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.
In the culinary world, baking is often categorized as a science, while other kinds of cooking are considered art. Healy disagrees. Baking, he says, "is a beautiful combination of science and art. On the one hand, there's a tremendous amount of science behind it. Things don't just work by luck; they work because you hit on the right formula." Take meringue: "People now understand the baking of egg-white foams, but what happens when you whip in sugar? People just hadn't thought about it. When you whip in sugar, everything changes. Then you take a step beyond that for macaroons with almonds, and it gets really complicated. Almonds have fat, and fat is usually death to meringue..."
Once the science is in order, the artistry comes into play. French chefs such as Paul Bugat paint marzipan and create sculptures of blown sugar. Healy himself has haunted hardware stores looking for the tools he needs to create certain visual effects -- ribbed vinyl floormat, for example, with which he can texture chocolate.
"You get cakes that are beautiful to look at, components that have beautiful textures and flavors and colors, dessert-making beyond what we're used to seeing in this country," he says.
When the macaroons are ready, Healy takes the baking sheet to the sink, raises an edge of newsprint and sends a little water hissing between the paper and the sheet. He sets the tray onto a counter. As the paper dries, Duffy slides off the macaroons -- each one perfect, uncracked and shiny. These will be joined in twos with coffee-flavored buttercream.
The second batch is a problem; several of the macaroons crack during baking. Healy shakes his head. Then he and Duffy turn their attention to another kind of gerbet, this one containing walnuts. Healy writes down every variation and every result: "It's no good getting it right if you can't duplicate it," he says.
Now that baking is his career, Healy says his daily cooking is less elaborate than it once was. He likes to make coq au vin and serve burgers on slices of crusty baguette. When the family is invited to a potluck, "my wife takes deviled eggs."
The walnut gerbets, too, have cracked, a fact Healy duly records. "This cookie requires extreme care," he notes. "Most things are more forgiving." He'll continue experimenting and trying different combinations until he's satisfied. "Once the recipe is perfect," he says, "I don't make it anymore."
I don't know if Bruce Healy weeps easily, but I'm glad he didn't see the results of my efforts to duplicate his gerbets.
Putting together the dough was easy enough, but the pastry bag undid me. I've heard all the instructions about twisting the bag, guiding the point with one hand and applying only the slowest and steadiest pressure. Nonetheless, I can never touch a pastry bag without anointing my front, my forearms and the counter with whatever's in it. In this case, the batter was seeping through the tip as fast as I could pour it into the bag -- probably because the kitchen was too hot and the batter too thin.
Somehow, I slopped a few circles onto the prepared and parchmented cake pan (I hadn't had a chance to get newsprint) and popped them into the oven as a test. Some eleven minutes later, I was observing a miracle: a row of smooth, glossy, uncracked cookies. The steaming operation -- despite the parchment, and terrifying as it was to contemplate -- worked, and the gerbets slid easily off the sheet. It seemed to me they were chewier than Healy's, but they were delicious nonetheless. I now had a sheet of perhaps fourteen gerbets. Filled with ganache, they'd make seven cookies. I was full of confidence.
I wrestled the pastry bag into submission and had a second sheet half-filled when I realized I'd forgotten to cover it with parchment. I could have scraped up the batter and tried again. I could have tossed the whole damn thing out. I did neither. I baked. Anyone who's ever made meringue knows what happened next. When the sheet came out of the oven, the cookies had hardened onto it. With a lot of hacking and scraping, I managed to pry four of them off. The rest were reduced to piles of broken bits and powder.
We had company for dinner. Eight guests. For dessert I served sliced strawberries, setting one small, pretty gerbet by each plate. The compliments were effusive: The gerbets were so delicious, so delicate, so unusual. I never explained why they were also so few.
Chocolate Gerbet Macaroons: Gerbets Chocolat
3 large heavy baking sheets
Newsprint cut to fit 2 of them
A large pastry bag fitted with a 3/8-inch (1 cm) plain pastry tube (Ateco #4), or a small palette knife
5 ounces (140 g) or 1 cup blanched almonds
1 ounce (30 g) or 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon light brown sugar
7 ounces (200 g) or 1 2/3 cups confectioners' sugar
1/3 ounce (10 g) or 1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon (1/2 ml) cream of tartar (optional)
Red food coloring
3 ounces (85 g) European bittersweet chocolate (such as Lindt Excellence)
4 1/2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon heavy cream
For about 40 to 45 cookies
Preheat oven to 450 F (230 C).
