BEHIND THE SCENES AT PIERRE HERME:French Macarons and More
This was the cake’s official “headshot,” done by the gifted photographer Jean-Louis Bloch-Laine (who also did the photography for Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme). The shape of the cake was conceived by Yan Pennor’s (sic), who went on to design Pierre Herme’s rue Bonaparte boutique in Paris, as was the three-sided box that was tied with a wide satin ribbon. When you undid the bow, the sides of the box fell away and the bright red cherry on the top was revealed, in almost the same way a clown would pop out of a jack-in-the-box.
When you got the cake home, you’d open it at the table, so that everyone could share in the drama, then gently lay it down on its side and, following the gold leaf lines, cut it into six perfect portions, each one containing all of the cake’s elements: hazelnut dacquoise, milk chocolate ganache, milk chocolate whipped cream, thin sheets of tempered milk chocolate and a spread of milk chocolate, praline and crushed wafers. (A make-at-home version of the cake, called Plaisir Sucre, is in Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme.) Everything about the cake was surprising, including its being made with milk chocolate in a country where bittersweet reigns.
Since that time, Pierre Herme has gone on to create so many desserts that have changed the way we think about pastry. Case in point, his family of Ispahan desserts
based on the now iconic trinity of rose, raspberry and litchi (today, there’s even a yogurt that plays on this combo), which has been appropriated by almost every pastry chef in France.
Even knowing Pierre Herme’s desserts as well as I do and for as long as I have, I was as excited as a little kid when I visited his kitchen behind the rue de Vaugirard boutique a couple of weeks ago.
My guide for the visit was Andre Loutsch,
the 29-year old pastry chef who is part of Pierre Herme’s “test kitchen”. As Andre explained, Pierre Herme creates all the cakes – and, as Pierre has often said, he creates them in his head – and then the work of turning the idea, its components, its “architecture of taste,” a term Herme has used for years to describe the combination of a dessert’s taste, texture and temperature, into something “real,” falls, in part, to Andre, who works with Herme to make the actual dessert and to give it its final look.
It goes without saying that Pierre Herme wouldn’t have chosen Andre Loutsch to work at his side if he wasn’t talented, but what struck me immediately about the young chef (who is about the same age Pierre was when I met him) was his extraordinary enthusiasm for his work. When Andre talked about macarons, it was as though he had only discovered them a minute ago.
The kitchen, under the direction of Colette Petremant, Herme’s executive chef (I wish I’d snapped her picture), who’s been with him for almost forever (it’s rare that anyone leaves), is smaller than you’d imagine and, like every other Pierre Herme kitchen I’ve ever been in, calm. There’s a peaceful, purposeful quiet in the kitchen (one I’ve never been able to attain in my own kitchen – even working alone, I make more noise than Colette’s entire team!).
As you enter, there’s a wall of pictures
And then, to the right, the space where dough is made
Everything that has dough, from tart shells to croissants, lives in this corner.
When I was there, the rose filling for the Ispahan was being made
But, sadly, not the macarons. Not that there weren’t macarons to see. There was an entire refrigerated room filled with macarons,
the room Andre called “Ali Baba’s cave”. Andre said that no one leaves the boutique without buying a macaron and he’s probably not exaggerating.
I caught the team early in the morning when they were between projects and getting ready for breakfast, which is an all-work-stops time in the kitchen. There’s coffee, tea, cakes, of course, bread from Claire Damon’s Des Gateaux et du Pain down the street and the same great butter that Pierre Herme uses for his pastries.
And, because it was still early, I was able to watch the shop come to life as the pastries were arranged in the display cases. Here’s the Cherry on the Cake “in situ”
A quick aside: When La Cerise sur le Gateau was conceived, the mold for it was made of plaster. Just a few months ago, the cake joined the modern age: the new molds are silicone.
Don’t you love the indentation for the cherry?
And I saw the fabulous Mosaic desserts, combinations of pistachio and griottes, sour cherries, that are only available for a few weeks during the year, les temps de cerises (cherry season)
And, finally, one of PH’s most unusual creations, a dessert made with spaghetti – real spaghetti – cooked in strawberry juice, called Emotion Fragola (fragola is Italian for strawberry)
The night after my kitchen tour, Pierre and I were having dinner and I asked him where that dessert had come from. He said he’d read that Italians had once made a dish with pasta and strawberries and the idea so intrigued him that he kept playing with it until he finally came up with this – a winner, which has the strawberry-cooked spaghetti (yes, it’s al dente), crushed strawberries, balsamic gelee and mascarpone cream.
I finished my behind-the-scenes visit just as I’d hope I would – tasting macarons with Andre
And forcing him to do the impossible – choose his favorite: milk chocolate/passionfruit.
Fortunately, Andre is politer than I am and he didn’t put me in a similar spot. I could never choose just one favorite – never.