Pierre Hermé is a fourth-generation pastry chef. Originally from Alsace, he is now chef patron of a series of Paris’s best pastry shops. No other people take their food as seriously as Parisians, and Hermé is food royalty to the French, a national icon. At the age of 24, Hermé became head pastry chef of Fauchon, one of the most exclusive produce emporiums in the world. After 11 years in this post he opened his first Paris store in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
When Hermé opened his first “boutique” it was a revelation. He had created a unique experience, immersing the customer in a blissful world. As much as we all loathe to queue, there is usually no other way to enter a Pierre Hermé store and, once inside, loitering is not tolerated. That aside, the store is a multi-sensory experience, beautifully appointed with a modern approach to shopping and service. Hermé has possibly created the ultimate retail experience. And then there is the packaging, so beautiful you never want to throw it away.
Hermé’s sometime avant-garde approach to flavour combinations, touching on the exotic, has won him many fans. His use of spices is well balanced and his wasabi and grapefruit dessert is legendary among chefs. The chocolate lines are unique, his flavour combinations engaging. A few times a year, he releases a limited collection – a series of original creations, highly anticipated by his Parisian followers. His most recent collection, available for just three weeks, was curiously named “Fetish Infiniment Citron” and was a triumph.
Hermé’s ethereal macarons are a benchmark, along with his chocolates, gateaux and ice-creams. All manage to balance subtle, complementary flavours and nuances. Alongside these exotic creations, Hermé has a strong respect for tradition and maintains a line
of everyday pastry items. Attention to detail and a desire for perfection is what sets him apart. Croissant, cannelé, pain-au-chocolat and a wonderful chocolate pound cake are remarkable. It is these simple things,
the traditional staples, that really test and challenge an artisan. Sure it was macarons that put him on the map, but the simple traditional items are what most people crave.
At the restaurant, the pastry kitchen differs from other sections. In the savoury world there is room to improvise. Savoury recipes usually rely on the intuitive nature and finesse of the cook. In the pastry kitchen, all these things are required, plus a good set of electronic scales. Discipline and accuracy are key. Understanding your oven and equipment is also important Experimenting with different brands of chocolate can vary the cake, and I recommend using the best-quality chocolate you can source. The use of spices can be easily manipulated and experimented with at home.
I have a friend who does not eat chocolate. Ever. But they will regularly cook a chocolate cake for friends and family purely for the aroma that fills the house. Chocolate is an obsessive ingredient for many people, and chocolate cake a crowd-pleaser.
This chocolate cake is best served slightly undercooked. When it is finished baking, it may look not ready. Resist the desire to put it back in the oven for another five minutes and you will be rewarded with a lovely chocolate outer crust with a loose, almost runny centre. It should be noted that this family favourite is a variation of a recipe first published by the fine cook Nigel Slater.
– 200g quality dark couverture chocolate (70 per cent cocoa)
– 200g butter
– ½ tsp cinnamon powder
– 4 cardamom pods, seeds removed
– 6 black peppercorns
– 80g plain flour
– 5 eggs, separated
– 2 tbsp dark rum
– 1 tsp baking powder
– 2 tbsp of very good cocoa powder
– 125g almond meal
– 180g castor sugar
Preheat oven to 180ºC.
Place the chocolate and butter in a stainless-steel bowl and melt over a saucepan of simmering water.
Grind the spices, mix together, along with the flour, baking powder, cocoa powder, almond meal and set aside. Butter a 24-centimetre springform cake tin.
When the chocolate has melted, remove from the heat and allow to cool for a moment. In a separate bowl, quickly whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt. Gradually add the castor sugar as the whites develop volume. Continue to whisk until the sugar has dissolved.
In quick succession, add the egg yolks and rum to the melted chocolate, stir to incorporate and follow with the dry ingredients. Working quickly, stir in the dry ingredients. Now add one-third of the whipped egg whites and, when roughly incorporated, fold in one-third more of the whites. Repeat until the whites are incorporated. Transfer to the buttered cake tin and bake for 25 minutes.
Lustau East India Solera sherry, from Jerez, Spain ($50)
– Liam O’Brien, sommelier, Cutler & Co.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 15, 2014 as "Sweet surrender". Subscribe here.