Annecy. Maybe I was expecting too much. I had seen the pictures, you know. Stunning, green, romantic, pictures of a hideaway town glittering in the reflection of the lake, empty, cobbled streets, delicate bridges perched above trickling canals, boats lazily crossing the lake. Maybe it was like meeting someone you have heard so much about, expectations high, or meeting someone for the first time face to face after having written pretty little billets doux back and forth…. The idea was formed in my head, pictures of the perfect lover, the city of my dreams, before I had ever stepped foot out of the car. And when I did, that first morning, map in hand, meandering in out of narrow, winding, shady lanes occasionally stepping out into a bright circle of sunshine in a town square, church to my left, bistro to my right, disillusionment washed over me like that one blind date gone wrong. Reality smacked me in the face! There was something Disneyesque about Annecy, I felt as if I had stepped onto some Sixtie’s family film set, all faux rusticity and costumed romance.
JP had slunk reluctantly off to his conference meetings that morning, loathe to leave his vacation – and me – behind, so I was on my own. But this town is small enough to handle on one’s own and on foot, so I waved him off and turned in the direction of the Old Town. It isn’t easy to get lost here as you are always sure to find yourself sooner or later on the edge of Annecy’s gorgeous lake, the sun reflecting sharply off of the surface so that even at 9 in the morning I found myself shading my eyes as I stared in utter disbelief at the picture postcard beauty spread out before me, the backdrop of lush mountains, her peaks kissed by snow, setting off the lovely lake, the boats, the swans making lazy circles in the water, the majestic old mansions lining the opposite side of the lake. The old center of Annecy is tiny, a doll’s town, easy enough to cross back and forth several times in the course of one morning. And cross back and forth I did, afraid that I must have missed something. But no, that’s all there is. I looked up, my eyes scanned the ancient facades of Centreville, all mustard-colored walls and chocolate brown beams, buildings leaning into each other, holding one another up, pushing against time who seems to be pushing back yet losing the battle. These elegant old ladies seem to be holding their own. But when I lowered my eyes I felt like I had been swept off to Disney World: “authentic French” bistros, gift shops, souvenir tourist traps lined up side by side, back to back, like school children jostling each other as they wait impatiently in line, like vulgar painted women luring unsuspecting couples to sample their wares, promising heavenly delights. Ogling tourists come to get a taste of the romance of Annecy trundle excitedly up and down the streets, popping in and out of shops, perusing menus written in bad English posted outside every restaurant and seem taken in, enchanted with the quaint, Main Street air of this town, but I had seen enough of this kind of thing before and found myself frustrated, angry and just a tad disgruntled. So I bought a sandwich from a streetcart vendor and ate lakeside, the calm breeze and the bright, warm sun easing the pain just a bit.
After lunch, I found my way a bit off the beaten track and in front of the pastry shop/chocolatier I had been looking for, La Marquise des Anges of patissier Paul Collet. And after wandering back and forth in front of the window, nose pressed against the glass, hemming and hawing, I finally went in and bought a small sachet of Roseaux du Lac d’Annecy, liqueur-filled chocolates, and a sachets of gorgeous, deep violet and garnet colored pâtes de fruit, gumdrops. Happy with my purchase, I headed off, uphill, to visit the Chateau.
Well, after my day of tourism and darling JP’s day of meetings, we met back at the hotel and prepared for an evening of elegance and gastronomic delight: a meal at L’Auberge du Père Bise. JP had thoughtfully, lovingly reserved a table at this Michelin-starred restaurant as soon as we began planning our trip, making sure that we would taste the delights of Sophie Bise, daughter of her famed Père. And delights, tremendous delights they were. This was easily one of the best meals I have ever eaten. Ever. Discreet luxury surrounded us, an attentive yet unobtrusive team waited on us, the food silently yet pleasurably placed before us, empty plates whisked away after a slight hesitation, nod of the head looking for a word of approval from us after each course.
