Savoring the Delights of Belle Époque by Elizabeth Ross

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Since today is Bastille Day, I decided to review a novel set in Paris, the glorious city of lights. The YA award winning novel, Belle Époque by Elizabeth Ross, features strong female characters and deals with strikingly relevant contemporary issues such as friendship, body image, social class and self-worth. Though the setting, brash and “beautiful era” Paris is historical, the themes are timeless and infinitely relatable.

The protagonist Maude Pichon runs away from home and ends up in a Paris far crueler than the one she imagined. Faded postcards and half-forgotten tales told by her dead mother lead Maude to believe city life would be brighter and more romantic the drudge-filled existence she endured in Brittany. Employment proves hard to find and Maude ends up working as a repoussoir.

In art, a repoussoir is a foreground object that draws the viewer’s eye into the main composition. In Belle Époque Paris, a repoussoir, or plain girl, is hired out to wealthy patrons in order to allow their daughters to shine during their debuts. Seemingly cruel, the practice allowed poor girls to earn a living, and vicariously enjoy the delights offered by Parisian society.

Jacob Isaaksz. van Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery (1655-60, oil on canvas, 141 x 182.9 cm). The tree in the right-foreground of Ruisdael's painting is an example of repoussoir that pushes the viewer's eye into the composition. (Source: Wikipedia)
Jacob Isaaksz. van Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery (1655-60, oil on canvas, 141 x 182.9 cm). The tree in the right-foreground of Ruisdael’s painting is an example of repoussoir that pushes the viewer’s eye into the composition. (Source: Wikipedia)

Maude spends many afternoons site-seeing, and viewing places depicted in her mother’s postcards. As a good Catholic woman, Maude’s mother naturally included an image of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris . The cathedral is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture and among the largest church buildings in the world.

Vintage Postcard via Wikipedia
Vintage Postcard via Wikipedia

While Madame Pichon may have admired the spiritual, she must also have enjoyed the secular since she had images of the former Tuileries Palace and the Palais Garnier in her collection.

Former Tuileries Palace, 1867 via Wikipedia
Former Tuileries Palace, 1867 via Wikipedia
Palais Garnier, via Wikipedia
Palais Garnier, via Wikipedia

Indeed, Maude visited a destination undreamed of by her mother, the Eiffel Tower . Named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower in 1889, the iron structure is one of the most recognized and copied monuments in the world. That was not the case when Eiffel proposed the project. Controversy and criticism dogged Eiffel. Many did not believe the tower could be built; others thought it lacked artistic merit. This controversy, juxtaposed with the steady rise of the tower, serves as a metaphor for societal change during the Belle Époque.

Eiffel Tower Construction, via Wikipedia
Eiffel Tower Construction, via Wikipedia
Gustave Eiffel Caricature, via Wikipedia
Gustave Eiffel Caricature, via Wikipedia

Site-seeing is all well and good, but a novel about Paris set in any era would be remiss of it did not include luscious descriptions of food. Accounts of grand feasts and fantastic dinners spill from the pages of Ross’ novel. Delicious meals feature bounties of foie gras, smoked trout, roast goose, lobster a la Russe and rack of lamb. While these staggering displays of gastronomic excess form a backdrop for social galas, it is the intimate breakfasts shared between Maude’s agency friends which provide delight, particularly their favorite pâtisserie, Pain au Chocolat.

Image Courtesy of Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be
Image Courtesy of Luc Viatour / http://www.Lucnix.be

My husband and I toured the Châteaux of the Loire years ago. At the time, he was training for a marathon and would often disappear for long early-morning runs. I used the time to take sunrise photographs and explore on my own. I became used to lining up with local housewives to await the opening of village bakeries, where I would buy bread for the day. Yummy baguettes, eggy brioche and of course pain au chocolat. Starting the day with warm melted chocolate wrapped in flaky pastry is my idea of perfection.

Cooking the Book

If you’d like to try making your own Pain au Chocolat, here are two recipes. The first is an easy adaptation, which uses puff pastry instead of hand made. Purists may not like it, since it is not as buttery or flakey as the real thing. The second is a Jane Barton step-by-step tutorial from her Simply So Good blog. The ingredients are simple, but the labor must be spread out over several days.

