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Crème de la Crème

LADURÉE
For Payard, the original 1862 Ladurée—a five-minute walk from Fauchon, across Place de la Madeleine—is "the quintessential Paris tea salon." (A second, larger Ladurée is on the Champs-Élysées.) At the flagship, Payard loves the almost absurd profusion of tiny round and rectangular tables that make it nearly impossible to move without overturning somebody's teacup. Mirrors have elaborate gilt frames, and the ceiling is gaily painted with ribbons, bows, and rosy cherubs in a dreamy cloudscape. The customers are as much an attraction as the décor. Between bites of Royal Chocolats (rum-soaked almond sponge cake and chocolate ganache), coquettish women of a very certain age redraw their bow lips and adjust the fluttering lace around their décolletages. Waitresses, wearied by one decade of service too many, barrel through in ruffled black aprons, rattling the Napoleon III-style silver plate that is a Ladurée trademark.

Even more of a trademark are the macaroons—lush, chewy, and achingly sweet. They are the meringue-like cousins of the Passover cookie of the same name, with ground almonds replacing coconut. Payard calls Ladurée's macaroons "the best anywhere." The conundrum is why, with every pastry chef using the same ingredients—almonds, sugar, and egg whites—no other macaroon places even a distant second. The sugar provides the only possibility for personal expression: Ladurée favors confectioners' and others use granulated; still others swear by a mixture of the two.

"Most macaroons are too airy—there's nothing to get your teeth into," says Philippe Andrieu, who was Pierre Hermé's right hand at Ladurée before replacing him as pastry chef. "What makes ours so special is that it melts in your mouth—but not right away." After meeting Andrieu and Gaudard, you become used to the idea that so much haute pastry rests on the slight shoulders of such young men. Like couturiers, Gaudard and Andrieu launch two "collections" of new creations every year, in April and October. Andrieu, who is 30, grew up on a cattle farm in the southwest, where he learned to make pain perdu (French toast) and crêpes from his mother. In Andrieu's precocious career, he has opened branches for Fauchon in South Korea and Hong Kong, worked at French restaurants in Uruguay and Argentina, and run visionary chef Michel Bras's pastry kitchen in Laguiole, in south-central France.

Andrieu also assisted at the controversial birth of a new Ladurée croissant. Finding the version the shop was selling rather leaden, Hermé and Andrieu changed the recipe, increasing the sugar and butter, and introducing fleur de sel. The result was lighter, fluffier, more layered and fragrant—all the qualities of a great croissant, only exaggerated. Partisans of the original pastry took the tinkering as an implied criticism of their palates. The protest was so loud that the croissant traditionnel was reinstated and sold alongside the "improved" croissant À l'ancienne. But neither is Ladurée's most popular croissant. The best-seller is the richer-by-far fourré, filled with almond paste and walnuts.

ÉCOLE GASTRONOMIQUE BELLOUET CONSEIL
To visit a school that shapes top pastry chefs like Andrieu, Payard sent me to a far corner of southwest Paris. Joël Bellouet's École Gastronomique Bellouet Conseil offers intensive two- and three-day courses in tarts, cakes, and restaurant-style plated desserts. Although the school is geared to professionals, Payard, who studied sugar-blowing and -pulling here, also suggests it for home bakers. "The French have a saying 'The good begins with the beautiful,' " Payard says. "It wasn't coined for pastry, but it does apply. This school is the place to learn to make great-looking cakes. Bellouet is one of the top pastry chefs in the world, yet he couldn't be humbler." Not the pretty experience offered by schools such as the École Ritz-Escoffier in the Hôtel Ritz, Bellouet Conseil is rigorous, highly disciplined, and completely hands-on. (English interpreters are available on request.) The only thing that intrudes on the deadpan atmosphere is a dusty sugar sculpture of Folies-Bergère showgirls riding bareback.

After 34 years in the business, Bellouet acts as if every day of making pâte sucrée still carries the excitement of the first. And he does not doubt his school's importance: embroidered on his chef's jacket is a tiny map of the world with an arrow pointing to Bellouet Conseil. Part of the class I attended was devoted to madeleines—little lemon tea cakes that triggered Proust's memories of his childhood. The pastry occupies such a powerfully nostalgic place in French food culture that a formal madeleine society gives out bronze madeleine molds to those who promote the confection.

Bellouet's madeleines are everything one could wish—light, soft, moist, and delicate. But Payard was unsurprised when I reported back that I found a packaged version that was even better. St. Michel madeleines are made by the tens of thousands in a factory in northern France for markets as distant as the United States. "It's ironic, even humiliating, but no madeleine is as pillowy as St. Michel's," Payard says. "The only time mine are as good is when they're straight out of the oven."

LENÔTRE
Lenôtre's Victor Hugo branch in the 16th Arrondissement is even slicker than Mulot. Cakes are displayed in modules with huge Plexiglas cloches that allow customers to inspect the merchandise without breathing on it. A saleswoman in a sexy midnight-blue suit and silk foulard pushes a button and a cloche lifts: "VoilÀ votre gâteau, Monsieur." A nice bit of theater. Scattered around the shop are small tables, invitations to linger. The École Lenôtre pour Amateurs Gastronomes, screened off by a baker's rack in the bread section, offers baking classes that are friendly and leisurely. Each four-hour, tip-filled session—in French, though the recipes can be requested in English—focuses on a single subject: puff pastry, for example, or chocolate tarts.

The superior apple tart sold at Lenôtre has intense fruit flavor and a tender crust. It pays homage to the firm's beginnings in Normandy, French apple country. Under the tart's sliced-fruit dome, so perfectly round it could have been drawn with a compass, is apple compote.

"An apple tart is only as good as the apple you use," says Lenôtre's pastry chef, Gérard Gautheron, who never holds a meeting without wearing his chef's toque. He is forced to take it off as he enters a low-ceilinged conference room, but it goes right back on the second he sits down. And when Gautheron talks about pastry, it is with all the gravity of the French government minister pleading guilty in a graft scandal.

"My apple is the finest reinette, which retains its juiciness and shape no matter how long it is baked," he says. (In New York, Payard uses the widely available Fuji, which has similar qualities, plus a good balance of sweet and tart.)

Gautheron also scores high on other classics, including palmiers (elephant ears) and mille-feuilles (napoleons). Both hinge on pâte feuilletée, or puff pastry, a building block with endless sweet and savory applications. It's made by wrapping cold butter inside cold dough, rolling out the resulting package, and then folding and rolling out the enriched dough a number of times. In the oven puff pastry swells, its many layers (mille feuilles means "thousand leaves") rising as the humidity in the butter escapes. No dough is lighter or flakier; few are richer.

Evoking the furled blades of a palm frond, a palmier is nothing more than puff pastry rolled out in sugar and butter, then baked. If only it were that simple. Puff pastry requires a surgeon's care and a nun's patience. Novice bakers have gone mad trying to master it.

Mille-feuilles are even thornier. They're vulnerable to sogginess, but Gautheron guarantees crunch by building his based on demand, replenishing stocks as many as four times a day. To avoid a massacre on the plate, he advises laying the pastry on its side.

No French person would ever serve you homemade mille-feuilles or palmiers. "In France," says Payard, "that's what pâtisseries are for."

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