Perpetually Seeking Pastry Perfection

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When I was a 27-year-old, I prided myself on the fact that I was NOT a shortbread girl or a sugar cookie fan. Both represented to me all the things that were wrong with pastry. Who wants a plain white brick or disk of hard, crumbly, butter dough without the presence of chocolate or spice or adornment? Who wants sugar without some form of nut or chip or accompaniment to gussy it up? Clearly I hadn’t met a good version of either to make this case…that was until I met Big Dog Dave (BDD). BDD was a handsome and rocky-muscled sixty year old gay man who worked as a data entry clerk at an HIV/AIDS service organization I served as marketing director for in my early career mom days. He was a quirky fellow, thus my attraction, and loved dogs and baking more than anything in the world (well, perhaps not the gym). Every Christmas, he would whip up batches of his famous sugar cookies as gifts and throw a dozen or so in a tin for me. The first time I tried one, merely to be polite, I fell into a hopeless love affair with the very cookie I had avoided for life. It was like falling into a soft pillow covered with a swirl of pink buttery frosting delight. I hid this fact, along with the rapidly emptied tin, in a kitchen cupboard for a long time. Was it really okay to embrace a fondness for something made strictly from sugar, flour and butter into a life that otherwise considered itself healthy? Was it really okay to use my close proximity to BDD’s desk in the workplace to connive his leftover holiday cookie plates to take residence on my lap when he wasn’t looking?

And thus my affair with pastry began—quickly, sordidly, and shamefully. Although now, 20 yeas later, I am a full-blown salacious whore for the myriad confections formed on cold counters across the world, meticulously crafted to either failure or perfection by the flick of a discerning tongue and a toothy chomp down.

What makes a perfect pastry? Is it the messiness of the flake that alludes to a solid use of butter or the density of bite leading one on to believe a whole lot of sin is packed in one square inch of goodness. Should the bite be sweet or slightly salty? Should the dough be unadulterated or frosted? Should the dessert be traditional or contemporarily updated for modern taste buds and considerations of the waistlines? Should it be gluten free or full force old school? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions but am having a hell of a lot of fun trying to find them.

Current Top Ten Pastry Experiences (Aside from BDD’s Sugar Cookies):

  1. Oversized palmiers at Jean Phillipe’s Patisserie at Aria in Las Vegas
  2. Kouign Amann at Lincoln Bakery, Pasadena
  3. Cream puff at Eagle Rock Italian Bakery
  4. Praline Le Mervilleux at La Mervetty in Beverly Hills
  5. Almond croissant at Il Sogne in Palm Desert
  6. Guava and cheese pastry at Portos in Glendale
  7. Root vegetable tart at La Boulange in San Francisco
  8. Salted caramel bar at Huckleberry in Santa Monica
  9. Buttercup at Sycamore Kitchen in Los Angeles
  10. Chocolate ginger scone at Wild Flour Bread in Sebastopol

Doing It Our Way at Cuistot

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The Coachella Valley is a rare bird. I should know; I lived there for nearly 40 years. Palm Springs through Indio run vast miles along Highway 111 through the enigmatic desert cities where many stars in the 1950s though 70s escaped a more classic Hollywood for a little R&R. One of these celebrities was the iconic Frank Sinatra whose home in the desert compelled him to lend his fame to many community endeavors, including a fundraising concert for a local Jewish temple needing to beef up its membership!

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Frank’s famous song, “I Did It My Way” reminds me of the attitude of the desert. It is a place notorious for breaking all the rules. Citizens fly by their own sense of time, which is why trying to stick anyone to a deadline, is useless. Perhaps the taffy-like heat waves cause the strange sense of malaise. People are known to wear shorts and Polo shirts to five-course dinners without anyone blinking an eye. And restaurants close at whim without updating their websites for seasonal vacations or renovations just because. There is beauty and madness in these occasional aberrations to the norm.

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Many restaurants don’t stand the test of time. They swoop in with high ambitions during winter’s high season and are gone before the temperature hits 100 come summer. But a few classics have remained and they seem to carry a theme of being survivors from the days when notables came to play: Lyon’s English Grille (now Mr. Lyons), Wally’s Desert TurtleLe Vallauris, Melvyn’s and the grand Cuistot.

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Cuistot, a looming French estate on a prominent corner in Palm Desert has been serving upscale bistro food to a rich clientele since 1987. Chef Bernard Dervieux commandeers a glass enclosed kitchen central to the space and serves up traditional favorite dishes. Of course, while I lived in the area I was a single career mom who couldn’t quite afford the steep prices. I spent a few occasions there with more well-to-do clients who treated me to luncheon poached salmon and cold chopped beet towers and my favorite non-creamed mushroom soup with price tags akin to my average dinners for two with my daughter elsewhere.

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Recently the Cute Gardener and I visited the area on occasion of my brother’s wedding. Without reservations, we randomly stormed the door asking the host if there was a seat for us in the bar. There was something saucily contemporary and slightly under the radar glam about sitting side-by-side in a plush booth in the packed bar sharing a bowl of steaming Lyon-style quenelles in a savory lobster sauce and washing it down with an out-of-character sparkling rose. Or stabbing tangy scallops topped with tiny phyllo dough berets. Or pulling apart nicely caramelized and sticky legs of a roasted quail stuffed with sweetbreads on top of creamy black rice in a Chablis wine sauce while servers bustled to and fro gathering cocktails for a large party of conventioneers in the main dining room. Just like those times we order lima beans with truffles for dessert in a fancy steakhouse; or enjoy a whole meal and then stop by a bar somewhere else for a bowl of agnolotti; or fancy Chinese food on the 4th of July; or stake out cheese puffs in WeHo lesbian bars post-Thai food birthday dinners, our little slice of Cuistot old school came wrapped in the style we’ve come to know as “doing it our way”.

