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Dorie Greenspan shared a recipe for Ispahan sablés in her New York Times column earlier this month, and it reminded me of the first time I tasted anything Ispahan almost exactly a decade ago. It was in Paris where I was spending several weeks taking dance classes and trying to figure out what to do after losing my job. While the flavor combination of rose, raspberry, and lychee is a signature of pastry chef Pierre Hermé (Dorie talks about him here), I first experienced it in the Ladurée salon on the grand Champs Elysée.

I was on a date with this guy, Reuben was his name. It wasn’t our first date, but our second.

For our first, we walked around the Latin Quarter, the Left Bank neighborhood where I had swapped apartments, checking out the Vélib’ bikes that sat dormant, ready for their grand opening the following week. We perched on the still stationary bikes and pretended to ride around town. We sat next to statues, emulating their poses. We got crêpes and I was schooled on the best way to order them: citron sucrée – a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar.

For our second date, Reuben wanted to share a classic Right Bank experience. We sat in a dim corner on a robin’s egg blue tapestry-covered banquette, voyeurs to the choreography of waiters, the bustling of the tourist-filled dining room in the Ladurée salon I mentioned earlier. Some food and a few glasses of wine in, it was time for dessert. I had never tried a macaron, so Reuben ordered what he said was the best one in the city. (Parisians are opinionated about their food, non?) It arrived: two bright pink meringues sandwiching rose cream, lychee bits, and the most perfect specimens of raspberries. This was a knife and fork kind of macaron, more cake than cookie and almost too pretty to dive into. Almost. The contrast of textures, the complement of flavors was quite possibly magical.

Reuben and I went out one more time, but then I moved on to Nice for the rest of the summer. His parting words: “I’ll always remember you as the girl who was lost in Paris.”

When I visited Paris this past June, one of my first stops was for an Ispahan macaron. It was a mini-one in a random patisserie with mere hints of rose and raspberry, mediocre at best, but the cookie is how I orient myself back to the city and it’s always on my day-one list.

My prior visit two years ago was a brief one, but I still managed to grab an Ispahan or two. I spent most of the time with Laurence and Gerald, sticking close to my Airbnb and their 17e arrondissement apartment. I was there to see them and to remind myself that I could visit the city of romance alone and do just fine.

And then this time, this summer, I made Paris my own again and could almost imagine myself living there. I stayed in Laurence and Gerald’s second bedroom in their picture-perfect Parisian apartment with floor to ceiling windows that let in dramatic shadows and sunlight, rooftop views, a strong cross breeze to cool everything down without air conditioning, shallow balconies, stairs spiraling an elevator whose door you have to push open, wrought iron everywhere, one (and only one) friendly neighbor, and one very cranky lobby attendant.

After snacking on that first mac of the trip, I made myself right at home in the city, hopping on the métro like a champ (indeed, google maps does help quite a bit), exploring parts of Paris that I know (le Marais) and those that I don’t (Montmartre, les Halles, the 11e). I joined a few food tours to get the lay of the land because the last time I really spent much time there, I wasn’t as into la cuisine as I am now.

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And yet, we didn’t eat out in many of the newer hot spots. I made it to Miznon and Fish La Boissonnerie and a neighborhood gem for couscous, but otherwise we ate at home. Gerald likes to cook – he owned a Lebanese restaurant in Strasbourg back in the day – so he treated Lau and me to dinner most nights. He even cleaned up – she’s got herself a winner, folks. Over the weekend, I popped to the outdoor market and overfilled my bag with peak fruits, croissants, and an obscene number of pastries, and we had a serious brunch before heading out to Clignancourt flea market – one of les puces – where I picked up some art and silverware and we mostly wandered through a maze of antique furniture.

It felt good. It felt comfortable. It felt normal. I felt like I could return without fanfare, without worry, without expectations. It was no longer a big deal.

