In Paris, dinner guests always ask what they can bring. Three times out of 10 you say, “Rien du tout,” but seven times out of 10 you ask them to bring something. A baguette. Perhaps cheese (if your guest is known to have a good fromager) or dessert. Often it’s dessert.
Few people bake their own desserts in France, except for simple, homey desserts such as a tarte Tatin, that upside-down apple tart (though people are often likely to pick up one of the quite-respectable tartes Tatin at the frozen-food market Picard and bake it off at home). Most tarts are pretty easy in France, though. High-quality pastry dough – either pâte brisée (the kind of pie dough most Americans might be familiar with) or pâte feuilletée (puff pastry) are widely available at supermarkets and at the ever-indispensable Picard. (Picard’s puff pastry is really excellent – and at about €3 for two sheets – far, far cheaper than what you can get in the United States. Good puff pastry goes for about $12 at Zabar’s in New York.)
You line your tart pan with parchment paper, then with the thawed (or refrigerated) dough, and add your fruit. I’ve done a respectable-enough apple tart with puff pastry. But I don’t dare do more than that. My friend Roland, however, likes to throw together some bizarre combinations – orange sections with raspberries and pistachios – where everything has been perfumed with rose water. He likes to experiment with Middle Eastern spices and seasonings. Some of the combinations can lead to tarts whose tastes may be, at best, acquired, but I appreciate the effort. Even if sometimes on entering his home for a dinner I catch site of that evening’s tart, with its charred ring of parchment paper surrounding a pile of dried-out fruit (he tends to overcook his tarts), and I have to resolve myself to swallowing with a smile whatever concoction he’s decided to experiment with. But again, I do appreciate his trying to expand my horizons.
I have made a respectable chocolate mousse – but all that takes is chocolate and eggs. I certainly wouldn’t buy chocolate mousse (though you can find it in every supermarket), but I’m happy if one of my guests, such as my friend Michèle, offers to bring her version.
Some Parisians attempt that ubiquitous crumble (pronounced something like “khrehm-bell”), which you see everywhere at boulangeries but that’s actually pretty easy to put together at home. A crumble is basically baked fruit with a crumb topping (rhubarb, apple, cherry, combinations of them). Crumbles you buy at the boulangerie are more likely to have a bottom crust. Homemade crumbles are combinations of fruit, sprinkled with a crumb topping and baked in a dish, but with no bottom crust. They’re good and tasty and most important, simple enough that your guest wouldn’t ask himself why you didn’t just buy something at the shop around the corner.
No one really bakes cakes at home, even what a good American baker might consider a simple layer cake. (You do see cake mixes at supermarkets here, but they’re generally for un moelleux au chocolat, a sort of molten chocolate cake.) Real cakes are what patisseries are for, though the American-style layer cake isn’t really done in France. What might be the star at an old-fashioned bakery in the U.S. is far too humble-looking for a French pâtissier. And no one has the time to devote to both a dinner and a sophisticated dessert. So you’ll spend money on an opéra gâteau, made of layers of almond sponge cake moistened with coffee, layered with chocolate ganache and buttercream and covered in a chocolate glaze. It can cost as much as €24 for six servings (which is why many people end up buying one at Picard – you simply let it thaw and it’s quite serviceable, at a third the price). Everyone knows it’s from Picard, and no one complains. Or you’ll spend your money on a much more elaborate creation, and let people know where you found it (rather than where you decided to make do).
One local specialty bakery in the 17th arrondissement, on the Rue de Lévis, near the area of the 17th known as the Batignolles, only sells cakes that are made with baked meringue. There are different versions and sizes, the most popular of which has layers of whipped cream with shards of dark chocolate. On Sunday mornings, the line for one of these confections stretches around the block.
Although I like baking, I don’t bake very often in France. I too ask certain guests to bring dessert (whereas in New York, I do the baking for my dinners). I don’t feel I need to expand the horizons of my Parisian friends when it comes to desserts, however. Though in Paris I have attempted the famous plum torte that the New York Times introduced to its readers about 30 years ago. It’s a simple cake dough spread into a springform pan, onto which you lay halved Italian prune plums. Those plums, known as quetsches in France, are widely available in Paris from the end of August into October. I’ve tried tinkering with the simple recipe to accommodate the richer French butter, but my plum torte à la française isn’t as successful as what I’ve baked in New York. My French versions have ended up too soggy. Perhaps I just don’t bake as well in Paris as I feel I do in New York.
Or perhaps I don’t bake as well in Paris as I do in New York because you don’t really need to when great baking is available just outside your door.