Legends of Paris

18th October 2013, Paris, Île-de-France

I’m not usually a fan of ‘big name’ places (and the single most important rule of Friday cakes is that they cannot be sold by an establishment that has many branches in various places, otherwise known as a chain!). My usual criteria for choosing a pâtisserie involve a reasonable choice of yummy-looking things in the window and a vaguely sensible price. However, this Friday was what I like to think of as Big Name Friday.

It started with Angelina. (And no, you can’t just say it, it has to come accompanied with faux-Italian-faux-opera singing. Well, in my head it does, anyway!) I have walked past it many a time, usually in a rush and annoyed by the queue that clogs the pavement. As far as I was concerned it was the French Betty’s, but with a less orderly waiting line… But after copying and pasting a suggestion to go there into the guides for rental apartments just about anywhere on the Right Bank (and some on the Left too), I actually quite fancied giving this famous hot chocolate a try. However, queuing by yourself is rubbish and I got the feeling I’d get a weird look if I asked for a table for one… Instead, I was going to go for the take-out version.

Having battled through the door past the queuing people just to get to the shop (and the poor man who I asked whether he was waiting for the shop or the tearoom who told me that he didn’t know, his wife had just left him to hold the place while she went and browsed a few nearby shops…), I found myself in a seriously alien environment. Nobody was speaking French, there was a lot of pointing and waving at macarons and people getting wads of bank notes out of their pockets. For somebody who’s spent four months seeking out authentic experiences of France (and who stubbornly refuses to queue for the Louvre), it was hell!

On the other hand, the pastries looked amazing and they had loads of jams and spreads and things, and even more excitingly, bottles of chocolate! (Not, of course, ‘hot chocolate’ because it requires you to warm it up yourself! It’s important to be precise about these things…) Snatching the final bottle from the shelf, I paid and escaped as quickly as possible!

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A whole BOTTLE of Angelina chocolate
Paris – 18/10/13

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Part two was a slightly more personal quest. A fan of the rum baba in it’s many forms (whole shot of rum at the Armenian taverna in Manchester, cute ones in little plastic pots by Bonne Maman, a family-sized one we once made at home…), I had found a place of pastry pilgrimage: Stohrer.

Now, if I’ve heard a Parisian pâtisserie claim that it’s the oldest in the city once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. Yes, it was founded in 1730. Yes, Nicolas Stohrer was pâtissier to the Polish wife of Louis XV, and she had him brought to France when she moved here (’cause, you know, the French have a reputation for being rubbish at cakes…). More interesting is what he did first: taking dry cake and soaking it in Malaga wine and covering it in whipped cream. And thus a dessert that had nothing to do with the Middle East nor, in it’s origins, rum, became the rum baba or, as the French would have it, the baba au rhum.

I decided to go for the full baba experience and pay 20 centimes extra for the full Chantilly cream baba experience. Sadly this meant sacrificing a glacé cherry for a raspberry, half a strawberry and a mysterious green sugar stick (which I thought was a spoon of the kind that comes with ice creams until I picked it up and tried to cut the cake with it!) It also coincided with another fatal flaw: I had finally found a cake that just couldn’t be eaten with my hands in a public place. Nor did I dare cycle home with it (trust me, with the state of the roads around here, it would’ve been a catastrophe!), and so we walked carefully back chez moi, avoiding anyone likely to step suddenly into me and cause cake carnage. Even so, poor Ali didn’t look quite as pristine when I got him out of his wee box as he had done in the shop…

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What’s inside the Stohrer box..?

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A baba au rhum! (et Chantilly)
Paris – 18/10/13

The question is, would they be up to their reputations? Angelina’s choccy special was up first for judgement…

I must say that the instructions on its bottle were a complete failure, telling me to shake well and pour. Pouring is not possible: the stuff in the bottle is essentially the texture of chocolate mousse, and therefore requires spooning. But like magic, once zapped in the microwave for 30 seconds it becomes a gorgeously silky smooth mug of chocolately goodness. Not only is the texture simply beautiful, it also tastes seriously good: like proper dark chocolate, in that really moreish, not at all sickly way that is so different from milk chocolate. Thick enough to eat with a spoon (and perhaps it’s wise not to let anyone sit opposite you as you drink it and most likely get it all over your face), I could imagine my mum laughing as I used my finger to wipe the last of it out of the bottom and the sides of the mug. Trust me, it’s too good to waste. And you know the best thing? It’s rich enough to only need a little cup, so there’s some left in the fridge…

And now for our rummy friend. The first thing that I noticed, and that made me very happy, was the syrup that came oozing out when I pressed down with my spoon, denoting likely yummy rumminess (or perhaps rummy yumminess). The second thing was that unlike previous babas that I’d tried, the texture was much more like brioche than cake: rather than having a ‘crumb’ texture, it seemed more likely to hold together in strips, like when you tear a loaf of bread (I suspect that it’s a yeasty dough rather than other raising agents, because that’s presumably the gluten strands that make that texture). Combined with that lovely sticky syrup (and yes, it was pretty boozy) and the contrast of the cream, it was pretty good. It also seemed a lot lighter than other babas that I’ve eaten in the past (either that or, as I half suspect, somebody broke in and swiped a bit off my plate wasn’t looking. How else do you explain how it vanished so quickly?). The final proof of excellence (in my eyes at least)? That remaining bit of syrup in the bottom of the little plastic tray that you can only get with the very tip of your spoon. Or your finger. Well, as I said, no one was looking…

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