Let us eat cake

The renowned French dessert chef Pierre Hermé, the Picasso of pastry, is in the capital this week for Gourmet Abu Dhabi.

We didn't believe our pastry-school director when she told us that by graduation we would be able to make Pierre Hermé's desserts. "They'll be a snap!" she said. Hermé, the master of puff and praliné? The Picasso of pastry? That pastry-school promise came back to me this week as, ahead of the great chef's appearance at Gourmet Abu Dhabi, I browsed Desserts by Pierre Hermé, the first of his books to be translated by his US collaborator, Dorie Greenspan. Many of the recipes go on for pages: deep chocolate cream with raspberry coulis, tea-flavoured crème brûlée, basmati rice and fruits-of-the-moment salad. The beautifully backlit photos took me back into Hermé's sweet kingdom. Granted, the moody black-and-white author photo - chef as artiste - is more than a decade old, but the maestro continues to push the outside of the pastry envelope (macarons with ketchup and gherkins, anyone?) to its flakiest limits.

Hermé is a national hero in France (naturellement) and in Japan, where lines snake out of his pastry shops. Descended from four generations of pastry chefs, he "was from birth, surrounded by the aromas of butter and sugar, of rising bread and melting chocolate, that wafted from his father's patisserie", writes Greenspan in the introduction to the first book. It is no surprise then that Hermé sees pastry-making as intrinsic a form of expression as art or music. "I consider pastry-making as Art with a capital A," Hermé explains when we correspond before his arrival in Abu Dhabi, "as it truly expresses one's sensitivity as do music, painting or sculpting... My recipes translate my state of mind and my sensitivity. They are merely a code that transmits and reproduces the fruit of my imagination, like a score does for music."

Picked at 14 to apprentice with Gaston Lenôtre, France's then-pastry laureate, he took the reins at Lenôtre's Paris boutique a mere five years later. By the age of 24 he'd taken over the pastry kitchen at Fauchon, where he produced 150 different pastries, tarts and cakes daily. (The Parisian restaurant and food shop recently opened a branch at the Dubai Mall.) Before he was 35, Hermé reopened Paris's oldest patisserie, Ladurée, and a short while later became the only pastry chef to be decorated as a chevalier of arts and letters.

It was while at Fauchon that Hermé began a tradition he continues in his signature patisseries in Paris and Tokyo: spring and fall collections of new creations, much like Chanel or Givenchy. "The coming of each season inspires me with new emotions," Hermé says. "Always on the lookout for new taste sensations, I first imagine my compositions 'in my head', based on tastes, ingredients, textures, flavour combinations or temperatures. Then I explore their possibilities in developing recipes. I create the pastries that I would like to eat- Pleasure is my only guide."

Greenspan admits to being struck by Hermé's credo at their first meeting in Paris 17 years ago. "All I'd wanted was a recipe by him for a piece I was writing on chestnuts," she writes. What she got along with the recipe were "nibbles of innumerable desserts with incomparable tastes and three hours of conversation that- always seemed to return to the chef's favourite topic: the pleasures of dessert".

One of the great pleasures of any Hermé dessert is the unexpected juxtaposition of flavours and ingredients: espresso with marmalade; avocado and banana with pepper; Nestlé Crunch and basmati rice. Most famously, macarons, the crisp cookies that are a staple of French baking, have received the Hermé treatment, in his rival boutique to Ladurée, with flavour combinations such as basil and lime, hazelnut and white truffle, vanilla and olive oil. "The idea," says Hermé, "is to deliver a taste in bursts, not uniformly throughout the texture." He goes further: "When someone tasting a cake is confused, it is a compliment!" If that still sounds theoretical, there's nothing like putting fork to lips to bring you back to earth. Below is one of my favourite cakes from Desserts by Pierre Hermé (Little, Brown & Company, 1998). It's simple, not too sweet and satisfying, and the combination of coconut and coriander makes perfect, delicious sense in our part of the world.

It's not as pretty as his macarons, but this cake certainly packs a flavoursome punch. "Tastes, sensations and pleasures are the key ingredients to a delicious cake," Hermé says. "Appearance comes after." It can be served at any temperature, though he finds it most interesting toasted. "I even toast it when it's fresh," he says. Sceptical, I popped a slice in the toaster last week. Hermé is right, of course. Serves 12.

Ingredients 240g plain flour 2 tbsp ground coriander 1 tsp baking powder 135g unsalted butter, softened, plus more for buttering the pan 280g caster sugar 3 eggs, room temperature 120g unsweetened coconut powder, plus 3 tbsp for dusting the pan 30g full-cream milk powder 180ml full-cream milk, room temperature Method ? Centre a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 170°C. Butter a 1kg loaf pan (11cm x 22cm), then dust the interior with 3tbsp of coconut powder. Tap out the excess.

? Sift together flour, coriander and baking powder (picture one). Whisk to combine. ? Beat the butter with a mixer at medium speed until it is creamy. Add sugar and continue to beat, scraping down the sides of the bowl, until the mixture is pale, thick and fluffy, about two minutes. ? Beat in the eggs one by one, beating well after each addition and scraping the bowl as necessary (picture two).

? With the mixer speed at low, one at a time add the coconut, milk powder and milk, beating until each addition is incorporated (picture three). (The batter may look soupy and curdled, but it will come together when you add the dry ingredients.) ? With a large rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture gently, but thoroughly, into the batter in two or three additions. ? Spoon the batter into the prepared pan (picture four) - it will just about fill it - and smooth the top with a spatula (picture five). Place it on a baking tray before sliding it in the oven. Set the timer for 30 minutes.

? At 30 minutes cover the top loosely with a foil tent - the top of the cake tends to darken quickly - then continue to bake for a further 40-50 minutes. (I opened the centre of the tent for the last 5-10 minutes so the centre would completely bake, but kept the short ends covered as they were getting dark.) ? The cake is done when it's crowned, golden and split down the centre, and a sharp, thin knife inserted in the centre comes out clean (picture six). Remove from the oven and immediately turn it onto a cooling rack. Invert so it is right side up. Allow the cake to cool to room temperature before slicing.

? Pierre Hermé will be a featured pastry chef at Gourmet Abu Dhabi's chocolate and pastry workshop, on Sunday, 9.30am to 5.30pm at the Armed Forces Officers Club and Hotel. Other participants include Frédéric Bau, Hugues Pouget and Loretta Fanella. Hermé will also be at the awards gala dinner on Monday. For more information, visit www.gourmetabudhabi.ae.