Visiting Paris never gets old. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been, I always find fresh inspiration in the City of Light.
I was there last month leading two culinary tours. With each group, I spent a week cooking, eating, drinking and generally reveling in the beauty of Paris. I’ve been often enough now that I can navigate from memory. Which changes your experience of a place. Without my nose buried in a map, I was able to spend more time contemplating the city.
Which led to my latest observations about Paris:
The city is full of secret little corners and vignettes: People napping or reading or playing pétanque in the small, verdant parks that dot the city; hidden courtyards overflowing with fragrant roses and jasmine .
Parisian women actually do wear bright red lipstick and look ridiculously sexy pretty much all the time.
If you become a regular at a cafe, the owner might one day pull out a dusty bottle of eau de vie from his personal stock in the cellar and pour you a shot to drink with him in the middle of the afternoon. Just because.
Parisian men wear cologne and several times a day, one of them will walk past leaving you in an intoxicating wake.
It’s hard to be in a hurry in Paris. Things happen when they happen. You might wait in line for 30 minutes at the grocery store. Your server is smoking and can’t be bothered to get you another glass of wine. The restaurant you wanted to go to is inexplicably closed.
But you make your way home with your groceries. And when she’s done with her cigarette, in language bordering on the rapturous, your server will take the time to recommend just the right wine. And you’ll discover a delightful new restaurant around the corner from the one you were originally going to. I love this looseness and the fact that you never quite know what might happen on any given day.
Oh, and this chocolate cake:
I learned to make this cake at Tours de Cuisine, a small cooking school and wine cellar in the 11th arrondissement. I always take my culinary tours there, partly because the proprietors, Vincent and André provide such a warm welcome and such delicious food and wine. And partly because it’s so pleasing to watch what at first appears to be total chaos--a jar of flour over here, a stick of butter somewhere over there, where are the eggs again?--transform over the course of a few hours into a wonderful meal.
When we arrive at Tours de Cuisine, I always hold my breath, wondering if my group of Americans will be put off by Vincent and André’s laissez-faire approach to cooking instruction. But inevitably, they love it. The organic way the classes unfurl, so different from most American cooking classes with their neatly-printed recipe packets, orderly trays of prepped ingredients and precise timelines.
This cake was the highlight of a recent pastry class at Tours de Cuisine. It’s a very Parisian affair. Just a few ingredient tossed together on the fly yield a dark and silky chocolate cake that’s infinitely variable. It can be dressed up or down. It's fantastic crowned with a coffee glaze, studded with candied citrus zest or drizzled with warm salted caramel. But I like it best fancied up with a dollop of basil cream and a handful of summer berries.
It reminds me of Paris. And how a little chaos can give rise to beautiful surprises.
Mini Dark Chocolate Cakes with Basil Cream and Summer Berries
- 3 ½ oz. (100 grams) dark chocolate, roughly chopped
- 3 ½ oz. (100 grams) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- 1 teaspoon espresso powder or instant coffee
- Pinch salt
- 3 ½ oz. (100 grams) sugar
- 1 heaping tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 recipe Basil Cream (see below)
- 2 cups mixed summer berries (I used raspberries, strawberries and salmon berries)
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
*Notes: The secret to these moist little cakes is steaming them. You will need a silicone mini cake mold like this one in order to turn the cakes out after you steam them. I know it's a bit fussy, but this technique is well worth the effort. I am not a chocolate dessert person at all and these cakes make me swoon every time I eat them because they are so moist and dense and delicious.
If you don’t want to deal with the whole steaming business, you can cook your cakes in a 400°F (205°C) oven for about ten minutes. You don't need a silicone mold for this, but be sure to generously butter your cake tins and dust them with cocoa powder before pouring in the batter.
I used 70% dark chocolate from Theo for this recipe and it made super chocolatey cakes that weren't at all too sweet.
*For a gluten-free version: substitute nut flour or a gluten-free flour mix for the all-purpose flour.
Melt the butter and chocolate in a double boiler. If you don’t have a double boiler, fill a small saucepan with 1 inch of water and bring to a simmer. Place the butter and chocolate in a medium heat-proof bowl and place over the saucepan of simmering water. Stir until melted. Add the espresso powder or instant coffee and salt and stir to dissolve. Set aside to cool slightly.
Place the eggs and sugar in a medium bowl and whisk until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is slightly fluffy, about 2 minutes. Gently stir the chocolate mixture into the eggs and sugar. Sprinkle the flour over the top and stir to combine.
It seems that many French people own electric steamers like this one. If you happen to have a fancy electric steamer, you are in luck, as it is the easiest way to cook these cakes.
If you, like me, do not own one of these beauties, you’re going to have to get creative to steam your cakes. I ended up using a dutch oven with an inverted baking dish inside. It wasn’t the prettiest, but it got the job done. I suggest looking through your cupboards to see what sort of makeshift steamer you can come up with. An Asian steamer basket would be great, but a large pot with something heatproof inside should work just fine.