1. Grind the almonds with the brown sugar and 1 1/2 ounces (40 g), or 1/3 cup, of the confectioners' sugar in your food processor, stopping to break up any caking as needed until finely ground but not at all oily. Sift through a medium sieve. Grind the almonds that don't pass through the sieve with another 2 1/2 ounces (70 g), or 1/2 cup plus 4 teaspoons, of the confectioners' sugar until reduced to a fine powder. Transfer all of the almond and sugar powder to a bowl, break up any caking with your fingertips, and mix thoroughly.
2. Sift 2 ounces (60 g), or about 1/2 cup, of the remaining confectioners' sugar with the cocoa powder and toss it with the almond and sugar powder.
3. Sift the rest (30 g) of the confectioners' sugar onto a sheet of wax paper.
4. Whip the egg whites in an electric mixer at low speed until they start to froth. If you are not whipping the whites in a copper bowl, then add the cream of tartar at this point. Gradually increase the whipping speed to medium-high and continue whipping until the whites form very stiff peaks and just begin to slip and streak around the side of the bowl. Add a drop of red food coloring. Then add the confectioners' sugar and continue whipping at high speed for a few seconds longer to incorporate the sugar and lighten the meringue.
5. Gently fold the almond mixture into the meringue. The batter must be smooth and shiny, and it should spread easily without being at all runny. If it is dull and firm, fold it a little longer to deflate it slightly and get the required consistency. But do not deflate it too much, or the batter will spread too much and the tops of the cookies will crack when baked.
6. Scoop the batter into the large pastry bag. Pipe a small dab of batter in each corner of 2 baking sheets and line them with newsprint, pressing the corners of the newsprint on the dabs of batter to hold it in place. Pipe the batter in domes 1 inch wide, arranging them on the newsprint in staggered rows and separating them by about 1 inch (2 1/2 cm). Unless you have 2 ovens, pipe only one sheet of cookies at a time, and keep the remaining batter in the pastry bag until the first sheet is baked.
7. Bake 1 sheet at a time. After 1 minute at 450 F (230 C), reduce the temperature to 375 F (190 C), place an empty baking sheet underneath the sheet of cookies and continue baking, using a wooden spatula to hold the oven door ajar, until the tops of the cookies are glossy and dry to the touch while the insides are still soft, about 8 to 10 minutes longer.
8. Lift the baking sheet of cookies off the empty baking sheet and take it to the sink. Pour cold water (about 1/2 cup, or 1 dl, per baking sheet) between the paper and the baking sheet (tilting the baking sheet so that the water runs over the entire surface and drains thoroughly into the sink) to steam the cookies off the paper. Then place the baking sheet on a wire rack and cool.
9. To make the ganache filling, chop the chocolate and put it in a small stainless-steel bowl. Bring the cream just to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes, stirring constantly with a wire whisk, to sterilize the cream. Gradually stir the cream into the chocolate with the whisk, and continue stirring until the chocolate is completely melted. (If some of the chocolate still doesn't melt, dip the bottom of the bowl of ganache in a bowl of hot water and stir a little longer.) Then allow it to cool, stirring occasionally with a wooden spatula, until it starts to thicken. Fill the cookies right away, before the ganache sets. If the ganache does set before you finish using it, dip the bottom of the bowl of ganache in a bowl of hot water and stir it with a wooden spatula until it is soft and smooth (but not runny) again.
10. Carefully slide (don't lift) the cookies off the paper before the paper dries, and arrange them upside down on your countertop. Scoop the ganache into the small pastry bag, and pipe about 1/2 teaspoon (1/4 cl) of ganache on the center of half the cookies. (Or spread the ganache using a small palette knife.) Then place a second cookie right side up on top of each and press gently to make a sandwich.
Variation: For a simpler, less rich version of these cookies, omit the filling and sandwich them back-to-back in pairs as soon as you remove them from the newsprint.
Storage: Covered airtight in a tin cookie box or a cookie jar for up to 2 or 3 days in the refrigerator.
From The French Cookie Book: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Easy and Elegant Cookies, by Bruce Healy with Paul Bugat.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.