Saturday, September 26, 2009

French Pastries from Paul Bakery

     The Japanese fascination with all things French runs so deep that occasionally it even makes international news - I remember reading an article a few years ago about the phenomenon of young Japanese women being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder after trips to Paris that shattered their fairy-tale images by exposure to Gallic discourtesy.  On a more mundane level, you can't walk a block in some parts of Tokyo without encountering endless outposts of Parisian chocolate shops, patisseries, bakeries, and, yes, tea houses.
     Paul Bakery is a chain, maybe the French version of Panera, which has expanded to England, Belgium, and Morocco, as well as China, Turkey, and Dubai.  Apparently Florida was the only US state they saw as a worthy market.  They have a number of shops in Tokyo, including one on the first floor of my office building, and if I don't pack my lunch to bring then chances are that I'll get either their Camembert or their tuna sandwich.
     I know, chains are evil.  But the thing about Paul is, it actually tastes as good as the small, independent bakeries in my neighborhood.  The bread doesn't taste like it was all mixed up in a centralized production warehouse and has been in shipment, frozen, for a week.  Maybe that's how it's actually produced, I don't know.  Maybe it's just the seductive European cache of its being a French chain.  But the fact is, the baguettes are crisp and chewy, the pastries are crumbly and not-too-sweet, and I only start to feel ashamed of going there if it happens more than twice a week.

      Besides breads, sandwiches, and croissants, they also have a pastry case filled with tarts, eclairs, and the choux a la creme at the top of this post.  The "shoe cream," as Japanese pronunciation usually renders it, is wildly popular here and there are endless variations on it - flaky versus classic choux pastry, filled versus sandwiched, flavored fillings ranging from chocolate to candied chestnut to gorgonzola, even chocolate-dipped (overkill, but heavenly).  The Paul incarnation is noteworthy for its layering of custard cream in the bottom half of the eggy, chewy pate a choux sandwich, topping it with a swirl of barely sweetened whipped cream, and dusting the top of the whole thing with powdered sugar.  I was intending to get one of these to celebrate my birthday, but they were all sold out that day.  I ended up getting two cannelles instead, since they're my second favorite sweet thing.

    The cannelle (that final e should have an accent aigu but I don't know how to type that) is something I had never even heard of until about a year ago, shortly after I first moved to Tokyo.  I didn't like it at first - the outside is so dark and crunchy that it almost felt like eating a cake that had been burned by accident.  The inside is so custardy, eggy and flecked with vanilla, that it's practically like eating cake batter.  The combination is surprising, and it wasn't until my second cannelle, several months later, that I became obsessed.  I did some research, found recipes and copper cannelle molds online, and will be prepared to start baking as soon as I move back to a country where they aren't readily available on the first floor of my office building.

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