When you have your steamer set up, pour an inch or so of water in the bottom. Place your mold in the steamer and fill the molds almost to the top (the cakes will expand a bit as they cook). Cover the mold with foil to keep too much water from getting in. Heat the water until you have steam, then cover and cook the cakes for 20-25 minutes. The time will vary depending on the size of your cakes. Start checking at 20 minutes by inserting a paring knife into one of the cakes to make sure it is set all the way through. Remove the mold from the steamer and set aside for 15 minutes to cool slightly. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill completely before un-molding, at least an hour.
To serve cakes, make sure they aren't ice cold. They don't need to be room temperature, but I found the texture is best if you let them warm up for 20-30 minutes at room temperature. Serve with a dollop of basil cream and a small handful of mixed berries. Dust with powdered sugar if desired.
- 1 cup (235 mL) heavy cream
- 15 large basil leaves
- 2 tablespoons super-fine sugar
Gently bruise the basil leaves by hitting them with the back of a wooden spoon or scrunching them in your hand. This will help release the essential oils. Do not chop the basil or it will blacken and result in grey cream.
Bring the cream to a gentle simmer in a small saucepan. Add the basil leaves. Remove the pot from the heat, cover and let steep for 30 minutes. Strain the infused cream through a fine mesh sieve. Cover the cream and refrigerate until very cold (or it won’t whip properly).
Transfer the chilled cream to a medium bowl. Add the sugar and whip until soft peaks form.
I just returned from my first culinary adventure in Paris and it was a dream. I took a group of five wonderful women for a week of cooking classes, tastings, market tours, and amazing meals. We walked from one corner of the city to the other, tasting our way through Paris’ best chocolates, pastries, cheeses and wines. We stopped at spice shops and flea markets and a North African crêperie and a nearly-200-year-old cookware shop! We collapsed into bed each night with sore feet and delightfully full bellies.
Thinking about the food we shared--sugar-studded brioche loaves, cinnamony lamb tagine, rose-scented macarons--still brings a secret little smile of joy to my lips. There were the perfectly executed classics, like a swoony Grand Marnier soufflé. (P.S. I don’t even like Grand Marnier.) And delightfully surprising combinations: Tender sauteed zucchini with almond nougatine! Boudin noir with roasted grapes, radish tops and cilantro! A meltingly tender chocolate cake with hay-scented ice cream and peaches!
But for me the food wasn’t the best part of the trip. I was most struck by the immense beauty of the city. The golden light reflected off limestone facades. Rows of carefully tended chestnut trees. Shops full of jewel-toned pastries and candies. Market stalls heavy with marbled cuts of meat, creamy cheeses, glistening olives--all artfully arranged.
And the people. I had forgotten that Paris is a true metropolis--urban and bustling. I loved the masses of Parisians making their way around the city with a nonchalant, haphazard sexiness that only the French can quite pull off. I loved the jumble of languages and skin tones. I even loved the perpetual haze of cigarette smoke hanging in the air for its quintessential French-ness.
And while the Parisians we met weren’t exactly friendly in the exuberant, American sense of the word, they had an openness, a curiosity and a charming willingness to strike up a conversation when wedged thigh-to-thigh on the terrace of a tiny bar or a crowded bistro.
The Parisians themselves are of course the soul of the city and watching them go about their daily business--ordering endless cups of strong black coffee, reading a slim volume of poetry in the Metro, flirting with the butcher, meeting friends for a glass of wine before heading home from work--was an inspiration in itself. It was a perfect reminder of how many opportunities there are in the day for enjoying oneself.
It’s easy to forget how delightful it is to sit down for a meal without simultaneously surfing the internet on your phone, thinking about work, or wondering how your salad might look on Instagram.
During my time in Paris, I rediscovered the pleasure of sitting down to a meal with nothing to distract me from it. I remembered that wearing a beautiful pair of earrings and a beguiling perfume makes your day a touch more exciting. A friend’s endive gratin and an inexpensive bottle of red wine reminded me that inevitably the very best meals are not the most critically-acclaimed ones, but the ones with cherished friends. I stepped outside my dialed-in daily rhythm by walking to my destinations. I discovered the restorative powers of a lazy afternoon nap in the park.
It was a great pleasure to be reminded of all these little lessons. And to get to know such a radiant group of women over the course of our week together. It was also sort of magical to (re)introduce them to Paris and watch them delight in the beauty of the city.
As I head back into the daily rhythms of my life in Seattle and a fall of silver-grey skies and rain, I hope to reserve a corner of each day to think about our adventure in Paris. To remember how essential it is to let yourself be inspired, and to create room--through good food and close friends and maybe a mist of French perfume--for that inspiration to come in.