of those.) Apparently, in France, it is quite common and expected for chefs to have the full arsenal of skills across the kitchen. Not so in the US where sweet and savory are typically clearly divided. I think it’s a good thing and wish it were more common here.
Something else I discovered that is different and should be implemented immediately across all US kitchens is that everyone – and I mean everyone – works the same hours and leaves at the same time. The schedule was set: 9am-3pm then back for service at 5:30pm – close. No one goes home until everything is wrapped up, put away and the kitchen is clean, which means as those last few dessert tickets are coming in, the guys from garde manger are standing there with a hose. As the last order heads to the dining room, everyone descends to help clean the pastry kitchen; the floors are hosed down and a flurry of towels whirl by, scrubbing down every surface. I loved not being the last one out every night. In fact, Chef Stephane would often give me a ride home on the golf cart to his guesthouse, where I was staying. As the back roads up that bluff were beyond pitch dark at that hour, uphill and gravely, I gladly accepted. Fun coming down, not so fun going back up.
I picked up some good tips and ideas; variations on a theme (chocolate puff pastry!) and took plenty of cryptic notes that will be fun to decipher if I ever get around to them. (Looking back at those notes, I’m happy to report they are in french. I did learn something afterall.) Yet, there were some things that just baffled me. For instance, I understand the need to re-spin the ice cream every day. We do it here. But why wouldn’t you leave it in the cooler to melt overnight rather than melt it down on the stove and put it in the machine hot? “Because Chef said so” was essentially the answer. OK. Got it. We Americans tend to question nearly everything; the French kitchen way is simply “Oui, Chef” and you do it, no questions asked. That took some getting used to.
One dessert in particular, the raspberry croustillant, was rather pretty. As I made all the components over the course of the week I realized it’s pretty easy too. A few simple steps and you’ve got a really impressive and delicious little plate, completely realistic and do-able at home.
“Croustillant” simply means “crispy” referring to the crunchy, caramelized layers that are showcased. I suppose in the States, we would refer to this as a type of Napoleon though I couldn’t find reference on that via Google. As I mentioned, it’s simple – three layers of crispy pastry separating a layer of crème brulee and another of fresh raspberries. At the restaurant, we would add a scoop of lemon-basil sorbet on top but I’ve left that off for now. Feel free to add back in.
The pasty was a bit of a revelation when I made it the first time. A sheet of regular ‘ol phyllo is laid down, nice and neat, and brushed fairly generously with clarified butter. A handful of sugar is sprinkled on top – an even layer but not too thick so that the next layer of phyllo can stick to the one below. Another phyllo layer is laid on top then pounded to adhere to the buttered layer below. At the restaurant they used their fist but I found a flat palm to be more effective as you can actually feel the grains of sugar and the seal between the two layers more readily. Butter and sugar again, then another layer of phyllo. Leave the top butter/sugar free.
Cut the phyllo stack into perfect little rectangles (or really any shape you desire), place on a silpat lined baking sheet, top with another silpat then another baking sheet to weigh it down and bake until golden brown and caramelized. Really, that’s all there is to it.
Next you need a rich creamy layer. Certainly pastry cream or even ice cream would suffice but I stuck with the original and made crème brulee – rich, unctuous and bursting with classic vanilla flavor. Now here’s where I’ll blow your mind … all that hullabaloo you learn about crème brulee, water baths and thermometers? Yeah, I don’t always do that, especially when I’m baking in a pan. Ramekins, yes because they’re small but for a pan? Nope. Here, I bake the custard mixture off in a square pan with no water bath. I know, I know but as long as your oven has a nice gentle and consistent temperature and you keep your eye on it, it’ll be ok. The trick is to not let it get too hot, definitely not boil (or it will curdle) and pull it when the edges are just set and the center is still slightly jiggley. Then let it come to room temp, chill for at least 4 hours (though overnight is best) and you’re good to go.
Everything can be done a day or two ahead – the custard needs to chill, tightly wrap the phyllo rectangles because they tend to soften in humidity and pick through your raspberries – consistent height is important in pulling this off.
To assemble: cut out a piece of the crème brulee using a crispy phyllo plank as a template. To get that sucker out, it really helps if you have a spatula roughly as wide and long as that plank. I hear the mini spatula from Pampered Chef is ideal though I made do with a small cookie spatula. I baked this in a 9”x9” pan because I figure that’s what most people have, though I typically use a small ¼ sheet pan (and 1 ½x the recipe) to make getting at the custard a bit easier (though getting that full pan into the oven is a challenge.) The thing is, you want the crème brulee to be about ¾” thick so use whatever pan will deliver.
OK now, get that custard rectangle on the crispy phyllo plank and smooth the edges prettily if they’re a bit ragged. Onto a plate, crispy side down and top with another crispy phyllo plank. Onto that goes two rows of perfect raspberries and make sure to get the height even. Top that with another crispy phyllo plank (see how the even height is important?) that you’ve decoratively powdered sugared. Serve immediately. The crispy phyllo planks don’t stay crispy for long once assembled.
