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By Steven Li on 2006-06-11

June 11, 2006

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Many years ago in the summer of 2000, I took on my first “real” job. I was officially a REAL employee. It seems silly now, but I was beyond ecstatic to be employed as the Bakery Counter Girl at Ala Moana’s Saint Germain. I loved everything about the job – until I actually began working. You see, Saint Germain is hands down my favorite bakery in Hawaii. Even with nine locations around Oahu, their Japanese-French pastries and sweets are consistently right on par and delicious. No one in Hawaii does a better baguette. I imagined days surrounded by the glorious scent of warm sweet potato turnovers, orange chiffons and marron croissants. Afternoons would be spent offering recommendations on the dozens of petite cakes and mousses to happy customers. Everything would be so perfect.

And then of course, comes reality. The manager was a bitch. Ooops. A very mean person. She still works there if you’re interested. The skinny mean one with blue wire rimmed glasses. She must have harbored some bitter resentment towards something or someone because I never saw her smile. She took great pleasure in ordering poor minimum wage employees around, “Dust this! Pick up that crap! Clean my shoes!”…exaggerating a bit on the last one, but you get the idea. What drove me absolutely nuts was her OBSESSION with welcoming customers into the store. It started with simple instructions to say “Welcome to Saint Germain” when people walked in. That’s perfectly acceptable and I was quite willing to “welcome” people. But then, she started getting nitpicky. Everyday at work she, let’s call her Regina, would find something, anything wrong with the way I greeted people. First it was that I didn’t great loud enough. And then it was cause I needed to smile bigger. Then look the customer in the eye. Then she made me PRACTICE GREETING PEOPLE IN FRONT OF HER. As in practice saying, “WELCOME TO SAINT GERMAIN!” over and over again. It was ridiculous. I think we scared away more customers than we welcomed. Needless to say, I quit. And that was my rather brief stint in the real working world.

Though as a whole, the job wasn’t incredibly painful, it was just a bitter mean manager that drove me crazy. There were definitely little perks that kept a pastry hungry high schooler happy, like free pastries. And boy, did I take advantage of that. I paid my dues though, with an additional five pounds of body fat. The bakers were especially nice to me (probably because I enjoyed spending breaks doing the garnishes on the savory rolls) and would often keep aside baguettes for me to take home after my shift. Despite all that, I never want to be employed by Saint Germain for the rest of my life. But I still love their pastries.

My parents recently hosted a small barbeque party for some close friends. Dessert was an assortment of single serving side pastries from Saint Germain. No, I did not eat all six varieties alone! But I did have a good portion of each, hehe. Let’s start with the Strawberry Shortcake.

This is the Saint Germain classic. We had this for my first birthday cake. And second. And third. All the way until 10th grade (when JJ came out with his chocolate pyramid – but we’ll get into that on another post). The lightly sweetened cake is neither dense nor fluffy but floats somewhere between in a lovely cloud light world of heavenly butteryness. It is quite simple, layered with sweetened whipped cream and strawberries. With the right ingredients, technique and a touch of that Japanese flair for making European desserts lighter and more refreshing to the palate, the end result is sublime, a mellow, almost calming dessert. Soft cream studded with strawberries halves resting on a bed of pillowly, chiffon like cake. It’s no wonder I (and my mom, dad and sister!) have had the same birthday cake every year.

You’re looking at the Strawberry Mousse. A thin base layer of white cake is topped with a tower of airy, foam like mousse with bit of strawberries floating about. A finish of ruby red gelatin holds up an assortment of seasonal fruit. This was my least favorite, mainly because I found the gelatin cloying sweet, but the mousse itself had a light whimsical feel in my mouth. I tend to go for thicker mousses just because I never feel quite satisfied after finishing something that airy/foamy for dessert. I like light but also some substance. And creamy things. Oooh yeah.

It’s called Passion Fruit Mousse, but should be more appropriately named Tangerine Mousse. Similar in structure to the Strawberry version, I enjoyed this one more because the tart citrusy flavor stood out well and cut down the sweetness. The cool gelatin layer was light and lemony, as if you had a bite of soft lemon ice.

The Mango Cheesecake provides a fine example on the Japanese take on cheesecake. Everything is just a touch lighter and not nearly as sweet, both positive things in my book. A cake based with a fluffy/cakier version of cheesecake marked by tiny cubes of mango, it was pleasing but I think I’d rather head back to Panya when I’m craving Japanese cheesecake.

A classic tart crust filled with a thin vanilla cookie layer and a jiggly custard mountain. Lo and behold, it is the Kiwi Custard. The only element that make this dessert “Kiwi” are the four thin slices of the fruit surrounding the custard. The smooth milky custard with a slightly caramelized surface was perfect on it’s own but I felt it didn’t match at all with the tart shell and cookie filling. Maybe it’s just me, but when you want something to blend with a crisp shell and flaky cookie, you’d expect a soft custard that would complement the textures, not a firm, gelatin-like custard that stands up well enough on it’s own.

I’m afraid I didn’t save the best for last (cause that went first!) but I didn’t save second best for last! I looove dark chocolate. The more dark, more bitter, the more intense the flavor, the happier I am. :) And this baby delivers. A deep rich creamy sin of thick, regretfully, almost too sweet, chocolate mousse that seems to go again all conventions of Japanese desserts (it’s the evil baby we love!), the mousse is quite intense and a bite or two should be enough. But when the devil comes calling, turn away or go all out. And go all out I did, devouring this creation blanketed in a satiny smooth dark cocoa shell. Soft creamy, melty dark chocolate. Whipped, ganache – it all comes together in your mouth for a mingle and party in all forms chocolate.

Yes Saint Germain is delicious. Though I only featured cakes/desserts here, my main purchases include their baguettes, epis, ham rolls, ensemadas, marron croissants, chocolate amades, raisin walnut rolls, curry pan…and ooh boy, EVERYTHING! It’s all good, if not exceptional. Just steer clear of the muffins, which always taste like they tripled the sugar then gave it a sugar water bath after baking. And in the end, it goes to prove that though Regina drove me nearly insane (WELCOOOOOME TO SAAAAINT GEEERMAIIIN!!!), she did not kill my love for pastries and the bakery world. Cause if she did, ho man, that would make me angry! :)



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