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Better Than Frankincense And Myrrh
In the early years of La Cuisine, I stumbled across a Swiss supplier who had the most remarkable flavorings. The samples were in tiny bottles and when you sniffed, there would be a dark circle on your nose from the residue of the particular essence. I found out that these flavors were from Grasse, France – the noted perfume capital of the world. So we ordered a few flavors in liters and broke them down into 2 ounce bottles. They were so powerful both in flavor and aroma that you generally used only 1/8 to 1/4 of what you would need from a domestic flavoring. Then that Swiss supplier was bought by a larger Swiss corporation and they dropped the Grasse French essences for their own flavorings, many of which were artificially enhanced. The Swiss ones were less cloying than their American counterparts, but none of them had that pure flavor distillation of the French version. The Cuisinettes despaired, and so did a growing number of clients.
The Essence Quest Continued
But we persevered and finally found a huge global supplier of every type of flavoring you could imagine – from roasted chicken to cotton candy – but in the fine print of their catalogue, they also listed some of the essences from Grasse. Eureka! We expanded the number of flavors to include new ones like pear, green apple, and hazelnut. Alas, that corporate entity streamlined and we lost our source again. But an independent French supplier established roots in the US, brought in the good stuff, and La Cuisine was saved again. As fate would have it, he closed up shop and joined a large Italian-based restaurant supplier of top-notch ingredients.This time though, in a stroke of good fortune, he kept his essence connection and we were in business. In the end, we offered over 40 essences, and in certain cases sold them by the liter and half-liter to special events caterers and a growing number of independent chocolatiers who had developed a discerning clientele. Pastry chefs loved these flavors for their signature desserts, as they gave even the simplest cake, sorbet, or ice cream a more intense flavor. And for home cooks, they were a revelation. Add blueberry essence to blueberries and they taste the way you always wished blueberries might taste; add wild strawberry essence for the most strawberryish ever strawberry pie. Coconut essence (probably one of the most famous ones in the shop) pumps out coconut flavor and not the sugar.
So when La Cuisine closed in 2018, the first anguished emails came from clients clamoring for these French essences. I needed to find a supplier who would be willing to do the work to break them down and who also had an e-commerce site. But it also had to be someone who understood the quality and was interested in exploring a superior French ingredient. It took us over a year, but we’ve found the dream source: www.Simply Gourmand.com. Its founder Marianne Prébet is a French home cook, who created an online French grocery store for ingredients that she could not get in the US. She has started with the following essences: wild strawberry, lemon, vanilla, almond, blueberry, coconut, and raspberry. Other flavorings will be made available as demand requires, so if you are missing one already, contact the Simply Gourmand site.
French Essences 101
Let’s start with blueberry and lemons with these two cakes. Unfortunately, unless you can get fresh wild blueberries, ours simply do not have much flavor. I even grew some blueberries on my deck, and while all seven of them tasted a bit better than usual, they could not compete with their wild cousins from Maine. So add a little essence to your blueberries when you make cakes and pies. In the Blueberry Lemon Cake recipe, I added 1/4 teaspoon of the essence to the blueberries and 1/2 teaspoon of the lemon essence (it’s a big cake)to the batter, and boom! In Maida Heatter’s divine Lemon Buttermilk cake, I add 1/8 teaspoon of lemon essence to the glaze and 1/4 teaspoon to the batter. If the lemons that I can get are not so flavorful, I add a bit more.
One of the simplest uses for blueberries is to make a sauce like this one I have adapted from a Daniel Boulud cookbook. I tried using frozen wild blueberries, but they did not plump up in the sauce, so it is best to use fresh ones instead. Top ice cream, French Crèpes, American Pancakes, or even a pound cake with a bit (okay, more than a bit) of whipped cream and this sauce.
- 12 oz (340 gr) fresh cultivated blueberries
- 1/4 tsp Vanilla Essence from Grasse or 1 moist plump vanilla bean
- 1/8 tsp Lemon Essence from Grasse or grated zest from 1/4 lemon
- 1/4 tsp Blueberry Essence from Grasse
- 1 tbs (15ml) caster sugar
- 1/4 cup (59ml) water
- Place the blueberries in a saucepan with the sugar and water - I use a copper saucepan, but a thick bottomed saucepan works well too.
- Add the scraped seeds from a vanilla bean or the Vanilla essence.
- The lemon essence or zest will add a touch of brightness to the sauce.
- Cook over medium heat, stirring gently until the berries release their juices.
- Add the Blueberry Essence, stirring just enough to create a thin sauce with whole blueberries.
- Remove from heat.
- Place a small amount of this mixture in the bottom of a serving dish, top with ice cream and then some more of the sauce.
- You can make this ahead, but you should reheat the sauce before serving.
- For crèpes, you can fill them with pastry cream and then roll them or fold in half and then top with this sauce - delicious!
Coming up in early 2020 will be KD recipes showcasing the coconut, raspberry, and bitter almond essences. And we would love to hear from Grasse French Essence holders from La Cuisine what you use them for in your own cooking!
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes a blog about food in all its aspects – recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food related issues.