Tarts and Turnovers

Where to satisfy your pastry cravings

WHO WOULD THINK that something as delicate and fragile as pastry could cause so much confusion and controversy? Yet, efforts to determine which of the rows of dainty bakery items legitimately earn this title have sparked conflicting answers.

The word “pastry” conjures up images of cream fillings, fruit toppings and chocolate glazes in or on dainty, crisp shells. Cookbooks lump pies, pie crusts and pastries together. To add to the confusion, two bakers at local shops say pastries are “anything having to do with cake.” Cake?

After visiting virtually every pastry shop in town, the answer is still multifaceted. Danish pastries (such as fruit-filled sweet rolls) are an entirely different product from French pastries (such as eclairs and cream puffs), which are an entirely different product from Greek pastries (such as baklava) and German ones (such as strudel).

Even the heritage of these little delicacies is questionable. Ask a Swiss baker where pastries originated and he’ll answer “Switzerland, of course, and from there they evolved to France.” Italian bakers swear that the first napoleons were made on their home soil. And the French-well, there’s no arguing with them; they are totally committed to the Parisian heritage of pastries. The poor Danes seem almost isolated with their dan-ishes. One local French pastry chef has never even made Danish pastry because “it isn’t authentic French.”

However you define pastries and whatever your favorite may be, most people agree that French pastries and pastry shops have come to the forefront in Dallas during the past year. Instead of settling for an ordinary glazed doughnut, we’re finding that a flaky pastry is a refreshing change. Instead of a hurried sandwich or midday ice cream cone, more people are stopping for a short break with a steamy cup of cappuccino and a strawberry tart. And instead of going out for a drink after the theater, people are going home for a stout cup of espresso and a creamy napoleon. Pastries are anytime foods, and most shops are making themselves available for our odd-houred whims.

Nearly every shop opens by 7 or 8 a.m. for the coffee crowd. Table service varies from none at some shops to flurries of service at others where outgoing waiters and waitresses serve coffee from silver pots. In several places, you’ll feel as though you’re in a sunny French cafe; in others, you’ll be reminded of a small-town diner, complete with plastic tablecloths. But we found that table service-or lack of it-has little bearing on how good the pastry tastes. We ate good pastries off paper plates on plastic tablecloths and from china plates on marble-top tables.

At a good pastry shop, everything is made daily. No preservatives are used, and the shop’s high standards keep it from selling anything day-old. To have a mouthwatering array fresh from the oven when you arrive at 7:30 a.m., a pastry chef begins work at midnight or 1 a.m.; and according to Daniel Winans, chef manager at The French Baker, “we work until we get through,” which doesn’t always mean a tidy eight hours.

All of these pastries depend on butter for their flavor, delicacy and flakiness. The best patisseries use only 100 percent butter. (Interestingly, one top-notch shop says it uses the best butter available; it’s a national brand available at every supermarket, Land O’ Lakes.) One shop reports using more than 500 pounds of butter each week. Another says it uses more than 700 pounds, which means the shop must allow a butter-only budget of almost $8,000 each month.

If a baker decides to cut corners, he will begin substituting shortening or margarine for part of the butter. Whether the consumer will notice depends on the competition. Once you know what a real buttery pastry tastes like, you’ll know something isn’t quite right when you taste an imitation. Dallas is lucky to have some good, healthy competition available for comparison.

The basic butter-rich pastry is transformed into a work of art with the addition of a smooth custard; some sweetened whipped cream; some fresh fruit; or a light, airy mousse. Most pastries made in Dallas shops are classic French recipes: cream puffs, eclairs, napoleons, fruit tarts and such. Fruit tarts vary according to what’s in season, but the ever-popular strawberry tarts are made almost year-round. Kiwi, peach and banana were among the most unusual we found.

Winans says he often creates original recipes that are based on the classics. His strawberry napoleons – layers of whipped cream, fresh strawberries and flaky pastry – are an example of his variations on a theme, as are the chocolate and mocha cream-filled éclairs.

All that butter and cream surely must send the calorie count out of sight. But calorie charts reveal that pastries, though hardly low-cal, don’t have any or many more calories than some of our traditional favorite desserts. A cream puff weighs in at about 300 calories, as does a slice of cheesecake. A custard-filled eclair with chocolate icing has only about 10 more calories than a plain cake doughnut. A strawberry tart is the heavyweight at 350 calories, but what can we say? Sometimes the delight of those plump berries sitting on a rich cream filling in a fragile crust far overshadows the guilt of mere calories.

Diets are the biggest obstacle that pastry shops must overcome. Samuel Alves of La Francaise says his business slows down in the summer when “people are watching their figures.”

Sheila Giller, owner of The French Baker, is constantly amused by how apologetic many customers are. “It’s like they’ve been caught with their hands in the cookie jar,” she says. “Many will even tell the sales-clerk, ’It’s not for me.’ “

One customer walked into Giller’s shop, looked around and shouted “I hate you.” The surprised clerks had to be a little proud when the customer went on to say, “I’ve stayed on my diet for eight years – this is the first thing I’ve seen in eight years worth going off my diet.”

