You may think it’s hard to imagine why anyone would crave American food in Paris, a city known for its scrumptious and refined cuisine. But sometimes there’s just no substitute for the nostalgic associations that come with savoring certain culinary mainstays — like a perfectly baked American-style cookie. And we know just where to find them in Paris!
After 10 years of baking cookies for neighborhood restaurants and events, the effervescent Taiwanese-American Jean Hwang Carrant realized her dream of opening up her own gourmet cookie boutique earlier this year. Treating each cookie as a little jewel that has to be perfected, Jean finds her zen in baking cookies, and enjoys getting inspiration from her customers, family and friends to invent new flavors like the Mojito cookie and a soon-to-be-launched beer cookie.
Share with us the origin of your extraordinary cookies. What gave you the idea to turn your baking into a French business?
Ten years ago, my youngest child went off to pre-school and I wanted to do something I love to do — I’ve always loved baking cookies! On a whim, I went into a shop in my neighborhood called Le Ruban Vert and asked if there was a market for my cookies. I continued to grow by proposing my cookies to other restaurants in the neighborhood. But from the beginning, I always dreamed of having my own boutique!
A “cookie” is a very non-French product non?
Yes! The American concept of a cookie … it’s different than an English biscuit. There’s a certain texture that makes it a uniquely American dessert. In fact, the word “cookie” is derived from the Dutch word “koekje”, which means “little cake” and it arrived with the brown sugar that the Dutch settlers brought with them to America.
Who bought your first cookies? And were they a hard sell in a country where pastry reigns?
In fact, it wasn’t difficult to propose cookies! I started completely by feeling, only proposing to owners of restaurants I had a good contact with and whose restaurant would be the right fit for my cookies. One restaurant didn’t have many desserts on their menus, for example, and they were enthusiastic to offer something new. Some restaurants have asked me to create cookies for them. A Taiwanese restaurant asked me to create cookies with matcha tea and black sesame, which I’ve since added onto my regular menu.
From your first batch for sale, how have your delicious, chewy cookies evolved?
While I’ve been selling my cookies for the last 10 years, my big break came in 2011 when the popular blogger Mai Hua published a video profile of me on her blog www.superbytimai.com. Within 3 days of her publishing that video, I had 4,000 people look at my website, and it generated a lot of interest in my cookies. More orders came flooding in. I had orders for events and for corporate clients like designers Agnes B and Sézane.
Your cookies are divided into four intriguing categories: Typic American, Asian Invasion, Les Creatives and French Touch. What distinguishes these cookies?
Typic American cookies are your classic American childhood favorites: chocolate chip, oatmeal-raisin, white chocolate macadamia nut, peanut butter, snickerdoodles (cinnamon and sugar). With Asian Invasion I’ve blended Asian ingredients, like Matcha tea, Taiwanese black sesame powder, Thai chili pepper, and ginger with basic cookie bases. Les Creatives are exactly that: my own inventions, including the mojito and super Goji cookies, plus a couple of gluten-free options and even organic doggy treats. French Touch includes such French classic flavors as caramel au beurre sale, pistachio, and Carambar.
Why do you believe in using organic ingredients? Does it make a difference?
I suppose I was indoctrinated as a child, growing up with parents who were on a macrobiotic and natural foods diet. Yes, there is definitely a difference. I have tested this with both cookies and muffins. The color, texture and taste is better when I use organic ingredients. One problem I’ve had is not being able to find high quality, organic chocolate chips in France. I’ve had to work with what’s available and of the best quality.
Is it true every cookie is made with TLC… a personal touch from Jean?
Yes, I like to think of every cookie as a little jewel that has to be perfect. For 10 years, I had been doing everything myself, including rolling each cookie into a perfect little ball. But now that I have opened the boutique and have to fulfill more orders, I have hired two great assistants who are professionally trained from the Ferrandi School of Culinary Arts. They are helping me enormously by preparing the dough and baking. I am easily able to quadruple the quantity! It was hard for me to let go, but that’s what happens when you expand your business.
Tell us about your new cookie store in Paris. What can a cookie addict expect to find?