(I must interject a small aside here before I begin sharing our meal and drooling over the memories of each taste, scent, the lovely vision of the lake at night: we left the hotel a tad bit early but really in good time to make our reservation. As this is most definitely a haut lieu gastronomique we wanted to be neither early – how gauche! – nor late – just plain rude! We began our drive and, knowing that the restaurant was only a few kilometers from the hotel, we began to sense that something was wrong when we had been driving for quite some time with absolutely no indication that we were approaching the town of Talloires. At JP’s request, I grabbed the map, not something I am happy doing in normal times, and realized with horror that we had started out in the wrong direction! We were driving the long way around the lake! All around the lake! Yipes! How long? We both panicked and, sweating, started searching for road signs, looking to see if we could perceive the end of the lake, but all we saw was water, water that seemed to go on forever! So, to make a long story short, it took us maybe an added half hour to drive all the way around the lake and we walked into the restaurant at exactly our reservation time. To the minute. And only slightly worse for the wear.)
Lulled by the muted atmosphere of the restaurant and the twinkling of the lights on the still, dark water of the lake, we began with a stunning “cake” of thin, stacked layers of smoked fish and foie gras served with the perfect tart Granny Smith apple jelly. Sublime! Blue lobster served atop tiny vegetable-filled cannelloni bathed in a wonderful carrot-infused cream sauce, a tender, peppery duck filet served aside its own kefta-inspired duck patty and crispy fried polenta, a selection of rhubarb and strawberry pastries and sorbets, a cheese course and finally, when we thought that nothing else could possibly come, the wonderful serveuse rolled over the magnificent dessert trolley. Wow! Everything was more than perfect, each dish filled with intense flavors playing off one another yet so perfectly balanced. It is truly difficult to describe and as some * ahem * refuse to allow me to carry a camera into any restaurant (escargot accepted), I have nothing to show you, only the link to their website to offer. Needless to say, this was the ideal, the perfect ending to a perfect week. Gastronomic delights, romance, fun and relaxation and we are refreshed and only waiting for that summer in Florida.
And Annecy had been forgiven….
My wonderful friend and fellow food writer Mardi of Eat. Live. Travel. Write. is hosting this month’s Hay Hay it’s Donna Day, a food blogging event started by my other good friend and cute person Denise of Chez Us in which one blogger chooses one recipe by Australian cookbook author Donna Hay (I have one issue of her magazine and my first Donna Hay cookbook Chocolate!) and the rest of us recreate the same recipe as we choose. Mardi chose a wonderful summer recipe, Blackberry Cheesecake Pots, highlighting my favorite of all berries, the blackberry. This cool and creamy dessert sounded perfect! Well, the recipe was so much like something that I had been craving lately and since Mardi is an especially good friend, I decided to play along.
Well, a couple of changes ensued… no blackberries to be found! At the best of times, blackberries are flown in from Holland, huge, plump and so deliciously sweet but way out of my usual price range. But it is still too early in the European fruit season. So I chose what is now in gorgeous, luscious abundance: gariguette strawberries. And as cream cheese cannot be found in Nantes (and I usually prefer a milder flavor anyway), I replaced the cream cheese in the original recipe with mascarpone. Perfect! And one more change? Three’s the charm, as they say! Instead of baking cookies to serve alongside the cheesecake pots, as Donna suggests, I baked a light, moist, flourless chocolaty sheet cake (which I normally make for my cake roll), cut out circles of the cake and created these individual desserts. Thanks Donna, Denise and especially Mardi for this fun event and wonderful dessert. Read all about how you can participate and see the recipe here.
The true test with anything I cook or bake is my darling JP. He scooped up a spoonful and tasted. And another. And another. He loved it! He thought it was so delicious, so perfect that it was worthy of a pastry chef. Ah, wonderful! I also found that leaving the dessert in the refrigerator 1 day and even 2 days before serving, it only got better: the cream thickened into more of a cheesecake texture yet thanks to this most perfect of cake recipes, the chocolate cake base did not get soggy at all! Rather the cake was now infused with a sweet hint of strawberry, which perfectly highlighted the bitter chocolate cake. The dessert was smooth, tender, creamy and just the perfect balance between sweet, chocolate and strawberry. Amazing!
The strawberry mascarpone cream can be served much more simply by spooning it into individual glasses and serving extra berries on the side. With your favorite cookie or biscotti on the side.
