ENTIRE cookbooks are written about them, glossy magazine spreads are devoted to them, home cooks blog about their addiction to making them, clamoring, "I have caught the bug!" or "I could not stop thinking about them...."
Chic patisseries in Paris -- including Pierre Herme, Jean-Paul Hevin and Fauchon -- showcase them, and prominent French chefs such as Guy Savoy, Yves Camdeborde and Helene Darroze put them on their menus. A pretty, tiny one might come with your aperitif, or it might be the last dazzling thing you see on the table at the end of a meal.
But what are they? They're called verrines. You haven't heard of them? Well, most American chefs haven't, either. A verrine is an appetizer or dessert that consists of a number of components layered artfully in a small glass. (The word verrine refers to the glass itself; literally it means "protective glass.")
Intriguingly composed, they're a study in textures, flavors, colors and temperatures. A beautiful glass might be filled with a layer of mushroom flan, sauteed wild mushrooms, a julienne of prosciutto, parsley gelee, wild mushroom emulsion and topped with a potato and prosciutto galette. Another will have clementine and mint syrup, fresh clementines and a gingerbread "crumble."
American chefs are just starting to catch on to the verrine. But in France it's a culinary trend that's captured just about everyone's imagination -- including home cooks. Several cookbooks about verrines have been published in France, with titles such as "Manger Dans un Verre" (Eating in a Glass), "Un Plat Dans un Verre" (A Dish in a Glass) and, just out this month, "Divines Verrines."
If you subscribe to the idea that starting with an impressive appetizer and ending with a splashy dessert guarantees that dinner will be fabulous, then verrines are ideal for entertaining: They have sparkle, they have flair, and you even assemble them ahead of time.
Meanwhile, in Paris, they're hotter than ever among chefs. "At the moment, we see things served in verrines everywhere," says Kirk Whitlle, pastry chef at Michelin two-star restaurant Helene Darroze.
Nearly all the desserts in the restaurant's Le Salon are verrines. One has layers of bay leaf-flavored panna cotta, Mara des Bois strawberries, lemon gelee, lemon crumble and strawberry sorbet. Another has salted caramel ice cream, chocolate-cumin tuile and Madong chocolate cream.
Haute bistro fare
THEY'RE big too at the 6-month-old restaurant Sensing in the 6th arrondissement. The place is gleamingly hip, with its long alabaster bar and clouds projected on the walls. Michelin-rated three-star chef Guy Martin took over the space, transformed it into a modern bistro and installed executive chef Remi Van Peteghem, formerly of Lasserre and known for his modern French dishes.
Van Peteghem says he started creating original verrines at Sensing four months ago, serving some in delicate glasses with inclined bases "like the Leaning Tower of Pisa."
On his "Le Snacking" menu is a savory verrine of what he calls a bavarois of foie gras with a Port gelee and an emulsion of Jerusalem artichoke, for which he uses a soda siphon to achieve the right texture. Another starts with a layer of scrambled egg yolks, then a puree of Jerusalem artichoke, topped with a crispy piece of walnut bread. "Like an oeuf a la coque story," he says, referring to a soft-boiled egg served with mouillettes, which are pieces of toast meant for dipping. On his dessert menu is the clementine and mint verrine.
"There is no limit to the number of layers, but I like to work with just a few to respect the identity of each flavor," Van Peteghem says. "The customer should always be able to recognize and know the difference between the layers. Odd numbers look better as a composition."
"I started using verrines 20 years ago," says Paris-based three-star chef Guy Savoy, who also has a restaurant in Las Vegas in Caesars Palace. "My childhood prompted me. I saw in those verrines all the desserts of my childhood -- chocolate mousse, rice pudding, creme caramel," dishes traditionally served in glass coupes.
Step into a Pierre Herme shop in Paris, and you'll see glass pastry cases filled with rows of elegant verrines.
"Verrine -- it sounds like terrine. I refer to them as emotions. Very French," says master patissier Herme. "I am interested in the architecture of desserts, in tastes and textures and senses." Herme says he developed many of his emotions from other desserts, translating them from his elaborate cakes.