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Take a Taiwanese Pastry Chef, Add French Technique

The result is a bakery filled with both whimsy and classic style

October 09, 2002|SANDRA WU | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's called the "Wizard of Oz," no doubt because it is dusted in a delicate shade of emerald. It is a petite, refined cake--thin, pretty layers of pink, white and pale green--and it looks as if it came straight off the shelf of a glittering French pastry shop.

But one bite and you're not in Paris anymore. The layers are made of green tea mousse, red azuki beans in red bean mousse and vanilla cake, all sprinkled with green tea powder. It is subtly sweet, faintly herbal and unlike anything you've had before.

The cake is just one of many unusual pastries at R.J. Patisserie, a bakery tucked in a Hacienda Heights strip mall anchored by a 99 Ranch Market. The owner and pastry chef, R.J. Guo, combines classic French technique with an Asian sensibility and ingredients to create a stunningly beautiful array of cakes, cookies and other sweets.

There are mousses and genoises tinged with passion fruit and mangoes. Garnishes made from whisker-thin chocolate stripes, powdered sugar-dusted champagne grapes and swirls of Japanese chestnut paste. Each pastry is whimsically named, each a little work of art.

"I love beautiful things, and I like making pastries that are unique," Guo says.

Guo's "Mont-Blanc" has a vanilla cake base, lightly striped with chocolate, and is filled with Cognac-flavored chocolate cream. A noodley-looking mound of chestnut cream made from sweet Japanese chestnut paste and French chestnut cream sits on top. Perched on that is a carefully balanced strip of chocolate and a chocolate-covered espresso bean.

His "Tender Rose" cake is garnished with champagne grapes, white chocolate, strawberries and strawberry jelly. Its top layer is strawberry mousse, followed by a pistachio genoise moistened with an aromatic rose petal syrup. The next layer is mildly sweet white chocolate mousse with crushed rose petals, followed by another layer of soaked pistachio genoise.

Guo, 35, learned to make traditional Chinese pastries as a teenage apprentice in Taiwan. But it was later, while working at the Grand Hyatt in Taipei, that Japanese-style French pastries caught his eye. In Japan, pastry chefs often added Japanese touches to French pastries. Guo, enamored of these desserts, decided he would try something similar.

He came to the United States in 1999 at the urging of a friend who had worked with him in a bakery in Taiwan. Later that year, Guo opened his Hacienda Heights shop, and now he's scouting sites for another location closer to Los Angeles.

Guo's desserts are not overwhelmingly sweet--in keeping with the Asian style, he uses less sugar than Western palates are accustomed to. And Guo is picky about ingredients, which include imported-Belgian chocolate, French fruit purees, British tea leaves, Italian coffee and Japanese green tea. He even grows a few of his ingredients in his Rowland Heights backyard, including rose petals, mint leaves and rosemary.

"A great cake is 30% effort and 70% quality ingredients," Guo says.

The bakery also makes biscotti, souffles and a variety of cookies, including some distinctive shortbread cookies flecked with Earl Grey tea leaves. They look simple and ordinary, until you crunch down on one and get the haunting flavor of tea mingling with the sweet flavor of butter.

But the main focus of Guo's staff of seven is cakes--they make 500 to 600 of the dainty little cakes a day. They cost $2 to $3.75 each. Some of the shop's grander creations, such as sheet cakes, sell for as much as $240.

"I'm not much of a speaker," says Guo, who is more comfortable in his native Mandarin, "but I can really make cakes."

R.J. Patisserie: 1635 Azusa Ave., Hacienda Heights. (626) 810-6678.

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Earl Grey Cookies

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 35 minutes, plus 3 hours chilling

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon blanched whole almonds

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, cut into chunks, softened

1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon powdered sugar

3 1/2 cups cake flour

3 egg yolks, lightly beaten

1/4 cup Earl Grey tea leaves, crushed

Flour, for rolling

Make almond powder by grinding the almonds in a food processor until they become grainy like sand, about 30 seconds. Do not over-process or the mixture will turn into a paste. Set aside.

Beat the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed until it looks creamy, 1 minute, scraping the bowl once with a rubber spatula. Add the powdered sugar and mix on low speed until the sugar is just incorporated into the butter, 30 seconds. Scrape the bowl. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl occasionally.

Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, combine the almond powder and the cake flour.

Add half of the egg yolks to the sugar-butter mixture and beat until well incorporated, about 15 seconds. Beat in the remaining yolks.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture in 4 stages and mix on low speed until all the flour is well incorporated, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the tea leaves.

Cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. Take the dough out of the refrigerator and mix with an electric mixer on low speed until the dough is softened a bit and easier to handle, about 30 seconds. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into 2 (12-inch) logs, 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Slice the logs into 1/4-inch-thick cookies and place them 1/2 inch apart on baking sheets. Bake the cookies for 13 to 14 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. The bottoms of the cookies should look golden brown when done. Let the cookies stand on the baking sheets for 2 to 3 minutes before transferring them to a rack to cool.

85 cookies. Each cookie: 56 calories; 23 mg sodium; 14 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.20 gram fiber.

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