Thursday, July 26, 2012

An American Cupcake in Paris

Our friend and international cupcake correspondent Brock Pennington, who normally resides in Montreal, was enjoying a summer in Paris and graciously agreed to cover the opening of Cat Beurnier's new cupcakery, Sugar Daze.

An American Cupcake in Paris

When we last spoke to expat New Yorker Cat Beurnier in the spring of 2011, the sole proprietor, head baker, and cupcake designer of Sugar Daze told us that in the upcoming year, she was determined to open her own bricks-and-mortar cupcakery in Paris. Just a few of weeks ago, at the end of June 2012, Sugar Daze opened its doors at 20 rue Henri Monnier in the Montparnasse section of Paris.

Henri Monnier is a quiet, elegant street not far from the busy, raucous Place Pigalle, home of the Moulin Rouge and the famous nightlife of Montmartre. With its tasteful cyan façade and crisp white interior, the shop is not out of place among the independent fashion boutiques, cafes, bars, and elegant hotels that are its neighbors. The pennants celebrating the opening still crisscross the front window, framing a covered platter of cupcakes, a baker’s apron, and a vintage American “Come In We’re Open” sign.

When we drop by to see how the shop is doing, Cat tells us things are going well, and her point is underscored by the curious passersby, all women, who stop in to check things out. Although Cat has done no advertising, the shop owes its immediate popularity to the word-of-mouth from her catering clients and the choice of location. Cat chose the rue Henri Monnier because “I need a place close to my apartment because I have two young children, so I didn’t want a very long commute. I wanted a neighborhood I could afford and one that was kind of dynamic. This neighborhood is very young, with a lot of people on the street.” Although there are already three or four other cupcake shops in the neighborhood, Cat thinks this “could be an advantage in that people are already coming to this neighborhood looking for cupcakes.”  She looked at fifteen other places, but with this one, “I just walked in and I felt something about it, that this was the place.”

In addition to the good location and intrinsic deliciousness of her cupcakes, Cat says she owes her success to the vogue for cupcakes sparked by the HBO series “Sex and the City.” In the U.S., the trend began in the 1990s with the now-famous scene where Carrie Bradshaw bites into a pink cupcake outside the Magnolia Bakery in Greenwich Village. The vogue for cupcakes in Paris appears to coincide with the airing of “Sex and the City” on French television in 2008. At that time, Cat had already been baking for friends, and with their encouragement set up a catering business, working for the first six months from her home kitchen and then from a rental kitchen, Cat quickly built up a thriving business among Parisians, eager to try the new American dessert trend glamorized on television. The popularity of her authentic American cupcakes overtaxed the limits of her rental kitchen, so the only way to keep up with the demand was to set up a shop with a professional baker’s kitchen.

Although she is still in the process of establishing the business with the French authorities, the process has moved ahead with surprising ease. “In the U.S. things are very black and white. You find out what you need to do and file the paperwork. Here, the process is kind of grey. There are a lot of hoops you have to jump through, but you don’t ask too many questions and don’t go looking for answers. You just do your thing and keep your head down and hope.” The French call this process of avoiding systems and procedures “System D.” The “D” stands for “débrouiller," a verb that roughly means “to get around things,” a DIY approach that suits Cat just fine.

The interior of the shop shows that Cat’s design sense is not limited to cupcakes. Visitors are greeted by a rustic communal table, a common feature of bistros and cafes here, and a good way of appealing to Parisian sensibilities. Also, the big table serves as a work space when Cat gives cooking classes. Surrounded by artfully mismatched chairs that Cat stenciled herself, the table is topped by a vase with an orchid, a selection of U.S. magazines, and a copy of a children’s book If You Give a Cat a Cupcake, given to Cat by a longtime customer who thought the auspicious connection of cats and cupcakes boded well for the new store. Behind the table, sixteen of Cat’s favorite albums from the '80s hang on the wall in neat rows, including some from Billy Idol, Duran Duran, and Van Halen. In the lyrics from these and other '80s albums, Cat says she finds the names and inspiration for her cupcake creations, such as “Lucky Star” (chocolate cupcake with whipped peanut butter frosting), Dirty Vegas, She Wore Lemon, and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (her classic red velvet).

The rows of cupcakes on offer on any given day are displayed in a spotless glass showcase to the left of the table. Although Cat has a repertoire of more than thirty creations and is designing new ones all the time, she rotates her flavors, offering five or six each day. She bakes the cupcakes fresh each morning from scratch, using the top quality, natural ingredients such as free-range chicken eggs, Nielsen-Massey Bourbon Vanilla from Madagascar, and fresh fruit.

Cat believes her meticulous artisanal approach makes her creations more “authentically American” than those of her competitors, especially those of the French patisseries, which have attempted to bake cupcakes without much success. “French cupcakes tend to be very dry and solid; whereas mine are a lot moister and fluffier. The French tend to pooh-pooh buttercream, which really bothers me because I think that the [stuff] they’ve tried is not real buttercream. My buttercream is light. It’s not overly sweet. And you’ll hear a lot of French people saying buttercream is too sweet; it’s disgusting. I don’t know where they’ve tried [theirs], but it’s not like that.”

The French flavors also tend to be more refined, and while Cat occasionally aims for refined tastes by adding ingredients like rosewater, most of her flavors are strong and direct—“peanut butter and cotton candy and chocolate and marshmallow—typical American flavors.”

The flavors come through loud and clear in our one and only tasting, particularly of “Remedy,” one of her “old school” confections. “Remedy,” which takes its name from a Black Crowes song, perfectly balances the lightness of the pink, star-spangled frosting with the lemony moistness of the cake, which somehow manages to be both dense and crumbly. And then, in a brilliant culinary maneuver, near the base of the cupcake, a swirl of strawberry leaps up to surprise the palate and redefine the other flavors. In our view, “Remedy” cures the malaise of boring cupcakes, and Sugar Daze makes a uniquely American contribution to the food scene in Paris.

20, rue Henry Monnier 

Written and photographed by Brock Pennington.