For the following two weeks, while I am in France, I am going to try a new pastry. Every. Single. Day.
In case you haven’t memorized your multiplication tables yet (don’t worry, I haven’t either), that’s fourteen pastries. Is that a lot? Honestly, I would be eating that many pastries—or more—anyway, so I might as well get something out of it besides an empty wallet and a gourmet French dessert baby kicking at my stomach.
So what is culturally significant about fourteen variations of dark, rich, chocolate, flaky dough, and vanilla beans? I plan on finding out, one bite at a time.
Read the entire series here.
Today, France surprised me.
After nearly three weeks of non-stop pastry eating and researching, I’m sort of like an expert. I admit that sounds pretty conceited, considering the lack of culinary school.
But actually, I am a little bit: I can now identify almost every pastry in a patisserie, I know an unhealthy (literally, unhealthy) amount about the history and recipes of each for someone who isn’t even a baker, and I’ve taste-tested enough flavors to be qualified for a position in quality control at any boulangerie.
So when, while walking through the Marais district in Paris’s fourth arrondissement, I saw something I’ve never seen before in a shop window, I dropped everything and went in to find out what the mysterious pastry could possibly be.
The young girl who helped me was, thankfully, charmed by my enthusiasm and poor French. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?!” (What is that?) I basically shouted it at her. She explained that the lovely little mounds were two meringues, sandwiched together with cream, coated in the cream, and then dipped into chocolate shavings, cookies crumbles, or other delectable goodies.
Now, if you’ve been following The Daily Pastry, you will know that I had a bad experience early on in the month with meringue. I believe I said that the experience is what I imagine eating a fossil is like. But I’m all about redemption, and I wanted to see if I just caught meringue on a bad day last time.
And I really must have. The meringue in the Merveilleux was soft and tender, with the tiniest amount of chewiness. They seriously melted in my mouth. Add that to the amazing whipped cream they were completely covered in, and I will never say a bad word about meringue again.
When presented with this, it’s easy to get over a bad meringue experience:
To be real with you right now, I liked these so much I came back later the same day to try the other flavors. And, hilariously, the same sweet girl helped me both times; instead of saying “au revoir” (goodbye), by my second visit she was saying “à bientot” (see you soon). That really happened. I became a regular at a Parisian bakery in a few hours. That is a new record, even for me.
If you don’t believe that something can be that good, listen to this: they are called merveilleux cakes. As in, the French word for “marvelous.” I am not exaggerating here. Believe me, it's not easy to get a compliment from the French.
These small cakes originated in Belgium, soon becoming very popular in France (but not yet in the United States—I think I may have found my life’s purpose in spreading them across the states). The French confectioner Frédéric Vaucamps developed his own version, and it was his patisserie that I stumbled upon in Le Marais!
Vaucamps named each different flavor combination in the style of the original title. For example, the Impensable (unthinkable) cakes are coffee, the Excentrique (eccentric) cakes are cherry, and the Magnifique (magnificent) cakes are praline.
My favorite was the Incroyable, which included the traditional meringues, speculoos whipped cream, and white chocolate shavings. Vaucamps chose the name Incroyable to go along with Merveilleux because of, surprisingly, a fashion trend in France in the late 18th century.
During the French Directory period, which lasted from 1795-1799, directly after the horrendous Reign of Terror, survivors of the French Revolution took a new interest in luxury, decadence, and silliness. They held balls and started fashion trends that were exaggerated and indulgent. The men of this fashionable aristocratic subculture were called the Incroyables, and the women were called the Merveilleuses.
Interestingly, some members of the subculture eliminated the “r” in both words to remove any possible affiliation with “révolution.”
The fashion itself was modeled after that of the ancient Greeks and Romans, although with a highly bizarre twist. The dresses and tunics worn during this period were made of transparent linen and gauze, material so sheer that the fashion was nicknamed “woven air.” Dresses were tight and revealing; wigs were worn in blonde, black, blue, and green. Men adopted lisps and hunchbacks. Why? I don’t know. But it sounds very Hunger Games/Capitol and I love it.
Similarly mysterious, Incroyable was also the French nickname for yo-yos in the 18th century.
In the past, whenever someone asked me where I would like to go if I could time travel to the past, I really didn’t know what to say. Now, I am fairly certain. I am going to France in the 18th century, where I will eat copious amounts of Merveilleux cakes, wear green wigs and gladiator sandals, and play with yo-yos.