I always wanted to ask Gaston, the tabby chubby cat we found at the pastry school stuck in an air vent, how did he survive the long Auvergne winter in the wild at below zero temperatures? Did he eat ungodly amounts of macarons and other pastry leftovers in the trash? That would explain his taste for desserts, unusual for a cat, I heard. And Frida, whom we rescued in the forest with a paw cut off. We were looking for mushrooms when this emaciated figure meowed towards us. Did she live in a house before? What happened to her paw? How did she end up in the deep of these remote woods?
There’s also Boris, a kitten born in a nearby farm who decided to make our house his home (or maybe Adélaïde lured him in…). I still don’t understand why he meows like crazy every time I am about to feed him, as though I might suddenly change my mind. And he has another very special kind of meow the two others don’t have, like a little song, rolling and curling up, keen, high-pitched, mischievous.
During the warm months, they lived mysterious lives in the fields. We would let them out during the day and each one headed a different way, following his or her nose, looking for fast-moving objects to chase and grab. We managed to rescue quite a few little Cinderella shrews. When the sun would set on the far side of a grassy field, I could make out Gaston’s plump outline. I would call out his name, and like a dog, he would run back. Frida would stay close by, basking in the last rays of sun on our doorstep. Boris was too afraid to go to the outside world yet, but occupied himself at home all day scavenging for food scraps in unsuspected spots of the kitchen or the pantry if we forgot to lock the door.
I feel like I know them so well, yet I will never know the things they see and do on these days. All the houses, gardens, hidden nooks that they frequent remain secret. I will never know what happened when Frida went missing for four days after a terrible stormy night. Sometimes, Adélaide and I muse about putting GoPro cameras on them to see what we would discover.
We puzzle at their quirks as if they were children, entertaining the illusion they are unique when truly, they are probably like most other cats out there (although their latest fancy is to almost exclusively drink their water from an antique wine glass we have to leave on the kitchen table and fill up several times per day). Gaston has a propensity to find a cozy resting spot in a cupboard and has taken a liking for a golden teddy bear he carries around, forming the shape of massive lumberjack beard under his tiny head. Frida is a finicky one; she is often averse to petting, but will unpredictably perch herself on our laps and purr away for as long as we stay still, although she may bite your finger off out of the blue with unrivaled fury. She stands regally aside, gazing obliquely at the room to avoid getting entangled in kitten wrestling games, strategically standing next to the tap so that she can drink from it whenever we let her. Sometimes, she tries to devour our hair in our sleep which is absolutely terrifying.
I often surprise myself singing songs to them, saying their names borrowing accents from Bollywood movies or Bob Marley or telenovelas. I also like to rewrite lyrics to old Spanish tunes and Broadway hits based on their personalities and freestyle (stupid) rhymes. On an especially productive morning, I even made a song for Frida inspired by Animal Collective.
Pear & praliné hazelnut pie + cocoa crust | Serves 6-8
The quantities given below will make 1 large pie or 6-8 tartlets depending on the size of your baking pans.
The cocoa crust:
- 30g cocoa powder, sifted (preferably Van Houten)
- 100g good quality flour, sifted
- 8g almond powder, sifted
- 50g powdered sugar
- 90g unsalted butter, diced
- 20g egg, beaten (or 1 egg yolk)
- a little cold water if necessary
- a pinch of salt
- On a clean work surface, directly sift the cocoa powder, flour, powdered sugar, almond powder and add a generous pinch of salt. Gently mix with your fingers to blend the ingredients. Dice the cold butter & start mixing with the powders to cut in the dough, by sweeping up and gathering the blend in your hands and gently rubbing them against each other until the butter is integrated into the dry ingredients. The blend should look like rough sand. This sablage should take a few minutes.
- Form a well and add in the beaten egg. In circles, rub the egg into the flour/butter blend until it forms a homogenous dough. If necessary, adjust the consistency by adding a little cold water if too dry. Knead as little as possible, or else the pastry will become elastic and it will shrink when baking.
Note: if you have a stand mixer, you can sift the powders and add the chopped butter directly in the mixing bowl. Mix on medium speed with the paddle until the blend gets the desired consistency. Then add in the egg and keep beating until it starts forming a ball. Finish smoothing out by hand, shape into a ball and flatten it down. Wrap in cling-film and refrigerate.
- Smooth out the crust by pressing it down with the palm of your hand 2 or 3 times. If you feel that the pastry is too moist, dust with flour. Shape into a ball and flatten it down a little. Wrap in cling-film and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. You can even start by putting it in the freezer for 15 minutes if you’re in a hurry. It’s important the pastry rests and cools before you roll it out or else it might tear!
- Dust your work surface with a thin and even layer of flour. Roll out the pastry until it is app. 3mm thick. Make sure the pastry doesn’t stick by rotating it regularly by a quarter of a turn.
- Ease the crust into a buttered baking pan or tart ring the shape of your choice and trim excess with a sharp knife. Using a fork, poke holes into the bottom of the crust so that no air is trapped under it while baking. Store in the freezer for 30 minutes before baking.
The pear & praliné filling:
- 2 ripe pears, peeled, cored & thinly sliced
- 100g butter, at room-temperature
- 100g ground toasted hazelnuts or almonds
- 2 farm eggs, beaten
- 100g smooth hazelnut praliné or any other hazelnut paste (if unsweetened, use 50g and add 50g of sugar)
- a pinch of salt
- 2 tbsp hazelnuts, toasted & crushed
- Peel, core the pears & slice them thinly. Reserve.
- In a mixing-bowl, beat the butter until it gets soft, creamy & whitens in color. If the butter is too cold, microwave it for 10-15 sec. or slightly heat it up over a bain-marie, making sure it doesn’t melt. Add the smooth praliné, the pinch of salt and keep beating until well blended.
- Sift the ground hazelnuts into the bowl and mix well. Then, add the beaten eggs little by little until the blend is homogenous & fluffy.
- Toast the 2 tbsp hazelnuts in a preheated oven at 190°C for app. 10 min. or until well colored. Roughly crush using a mortar or chop with a knife.
- Pour the praliné blend into the lined baking pan and arrange the sliced pears over it. Sprinkle with the chopped hazelnuts.
- Bake in a preheated oven at 190°C for app. 35-40 min. depending on how soft you want the filling.