I think I will stick to buying them. Does anyone have a favorite French bakery in the U.S.?


Version I: Petits Pains au Chocolat from Bon Appétit

Yield: Makes 24

Ingredients

•2 sheets frozen puff pastry (one 17.3-ounce package), thawed, each sheet cut into 12 squares
•1 large egg beaten to blend with 1 tablespoon water (for glaze)
•4 3.5-ounce bars imported bittersweet or milk chocolate, each cut into six 2×3/4-inch pieces
•Sugar

Preparation:

Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Brush top of each puff pastry square with egg glaze. Place 1 chocolate piece on edge of 1 pastry square. Roll up dough tightly, enclosing chocolate. Repeat with remaining pastry and chocolate. Place pastry rolls on baking sheet, seam side down. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover pastries with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Cover and refrigerate remaining egg glaze.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush tops of pastry rolls with remaining egg glaze. Sprinkle lightly with sugar. Bake until pastries are golden brown, about 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Version II: Pain au Chocolat via Jane Barton’s Simply So Good

Croissant dough:

1/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (Not instant or rapid rise)
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup cold milk
1 1/2 cups cold unsalted butter

Egg glaze:

1 egg
2 tablespoons milk

Filling:

12-oz semi-sweet chocolate chip

To make the dough, place the water in a small bowl, sprinkle with yeast. Dissolve and let rest undisturbed for about 10 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pinch off small pieces of the 1/4 cup of butter, sprinkle them over the dry ingredients. Rub in to the flour by hand until they are almost fully dissolved. Stir in the yeast mixture and add it to the flour mixture. Add the cold milk.

With a wooden spoon, mix the wet and dry ingredients just until evenly combined and all dry spots have disappeared. The dough will be of medium stiffness, like a moist bread dough. The dough may also be mixed in an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook; just be careful not to over mix it or it will become too elastic to roll out.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead for about 1 minutes. Place the dough on a floured baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough overnight.

To roll in the butter, remove the butter from the refrigerator. Leaving the butter in its wrappers, with a wooden rolling pin pound each stick lightly but firmly on all four sides until softened.

Unwrap the sticks and join them together. On a lightly floured surface, using the rolling pin, mold the butter into a flat block measuring 5 x 5 -3/4-inch. Work quickly, making sure the butter is soft, but still cold. If it gets warm, return it to the refrigerator for several minutes.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator, place it on a lightly floured table, and roll it into a 12 x 6-inch rectangle.

Place the cold butter on the right half of the dough, then fold the other half of the dough over the butter. Pinch the edges to seal.

With the folded edge on your left, roll the dough out lengthwise so that it measures 22 x 10-inches. Next, fold the bottom third up and the top third down. This is the beurrage.

Cover the dough, place it on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 45 minutes.

For the turns, remove the dough from the refrigerator and place it on a lightly floured surface.

Position the dough so that the folded edge running the length of the dough is on the left. Make sure the edges are still sealed. Roll the dough out length wise so it measures approximately 22 x 10-inches. Fold the dough in thirds, beginning with the lower third, as before (you have completed one turn.)

Place the dough on the baking sheet. With your finger make one small indentation on an edge of the dough to indicate one turn has been made. Cover and refrigerate for 45 minutes. Repeat this process 2 more times. Doing three turns. Return the dough to the baking sheet and refrigerate overnight.

To make Pain au Chocolate:

Whisk together the egg and milk. Line a baking with parchment paper.

Roll the croissant dough out to a 28 x 12-inch rectangle.

Cut the dough into three 4-inch strips.

Cut each strip into 7-inch long pieces.

Brush each piece with egg wash.

Sprinkle with 2-3 tablespoon of chocolate chips onto the middle third of each piece of dough.

Fold the lower third over the chips and the upper third over that. Gently press or seal with your fingers.

Repeat this process with the rest of the dough.

Place seam side down on a baking sheet.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and divide the pastries between them, leaving approximately 2inches between each one to allow space for rising. Brush them with the left over egg glaze and let rise until they are puffy and feel like marshmallows.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place the baking sheets on the center 4rack in the oven and bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

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