The other day, I bought a pain au chocolat aux amandes (chocolate almond croissant) from Maison Kayser, an outpost of a Parisian bakery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I was so excited to see one there because it is next to impossible to find them here in the States. You can find chocolate ones or almond ones, but never (or rarely) chocolate almond ones. I’ve been on a quest to find one since 1992, when I had eaten my first one in Paris with twin sister, Beth. Beth, who has since passed away, was living in Paris for her junior year of college, and I went to visit her for three weeks in between semesters. It was the first time we had really lived apart (the kookiness of twins, especially identical twins, can be discussed in another blog!) She was living in the Barbes section of Paris and her local boulangerie/patisserie was run by the chef Phillipe. I remember she would always make fun of me because I couldn’t pronounce the pastry’s name properly, but that didn’t stop me from getting what I wanted. According to Beth, Phillipe baked the best baguettes in Paris. When she moved to another area of Paris, she mourned the loss of Phillipe’s bread and pastries.
In 2004, four months after my sister passed away, I went to Paris. It was our birthday, and I needed to feel close to my sister. Paris was her favorite place on earth and I had so many wonderful memories from my time with her there, so I felt that a visit would help me find the closeness I needed. I went to Phillipe’s bakery and attempted to speak to the woman behind the counter, explaining that my sister lived around the corner ten years ago, loved Phillipe’s baguettes and how she had since died. Surprisingly, even though I fumbled and bumbled my way through the conversation (I had never studied French), pointing over my shoulder each time I wanted the counterperson to know that I was referring to an incident that was in the past, the woman gave me a lot of her time. She asked me to wait a few minutes, so she could help the customers in the bakery, and returned to me when she was done. She explained that she was Phillipe’s daughter, and that if I wanted, I could speak to Phillipe myself. I declined from shyness, but it made me feel so good. Of course I bought a pastry, and it was as good as I had remembered.
I’m not sure why many bakeries here don’t do chocolate and almond croissants, but I remember it was a combination that was pretty hard to find even in Paris as well (though things may have changed in the 12 years since I’ve last been). I’ve eaten three pain au chocolate aux amande(including the one from Maison Kayser) and with all of them, there was something that wasn’t quite right. Phillipe’s were light and flaky with a bit of dark chocolate in the middle and a marzipan type filling that was soft and sweet and cold (I’m sure from the refrigerated case, but the coldness has such a strong place in my food memory of eating this pastry in Paris) His had the right ratio of chocolate to almond paste and they were smashed a bit, and almost lobster shaped. While Maison Kayser’s was really good, and the atmosphere, filled with French speaking customers and cashiers seemed like it would have been the place to find the pastry that rivaled Phillipe’s, there’s had too much chocolate (I’m not a huge chocolate fan, so that Phillipe’s had the right amount was key). The too much chocolate was the problem with all the pain au chocolate aux amandes that I’ve eaten here. Too bad!
Maybe it’s not fair of me to put all of this pressure on bakers here. Food memories are just as much about the events that surround them, as they are the food, right? I’m never going to be able to recreate the magical moments of being in Paris for the first time, around Christmastime with my long departed best friend. But sometimes, when I’m feeling a little sad, wishing she were here, I have to try.