2 small asides, the latest updates:
STRAWBERRY MASCARPONE CHEESECAKE
Wildly adapted by Jamie from a Donna Hay recipe
1 cup (250 g) mascarpone (can use cream cheese)
¼ cup (55 g) superfine sugar
1 tsp vanilla
¼ cup (60 ml) fresh heavy or double whipping cream (not ultra-pasteurized, long life cream)
½ - 1 cup (125 – 250 g) strawberries or your favorite berry
Chocolate Cloud Cake (recipe follows) or other cake base * (see below)
Chill a glass bowl and a set of beaters in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes before beating the heavy cream. Put the heavy cream in the chilled bowl and, using the chilled beaters, whip the cream until it holds in soft peaks. Continue beating as you gradually add 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Beat until the cream is very thick and dense and holds stiff peaks.
In a separate bowl, beat the mascarpone with the remaining sugar and vanilla until light and creamy. Using a spatula, fold in the beaten cream until blended. Do not over-mix.
Crush about 2 oz (60 g) of the strawberries – about 10 or 12 medium – in a food processor. Crush them but do not liquefy. Gently fold them into the mascarpone mixture, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours if possible. (I prepared these cheesecake desserts right away without pre-chilling the mixture).
With your ring molds, cut out circles of Chocolate Cloud Cake – about 5 medium, 6 small. Place the rings with the chocolate bases on a baking sheet or tray lined with parchment paper.
Trim the top off of the remaining strawberries and slice each berry in half lengthwise. Cut sides out, line the rings all around with the strawberry halves, large end down, point upwards. Leave a tiny space between the berries for the cream to peep through.
Carefully place a heaping spoonful of the strawberry mascarpone cream in the center of the rings, inside the strawberries and with the back of the spoon press to fill, being careful that the strawberries stay in their places. Flatten the top of the cream. Once all the rings are filled, place a large piece of plastic wrap over the whole thing and refrigerate overnight. If you eat these the same day they are mighty delicious and meltingly good but after a day – and even 2 days – the cream sets and becomes denser, more like a cheesecake and the cake becomes infused with strawberry flavor. Gorgeous!
To serve, very carefully slide a wide, flat spatula under a ring, sliding it under the cake and lift onto a dessert plate. Dust the top with unsweetened cocoa powder and gently lift off the ring, lifting straight up. Serve immediately with extra strawberries. You can also crush the remaining berries with a little sugar and serve as a coulis.
CHOCOLATE CLOUD CAKE
From Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible
* For the Strawberry Mascarpone Dessert you can replace the Chocolate Cloud Cake with your favorite chocolate or vanilla sheet cake or genoise or even pre-baked sweet pastry crust or cookie, but personally I prefer a softer cake bottom than a crunchy pie crust or cookie as it is easier to eat and creates a uniform, elegant, tender and creamy dessert experience. And of course, I love the touch of chocolate this light yet densely moist cake brings to the strawberry cream.
1/3 cup (30 g) unsifted, unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ liquid cup (60 ml) boiling water
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1/3 cup (35 g) finely ground toasted almonds
2/3 cup (130 g) sugar
6 large eggs, separated
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease a 17 x 12” (@ 45 x 30 cm) jellyroll pan, line it with parchment or non-stick oven paper and grease again.
In a small bowl, stir together the cocoa powder with the boiling water until the cocoa is completely dissolved and smooth. Stir in the butter until it is melted and then the vanilla. Set aside to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the 6 egg yolks with ½ cup (100 g) of the sugar and beat, using an electric mixer, for 5 minutes until light and fluffy. Add the chocolate mixture and the ground almonds and beat until incorporated and well blended, scraping down the sides as necessary.
In a separate, large, very clean bowl (preferably plastic or metal), beat the egg whites until soft peaks begin to form. Gradually, as you continue beating, add the rest of the sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. With a large whisk, slotted spoon or spatula, fold about 1/3 of the beaten whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it before folding in the rest of the whites in 2 additions. Fold in the whites gently but until completely blended in. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
Bake in the preheated oven for 18 minutes. The cake will have puffed, faded in color and lost its shine and the surface will spring back when lightly touched. If in doubt, leave in the oven for an extra minute or two. Remove from the oven and slide the parchment off of the pan onto your work surface. Allow to cool completely before flipping over and cutting out your circles.