Regressive Pleasures

If you were walking through upper Ménilmontant on a Sunday morning before lockdown(s), you would have seen young families lined up outside Benoît Castel’s bakery and restaurant. He’s the newish darling of eastern Parisian bakers.

Happily waiting outdoors for longer than I would, those Parisians, babies in tow, would crowd into the space for the privilege of eating mango granola, savory pancakes, madeleines, or a sweet chocolate mousse.

See and be seen

But they also waited patiently to see, and be seen, eating brunch at the long wooden tables positioned strategically behind large glass windows. Every time I saw that long line, I wondered to myself: what makes Castel’s bakeries and restaurant so popular?

I found out when I started going there regularly in September. One of Castel’s outposts is just around the corner from my children’s preschool, so for snack time, we pick up some tasty coquillages, or seashells, which are nothing more nor less than tiny madeleines, and we enjoy them in the local park, the Square des Saint Simoniens.

Bourgeois bohemians

At the park there are all sorts of folks. We see many parents and kids like the ones who frequent Castel’s bakery: bobos, or bourgeois bohemians. They’ve invaded eastern Paris in the last ten years, attracted by lower real estate prices.

But we also see the after-school crowds of second- or third-generation Western and Northern Africans. The kids fill the basketball court/soccer field, and then there are also some rougher, older kids who speed through the park on their electric trottinettes, or scooters.

I always find it hard to know where me and my family fit in: we are bourgeois bohemians, I guess, but I’m also an immigrant!

Hi! I’m Allison, and I’m an Edutainer working in French food, culture, history, and art. If you’re a gastro-curious traveler or learner, I’m here to show you the A to Z of French food and culture!

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Simply Natural Pastry

Sure, gentrification of the area is a reality. But middle- to low-income housing, a hip-hop dancing school, and a halal butcher shop all offer local residents their services along with Castel’s comparatively chic bakery. With higher prices than what is normally offered in the neighborhood, only those bobos are seen entering and leaving the bakeries. (Brunch, albeit buffet style, costs a whopping 29€.)

The higher prices belie Castel’s humble Breton origins: his grandparents were paysans (farmers) who made butter from their own cows. The cookbook I bought recently from one of his shops is called Pâtisserie Simplement Naturelle, or Simply Natural Pastry. And Castel definitely cultivates what he calls a “sincerité toute enfantine” or a child-like sincerity and simplicity.

One of each, please

But Castel is no stranger to the more sophisticated Parisian bakery scene: after working in such illustrious establishments as Hélène Darroze’s two-star restaurant and putting in eight years at La Grande Épicerie de Paris, Castel now has three shops in eastern Paris.

The first time I stopped in at one of Castel’s bakeries was about a year ago: his newest shop in the rue Sorbier beckoned me in with its gorgeous old-fashioned tiles, and the desserts and sandwiches in the window looked so good I wanted to order one of each.

Proust’s seashells

Instead of taking the physical challenge and trying them all at once, I ordered four different desserts: one for each of my family members. That way we could all taste and compare each other’s sweets, even though my 3-years-olds’ bilingual vocabulary doesn’t (yet!) include the finer points of pastry critique.
Those coquillages, or seashells, are really just rebranded mini-madeleines. I’m pretty sure Proust never mentioned collecting seashells at the beach, but like his madeleine dunked into tea, they’re evocative of (most of) our childhoods.
Likewise, Castel’s Tarte Tatin or chocolate mousse harken back to supposedly simpler times, to your French Grandma’s kitchen – you know, the one you always wished you had? They’re what we call in French regressifs. So whether they’re called seashells or madeleines, you’re sure to get a big helping of nostalgia served up with your pastries and desserts at one of Castel’s three Parisian shops. You’ll find Castel’s recipe for a most child-like chocolate mousse below!

Grandma’s Chocolate Mousse

One thing I love about a few old-fashioned restaurants in Paris is that they still serve their chocolate mousse in jattes, or large serving bowls, and everyone helps themselves family-style. (At Le Petit Lutetia, on the Left Bank, they will actually refill your bowl when it’s empty! But shhhhh…. Don’t tell!) My dining table is a little small to hold a big jatte, so I usually fill a bunch of different-sized (mismatched) ramekins and cups so each diner can choose the amount they want from a serving tray.

This recipe is definitely “regressive” so if you’re serving kids at the table, they’ll love this! Even my adult friends, who claim to only love dark chocolate mousse, ended up licking the inside of the ramekin. It really did take them back in time to their childhood sweet mousse-eating days.

Note: This recipe uses raw eggs, so please make sure to buy the freshest eggs available to you.  

ingredients:

  • ½ cup (120 g) heavy cream
  • 6 ounces (170 g) good-quality chocolate, 64% cocoa content, chopped
  • 4 very fresh large eggs, separated
  • 2½ tablespoons (30 g) sugar

how to make it:

  1. Bring the heavy cream to the boil in a medium saucepan. Off the heat, add the chocolate pieces and stir with a wooden spoon or spatula, working from the middle and stirring in the same direction. Gradually incorporate the chocolate on the edges, and keep stirring until all the chocolate is melted.
  2. In a stand mixer, or using a hand mixer, whip the egg whites, while gradually incorporating the sugar, to medium peaks (not too stiff: when you bring the whip up from the whites, you should have a bec d’oiseau or “bird’s beak”).
  3. Add the egg yolks to the cream-chocolate mix and stir well. Transfer this mixture to a large bowl, then delicately and gently fold in the egg whites just until the whites have disappeared.
  4. Turn the mixture into a large serving bowl, or into 6-8 individual ramekins, and refrigerate for at least two hours.

serves 6 to 8