The first time I was aware of it was when my sister caused a family argument. She was in her junior year of high school and was getting ready to apply to college when she dropped the bomb – she wasn’t going to ‘normal’ college, she was going to train as a pastry chef. Being a sceptical older sister, I suspected that this was a ploy to upset my mom and dad. If that had been the intention, the ploy worked and after many ‘family discussions’ she went with plan A, ‘normal’ college.
However when I look back over the years other clues fall into place. First, my sister can almost always be counted on to order dessert. Second, she has a library-sized collection of cookbooks where all the titles, if not specifically about desserts, definitely cover some aspect of dessert making. Next, several years ago she made batch after batch after batch of les macarons – the deceptively simple sandwich cookie made with almonds, eggs, sugar and water – hoping to replicate, exactly, the ones she tried on a trip to Paris.
Then I suppose the ‘icing on the cake’ (sorry couldn’t resist) was her wedding last year. The wedding cake was more important than the dress. The right baker was essential and she interviewed several that did not make the cut.
In addition to the wedding cake, she organised a cookie table. A cookie table is a Pittsburgh, USA wedding tradition that involves guests contributing cookies, homemade or specially purchased, to the wedding reception. These contributions are laid out buffet-style for all guests to sample during the festivities or to take home in specially provided cookie-table carry-out boxes (look at this link to see a video about cookie tables).
Despite the fact that we are not from Pittsburgh nor do we have any tradition of cookie tables in our family, she not only had a cookie table but also developed a cookie table cookie registry. Its purpose, like the gift list or registry, was to guide potential cookie-providing guests towards the cookies that the bride and groom would especially like to see and cookies that had some particular meaning to them. It was important that all the meaningful cookies in their lives were represented.
Finally, the groom, who has a lot of sugar in him anyway, makes chocolate. They are a sweet match.
So, when my sister said she was not having a good day during a recent trip to Paris, I knew immediately what had to be done. A pastry intervention was necessary and there was only one place to go – Ladurée.
Ladurée is a Parisian institution that has baked sugary delights since 1861 and was one of the first salon de thé in Paris. The original store is on the rue Royal, however we went to the newer, bigger Champs Élysée location.
The light sage green and gold embellished canopy over the door provided only the smallest hint of the pastel and sugar-coated dream that is inside. Red marble table tops, rich wood panelling, thick drapes lined with gold fringe, Louis XVI style sofas upholstered in white and light blue striped fabric, large gilt mirrors and painted cherubs on the ceilings playing amongst fluffy, pink, sliver-lined clouds. While the decor was not as fresh as it once was, there was no mistaking its luxurious intention to seduce and pamper. We were in the right spot.
The encyclopaedia-sized menu arrived and we set to the serious work of decision-making. Being gluten and dairy free, I resigned myself to the fact that my experience was to be limited to tea and atmosphere. Before going in, I had even agreed to my sister’s request that I order a pastry anyway so she could have two. However, les macarons are naturally gluten-free and, while most have a dairy filling, they can also be filled with jam. Ladurée had one macaron on the menu filled with jam, so my order was easy – strawberry macaron with strawberry and mint jam and a scoop of strawberry sorbet.
My sister’s choice was significantly more complicated. Which one to choose? We were seated in the upstairs dining room, too far from the pastry counter to have a look and choose by sight. She went over the multiple pages of pastry descriptions many times but finally came to a decision – Millefeuille Praline – multiple layers of praline pasty and cream.
Our order arrived and we savoured the first bites. Mission accomplished: my sister had a smile on her face. Everything was going to be all right. Or was it? I could sense that something was still a little wrong. The Millefeuille Praline was great, but what about the others? Had she ordered the right one? And I, like the evil older sister I am, had promised salvation only to cruelly opt to order my own cake and not a second for her.
Never fear, Ladurée does take-away. After we paid the bill we went downstairs and ordered more for later. Paradise was restored. Always remember, the restorative quality of pastries should never be underestimated.