France's prodigal pastry son returns to Paris with new pretzel dessert for weekend pop-up

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Dominique Ansel's Pretzel Mousse Cake for a Paris pop-up at Yann Couvreur Bakery

You could call it a homecoming of sorts. After dominating New York, Los Angeles and London, France's prodigal pastry son has returned to Paris for a weekend pop-up, finally introducing Parisians to some of the signature edible works that has made Ansel a household name. 

But Parisians hoping to sample the dessert that made him famous -- the hybrid croissant-donut Cronut -- may be disappointed. Every day, only 15 Cronuts will be given away as part of a lottery with every purchase. 

On the counter at his pal Yann Couvreur's bakery in Paris's Marais district, the Cronut sits protected under a glass dome, for display only. 

Because this weekend, Ansel has created an entirely new dessert for his Paris debut, the Pretzel Mousse Cake, an homage to his adopted city of New York that will be available for three days only. 

For the dessert, Ansel says he created a mold using a 3D printer for the pretzel, which is made with an intense, rich peanut butter mousse, soft caramel, crispy peanut butter feuilletine, dotted with pretzel pieces. 

"I wanted to create something just for Paris, something that I've never created before or done anywhere else," Ansel said in an interview a day before the official opening.   

"The pretzel is very typical of New York. You can find it on every corner of the city. I wanted to bring something back from New York." 

The result is a mouthful of what feels like whipped, airy peanut butter, contrasted against crunchy, salty pretzels and flaky peanut butter and caramel feuilletine shards. 

In a sit-down interview, Ansel shared more about his upcoming projects including a new cookbook, more shops in London and Hong Kong, and why a good croissant is like the perfect murder. 

How did this Paris pop-up and collaboration with Yann Couvreur happen? 

I've known Yann for years now and we've always talked about doing something together. I had a bit of time at this time of the year so I wanted to come back and see all of my friends, check out the markets and the clientele in Paris. I wanted to come back and see the city. 

What do you order at the bakery when you return to Paris? 

Croissant. I think a croissant is a staple. It tells you whether a pastry chef is good or not. It's a sign. There's a simplicity behind a croissant but it also takes a lot of commitment and dedication. If you get a good croissant you can tell it's a good bakery. 

What makes a croissant better than the rest? 

I actually teach workshops in New York and Los Angeles where I talk about the croissant for an hour. For all of my bakeries and restaurants, I get them to send photos every morning of the cross-section of the croissant to see the inside structure, called the honeycomb. I look for air pockets to see if it's been baked well or not. It should smell buttery and have beautiful layers, like this one (he says pointing to a puffy croissant in the showcase of chef Yann Couvreur's bakery). It should have a nice shape and consistency. When you bite into it, you should have flakes all over yourself. You can't hide the evidence. It's like a perfect murder. 

You worked in Paris for eight years at Fauchon before uprooting to New York 14 years ago. Have you observed any changes in the local pastry and dining scene? 

In terms of the pastry scene, it's gotten a lot better, much better. I think there are more talented chefs like Yann, who are breaking out onto their own, making things that are different. When it comes to food, I think it's a little more relaxed. The dining scene is less fine dining and more casual nowadays and you can definitely feel that the energy has changed. 

What are the foods you seek out in Paris that you can't find in New York? 

Cheese. I was in a cheese shop the other day and I felt like I was dreaming it was so good. You can't get shops like this back in New York. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great cheeses there, but nothing like what you get here. It tastes different. Oh, and a good baguette.  

You've got a lot of different projects on the go, including a new outpost in Hong Kong which you've been very secretive about. Can you give us more details? 

I can't tell you anything but I can tell you that it will be something different. It's not going to be a bakery like the one we have in New York. I'm going to come up with a brand new concept just for Hong Kong. We expect to open this winter. 

You have bakeries and restaurants in the US, the UK, and soon, Asia. What's your strategy for catering to local tastes and sensibilities? 

The taste and flavors are different so you have to adapt based on the market. There is no copy-paste for me. I believe that every single location should have their own personality. We dive deep into the local culture, childhood memories to understand what people enjoy. For example, in London we have a Welsh Rarebit croissant, very specific to London that I would never do anywhere else. 

In Asia, there's less of a sweet tooth so desserts will be lighter in both sweetness and texture. Twice a year I do a sweetness test. First thing in the morning, without having coffee or tea, I taste test every single pastry. I've reduced the sugar content by about 20 percent. I focus on the flavor of ingredients and use sugar to season. That changed everything for me. 

Is this Paris pop-up a hint of what's to come? 

(He breaks out into a big smile.) I would love to open a shop in Paris. I have no plans yet but it's something I've been thinking about for the last few years.It's not an easy market. It's not because I'm French that it would be easier for me. There are a lot of great  pastry chefs like Yann and many others and a lot of competition. The market is sensitive because there is a bakery on every corner. I think Parisians are also pickier, in a good way. They know how to identify good quality pastries. They also have a culture of buying pastries more than anyone else in the world.  

What's the single biggest tip you can offer home bakers? 

I think the most important thing for home cooks is to read the recipe from beginning to end, understand the equipment you need and the techniques required. There are no shortcuts. You just need to be meticulous, careful read the instructions one by one and you'll be successful. 

Other than a second London location in Covent Garden opening this fall and a new concept for Hong Kong, what else are you working on? 

I'm working on a second cookbook for home bakers that will be out in 2020. It will be a little like choose your own adventure. There will be different sections, and readers can take different elements from different sections to build their own creation. 

The Dominique Ansel X Yann Couvreur pop-up runs Friday, May 17-19. Along with the Pretzel, Ansel's signature Frozen S'mores, Cookie Shots and Mini Madeleines will also be sold for between €5 and €8.50.