French accent Pastry chefs share taste of homeland with their customers
"Life is short -- eat dessert first."
A decoration bearing that message dangles from the cash register in the cozy pastry shop, La Gourmandine, along Butler Street in Lawrenceville. Dark-wood, high-top tables sit across from a warm yellow and wood display case showing chocolate or cafe eclairs, towering parfaits and thick quiches. Autumnal decor of small pumpkins and splays of fall leaves are strewn across the counter.
But in one corner, the dominate colors are red, white and blue, where a long French flag is drapped across an entire wall. The flag is a nod to the bakery's owners, Fabien and Lisanne Moreau, both born in or around Paris, and hailing most recently from the country's southwest region.
Their French bakery is the newest of several in the Pittsburgh area, where pastry chefs are dedicated to bringing the tastes of their homeland to their loyal customers.
When talking about his French roots, Fabien smiles and wistfully shakes his head.
"Danish and croissants, you don't see a lot here (in Pittsburgh)," he says in a heavy accent. "You see scones, biscotti, muffins."
"In France, you find a lot of bistros with pate, very country-style food. That's still pretty hard to find here."
The Moreaus, parents of 17-month old Liam, moved here four years ago -- Lisanne's mother is from Pittsburgh. In June, they opened their quaint shop where Lisanne works the counter while Fabien is busy in the kitchen.
They chose Lawrenceville, Fabien says, because of its up-and-coming appeal.
His bakery is known for its Danish, croissants and pastries. They also serve sandwiches, breakfast and a variety of breads.
"In France, every day, people come to pick up a baguette," he says. "Here, it's only on weekends."
Back in the kitchen, breads and pastries in varying stages of preparation sit on bakers racks, some awaiting kneading, some simply awaiting an order.
Everything is fresh; nothing is frozen. Fabien comes in each day at around 4:30 a.m. to start on the day's goods and prepare items for the next day, if it's something that needs time to reach its peak.
The baker talks while tossing handfuls of flour on raisin pastries, reducing applesauce for turnovers and forming dough into tarts. He spent five years in the French army before moving with Lisanne to Pittsburgh.
"I thought, 'New country, why not a new career?' " Fabien says.
The thought took him to stints at several Pittsburgh restaurants, where he started at the bottom and worked his way up, eventually becoming sous chef at Paris 66. He later returned to France and studied at the prestigious Lenotre culinary school in Paris.
"I love it because it's alive," he says of baking. "You have to take care of it, be precise or the result is bad. In cooking, you can sometimes fix your mistakes, but in baking, you can't, because when it's bad, it's bad."
His first year in business has taught him how to best gauge what needs to be made each day, although he admittedly underestimates at times. If he does the opposite, the day's leftovers are donated to Meals-on-Wheels.
"In France, we hate to throw away bread," he says.
At the counter, Lisanne says the most popular item is the almond croissant.
"But we don't have any left," she says with a laugh to a late-morning guest. "An hour after we open, they're gone."
Across Route 28 in Millvale, at Jean-Marc Chatellier's French Bakery along North Avenue, a long line curves in the small shop. The walls are covered in pictures of intricately decorated wedding cakes, articles profiling the shop's namesake and a map of France with a section near Brittany circled and labeled "Jean-Marc is from here!" Butter and sugar combine to fill the space with a creamy, sweet aroma.
At the chef's station in the kitchen, the Allman Brothers are blasting from a radio. Working below it is Jean-Marc, who, for 19 years, has been here, creating his signature croissants, pastries, cakes and breads and attracting customers of all ages, ethnicities and incomes.
His wife, Pittsburgh-native Sandra, says the shop strives to please everyone from people who have traveled abroad and miss what they ate in France to those who just want to remember what they're grandmother's nutroll tasted like.
"Some people are happy eating anything with sugar, and they don't care about taste," Sandra says. "But if you'd like something sweet and you're also critical about taste, that's where we come in."
The bakery's motto is "When Taste Matters," and the couple reinforce this by infusing their pastries with the best ingredients they can find. The bakery's butter cream is made of real butter, not shortening. Jean-Marc calls the latter a pet peeve of his -- something that "just waxes the mouth."
"After you eat butter cream, if you notice a film on your palette, that's shortening. At room temperature or warmer, butter dissolves," Sandra says. For this reason, Jean-Marc will not do cakes for outdoor weddings, as his butter cream and fresh fruit-filled creations would melt in the sun.
