Posts Tagged ‘French patisserie’

Mère

Chocolate Financiers

From a little baker…

Henri was one of those guys. (He still is, but slower.) When we were in school together he had what I called “Henri’s Seventh Sense of Right.” This referred to his unerring sense of the right thing to wear, the right thing to say, and the right thing to do. He was a better student than me. He was French by birth, (although raised here) and brought all that the French label implies to the table, including an accent that appeared and became thicker at will. I was plain ol’ American and had a Boston accent that came and went of its own accord. He smoked Gauloises like he was breathing pure oxygen; I choked as though I’d been buried in sand. His surname points to an aristocratic lineage, mine is what is politely referred to as an “Ellis Island creation.”

I admit that at times I felt like more of a fan than a friend as I watched him charm everyone who crossed his path: teachers, shop keepers—even my Mother. From my adult perch I assume I was studying Henri, hoping to absorb by osmosis some of whatever he could do. I’m not aware that this worked. You should not read any resentment into my profile of Henri. Envious? Absolutely. Jealous? No, for if I had been Henri, I could not have had him as a friend, so, I am the lucky one.

One day early in our friendship he announced, “You must meet my Mère. You will love her.” I sensed that as formidable as I found Henri, he found his grandmother even more so, but I could not imagine why. This went on for a few weeks. My brain built up an immunity to, “You must meet my Mère. You will love her.” I stopped hearing it until one day he said, “Come meet Mère tomorrow after class.”

The next afternoon found us climbing out of the subway and rounding a corner to the back of Carnegie Hall. Although I was blissfully unaware that we were due at an appointed time, clearly we were running late, as Henri’s pace became more and more urgent. Entering a side door of the Hall, we rushed by a guard who seemed unconcerned by our presence. Riding up in the old elevator, I used the back of my hand to blot the perspiration from my face and giggled at the thought, “I didn’t practice, practice, practice.” I wondered what Henri’s grandmother would be doing upstairs at Carnegie Hall, although based on Henri’s family, clearly she wasn’t sewing costumes.

We walked down a hallway that was like stepping on the set of an old show biz movie. Translucent glass-paneled doors only hinted at what was going on behind them: the screech of a soprano here, the thumping of dancers’ feet there, a laugh, a conversation just out of ear-reach. Henri knocked on one of the doors, and it swung open as if the person inside had been waiting with her hand on the knob.

She was très petite and crowned by a head of dark red curls. She glared at Henri, pointing to a watch that dangled from a chain she wore around her neck. Henri launched into a French monologue, of which the only word I understood was “subway.” She sighed and held up her arms for a hug which Henri rewarded with a kiss to one cheek and then the other. She then pushed him back gently, and spun him around for a proper, grandmotherly inspection, and, pointing to his ripped jeans complained, “Oh, Henri, please don’t wear those rags when you visit me.”

Henri began to complain in French but she cut him off.

“Don’t be rude. Speak English or your friend will think we’re talking about him.”

Unlike Henri, Mére spoke with a pronounced French accent, a lovely, lilting sing-song that bore no resemblance to the clichéd Maurice Chevalier accent I was used to from my old movie habit.

Henri explained to Mére that he thought I’d enjoy looking at her pictures because of my obsession with old Hollywood (this was pre-internet or DVD, so it was harder to “get my fix.”)

Mére beckoned us into her studio with a shrugging, casual, “Well, come see what I have. I didn’t have a chance to pull out anything special.” Before I could take a step Henri stopped me, whispering, “She probably worked all morning choosing just the ones she wants to show off. And when she serves tea, don’t call the little cakes “brownies.” But before I could get an explanation, a sharp “Henri?” from across the studio propelled us into a large open room two stories high, topped by a large, sloping glass skylight. It was hard to decide if it was a salon or a photographer’s studio, but the large view camera perched off in a corner tilted it in favor of a studio.

Mére had lined up at least twenty large black and white portraits in a way that suggested, “Look at me…but I don’t care if you do.” The photographs were of actors, writers, and other prominent folks. From the style of dress, hair, and make-up on the women you could tell they dated from the late forties to the late sixties. All were lit in that glistening film noir Hollywood studio-style that captured a moment in time, a reaction, a momentary flash of the person’s personality. Each bore the same small signature in the lower right corner: Mére’s. My reaction was a poetic, wise, gaping stare. I couldn’t even muster a simple, “Wow” overwhelmed as I was by the collective energy of the photographs.

As I walked along the line, I mentioned the names I knew and inquired of Mére the ones I did not. Of the faces I did not know, she would punctuate the name with their occupation which, I gathered, was usually a bit of an understatement, like saying, “Arthur Miller. He wrote plays.”

I lingered a while in front of Anthony Quinn. A favorite actor of mine, his expression seemed passive yet commanding, as if he were holding out his hand, waiting for you to kiss his ring. Mére witnessed my intense study of the dark eyes, and said, “You remind me of Quinn.” A beat, then, “He was difficult.”

She swept off to a far corner of the studio, and started fussing in the tiny kitchenette. Henri whispered, “I think she’s impressed that you actually know who most of these people are.” As before, I couldn’t get an explanation of his brownie warning because Mére commanded us to join her for tea, which she served while perched on a settee. (Something I had only seen in movies. At home we had a sofa.) That was when Henri’s warning about the brownies became evident.

Presented with the tea were little cakes that looked like brownies, but had obviously been baked in individual little rectangular cake tins. She served them with a pot of whipped cream. Having been well warned, I took a bite of one the almond-scented chocolate cakes. Avoiding Henri’s face I asked, “What are these called?”

Mére shrugged with disinterest, “Those are Financiers. A little baker makes them for me.”

“Those are her favorite,” added Henri, contradicting her apparent disinterest.

A few years later I was saddened to learn of the death of the little baker who baked the Financiers for Mére, and became determined that she should not do without. After a few tries I learned how to bake Financiers myself. Over the years I have packed them in little boxes and delivered them to Mére, just as I did last week to mark a very special occasion:

Her 100th birthday.

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Click here for the Financier recipe.

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