French Fancies: Finesse Pastries

A young pastry chef brings exquisite pastries to Manchester.

French pastries are a challenge to execute. "Nothing can be whipped up in 10 minutes," says pastry chef Chelsey Erickson who, at 20 years old, opened Finesse Pastries on Elm Street in downtown Manchester this past February.

This "dream bakery" is the culmination of Chelsey's childhood aspirations – she always loved chocolate and enjoyed being raised in a retail atmosphere – her mother Laurie was a shop owner, too. So self-employment wasn't hard to visualize. When Chelsey discovered the pastry program at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Massachusetts she also found her mentor, Delphin Gomes, the only French master baker in New England. After taking a year-long intensive pastry course with Gomes at the helm, she was ready to move forward. Gomes still keeps in touch and checks on her progress with regular visits to Finesse.

Walking into the Elm Street shop you are immediately drawn to the 20-foot pastry case glistening with artfully designed and perfectly executed French petit gâteaux (small cakes) and laminated pastries, including croissants and turnovers. The sultry voice of a French chanteuse is playing in the background and the fragrant smell of Lavazza coffee warms the room. A spattering of bistro tables allow you to linger over coffee while you slowly deconstruct your dessert.

Picking out just one delight is a difficult choice – the L'elodie Petit Gâteau with hazelnut dacquoise with milk, white and dark chocolate mousse wrapped in chocolate with chocolate curls or the orange dacquoise with layers of rice mousse and orange chiboust topped with bubbled sugar and candied orange. Or maybe simply the coffee flavored éclair. If your sweet tooth doesn't need to be filled, Finesse also offers a few selections of sandwiches built with a choice of challah or baguette, also made in-house. Not feeling too indulgent I pick out a macaron cookie – actually a shortbread cookie dipped in chocolate and topped with a macaron cookie dough. Nice.

A whole shelf in the case is allocated to French macaroons (mac-cones) a very popular cookie built with pastry creme sandwiched between almond meringue discs. Chelsey says in France this cookie is taken to imaginative levels, much like the cupcake craze here currently. She recently added a honey-saffron macaroon to her collection and is working on ideas for dozens more. There are layers of difficulty in making these, especially getting the meringue to be crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. Many are intensely colored in bright hues. The French use food coloring and so does Chelsey.

Pastry Chef Chelsey Erickson loosens cakes from the baking pan with a blow torch.
Photo by susan Laughlin

Keeping that case filled with fresh goods isn't easy but "we plan for it," says the young pastry chef. Her day started at 3 a.m. preparing breakfast pastries to bake fresh for the morning. Later in the day she and a crew of six starts the process with the fancy cakes and tarts.

The croissants take three days to prepare including letting the dough rise for 24 hours. After another day's rest they are finally given four "turns" through the lamination machine, where more butter is incorporated. Fancy cakes are baked in a small ring, some soaked in flavored syrup, some sliced and filled with a variety of buttercream frostings. Each is finally lovingly decorated with a simple but elegant touch, including gold foil and handmade bubbled sugar. The case is changed out daily since no preservatives are used in any of the from-scratch cakes, fillings and decorations.

A look around in the kitchen is a good tell. There are just bins of King Arthur organic flour, sugar and boxes of Noel chocolate imported from France. Chelsey says, "I also order other necessary ingredients from France, like rosewater and lavender."

Would a Frenchman find her pastries similar? "No, I do my own twist on most of the recipes, but they are still classic in technique." For the upcoming holidays she plans on making French tarts but also traditional American pies. Not revealing her twist here, she just adds they will have her "secret blend" of spices and, of course, fresh ingredients. She does mention that the apple pie will have caramelized apples as do some of her pastries.

Full disclosure, Mom and Dad are a real part of the operation, from the investment to hands-on in the kitchen. Mom Laurie Erickson says, "Her teacher, Delphin Gomes, said she was gifted and we decided to back her," as she packs another cellophane bag with chocolate covered cookies behind the scenes. Dad was there in the morning and will be returning later this evening. Oh no, it's time to make the scones.

French Patisserie Terminology

  • Chiboust (shi-boost): pastry cream lightened with whipped cream or stiffly beaten egg whites.
  • Crème (krem) Patisserie (puh-tis-uh-ree): Pastry cream, a soft, rich egg custard
  • Dacquoise (duh-qwah): A light and crisp meringue made with ground nuts; almonds or hazelnuts. Usually piped in discs and sandwiched together in layers with buttercreams.
  • Fondant (fawn-dawn-t): A carefully measured mixture of water, sugar and glucose that is boiled to the soft ball stage, then poured onto a marble slab and worked into a white opaque paste.
  • Galette (gah-leht): A term used for free form pastry filled with fruits and baked, the fillings and designs being dictated by the region it is made.
  • Ganache (guh-nahsh): Ganache is a combination of chocolate and whipping cream; the ratio differs according to its use.
  • Gâteau (gah-tow): French word for cake. It is traditionally a multi-layered cake filled with cream fillings or buttercreams.
  • Génoise (j-eh-nwah-ze): Type of sponge cake invented in the city of Genoa.
  • Mousseline (moos-leen): A mixture such as buttercream, lightened with Crème Patisserie. It can be used as a filling for cakes and pastries.
  • Nougatine (noo-guh-teen): Combination of caramel and toasted, sliced almonds, rolled out while still hot and cut into decorative shapes.
  • Praline (pray-leen): Mixture of roasted almonds (or hazelnuts) combined with caramel. It can be puréed into a paste or crushed.
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