Jean-Marc has been baking since childhood, as both his father and grandfather were bread makers. He was making croissants by age 10 and occasionally skipped school on busy days to help in the kitchen.
At age 15, he began an apprenticeship with a master pastry chef. He also spent a year in the French army, where he baked thousands of croissants each week for his unit.
At his bakery, Jean-Marc works at a table in view of the counter, allowing him to interact with customers. He takes time to chat about topics of the day, whether it be the Tour de France or World Cup soccer. He keeps a stack of French soccer magazines near the counter, free to anyone who wants them.
Near the magazines, a bright batch of macarons, a popular filled cookie in Europe gaining attention in the United States, sit in the display case, their vibrant pink, yellow, blue or green colors catching customers' eyes. Sandra calls them "the next cupcake," although they are more complicated to make.
Sandra says she's seeing crepes gain popularity with American diners. About 12 miles away in Sewickley, Cafe des Amis is gaining a reputation for making the sweet or savory-filled creations.
Owner Gina Frantz, whose family owned a bakery along West Carson Street for two decades, bought the business in 2009.
"It was a unique concept," she says. "There are not many places like this around here."
She redecorated the space to resemble a cozy French country kitchen, with a sitting area featuring overstuffed leather couches and a mural depicting a couple strolling near the Eiffel Tower.
The cafe offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, but Frantz says it's the crepes that are becoming the most popular menu item. They offer main-course crepes in spinach and goat cheese, ham and cheese, and ratatouille. For dessert, Frantz says the most loved options are the Nutella and banana, cinnamon and sugar, and strawberry.
Other varieties include sugar and butter, blueberry, peanut butter and apricot. They also feature homemade croissants, tarts, bread pudding and chocolate mousse.
Fabein, Jean-Marc and Frantz all agree that not all of their customers are completely open to authentic French pastries, which is why they often offer French and American options. Sandra says she tries to recommend a French pastry to someone coming to her store for a more familiar item.
But with Pittsburgh International Airport offering more direct flights, Sandra says more Pittsburghers are vacationing in Paris.
When they return, Jean-Marc says many tell him his croissants are better than those they ate overseas.
"That is the best compliment," he says, flashing a quick smile.
In France, butter cookies are called "sables" (pronounced sah-blay ), which means "sand," in reference to its sandy texture. A round, fluted cookie cutter is used, but you could use other shapes, like Christmas cookie cutters.
A crisscross pattern made with a fork and a shiny appearance from the egg wash is the customary look. The result is a crisp, buttery cookie, which is not overly sweet. If you'd like to decorate them for a holiday, you can. Jean-Marc Chatellier ices his with fondant to make his "Moody Cookies."
Sables also are known as "Breton Biscuit," named for the people of Brittany, from where Jean-Marc hails. Unlike most people in France, Bretons don't eat cheese -- they eat only butter. Their salted butter contains salt harvested from the sea marshes off the coast of Brittany.
You can experiment with the taste of your cookie by using butters with higher fat content -- like Plugra or Kerrygold -- and using sea salt, which is readily available.
This recipe is from Jean-Marc Chatellier.
For the cookies:
• 10 tablespoons (good quality) unsalted butter (room temperature)
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1 large egg
• 2 cups flour, plus more to roll out dough
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon salt (sea salt)
For the egg wash:
• 1 large egg
• 1 tablespoon water
To prepare the cookies: Beat the butter and sugar with a mixer until fluffy. Add the egg and beat until blended.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat just until incorporated.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead a few times, then divide the dough in half. Wrap each half in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours until firm.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
Remove the first portion of the dough from the refrigerator, place on a lightly floured surface and roll out until it is 1/4-inch thick. Use a 2-inch round (fluted) cookie cutter to cut, and place the cookie on the cookie sheet.
To prepare the egg wash: In a small bowl, whisk the egg with the water to make the egg wash.
Brush the cookie tops with the wash and make a crisscross pattern with fork tines.
Bake on the center rack for 12 to 14 minutes or until the edges are golden brown.
Cool the cookies on a wire rack and store an airtight container for as long as a week.
Makes about 3 dozen cookies.Additional Information:
La Gourmandine Bakery & Pastry Shop , 4605 Butler St., Lawrenceville, is open 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturdays. 412-682-2210
Jean-Marc Chatellier's French Bakery , 213 North Ave., Millvale, is open 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays. 412-821-8533
Cafe des Amis French Bakery & Bistro , 443 Division St., Sewickley, is open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. 412-741-2388