In the middle of the night, sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., Marcel Didierjean and Matt Knio begin work at their respective patisseries, French pastry shops. These men go to work while many of us are dreaming about what they are soon to create.
The dough for the breads has been rising since the day before; the bakers must make the pâté brisée and pâté sucrée, two of the pastry doughs that will be rolled and shaped, then stuffed with a variety of fillings: fruits, chocolate, butter creams, nuts, liqueurs and lemon curd, which is both tart and sweet.
Didierjean and Knio are practitioners of what is becoming a lost art. To maintain the quality of fine French baking, which they do, requires a commitment and a lifestyle that is more demanding than many people are willing to endure. The rewards are the customers’ pleasure, and the knowledge that one is master of a unique trade. These bakers have the ability to turn a few ingredients — flour, butter, sugar, eggs, fruit, nuts and other delectable morsels — into gustatory treasures, all yours for a few dollars. You’ll know these aren’t mass-produced sweets with the first bite. The French bakers use far less sugar than most of their American counterparts, allowing the natural flavors to come through.
In order to serve fresh product every day, these men must work throughout the night to stock their cases with fresh breads and pastries that are, by today’s dietary standards, taboo. Hopefully, there’s enough of a following left to keep these bakers and others like them in business. These shops aren’t located on the streets of Paris where there are thousands of pedestrians walking by; these are destinations.
Le Petit Prince was opened in Birmingham 25 years ago by Didierjean and his wife Yvette. They recently received a proclamation from the city attesting to the shop’s excellence and longevity. This is a family business, now assisted by two sons, one of whom may someday continue the tradition.
Chocolate is one of Le Petit Prince’s specialties. Seasonal chocolate cookies and candies include ghosts and pumpkins for Halloween, Santas for Christmas and bunnies for Easter. There are beautiful hens and roosters made entirely of chocolate, with a dash of food coloring for decoration — one hen on display resembles porcelain. There are probably two dozen types of butter cookies and meringues, as well as gâteaux de soiree — finger pastries — in many shapes and flavors. For those who wish to avoid alcohol, Yvette will point out which goodies don’t contain liqueurs.
There are sweet and savory croissants, filled with sweets or meat and cheese. My new favorite is a Mistral — brioche dough filled with almond paste, fresh raspberries, Grand Marnier and topped with sliced almonds. The baguettes are baked in a steam oven, other breads in the brick oven. Try a tuile, a simple flourless almond cookie — it’s near perfect here. When you visit, encourage the sons to abandon any alternative pursuit.
Just a few miles away is Cannella Patisserie at Northwestern Highway and Inkster Road in Southfield. Owner Matt Knio is presently the sole employee. He bakes at night, opens at 6:30 a.m., waits on customers all day, prepares what he can for the next day, cleans the store, closes, then goes home for a few hours’ rest and returns to start all over.
Knio’s offerings include slices of apple tart, and a small chocolate mousse for the children — a brownie-like cake glazed with milk chocolate and decorated with whiskers and a tail. Next to that is a fat-free, sugar-free vanilla mousse topped with fresh raspberries. The pear soufflé is caramelized with a torch, then served in a glass brushed with chocolate, with sliced pears and two little slices of cake. There’s a swan made of whipped cream and pastry dough; this is as close as you will come to something that looks too good to eat. The apricot tart is a layer of pastry cream on a thin layer of pastry, topped with glazed apricots. It melts in your mouth. The cakes and tarts are exquisite. A favorite in Paris is Amandine, an almond raspberry tart. This is artistry as much as it is baking, and a labor of love.
Who makes a better baguette? A better tuile? A better almond croissant? Of course, I have my own opinions, and I urge you to compare for yourself. I’m reminded of the saying I once heard, “Life is short. Start with dessert.” If you are a newcomer to French pastry, let your eyes be your guide and listen to these bakers describe their wares. You’ll soon have your own favorites.
By the book: Bargain Books, a deep discount bookseller, is having a cookbook sale — all cookbooks are half off the already-low prices. I bought Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking by Julia Child — which normally sells for $19.95 — for $4.50. The Barefoot Contessa, Family Style by Ina Garten — normally $35 — was only $7. Williams-Sonoma Savoring Mexico by Marilyn Tausend, which lists for $39.95, was $7.50. The Cook’s Canon, 101 Classic Recipes Everyone Should Know by former Detroiter Raymond Sokolov was only $4.50. There are Bargain Books stores located at Livonia Mall; Summit Place and Oakland Pointe Shopping Center, both in Waterford; and Ann Arbor at 1621 S. State St. The sale lasts until Oct. 20.
Cannella Patisserie is located at 29681 Northwestern Hwy. in Southfield. Call 248-355-0430.
Le Petit Prince is located at 124 W. 14 Mile Road in Birmingham. Call 248-644-7114.Jeff Broder is a chow hound for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org