A quick note on phyllo dough. I don’t know what’s up with this stuff lately but it seems to come in two sizes: full sheets and half sheets. And it seems like I never really know what I’m getting until I open the box (yeah, I don’t always read the package.) If you end up with the half sheets, no worries, just do two stacks of 4 layers each so you have enough rectangles (always make extra – these things are delicate.) I also think the US stuff is thinner because while we did 3-layers total in France, I found them to be a bit too thin here therefore, I call for 4 layers total here.
Also, this recipe uses a fraction of the box so you’ll have all these phyllo sheets leftover and I haven’t always had success refreezing/defrosting. So here’s what I say you do: make a filling of some sort and bang out some turnovers. You can do spanikopita, cheese pockets, empanada type things or roll up some sautéed fruit in there too. Baklava or bisteeya too if you’re particularly motivated.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: TRES BON! This is a good one because it’s impressive as hell and seems like much more work than it really is. Before you serve, take a moment and take a good look at it. Give yourself a pat on the back. Pretty, right? You’re dinner guests will appropriately ooh and aah. Fancy pants frenchified Michelin starred dessert right there and you made it. A little round of “La Marseillaise” and a champagne toast is in order, methinks. I tell you, those French folks are onto something. If only I could figure out why they’re not all grotesquely fat.
RASPBERRY CREME CROUSTILLANT inspired by the wonderful folks at Le Pont de L’Ouysse
4 full sheets phyllo (or 8 half-sheets)
- For the crispy phyllo: Lay the first sheet of phyllo on a clean surface; try to make the first sheet a nice whole one – if it tears, throw it away and try with another. (if you’re using half sheets of phyllo, do two side by side but not necessarily connecting – you just need 4-layer stacks, however you get there.)
- Brush very liberally with clarified butter, covering every surface.
- Sprinkle evenly with a light, even coat of sugar. Not too thick – just nice, light and even.
- Top with another sheet of phyllo; if this one tears just patch it back together.
- With the flat palm of your hand pound the top phyllo sheet firmly enough to adhere to the sheet below. This is where that light coat of sugar is important – too much and it will prevent the butter from adhering to the top sheet. Make sure to get every bit connected.
- Brush the top again with butter and sprinkle with sugar.
- Top with another sheet of phyllo and pound again to adhere.
- Repeat this process one more time, ending with a fourth layer with no butter/sugar on top.
- With a sharp paring knife and a ruler, cut 1 ¾” x 4” rectangles. And yes, there is a best way to do this. First, trim off the top and right edges to straighten.
- With the ruler, mark off 1 ¾” notches across the top and bottom then cut into even lengths using the ruler as a straight edge while aligning the top and bottom notches.
- Next, along the right and left edges mark off 4” notches. Using the ruler as a straight edge cut the phyllo stack(s) crosswise to create the rectangles and trim/discard the rough edges.
- Line a heavy sheet pan with a silpat mat (or parchment) and arrange the rectangles on top.
- Top with another silpat mat (or parchment) and top that with another sheet pan to weigh the rectangles down.
- Bake in a 350°F oven until golden brown and caramelized – about 10-15 minutes – rotating halfway through. After 10 minutes check for color – the rectangles should be golden brown and caramelized. If not quite there, continue to bake until desired color is achieved.
- Let cool completely. Store in a tightly wrapped container. Can be made ahead but keep in mind humidity is the enemy so probably make 1-2 ahead, tops.
2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup sugar
6 large egg yolks
pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean
- For the crème brulee layer: Preheat the oven to 300°F and place a rack in the middle of the oven.
- In a heavy saucepan, bring half of the cream, sugar and salt to a simmer and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Turn off the heat.
- Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and with the dull edge of the knife, scrape the interior seeds into the hot cream mixture. Add the pod as well.
- Let the vanilla bean steep in the hot cream for 10-15 minutes to fully infuse the flavor.
- Remove the vanilla bean pod (rinse and let dry until brittle, then grind in a food processor with sugar for some awesome vanilla sugar.)
- Add the remaining cream to cool down the mixture and stir to combine.
- In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks then slowly add the vanilla/cream mixture.
- Strain the mixture into a 9″x9″ pan and bake on the middle rack, for 20-25 minutes until the edges are set and the center jiggles ever so slightly.
- Let cool to room temperature then refrigerate several hours until firm.
18 crispy phyllo planks (recipe above)
36-48 perfect raspberries
crème brulee (recipe above)
- Lay a straight edge – bench scraper, spatula, piece of paper – across one of the crispy phyllo planks on a diagonal.
- Sprinkle powdered sugar evenly on the exposed area.
- Carefully remove the straight edge and repeat with remaining 5 planks. Set aside.
- Using a crispy plank as a template, trace out a piece of the crème brulee to the exact size of the phyllo plank.
- Using a wide, long spatula, preferably close in size to the template, transfer the piece of crème brulee to the crispy plank and set on a plate, crème brulee side up. Clean up any ragged crème brulee edges.
- Top neatly with another crispy phyllo plank.
- Place two rows of perfect raspberries on top, spacing evenly as needed. Make sure the berries are all the same height.
- Top with the powdered sugared phyllo plank and serve immediately.