Pierre Hermé’s Ispahan Sablés

This recipe comes straight from Dorie Greenspan’s in the New York Times, and I added a few small instructions based on my experience. The dough is really easy to work with. I’ve made roll and slice cookies in the past (another Dorie recipe) and ended up with holes in the middle from trapped air, but these cookies roll between your hands and the counter into perfectly solid cylinders. I wrapped the logs well and have frozen two of them when the need for a little sweetness strikes. 

There are a few ingredients that may require a special trip to the store (or Amazon). Sanding sugar is coarser than what you normally use, with crystals slightly smaller than sugar in the raw; it’s white and a little bit shimmery and often comes dyed. I dyed mine red with McCormick. Rose extract is much more intense than rose water and you need it here because sablés can’t take much moisture or they’ll lose their texture. I used Star Kay White brand – it’s pricey but you can use it in baking where you might normally use rose water, but a much, much smaller quantity. I used Whole Foods 365 freeze-dried raspberries, Dorie uses Trader Joe’s.

Makes about 5 dozen cookies

For the sugar:

– ¼ C (60 grams) sanding sugar

– ¼ t pure rose extract 

– Red liquid food coloring 

For the sablés:

– ½ C (10 grams) freeze-dried raspberries

– 1½ C (204 grams) all-purpose flour

– 11 T (155 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature

– ⅓ C (67 grams) sugar

– ½ t pure rose extract

– ¼ t fleur de sel

Color. Put the sanding sugar, extract, and 2 drops of coloring in a small zipper-lock plastic bag, seal the bag and shake until the color is even. Add more color if necessary to get to bright pink.

Crush. Put the raspberries between sheets of wax paper or in a zip-top bag, and crush them with a rolling pin or the bottom of a skillet. Don’t expect perfection — it’s fine to have mostly powder and a few small nuggets. Whisk the raspberries into the flour.

Beat. Working with a mixer, beat the butter at medium speed until it’s soft and creamy, but not airy, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar, extract, and fleur de sel, and beat 3 minutes more. Turn the mixer off, scrape down the bowl, add the flour mixture all at once and pulse the mixer on and off to begin incorporating the dry ingredients. Mix on low speed until the dough forms soft curds and then starts to clean the sides of the bowl (i.e., it wraps around the paddle and no longer sticks to the bowl). Give it a few last turns with a spatula, then scrape it out onto the counter.

Roll. Divide the dough into 4 pieces, and roll each into an 8-inch-long log. If you don’t have a ruler, use the short edge of a piece of paper (8.5 X 11 inches) as a guide.

Coat. Spread the sugar out on a piece of wax paper, and roll the logs in the sugar until they’re completely coated. Wrap each log in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 3 days.

Prep. When you’re ready to bake, position the racks to divide the oven into thirds, and preheat it to 325ºF. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Slice. Unwrap the logs, trim the ends if they’re ragged and cut the logs into ½-inch-thick rounds. Place them on the baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between each round.

Bake. Bake the cookies for 19 to 21 minutes, rotating the sheets top to bottom and front to back after 10 minutes, or until the cookies are firm around the edges and golden brown on the bottom; the tops will remain pale. Rest the sablés for 2 minutes, then transfer to cooling racks. Serve – or pack into a container – when the cookies come to room temperature.

 

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Well, I’ve had a sourdough starter for about four months now and have used it for its intended purpose exactly once. The loaves were fine, nothing special, not particularly sour, way too dark, sorta spongy. Clearly I have lots of practicing to do but I haven’t felt up to the dedication and attention necessary to master a perfect sourdough loaf. Gosh, I haven’t even named my starter yet. (But I have named my robot vacuum the Noonoo. Any Teletubbies fans out there? Anyone? Naughty Noonoo!)

Despite my sourdough sloth, each week I diligently feed my starter. When I’ve filled a quart container with discard, I use it up. Luckily, because discard is typically a 1:1 ratio (by weight) of flour to water, recipes aren’t much different than others requiring flour and water, though with the addition of a little tang. I started with muffins and quickly moved on to crackers. And crackers are where I’ve gotten stuck. Stuck in the sense that I just can’t move on and see no reason to move on. Friends swear by pancakes and English muffins, so perhaps I’ll branch out one of these days, but for now, I’m happy right were I am. Every time I bake up a batch, I think to myself, “who am I? Have I become that annoying person who makes her own crackers?” Apparently I have. (Also, granola. Who seriously makes granola? I do, that’s who.)

