It was about 12:30am– many hours into the wedding reception of good friends at a château in southern France. I was busy working on my substantial cheese course as a procession of waiters carrying fancy giant pastries, cakes, and puddings began to wind its way between our tables and into a dedicated dessert room. I sneaked over to this magical chamber to check out the spread before the other guests could descend upon it. And what wonders did I see– 17 (count ‘em) different delights! The pièce de résistance was a traditional French wedding croquembouche, a tower of profiteroles stuck together with caramel and decorated with candies and sparklers. My cup, it overfloweth-ed!
It was my 21st birthday, and I was studying in Aix-en-Provence. The program had just started, and I didn’t know anyone yet, so who cared about my little-ole’ big 2-1? I turned to our local patisserie, Le Pavé du Roy, to ease my sorrow. It was the castel praliné that caught my eye– square, powdered-sugary, layered, and creamy-looking, would it be any good? It wasn’t my type– there wasn’t a hint of chocolate or fruit, but dang, I thought, I’m 21, maybe I should try something new? I stood outside that shop and took my first bite of utter heaven– layers of pastry dough, crunchy meringue, and hazelnut cream sent my head spinning. One of my program mates called my name, but I couldn’t respond. I was in a pastry passion– my heart and soul were lost forever. When I got back to the States, I searched in vain for the castel praliné. I stopped in every French patisserie over the years to no avail. No one had even heard of it. And then a pastry chef at Almondine informed me that I would NEVER find the castel in this country because the sugar here is too coarse. Devastated, I bided my time until I could return to my long-lost love…
After ten endless years, I did come back. Would the castel be different? Would I be different? I worried. But when my castel and I were in each other’s presence again, there was no doubt that the love would be stronger than ever. After sating my desire, my head turned towards other temptations, such as a chocolate cakey delight and a chocolate-raspberry-pear hybrid. These were equally amazing. I tried to explain in my now-limited French how much I adore the unassuming Le Pavé du Roy patisserie to the other patrons there. They gave me blank stares. Of course this place was good– there would be another revolution if every little hole-in-the-wall patisserie in every crappy town wasn’t good.
In my travels, I encountered some over-the-top fancy pastries, too, that were way outta my league. They looked like ottomans, and were almost scientific in their perfection. The ones from Richart were accompanied by geologic-like schematical diagrams, so that you could see cross sections of exactly what was in each masterpiece. They had serious names likes “Fire & Ice” and “Sun’s Zest.” After scratching my head a bit trying to read the pastry “maps,” I discovered the one I would have chosen had I grown an extra stomach: “Crisp Flavors,” made up of layers of green lemon and caramel mousses, caramel-infused madeleine cookies, almond nougat, salted butter caramel cream, and toasted almond dacquoise. Just writing this description made me feel faint– does anyone know where I put my smelling salts?
Final note: there is a specialty in Lyon called praline rouge, which you find topping many pastries. The first time I saw it, I attributed the red color to a fruit, but a pastry proprietor told me that it’s basically just nuts (usually almonds or hazelnuts) ground up with butter, sugar, and some red food coloring; she had no idea why this trend started, and they never use any color other than red. Weird. Also not that tasty, really, because it’s a little “one-note” and makes you crave raspberries for some reason…
If you ever find yourself in Aix-en-Provence, by the way, hie thyself to:Le Pavé du Roy 9, cours d’Orbitelle T: +33 0442262281