In my youth, when life was without obligations, like kids and a mortgage, I would find myself in Paris with nothing but a pocketful of francs and the desire to try every pastry shop I passed. Those were glorious days, with every morning spent searching for the perfect pain au chocolat, each afternoon sitting in the parlor at Ladurée and the evenings devoted to the shops of Hermé and Hévin. I ate my way through Paris and try as I might to enjoy the elegant, intricate creations that each shop presented, I found myself drawn back to the classic French patisserie. The simple elegance of the perfect brioche, millefeuille or Paris-Brest. I didn’t need those chocolate and sugar garnishes, the layers of pâte de fruit and mousse au chocolat. Just give me simple but perfect, and I am happy. Of course I had my favorites and one little guy stood out among the rest. The religieuse, a double decker of pâte à choux, (cream puff dough), filled with crème patissiere (custard), dipped in fondant and piped with buttercream, all in a single flavor, traditionally chocolate or coffee although violet, rose and pistachio are excellent as well. It’s named after its shape, which is said to resemble a nun’s habit. For me, it was like finding a little piece of god.
It’s been many years since I have had the pleasure of enjoying one as they seem to be elusive here in the Big Apple. Now suddenly, out of the blue, they seem to be everywhere. My husband surprised me for our wedding anniversary and we had an elegant if somewhat strange dinner at La Grenouille. The room itself was timeless — I could have been anywhere in Paris, with the gilded ceilings and the gorgeous flowers. The food was classic French, heavy cream sauces and the lesser-known body parts. Truth be told, I could have done without the stuffy service and the waitstaff who kept trying to duck under our table, between our legs to plug in the table lamps that constantly unplugged themselves. (Unbelievably, this was true and it was happening not just at our table but all around us.) But dessert was a lovely surprise, a delicious chocolate soufflé and a near perfect coffee religieuse. I say near perfect because, as a purist, I was disappointed by the vanilla buttercream used to garnish it. I felt it should have been coffee. Still, it was great and we fought over the last bites.
The next week, still being in the anniversary mode, we stopped at the bar at Benoit to have some French onion soup. It’s one of those dishes we courted on, spending late nights at Balthazar and Pastis sharing those gooey bowls of melting cheese. After a bowl of soup and some lovely hors d’ouevres, we asked about the dessert cart. Lo and behold, a coffee religieuse. Seemingly a pattern was emerging. Of course we ordered it and the fraisier, a delicious vanilla cake filled with crème patissiere, whipped cream and strawberries. Now this religieuse was slightly more modern, it had a paper thin square of chocolate in between the two choux puffs where some of the buttercream would have been. I liked this elegant touch and while the custard was excellent I was wishing that the choux itself had been cooked just a bit more. The magic of choux is that when it is baked, it puffs up creating a shell with a big air hole inside. That way you can stuff it with as much cream as possible. This choux was a bit doughy, so I had to demote it to only excellent. Never fear, we ate the whole thing.
So after this strange coincidence of pastries, I decided to cast the net and see if I could find any more. La Bergamote, a classic French patisserie in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen did the trick. Since I was sharing with Mr. Concussion, my eldest son and a lover of chocolate éclairs, I’ll just say we didn’t get the coffee one. It was classic to a T, and packed with an insane amount of chocolate mousse. It was so massive that it wound up being perfect split three ways, my younger one trading bites of his pain au chocolat for some. I am definitely going back for a Paris-Brest this week. I think it’ll be the perfect hint of Paris in spring.