As I continue to work on my magnum opus Parisian hot chocolate recipe, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes something “the best”. Of course when I use hot chocolate and Paris together in the same sentence and ask you to think of the best we all know the answer is . . . Angelina, right? But why? Is it just the snowball effect of 100 years of received “wisdom” from people whose chocolat chaud experience has likely been limited to Angelina? Yes, because I can objectively tell you why it’s not that good. What if I just asked you to name the best brand of chocolate? Cadbury? Godiva? Or are you sassy because you buy Scharffen Berger at Whole Foods? Fancier still because you get Valrhona at a gourmet store? Even saucier because you’re hip to Amedei and Domori? Or are you a snob like me whose cupboard is stuffed with 30 bars from brands most people have never heard of? And what does this have to do with Pierre Hermé?
This has everything to do with Pierre Hermé. Like Joël Robuchon or Alain Ducasse are to real Parisian food, Monsieur Hermé is treated like this inviolate deity of pastry. Yet, even after spending the better part of the last couple years eating Paris’ patisseries morning, noon and night, I think it would be irresponsible to give him or anyone the blanket title of “best pastry chef”; that’s absurd. Certain as it is that His Holiness Jacques Genin is the best classic pastry chef, I’d still need to see the love-child of Him, Emmanuel Ryon, Hugues Pouget and Monsieur Hermé before I could bestow it with the vaunted title of best all-around. Turning out work like this Millefeuille Infiniment Vanille admittedly ensures Pierre Hermé’s contribution to that gene pool will be of value . . .
When I went to fact-check the ingredients in the piece, I came across a blogger who’d done some illustrations of the millefeuille. She identified the crème de Mascarpone filling as being flavored with Madagascan vanilla, causing me to go, “That is unpossible.” A. Because I think pure Madagascan vanilla tastes like burning plastic, which means I would have hated anything flavored with it alone and B. Because I remember Monsieur Hermé’s crème as being a lovely mélange of vanillas. Enjoying its thick, creamy charms is more like a worldwide romp from Mexico to Tahiti and Madagascar . . . then back again! In concert with the beautifully caramelised feuilletage that sandwiches it all, it’s a crunchy, gooey, decadently shame-inducing caloric powerhouse of yum.
I’d actually class it among my three favorite conventional millefeuille. Hugo & Victor’s tastes almost exactly the same, though their pastry is much less sweet, much less intense, and yet much more crispity. Then there’s Pain de Sucre’s significantly heavier and more traditional behemoth of sheets and wonderfully gloppy crème. My dirty secret is of course that I hate Jacques Genin’s version; its imperfection, in light of all His other masterful work, is the reason I have to bump Him down a notch to the class of a mere demigod.
I always wish chefs would do more millefeuille. Yeah, there are the caramel, coffee, chocolate, réglisse, hazelnut, and strawberry ones . . . but what about some other cool flavors? Can you imagine a pistachio millefeuille? And why have I not seen it in Paris? I would stab someone for that. Or what if you made the pastry with almond flour and then sandwiched gobs of morello cherry crème in the middle? I would do unspeakable things if someone pulled that off. Or maybe chestnut flour pastry with clementine crème. I can safely say I’d sell my soul to see that done. Ugh. I need to stop writing when I’m hungry, as much as the chefs need to start using nuts more creatively.
I also want to see shops get a little tidier. I’m not loving the crumbles of pastry here in the crème. Now that I’ve become accustomed to both Emmanuel Ryon’s and Jacques Genin’s insistence that everything be prepared with laser-like precision, I’m a lot crabbier about others not following suit.
So, yes, Monsieur Hermé’s Millefeuille Infiniment Vanille is a definite must-have. Sadly, he only carries it about one month out of the year. But he always has the Tarte Infiniment Vanille, which, while texturally different, has the same mindbendingly awesome vanilla tones. Of course you can always get your Pierre Hermé fix by pre-ordering the new English version of his MACARONS book or snagging a copy of his tome on Chocolate Desserts! Either makes a fine Christmas present . . . for yourself or for someone who will cook for you.