Richard Olney’s Good Life with a Side of Gruyere Chicken Gratin

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A year ago, Richard Olney’s classic tome Simple French Food was reissued in celebration of its 40th anniversary. First published by Atheneum in 1974, the book presented straightforward recipes that elevated simple ingredients and articulated the joys and techniques of French cooking for the common cook. Unlike many other books of its time that extolled the virtues of now gauche foods or professed their love for trends that are now passé if not totally forgotten, Olney’s book has stood the test of time. For me, its timelessness can be accredited not only to its philosophies of simplicity and universal good taste, but also to its representation of the kind of life Olney led, to which many of us foodies secretly aspire.

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Born in America and trained as an artist, Olney was an expatriate of the best order who shined his love on France through his experimentation with the country’s food and then articulated it for the enjoyment of us all. By the time he passed away at 71, his daily schedule consisted of life on a simple Mediterranean hillside surrounded by olive trees in a small house built around a grand kitchen. He slept in a small monk-like bed in a tiny space off the kitchen and ate his meals under the grape arbor outside. (What is it with genius, artistic men and their love of small beds in claustrophobic spaces? I wonder this after recently visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West and seeing his own sleeping quarters.) From the moment I started spelling my name with a “qu” where the “k” would normally be in the 8th grade, the budding Francophile in me romanticized about this type of living. I am grateful that I have been able to come close with a home on the hill frequently populated with peacocks and deer with the Cute Gardener daily tending to our produce garden (conveniently viewed from my second story studio window) and creating for us, the most exquisite of meals.

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In honor of Olney, French food and the good life, I recently made a version of his exquisite chicken gratin –an ingenious dish where a silky gruyere custard fluffs and thickens side-by-side with tender chicken parts in a casserole dish to produce a decadent, soulful meal.

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Richard Olney’s Chicken Gratin
Adapted slightly by the folks at Food52.
Serves 4

For the chicken:

  • One 
2 1/2- to 3 1/2-pound fryer chicken, cut up (or use all legs and thighs, or all breasts)
  • Salt
  • 2 
tablespoons butter
  • 1 large handful finely crumbled stale, but not dried, bread, crusts removed
  • 1/3 
cup white wine

For the cheese custard:

  • 3/4
 cup heavy cream
  • 3
 egg yolks
  • Salt, pepper
  • 3
 ounces freshly grated gruyère
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon and deglazing liquid

Heat the oven to 400° F. Salt the chicken pieces and cook them in the butter over medium heat until nearly done and lightly colored on all sides — about 20 minutes, adding the breasts only after the first 10 minutes. Transfer them to a gratin dish fitted to just hold them.

Cook the crumbs in the chicken’s cooking butter until slightly crisp and only slightly colored — still blond, stirring. Put them aside (don’t worry if a few remain in the pan) and deglaze the pan with the white wine, reducing it by about half.

Whisk together the cream, egg yolks, seasonings, and cheese, then incorporate the lemon and the deglazing liquid. Spoon or pour this mixture evenly over the chicken pieces, sprinkle the surface with the breadcrumbs, and bake 20 to 25 minutes or until the surface is nicely colored and the custard is firm.

French Black Pepper Omelet Hits the Egg Spot

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On the British comedy series Gavin & Stacey, Stacey’s mum likes to cook omelets for visitors. Her version of the universal egg dish comes flat and bright yellow with a slice of processed cheese and is a comfort food calling card she uses to woo her daughter’s friends while creating hysterical community around her tiny kitchen table. Being a lover of the omelet myself, I have ended many an evening watching that show with my own journey into the kitchen hankering for some combination of eggs, milk and cheese.

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Although it is one of the simplest dishes to create, an omelet can actually go south really easy. If the pan is too hot you will get browned, scabby edges. If the cheese isn’t chopped right the big pieces may not melt in concert with the cooking of the eggs. If you don’t whip your eggs for at least a minute before pouring them into the pan you risk a fluff-less outcome. If you eat an omelet regularly, you can fall into basic egg boredom. Because of this I am constantly practicing my omelet making techniques from a variety of trusted sources while always on the lookout for a spectacular new recipe.

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Recently, I discovered a new favorite, borrowed from the French and altered to my taste buds. Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s omelet caught my eye because of its inclusion of Boursin pepper cheese, which happens to be my preferred spreading cheese for crisp, white water crackers during the holidays. Not only does the cheese boast a peppery blast to the tongue, it melts better than anything I have encountered. Something about the simplicity of good cracked pepper firing up a mellow, unctuous cheese added to a beaten egg and sprinkled with fresh tangy chives sounded specifically good to me in the same way a basic cacao e pepe (pasta with black pepper) becomes an unpretentious, bowl of noodles while being elevated to supreme comfort food status.

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I watched a video of Chef Lefebvre making the omelet first. I splurged and used real French butter. I cut the amount of butter used in half and didn’t brush the eggs with it at the end of cooking. I sprinkled a very high-class flake salt on top alongside the chives, which I discovered should be done very sparingly. The heat of the pepper and the texture of the cheese came out perfect underneath the brightness from the chives. This will be my new go-to omelet … if I may only continue to find the elusive pepper Boursin in my local grocery stores.