By Dorie Greenspan
Here are some of the reasons I think French women are worthy of admiration (okay, envy): They can negotiate cobblestone streets in stilettos; get a smile out of snooty waiters in chic cafés; tie scarves without benefit of mirrors or handbooks from either Hermès or the Boy Scouts; and hold down demanding jobs while married with kids and still never be seen tossing out the trash in anything less attractive than Chloe jeans, a little cashmere tee, and just enough Chanel blush to fool anyone into believing they’re either fully made-up or healthier-looking than any busy person has the right to seem.
And, they can cook.
In the seven years I’ve lived in Paris, I’ve yet to meet a woman who can’t cook or who, at the very least, can’t talk a good game of food. Even women who say they don’t cook much still know the addresses of the best butchers, bakers, and, yes, if not candlestick makers, then makers of candles. For sure, they own a shopping basket and pull it out a couple of times a week when they go to the outdoor market in their neighborhood — even now-and-then cooks must have a regular supply of freshly made goat cheese and a stash of oil-cured olives.
And those women who do cook really cook, and cook really often, not just for family because they must, but for friends because they want to. I’ve never been invited to so many dinner parties, cocktail parties, and Sunday lunches that stretch into dinner (one came dangerously close to ending in time for a midnight snack). Few of these were planned much in advance, many were on “school nights,” and all of them were fun, because there was plenty of good food and wine and lively conversation.
How do they do it?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and have come to the conclusion that les Françaises don’t know anything we don’t already know. The big difference is, they actually do what we all know is smart: They keep it simple, while we Americans — especially we Americans in Paris working to live up to the culinary standards of our adopted country — are always trying to do just a little more. Particularly when it comes to dessert. And here, I speak from experience.
Let me back up a bit and tell you about the first dinner party I had in my Paris apartment. Call me neurotic, but no sooner had I invited everyone over than I began to feel responsible for producing a dinner that would bring glory to America’s reputation for gracious living and measure up to whatever expectations I imagined my French friends had of me as “a food person.” Quel pressure!
So, I knocked myself out. I had Champagne and piping-hot little homemade cheese puffs to welcome my guests, and I finished, four courses and 18 wineglasses-to-wash later, with a sleek, dark, dark chocolate cake layered with a fresh raspberry and chocolate ganache and topped with an all-chocolate ganache. In a French meal, the main course is called le plat de résistance, and it’s meant to be the biggest deal in the lineup. But I was pinning my hopes for hosannas on dessert — and I got a pretty great response, which at a Paris dinner party means a lot of ooh-la-la-ing. I got enough ooh-la-las to mention, as casually as possible, that I’d made the cake myself. You could have knocked me over with a cream puff when the first words out of a friend’s mouth were, “Why’d you do it? I mean, it’s great, but cakes like this are the reason pastry shops were invented.”
There was the key: French women leave fancy restaurant food to fancy restaurants and fancy desserts to the pâtisseries.
Of course. Had I thought back to the desserts I’d been served over the years at French friends’ homes, I’d have seen the keep-it-simple rule played to the max. No matter how chic the hostess, her homemade dessert invariably looked as rustic as if it had come from a farmhouse grand-mère. And at some point it probably had, since the majority of desserts my friends make are drawn from a repertoire of home-baking recipes that includes standards like rice pudding, tarte Tatin, quatre-quarts (the French version of pound cake), chocolate cakes in simple round layers and long loaves, mousses of many flavors, and hundreds more — among them the six recipes here that have become my own keep-it-simple classics.
The recipes are often centuries old, with techniques French women learned from their mothers, who learned them from their mothers, back through generations. In fact, the recipes are so true and so tried, many French women make them without recipes, or au pif. (I love the sound of this expression — oh peef; literally, it means “by nose,” but it’s used for stuff you just do, by second nature, feel, or guesswork. In cooking, it’s often a case of a-little-of-this-and-a-little-of-that.) My first far Breton, a custardy prune cake, was made au pif by a young French woman staying with us in New York. Au pif is also the way lots of seasonal fruit tarts are made and why they are often nothing more than crust, a layer of ground nuts or some crumbled stale cake, and sliced fruit sprinkled with sugar and dotted with bits of butter.
Since it took me years to perfect my own tart crusts, seeing tart after perfectly crusted tart served by endless French hostesses — even those who said they hardly ever cook, let alone bake — just made me even more convinced that my Gallic friends are goddesses. What it should have made me was suspicious! While I was ready to believe that every French woman was born with the scarf gene, I should have been a little less likely to accept that they had a crust gene, too. What they actually have that most of us don’t are grocery stores offering cut-to-size, impeccably rolled-out all-butter crusts — pâte brisée for quiches, sweet pâte sablée for tarts, and puff pastry for everything from savory canapés to those tarte Tatins my friends turn out au pif.
In Paris, stores are filled with high-quality ready-to-pretend-they’re-your-own products — and French women have no compunctions about using them. Although, just as with fashion, mixing it up is key. Only runway models wear head-to-toe Dior (stylish mortals add something from Gap) and only pros or not-so-very-assured hostesses make everything haute and from scratch.
The really stylish French hostess will mix store-bought with handmade for dessert and do it judiciously and with flair. Like my friend Paule Caillat, who teaches French cooking to Americans visiting Paris, many of my friends make excellent pear tarts, a true classic, using homemade almond cream for the filling and premium canned pears for the fruit; but, unlike Paule, many of my friends never fess up. (Which might explain why French women look so good at the trash bins — they go minutes before their guests arrive, so they can ditch all “incriminating” evidence.)
The same air of mystery can waft around the simplest desserts, the way it seemed to when my dear friend Martine just smiled after I’d complimented her on her chocolate mousse. It was perfect — dark, rich, not so light that it was unsatisfying, not so dense that it was puddingish — so I asked for the recipe. Martine, normally accommodating and always super-efficient, could never seem to get around to giving it to me, though I nagged her for weeks. Finally, she turned it over at the end of a meal at which I, a friend of 30 years, was the only non-family member. She took me aside, handed me a bar of Nestlé chocolate, and told me she used the recipe on the back of the wrapper.
When her cousin heard Martine’s admission, she clapped her hands gleefully and said, “I never knew you used that recipe! I use it all the time, but I add grated orange zest to it.” Then an aunt piped in and said, “I add coffee — but I thought I was the only one who used that recipe. I didn’t know you used it, too.” To which Martine replied, “Why would I mention it?”
Add to the growing list of qualities I admire in French women — the fact that they can really keep a secret.