While I’ve made some crazy shit — Sachertorte (one of only two multilayer, frosted cakes I’ve ever attempted), a Passover tart (who makes a coconut macaroon pressed crust on Passover), zwetschgendatschi (yeasted Bavarian plum tart), Cassatelle (ricotta turnovers , the dough rolled out in a pasta machine) — what amazes me the most is when I make in my own kitchen something I’d normally buy. Case in point: chocolate covered graham crackers like the ones my Bubbie used to bribe me to drink milk. Also, now, whole wheat crackers.

Before I get all in awe of myself, I have to come clean: these crackers are dead easy. The hardest part is rolling them out thinly and evenly. The dough itself is a dream to work with — the vegetable oil makes it smooth and pliable. So, when I’ve collected a quart of discard, I make a quadruple batch. When I’m in the mood for crackers, I measure out two chunks of dough, roll as thinly as I can over a piece of parchment, and decorate with whatever flavors and textures I’m in the mood for.

Slice the dough with a pizza wheel, prick each square with a fork, and they’re ready for the oven.

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Sourdough whole wheat crackers

Adapted from King Arthur Flour. I like to top with a flavor and a texture. In this recipe, I used garlic powder (I have Leah Koenig to thank for my recent embrace of the spice) and flax seeds. I’m also a huge fan of za’atar, sumac, and sesame seeds or just some oats. Next, perhaps nutritional yeast? Pepitas? Maybe brush with a different oil – how about a sesame-miso mix, maybe if I use rice flour instead of whole wheat. And I can’t help but wonder if I might make some faux cheez-its by mix sharp cheddar into the dough.

I make a triple or quadruple batch and either separately wrap single batches or write the weight required for a single batch on a ziptop bag so I can measure out the right amount for next time. Normally I wouldn’t be so picky about how much dough you’re rolling out, but I’ve found that if you try to roll out too much, it’s just that much harder to get the dough thin or even.

Makes about 100 crackers

– 1 C whole wheat flour

– 1/2 t fine sea salt, plus 1 t for sprinkling on top

– 1 C unfed (“discarded”) sourdough starter

– 3 T vegetable oil, plus more for for brushing

– 1/2 t garlic powder for sprinkling

– 1 T flax seeds

Mix. Mix together the flour, salt, sourdough starter, and oil to make a smooth cohesive dough. If the dough is to sticky, add a little flour. Too dry, add a tiny bit of oil. Still too dry, a tiny bit of water. 

Chill. Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a small rectangular slab. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or up to a couple of hours, until the dough is firm.

Preheat. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Roll. Very lightly flour a piece of parchment, your rolling pin, and the top of the dough. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough to about 1/16″ thick – essentially as thinly and evenly as you possible can. The dough will have ragged, uneven edges; that’s OK. 

Brush and top. Transfer the dough and parchment together onto a baking sheet. Lightly brush with oil and then sprinkle the salt, garlic powder, and flax seeds over the top of the crackers. Sprinkle from high above the dough to ensure it’s evenly distributed rather than clumping. Gently roll the pin over the dough to press the seeds into the dough (as you can see in my photos, I didn’t press down hard enough this time).

Slice and prick. Use a pizza wheel to cut the dough into into squares between 1 and 1 1/4 inches. Doesn’t have to be perfectly exact. Prick each square with the tines of a fork.

Bake. Bake the crackers for 15-20 minutes, until the squares start to brown around the edges and are lightly golden in the center. At the 7- to 8-minute mark, turn the baking sheet 180 degrees to ensure the crackers bake evenly if your oven has hot spots (mine clearly does).

Cool. Remove the crackers from the oven, and transfer them to a cooling rack. Store airtight at room temperature for up to a week, if they last that long; freeze for longer storage.

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