If Jiro dreams of sushi in Tokyo, my dreams of Paris are filled with buttery flaky croissants, rainbow colored macarons and sandwiches atop baguettes. As a vegetarian, I was skeptical that I would be able to appreciate the food culture that Paris was known for. However, even in the 4 days of a whirlwind trip and over only a couple dishes, I was able to take a few lessons from a place where food is not only meant to be consumed but savored.
One of my favorite snacks or quick meals in Paris was the cheese baguette, a sandwich so incredibly simple that I would make it even when I was feeling lazy (read: it takes less than 5 minutes to assemble). In a Parisian style baguette sandwich, the baguette is probably the most important ingredient above any other ingredient. The bread has a crust that is crunchy without being unbreakable, the insides had a medium tight crumb that are more than fluff and importantly, the flavor is pleasantly tangy reflecting proper fermentation.
The sandwich toppings are meant to accompany the bread, NOT the other way around. In Paris, it was common that inside the baguette, there are some greens, some cheese and one or two additional toppings. If cheese sandwiches were a movie, the cheese would be the supporting co-star also capable of winning a “Best Supporting” role to the baguette which is the lead star. Besides fresh salad greens, there is one, maybe two additional topping (often tomato with brie and honey with goat cheese). That’s all. No heating, no overstuffing, nada.
On the other side of the complexity spectrum lie macarons. In Paris, I had the opportunity to take a macaron making class. Macaron shells (although I like to think of them as buns since they look like hamburgers) exemplify classical French pastry making and making them is probably the hardest part of macaron making. Even in France, almond flour isn’t uniformly fine and powdered sugar without cornstarch will clump together so in order to ensure the best texture, we sifted and weighed the two dry ingredients. The next step was making an Italian meringue.* In an Italian meringue, you add hot sugar syrup in a teeny tiny stream to egg whites as they whip. The hot sugar cooks the meringue a little so it is less likely to deflate. After folding in almond flour and gel food coloring into the meringue, we pipe rounds of macarons onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Each tray is gently dropped from a foot and a half high twice to settle the trays and then loaded into the ovens. As the macaron shells bake, they grow feet, which is the layer you see on the bottom of a macaron shell.
In class, we made three flavors of macarons: chocolate passion fruit, caramel and forest berry. If the shells exemplified measured French pastry making, the fillings reflect cooking conscious of the senses and is not nearly as measurement focused. The teacher set me making a caramel from scratch: melting and cooking the sugar until it bubbled viscously, swirling the pan so that the sugar would brown and caramelize evenly and lastly, adding butter and cream. There were no thermometers – instead she walked me through the visual cues I would use to assess each next step. Our teacher walked another person, rather nonchalantly, through the process of making a forest berry jam – cooking frozen berries and sugar together and adding some pectin (shaken from a packet) when the berries were sufficiently cooked down. The last filling, a chocolate passion fruit ganache**, was both the most exotic and the simplest: a combination of Vahlrona milk chocolate and some passion fruit juice bought at the grocery store.*
I was surprised to learn that the macarons themselves required 3 ingredients. Each of the fillings required a couple ready-made items poured into a saucepan and cooked for 20 minutes or less. While there was technique involved, once our teacher showed us, they seemed way more approachable. I still wouldn’t make macarons on a whim but a quick caramel sauce or a chocolate passionfruit ganache seem within the realm of a weekend possibility. The class also made me realize that while a written recipe might capture the ingredients, in-person interactions and videos (to some extent) may be better for learning a technique.
This is not to say that all my food experiences in France were atop the ingredients and technique cloud. Rigidity can backfire. At a restaurant along the Seine, a French waiter snobbishly pooh-poohed me when I asked if they might have some vegetarian options. In proud Lyonnaise fashion, he pointed out that all the entrees listed were meat although I could make do with the vegetarian salads and starters. With such a rich history of good simple ingredients and great techniques, there is a bounty of dishes that are waiting to be made and don’t require anything new except for a bit of creativity.
So what will I take away from my food adventures in Paris? Firstly, good ingredients matter, especially when you’re making simple dishes. Everything has the potential to contribute to the final taste, texture, smell of a dish so don’t waste an ingredient. Next, there is value in cooking as a craft and learning the techniques. If someone gave me eggs, sugar, almond powder, butter and cream, I’d probably make a grainy sweet omelette, not heavenly caramel macarons. If I knew that sugar could be transformed into caramel and egg whites into meringues my world of possibilities would multiply. As I go on my cooking adventures, I want to understand the techniques, basic and complex that transform the starting ingredients into the final dish. The last take away and perhaps equally as relevant, cheese baguettes take about 5 minutes of effort to put together so they’re perfect for lazy people like myself.
Suggestions for a Cheese Baguette Sandwich ***
- The best baguette (or other bread) you can find. If you wouldn’t eat the bread cold and plain, it’s not good enough
- Really good cheese. I saw generous slices of brie and goat cheese used in the cheese sandwiches in France. In Amsterdam, the grocery stores did a really good thin freshly sliced Gouda and if I were in Vermont, I wouldn’t say no to an aged medium-sharp cheddar. Long story short, your cheese doesn’t need to be the $20 truffle brie but like the bread, it should be good enough to eat plain. This is the perfect excuse for going to a cheesemonger at a good grocery store or stand-alone and asking to sample a few cheeses that will go good with bread. I promise they will help.
- A half cup of salad greens. I happen to really like the peppery taste of arugula and feel like it goes well with tangy goat cheese as well as a Gouda. For brie, I might choose romaine. Overall my advice would be to pick a salad green that you like and by all means, feel free to use what’s in the fridge if it’s good.
- One or two more accoutrements that complement your cheese. Tomatoes or tomato jam would go well with brie. With goat cheese, a drizzle of honey would be nice. A little fresh or pickled vegetables (fresh cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, pickled red peppers or carrots) or some nuts could also be nice. For others, a few rounds of freshly crushed pepper may be sufficient.
* To learn more about the differences between Italian, French and Swiss meringues, check out the Cook’s Illustrated Meringue Overview.
** This ganache would be phenomenal as a chocolate fondue, spread over baguette or eaten straight from a spoon.
*** There is no way I could call this an actual recipe