By Ann | April 15, 2014
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but La Grande Epicerie—Paris’s glossy mecca of gourmet food—used to be my neighborhood grocery store. Most people make special trips across town to visit—there’s a pungent, overflowing cheese counter, an aisle dedicated to salted butter, hard-to-find American ingredients like canned pumpkin or chocolate chips, and sublime, yet overpriced, fruit (I once watched, open-mouthed, as a woman spent €200 on a few boxes of strawberries—fraises des bois, yes, but still).
Me, I used to stop by La Grande Epicerie every afternoon to shop for dinner. I liked the wine selection—even the cheapest bottles were delicious—the butchers who knew me by sight, the thick yogurt from Brittany, the rôtisserie chickens that you could buy mi-cuit and finish off in your oven at home, the glass cases of delicious prepared food like salmon wrapped in puff pastry. On the right side of the store was the bakery, where I often picked up a dark, square loaf of Norwegian bread, or a baguette—not my favorite in the neighborhood, but still pretty darn good. Running the length of the section was a counter filled with treats: madeleines, wobbly slices of flan pâtissier, sugar-topped puffs of choux pastry called chouquettes, croissants of all stripes (plain, chocolate, almond, apple, raisin). Traditionally made by the boulanger, these plain sweets are considered everyday treats, the kind of thing you’d eat as an after-school snack. (In contrast, the dazzling, more expensive pâtisseries are saved for special occasions—at La Grande Epicerie they’re the first thing you see when you enter the store.)
My favorite of La Grande Epicerie’s treats was—and still is—the raspberry financier, a buttery little almond cake studded with raspberries that add a jammy high note and bittersweet fragrance. I used to buy one and split it with my husband after dinner; we’d watch TV and munch through the cake’s chewy edges to its moist, tender center. That small ritual was one of my favorite parts of living
in Paris near La Grande Epicerie.
I miss Paris almost every day, but in the springtime I feel its absence more keenly than ever. And if the notes I receive from you lovely readers are any indication, you feel exactly the same way. It’s the little things, isn’t it? The way everyone in the market speculates about when the first gariguette strawberries will appear. The profusion of flowers in the Jardin du Luxembourg. The chocolate shops decked out for Easter—with chocolate fish and bells, of course—and clear sacks of oeufs pralinés. Don’t get me wrong—springtime in New York is also wonderful, with its free-flowing iced tea and cheap pedicures. But for sheer loveliness, nothing beats Paris.
In an effort to combat my homesickness, I’ve been dipping into Patricia Wells’s Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, which just came out in a revised edition. I love reading her take on my favorite food spots and also discovering lots of new places as well. The great thing about Patricia is that she knows about restaurants that are right under your nose, places you’ve passed a hundred times but never noticed, like Brasserie aux PTT, located right in my neighborhood at 54 Rue Cler. PTT “stands for Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones, the original national designation for the French postal service, formed in 1921,” she writes. The “vast” variety of oysters served here is “incomparable.” The book also covers cafés, markets, pastry shops, chocolatiers, fromagers, and more, offering her honest, unvarnished opinion. For example, about La Grande Epicerie, she writes: “This is the place to go to find the latest and best in nearly every food product you can imagine…” However: “the cheese selection is extensive, but offerings are generally not well aged… Produce can vary from best-ever to tasteless and wilted, depending on the season and time of day.” Yikes!
If you’re planning a trip to Paris, The Food Lover’s Guide is an invaluable resource. But as I paged through the book, I realized that even though I can’t go to Paris right now, I could use the book to bring Paris to me—via the recipes. Patricia has included a judicious selection, recreating dishes from high-end Paris restaurants (L’Astrance’s smoky grilled bread soup), and expat comfort food (The Rose Bakery’s beloved carrot cake). But one recipe in particular caught this New York-Paris expat’s eye: financiers. I whipped them up on a Sunday morning and they turned out to be easier to make than I might have guessed, sweetly buttery, with satisfyingly chewy edges and a moist crumb. Patricia’s recipe is plain, but I added the raspberries for nostalgia’s sake.
Speaking of nostalgia, when I visited La Grande Epicerie on my last trip, I was surprised to find the store completely changed. After a two-year renovation, the entire store layout had been reorganized—the wine cave, for example, is now downstairs (and the prices are vastly inflated), the produce section mostly offers exotic (and very expensive) fruits and vegetables. The store no longer feels like a neighborhood shop, but more like a gourmet destination. At first I felt a pang, but upon reflection, I realized it was just another way to turn the page—an opportunity to embrace my new neighborhood. And anyway, the raspberry financiers are still on offer (I checked).
Financiers à la framboise
Adapted from The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris by Patricia Wells
Financiers are baked in the shape of a tiny, little, rectangular loaf—they’re supposed to resemble a bar of gold, hence their name. Since I don’t have any financier molds, I used a muffin tin, which worked beautifully.
Makes 12 muffin-tin cakes
12 tablespoons (180 g) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups (140 g) almond meal
1 2/3 cups (225 g) confectioner’s sugar
1/2 cup (70 g) all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (185 g) egg whites (from 5-6 eggs)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit (220 degrees Celsius).
Using a pastry brush or the corner of a paper towel, brush the muffin tin with some of the melted butter.
In a large bowl, combine the almond meal, sugar, flour, and salt. Whisk in the egg whites a little at a time until throughly blended. Whisk in the butter.
Spoon a layer of batter into each muffin depression. Place two raspberries on each cake, and top with the remaining batter, dividing it evenly.
Place the baking sheet in the oven. Bake until the financiers are pale gold and beginning to firm up, about 7-9 minutes. Reduce the heat to 400 degree Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius) and bake 7-9 minutes more. Turn off the oven, leave the door closed, and allow the financiers to sit in the warm oven for 7 minutes.
Remove the financiers from the oven and let them cool in the mold for 10 minutes. Unmold on a wire rack and cool completely.