The patisserie exam I flunked at L’Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne Paris a whole bunch of years ago was for my pain aux raisins effort. It was deemed soggy at its centre (due to a surfeit of pastry cream and being a bit under-proofed… which didn’t help lift the limpness of it) and I’ve had a tricky relationship with the wretched things ever since. In fact, for 25 years I have shunned them.
But no more. I’ve put my failure behind me and no longer will I snub what is and has been, all these years (if I’m honest) my all time favourite patisserie. I just let others make them for me.
In a world of the croissant crazed – who makes the flakiest, crispest, most authentic, butteriest, to glaze or not to glaze and on and on – may I extol the pleasures of the pain aux raisins.
The thing about the croissant is that even the very finest ones seem to me forever crying out for Gruyère cheese and black cherry jam. Or maybe a slice of decent ham. Am I not right? After the third bite of an unadorned one, even a marvellous unadorned one, you tend to weary of it.
But the pain aux raisins? The whole thing crackles with pleasure. The top and bottom are slightly caramelized, the edges tend to be crisp, and the closer you get to the middle, where you discover the layer (thin is best) of crème patissiere, the moister – dare I say soggier – the dough gets. And besides, you can feel good about eating a pain aux raisins because, unlike indulging in a fluffy croissant, there is fibre in these folds! Raisins are – as you no doubt know – fruit! And filled with energy giving powers, vitamins, amino acids, potassium, magnesium and phosphorous. Copper too. Or so I read. No croissant can claim the copper thing. Some raisins are fully buried within the dough’s folds and remain soft and pale, while others, the fittest no doubt, rise to the top and, if you’re lucky, are chewy-crunchy, dark little gems.
Trouble is, after exhaustive research, there is only one true pain aux raisins worth the indulgence in this city. The one featured above comes from the homey little Macarons et Madeleines on Lorne Avenue and was a magnificent specimen. It cost a twoonie.
Runners up: The French Baker sports delicious pastry cream, but the dough is brioche, not croissant, the raisins golden not the darker Thompson, and the result is a drier, cakier pastry, with too sweet raisins. It doesn’t scratch the itch. At least not mine.
Art-is-in bakes a glazed raisin-cinnamon bun using croissant dough. It is delicious, to be sure, but not what I was hunting for. Didn’t stop me from eating it… all…
Others I sampled from other places were simply not worth the ink.
First published in Ottawa Magazine, May 31, 2012