But Giller’s favorite story is of the Fort Worth couple who, after reading about one of the shop’s specialties in the newspaper, drove to Dallas in a dangerous ice storm to buy one pastry to share as a reward for losing 15 pounds.

A natural evolution of nouvelle cuisine has been nouvelle pastries. Nowadays, instead of rich butter pastries, airy lady-fingers and génoise serve as the base for lighter mousse fillings. One of The French Baker’s luscious nouvelle creations is the mocha strip, a mocha-flavored Bavarian cream with flecks of coffee bean atop a thin layer of spongecake.

First-timers may be somewhat inhibited if they’re unsure of terms such as génoise or if they never knew Napoleon was anything besides a historical character. But take heart: With pastries, it’s usually love at first sight, and a name has very little effect on what looks good to you. If you’re interested in knowing a pastry’s proper name or what’s inside a cream puff, just ask. All but one place we visited had very helpful, friendly people behind the counter. The French Baker makes it even easier by putting name cards on each item complete with the proper French pronunciations.

Other places in town sell French pastries other than these listed here, but most of them don’t make the pastries on their premises. In fact, those places probably buy their wares from one of the shops we’ve already listed. Wholesale pastry sales to restaurants, hotels and private clubs is a big business. It’s also very competitive and customers are a carefully guarded secret by the patisseries; they were usually more than reluctant to reveal their clients.

The French Baker, 110 Preston Royal Shopping Center, 369-2253 (or 369-BAKE) is truly a class act. Mouthwatering pastries, delicious viennoiserie (coffee-cakes, brioche, croissants and danish), and entremets are beautifully displayed. You’ll be waited on by girls dressed in maids’ dresses with frilly white aprons and caps. Take your order with you or be seated at one of the marble-top tables and enjoy the pastry served on a china plate with a cup of coffee. Cappuccino, caté au lait, espresso, tea and hot chocolate are also available. The pastries are virtually flawless and have the distinction of tasting as good as they look. Gift trays are a great idea: If you choose a laminated tray, fill it with an assortment of pastries and compose an elegant, edible offering. Gift certificates are also available.

La Francaise, 105 White Rock Shopping Center, 341-6365, and 65 Highland Park Village, 526-4110, has a large selection of pastries; 15 varieties of tarts are made daily. We especially like the almond pastry and the palmiers (“palm loaves”) – large, curved cookie-like pastries that are only slightly sweet and very flaky. Both locations have carry-out only; no tables are provided.

Samoli Patisserie, 5290 Belt Line at Montfort, Prestonwood Junction Shopping Center, 386-4795, has luscious tarts: kiwi, banana, peach and strawberry. Cream puffs are made to look like graceful swans. Eclairs and napoleons are also available. This is a lovely place for a shopping break, a pastry and a cup of cappuccino.

d’Azay Patisserrie Confiserie, 6959 Arapaho at Hillcrest, Hillcrest Village, 386-9886, is a family-owned business. We had a four-star apple turnover covered heavily with coarsely ground sugar crystals, and a very good Italian turnover with a raisin and cream filling. The pastry selection is large and beautiful. Table service seems to be an afterthought; two small tables have been pushed into one corner. None of the family was working the day we were there and, unfortunately, the woman minding the store made us feel we were intruding on her time.

Reynier’s French Bakery, 434 Spanish Village, Coit at Arapaho, 387-9063, is like a family-owned small-town cafe -nothing fancy, but very good food, friendly people and a relaxed atmosphere. The peach tart was delicious: custardy and made with ripe, full-flavored peaches. The sausage roll (flaky pastry rolled around a well-seasoned sausage) had a very good flavor, but had been in the oven too long and looked a little burned. The salespeople were eager to answer questions and be of service. Table service is roomy and encourages a “help-yourself” approach.

Plaza Sweets, 700 N. Pearl, Plaza of the Americas, 742-7224, is part of the new retail area surrounding the Plaza of the America’s ice arena. Everything here is made by the pastry chef who also bakes for Cafe Royal. Tarts are called “fruit strips” and come in a wide variety including blackberry and kiwi. Strawberry cream is a layered cake filled with cream and fresh strawberries and decorated on top in detail. We tried a similar pastry done with praline; it was beautiful, very fresh, but not quite as tasty as it looked. Several tables provide spots to enjoy the pastries while watching the activity outside in the Plaza.

Black Forest Bakery, 5819 Blackwell, 368-4490, was one of the first pastry shops in Dallas and we include it in the list for that reason. Although some people would swear by this place, our overall impression was that it could use a little sprucing up to keep pace with some of the new places. The selection didn’t seem as vast as at some other shops, nor as innovative. A chocolate mousse we sampled had a cake base that was spread with jam and filled with chocolate mousse. It had a delicious filling, but the base was dry and tasteless. To the shop’s credit, we sampled a good Danish pastry filled with cherries and cream cheese.

DiPalma, 1520 Greenville, 824-4500,doesn’t belong in the category of pastryshops, but it does have its own pastry chefand one of the most original creations wefound in our citywide search: pastrypretzels. Long ropes of pastry are madewith almond paste and glazed with anapricot-flavored mixture and sprinkledwith walnuts. One of these and a cup ofcoffee is a great breakfast, dessert or afternoon snack.

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