After centuries of making fun of our cuisine, the French have suddenly embraced all things Anglo with a passion. In Paris it seems that everywhere you turn someone is dressing up hot dogs or piling gourmet ingredients onto burgers: the Figaro newspaper even did a round-up of the best places for fish & chips last week. Cupcakes have grown as commonplace as choux à la crème, and you can find convincing American-style cookies in Nice at the French-run Emilies Cookies.
Each of these trends comes in waves, and one wave that has yet to lap over into France from across the Atlantic is the artisan donut, launched by Krispy Kreme and much improved upon by independent shops. If the beignet is a staple of the viennoiserie counter alongside croissants, pains au chocolat and chaussons aux pommes, I have never known a French pastry chef to experiment with this workaday cake. No doubt that will change in time, just as it has for the meringue and the éclair.
In the meantime, to get my donut fix I still need to cross the ocean. Having grown up with Tim Horton's, a donut shop favored by cops, I have never demanded too much from this cake: I like it to be very fresh, with a springy texture and a crunchy layer of glaze. I didn't realize how much the donut had come of age until I visited the fashionable "Chinese brasserie" Bao Bei with my friend Tami, who knows all the best places to eat in the city. "I hope they have the donuts," she said.
Donuts were not what I was expecting after a meal that included bean curd skins with mushrooms, squid with spicy sausage and sticky rice cake with pork and mustard greens, but in a restaurant that describes its fried rice as "kick ass" I should not have been surprised. "Usually they sell out before I get to dessert", Tami added a little anxiously, but we were lucky that night. Shaped more like an éclair than a Paris-Brest, these donuts were elegantly topped with chestnut cream and pastry cream sprinkled with black sesame.
Both my interest and my appetite were piqued, and the next day Tami and I set out in the car to visit what is arguably Vancouver's best artisan donut shop. Cartems Donuterie has an odd location, between trendy Gastown and the famously run-down Eastside. It started as a pop-up shop and soon grew into a permanent fixture, with its main kitchen now on Commercial Drive. You can still see cooks at work in the teeny tiny pop-up location, with its donut display and little counter where two people can perch. Despite its diminutive size Cartems does a booming business, and we made sure to arrive before noon so as to choose from the full selection.
Tami, a Cartems connoisseur, recommended the Earl Grey and vanilla bean donuts. We also chose the bourbon bacon donut - too daring to ignore - and the Mexican mole. With rain falling outside, heading to a park was not an option so we huddled in the car for our taste test.
The vanilla bean was everything I would expect from a classic yeast donut - light and bouncy, with the seductive taste of real vanilla bean and a thin coating of glaze.
Next, the Earl Grey: a more cakey, distinctive texture with a floral flavor enhanced by the sprinkling of pink rose petals.
Our appetites waning a little, we cut the bourbon bacon into four and nodded approvingly at its balance of salty, smoky and sweet, with a gentle kick from the bourbon.
But the biggest surprise was the deep flavor of the Mexican mole, which comes from four kinds of chili peppers plus cumin, coriander, star anise, cinnamon and dark chocolate. If I had to name a favorite this would probably be it (though I would have to taste them all again to be sure).
Cartems sources many of its ingredients, such as eggs, flour and milk, from local producers and offers gluten-free and oven-baked variations. As a result, its donuts are not cheap ($3 each), but then again they are not something you would want to eat every day. My only complaint is that in the cake donuts the oil seemed to have seeped in a little too much - their website mentions that they incorporate coconut oil for the frying, and I wonder if this contributes to that effect or if it's a problem with the temperature.
There might be a little room for improvement, but these donuts had charm and I could imagine them creating quite a sensation in Paris. Watch out beignets, your quiet life in the pastry case might be coming to an end!