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On this blazing summer day, you need a sweater to sit in Bruce Healy's Boulder kitchen, a long, narrow room where the temperature is minutely controlled and every element designed to support baking. Implements hang in rows from a pegboard wall at one end: pastry bags and tips, lids, an assortment of whisks. Behind a marble countertop, brackets hold seven rolling pins of varying weights, thicknesses and designs, one metal, one marble, one ridged. There are more rolling pins in a drawer.
Healy is standing over a baking sheet. He has set a ruler along one side, and is piping out one-inch circles of batter with a pastry bag. The circles appear identical, evenly shaped, evenly spaced. The baking sheet is dark, heavy-gauge, with gently sloping edges: Healy has no patience with the rimmed cookie sheets most of us use. The sheet is covered with newsprint. Although parchment paper is best for most cookies, he says, that is not an option here. These cookies will be steamed off the sheet, and parchment would prevent the steam from reaching them.
"I'm making gerbets," he explains. "They're a kind of macaroon. Very delicate. If the batter's not just right, they crack."
Recipes for three or four kinds of gerbets have already appeared in The French Cookie Book, which Healy wrote with acclaimed French pastry chef Paul Bugat, but Healy is concerned that this particular recipe isn't foolproof. Even at best, he says, it can take first-time makers several tries to get gerbets right.
In the food world, Healy and Bugat's books -- they have also written The Art of French Pastry, now out of print and worth about $100 if you can get your hands on a copy, and The Art of the Cake-- are considered definitive. The president of the Confederation Nationale de la Pâtisserie-Confiseries-Glacerie calls Healy a "grand gourmet," and Shirley Corriher, famous for her own explanations of the science of cooking, dubbed him a "great cake master." But he began his career as a theoretical physicist and has taught both at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and at Yale. It was as a graduate student in Manhattan that he developed an interest in French cooking and visited several of New York's best restaurants. In the summer of 1972, he and his wife Alice, a cognitive psychologist, attended separate conferences in Europe, then made a point of dining in some of France's three-star restaurants. The experience was a revelation.
The way the French served duck, for instance. French ducks are far less fatty than the ducks available here, and they're frequently served as rare as roast beef. Healy also encountered tantalizing culinary tricks. He remembers a restaurant outside Lyons where the specialty was Mediterranean bass stuffed with lobster mousse, wrapped in flaky pastry and served with a bearnaise sauce. "The miraculous thing was that the crust was flaky," Healy says. "In a dish like this, you always have soggy crust, because the juices from the fish soak into the crust. I kept thinking, how does he do it? All of a sudden, I realized it's a very simple trick.
"They present it at the table. The crust is shaped like a fish, with scales. It looks beautiful. They take the knife and slice down the side, lift the crust off the top. They cut a fillet from the backbone, spoon out the lobster mousse, then take the rest away. The rest includes the soggy bottom crust. And the experience you have is that every piece is ethereal."
Healy spent hours trying to duplicate these meals for his friends. "I had a bad habit at the time where I would critique the meal throughout," he says, laughing. "You can imagine how this impressed my guests. The standard response at the end of the dinner party was, 'This is the most incredible meal we've ever had, and we're never, never going to have you over for dinner.'"
Kathryn Duffy, Healy's assistant, is sifting a mixture of confectioners' sugar and ground, blanched almonds. She glances over to see Healy attempting to cool a little freshly brewed espresso, which he'll use for flavoring, by running an ice cube around the bottom of the dish. He drops the cube twice. "Would you like a bowl of ice?" Duffy asks kindly.
Healy explains what he's doing as he works: "The egg whites should slip and streak on the side of the bowl," he says, hovering over his KitchenAid. And then, "You have to whip the coffee in. If you fold, the macaroons crack."
When the whites are to his liking, he pours in the sugar-almond powder Duffy sifted and begins drawing a rubber spatula through the mixture. He's particularly careful about this: If he folds too little, the cookies won't be shiny; too much folding and the egg whites will deflate.
"What do you think?" he asks Duffy.
"Fold it three more times."
The batter is scraped into the pastry bag with a bowl scraper. Healy has been known to wax poetic on the subject of bowl scrapers -- small plastic half-circles that he maintains work far better than spatulas. Once he's piped out his cookies, they go into a hot oven for one minute. After that, he sets a second cake pan beneath the first, turns down the heat, and props the oven door slightly ajar with a wooden spoon.