Even among the most diehard of the do-it-yourself home cooking set, the term “French pastry” can cause feelings of inferiority and hopelessness, as well as sudden upper-lip sweats. French pastry is far too complicated for North American home bakers, most of us seem to have decided, and so we leave the making of our macarons, croissants and visitandines to the experts, typically. Which means that most of us don’t eat French pastries nearly enough.
This is a problem that Clotilde Dusoulier, a celebrity Parisian food writer whose pioneering, English-language blog Chocolate & Zucchini has brought her an enormous international following, hopes she can correct. “The most intricate cake in the window of the most famous Paris pâtissier, when you break it down, of course it’s involved and it’s sophisticated and it’s wonderful, but it’s just the sum of small and easy steps,” she says.
In France, home bakers have relied on a succinct and folksy little baking book – the country’s butter-stained answer to The Fanny Farmer Cookbook, sort of – called Je Sais Faire la Pâtisserie, for the past 70-odd years. Ms. Dusoulier and a team of editors have translated the bestseller, which was first published in 1938, into English for the first time. Released here this fall as The Art of French Baking, the cookbook covers most of the canon from the patisserie window, from petits fours such as croquignoles, espérances, benjamins and eudoxies, to egg-and-butter brioches, puffy crisp jalousies, multitiered gâteaux à l’orange and sweet-tart pommes à la bourdaloue. It both celebrates French pastry (there’s a bit near the beginning about how to throw an afternoon tea party) and demystifies it (the troubleshooting section includes situations such as, “If my puff pastry keeps breaking when I roll it out”). Either way, you can’t read more than a couple of its pages without feeling desperately in need of a sophisticated sweet.
The book is a well-timed reminder of how fundamental French baking is and, even more important, how accessible it can be – even here in North America, even in a year whose most talked-about baking book, from the pastry chef at Momofuku Milk Bar, frequently calls for glucose syrup and acetate sheets. Learn this and you can do that is The Art of French Baking’s beguiling promise, as it lays out a series of not-so-daunting building-block techniques.
“If you’ve made puff pastry, making croissants is really not a challenge,” Ms. Dusoulier says. “Once you have the technique down, it opens the door to 10 other things.” A huge proportion of its recipes can be made in 30 minutes or less.
The 31-year-old Ms. Dusoulier is in Ontario this month as writer-in-residence at the Stratford Chefs School (she’ll be speaking about her blog and food blogging at an event at George Brown College in Toronto on Thursday).
She was an inspired pick for Phaidon, the cookbook’s publishers, as she gets both the importance and the tradition of French cooking, but is also young, smart and rooted in the digital world. Ms. Dusoulier studied computers in college in France and didn’t cook at all until she moved to California’s Silicon Valley to work as a software engineer in the early aughts. She had grown up watching her mother in the kitchen, though. “When I found myself in California having to cook for myself, I realized that I knew a lot more than I thought I did.”
She started her blog in the fall of 2003, after moving back to France; in her earliest postings she wrote about stocking her kitchen with cookware and simple gadgets, the magic of persimmons and the ultimate French-women-don’t-get-fat dish, duck confit. She credits much of her success to good timing (and the relative scarcity of food bloggers). “Were I to start today with the same ingredients, I can’t say that I would have the same career,” Ms. Dusoulier said.
By the fall of 2005 she had quit her day job and signed a two-book deal with a New York publisher to write her first cookbook, as well as a travel guide to Paris. Ms. Dusoulier’s chief skill with the baking book is that she understands the cultures on either side of the Atlantic.
It’s fascinating to hear her describe the cultural differences between how French cooks approach a recipe with completely different expectations than North Americans do. For the English-language edition, for example, Ms. Dusoulier and the editors felt compelled to specify the sizes of pans alongside recipes – a courtesy they don’t bother with in France. (“I’m not sure if it’s just assuming common sense from the reader,” she said.) They added other details, too, she said; while some of the recipes will read uncommonly terse to North Americans, they’d seem verbose in the extreme to many in France. This is not because the French know more about baking and so don’t need the help. It’s because North Americans expect our recipes to work, she said, while the French are less focused on results.
“In North America there is this expectation that a recipe is a precise formula that will give me a specific result: A + B = C. And if it’s not exactly the same as it is in the picture, then the recipe is not good. …
“In France it’s more of a loose thing, where a recipe gives you indications of how to proceed, but it’s not saying that there is a single way to do things,” she added.
“Who’s to say what’s the best?”