Everyday we feature 10 different cookie flavors, including 8 standard best sellers, and then Cookies of the Day or of the Week. Every morning we start with about 120 cookies baked fresh in the morning and we rebake throughout the day when we start to run out. At the end of day, we package up any leftovers in bags of 6 cookies for half price to be sold the next day.
Do you play with ingredients to come up with new cookies? Any new cookie concoction we should taste for the new season?
Definitely! Clients and other people give me ideas and inspire me all of the time! In Paris,
the food scene is getting very interesting. A fan of cocktails and drinking in general, I played with different quantities of mint, lime and rum to create the Mojito cookie. Right now I’m working on a beer cookie. There is a place in my neighborhood where you can brew your own beer. The owner gave me some spent grain, which has the consistency of oatmeal and has a yeasty sweetness to it, so I decided to experiment with it. At the same time my son was back from the US and suggested that I create a cookie with maple syrup. Then, it started getting hot in my boutique, so I had the idea to make an ice cream sandwich cookie, using beer flavored ice cream, spent grain and maple syrup. It’s my work-in-progress for Summer 2015, so stay tuned!
In the autumn, definitely come and try my seasonal Pumpkin Nut cookie!
How do you stay so slim surrounded by all those yummy cookies?
I am not slim! You know how guys have beer bellies? I have a cookie gut! But I have been blessed with high metabolism and I have been practicing Bikram yoga for almost 6 years.
We love your cookies. Out of curiosity, do you have a favorite French pastry and will you tell us where you find your treat in Paris?
My idol is Pierre Hermé. Last year I gave him a sachet of my cookies, including a vanilla cookie inspired by his Infinitement Vanille tart. Years ago, I met him and gave him my cookies to try. He wrote a nice note back, which is posted on my website. What he wrote was absolute gold for me.
You’re a long way from Manhattan, Kansas, USA where you grew up. Has it been a long and winding road to making Paris your home and workplace?
I was born and raised in Kansas, but I’ve lived in Copenhagen, New York, Boston and Tokyo before moving to Paris in 1990 to be with my now, husband. So, it wasn’t a difficult transition, as I had studied French by chance in high school and college, and I had already lived and studied overseas.
What are the successful ingredients needed to re-establish yourself in a new country when you begin with an empty plate?
My driving force is a passion and love for what I do. After 10 years I still love making cookies. It’s my zen: I find peace and calm as soon as I start to make my doughs and bake.
I hope I can be an inspiration to women who want to do something new, even when they’re 50 years old, or more, like me! I was a full-time mom with 3 kids but, when my youngest child went off to pre-school, I wanted to do something that I loved to do, so I started baking and I did as much as possible while they were at school or asleep.
Now that you’re responsible for a full-time business, how do you juggle work and find quality time with your family?
It has been tough, but what an adventure! From the very first month and until even now, we never knew what was going to happen each day. My eldest daughter just finished her junior year at Boston University in the US and my middle son is a full-time student at the San Francisco Ballet School. But my youngest son, who’s 13 years old, and my husband have had to adjust to less home cooked meals every day. I sometimes use www.foodcheri.com, which delivers your meal in 8 minutes flat – I timed them! They also sell my cookies as a dessert.
Will you share with us what you like to do best in Paris?
Nowadays, I have zero free time. But, I love rock concerts. I went recently to a rock concert with my dancer son, and my husband is passionate about rock music and festivals. I always listen to music when I bake! Sometimes I listen to classical music, but mostly it’s all rock and roll, and 80’s music !
I enjoy talking to people who come into my shop — everyone has a story to tell. When I come home I have to try hard not to dominate the conversation with all the interesting people I’ve met in my shop!
For more cookie tidbits consult Jean’s website: www.jeanhwangcarrant.com
Shop: 84 rue d’Aboukir 75002 Paris
Métro: Sentier, Bonne Nouvelle, Les Halles
Tuesday – Saturday, 9:30 am – 7:00 pm
Cookie price: 3,00 or 3,50€/cookie – 1,25€/mini