Brilliant pastry chef Pierre Hermé learned his craft growing up in Alsace, the only part of France with a Christmas cookie tradition. His recipes here reveal both his Alsatian heritage and his maverick vision.
Even superstar pastry chef Pierre Hermé, whose creations tend toward the revolutionary, gets nostalgic at Christmastime. The weeks between mid-November and the end of December always remind him of coming home after school to a kitchen filled with the aromas of honey and spices. Hermé's father, Georges, baked Christmas cookies for the family's pâtisserie in Alsace, among them leckerli, chewy bar cookies which he flavored with sliced almonds, grated lemon zest and quatre-épices, a blend of ground nutmeg, ginger, cloves and pepper. "On January 2," Hermé says, "it was back to biscuits ordinaires."
Hermé still makes his father's leckerli for his boutique Pierre Hermé on Paris's Left Bank, but in general, Christmas cookies are a regional specialty that his Parisian clientele doesn't entirely understand. Outside Alsace, the French don't have a tradition of baking cookies at home for the holidaysor any other time. (A French housewife is more likely to bake a cake or a fruit tart.) What the French call "cookies" are something very specific: crisp chocolate chip cookies. "The first time I had chocolate chip cookies in the United States," says Hermé, "I didn't like them at all. I thought they were too sweet, and the gooeyness was not very appealing. But over time I learned to like them."
Not surprisingly, Hermé's chocolate chip cookies are not the homey American kind. His version is sophisticated; first, he chops chunks of chocolateValrhona, the candymaker's chocolateto create the chips himself, then he makes the cookies doubly chocolatey by adding cocoa powder. Plus, he adds fleur de sel, the delicate white sea salt, to the dough, which actually brings out even more chocolate flavor, if that's possible.
All of Hermé's cookies depart from the classic: For florentine shortbreads he takes the crunchy almond cookies called flor- entines and uses them as a topping for buttery shortbread. His dough for the linzer cookies is less sweet than usual to set off his intense raspberry jamwhich tastes like the best pâte de fruit (a jewel-like jelly candy) you've ever had.
For all his innovation, Hermé's cookies are not overly complicated. The chocolate cookies and cinnamon coins are both slice-and-bake, for instance, and the shortbread dough is patted into a baking sheet. They make a great addition to our American Christmas cookie repertoireand perhaps they could establish a brand new tradition in France as well.