Author Archives

baker and writer, living in Paris

Forgetting the Madeleine

Frances Leech

Frances Leech | Longreads | May 2018 | 13 minutes (3,315 words)

 

I have friends in Paris who are now 4 and 6 years old. When I ring the doorbell at their apartment, I hear a clamor of footsteps and shouts of “Frances” and “Frances-madeleine” as they fight to open the latch, just within reach of small arms.

“What did you bring?” asks the boy, searching me for a telltale tin or box.

Tu es une PATISSERIE,” says the girl: you’re a bakery, or a baked good. I do not correct her.

Then they remember: “bonjour,” “bonsoir,” a kiss on the cheek. They pull me away like tugboats to see their room. At one birthday party they kidnapped me so fast that the adults did not find me for half an hour. I was busy being dive-bombed by toddlers and pretending to be the wolf.

They are curious about many things: trains, love, my cat whom they have not yet met, all of the cooking that happens in their narrow kitchen. They know if they ask “what is it?” they will receive un petit bout: a morsel of chocolate or a scrap of herbed fat, something to test for themselves. Or someone tall will hoist the child up to watch bubbling sugar turn to caramel — from a safe distance — before chasing them out. “Go play with your kitchen!” They have a wide selection of plastic fruit, vegetables, pizza, cakes.

“What did you bring?”

This particular afternoon I only brought a pan. I showed it to them.

“Can you guess what we are making today? It begins with an M…”

“MACARONS!” The boy loves them, for their melting sweetness and array of colors. Whenever I make a butterfly or flower in pastel colors, I save one for him.

“No, it begins with an M and it’s also in my name.”

“MARIE!”

“No, that is maman. It looks like a shell but you can eat it.”

I find madeleines are often bland rather than exceptional, whether it’s the spongy ones in supermarket packets or the pâtisserie ones that are prettier than they taste. I’d rather dip a boring digestive biscuit in my tea and know what I am getting. I’d rather be named after an éclair. But I will make madeleines for these two French children. I can’t resist their big eyes and round cheeks, and neither can their local baker’s wife: she always slips them a chouquette or a little cake when their parents pop in to buy bread.

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Kitchen Rhythm: A Year in a Parisian Pâtisserie

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Frances Leech | Vintage | March 2013 | 14 minutes (3378 words)

The Longreads Exclusive below is based on Frances Leech’s ebook of the same name, published in 2013 by Vintage UK.

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To make chocolate mousse, enough for 150 people, say, first whip the cream — liters and liters of it. Then, separately, whisk the egg yolks. Boil sugar and water and add to the yolks, still whisking, in a thin drizzle. Melt the chocolate, then stir, fold, and whisk everything together with some gelatin.

What is missing from this description, the bare-bones sketch in the red address book that alphabetizes all of my work recipes, is the physical sensations. When I started my apprenticeship in Paris a year ago, I learned that baking can be at once precise and vague. Measure everything to the last gram, simple enough. Harder to describe what the meringue mixture should look like when it is just right, hard to put the steady pressure of a hand piping cream into words. I looked and looked and was frustrated over and over.

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