In Paris this winter, with the weather seesawing between frigid and mild, I found myself baking with apples. I made pandowdy, twice. I made a few apple crisps, one with a gingerbread spice that I liked a lot. I made an apple tart that had a layer of applesauce and a pinwheel of sliced apples. And I made baked apples. Yet every morning, my husband, Michael, would go to the Circus bakery for a baguette and return with an apple pie. My feelings were hurt only until I took my first bite: The pie looked familiar, but it was different from what I was baking and different from what other Paris shops were baking too.
With its English-language name (which belies its broad multiculturalism), family-size sourdough breads and small selection of homey sweets, Circus is an outlier in a city that treasures polished patisseries. Youssef Louanjli, a Parisian by way of Morocco, has a knack for creating places that are as much meeting houses as food shops; the vibe is similar in Fragments, his cafe, and Cravan, his classic cocktail bar. The bakery’s name is a hat tip to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”; Louanjli is a lifelong fan. Not that knowing the name’s origin or even the name itself will help you find the bakery. Unless you’re familiar with the back streets of the Latin Quarter, getting to Circus can be its own little treasure hunt. There’s no sign to mark the bakery at No. 63 on the rue Galande, a narrow street that curves behind St.-Julien-le-Pauvre, one of the oldest churches in Paris, and comes out in the shadow of Notre Dame. There are no breads or pies in the mullioned windows. But get close, and the powerful aromas of spice and sugar, toasted flour, butter and coffee will pull you the rest of the way.
Like so many of Circus’s loyal customers, I’d go to the shop to buy its Scandinavian cardamom and cinnamon buns: yeast dough filled with a sugar-and-spice paste, rolled, cut into strips, wrapped around a baker’s fingers and then tied in a Viking-like knot. And I’d stay to watch the bakers work in the open kitchen. Then Michael came home with the apple pie.
The free-form pie looks like a cross between a generously filled open-faced American pie and a French galette. You can hold it in the palm of your hand, which might explain why Michael thought it was a one-to-a-person treat and just shrugged when Tobias Jadberg, Circus’s lead baker, sheepishly told him it’s meant for two. Like most pies, it has only crust and fruit. And while I thought I could figure out what made the filling so singular, I couldn’t puzzle out the crust’s distinctions. I tried to recreate the pie at home, and when I came up short, I was grateful to get a lesson from Jadberg, who arrived at Circus last fall after baking in his native Sweden, as well as in Copenhagen and London.
It turns out that the crust is an unorthodox mix of organic bread and whole-wheat flours. The recipe is profligate with cultured butter and stingy with sugar. The dough is made more workable by an overnight rest in the refrigerator, time for the flour to fully absorb the water, and more tender by the addition of cider vinegar, which you can smell as you’re mixing and rolling the dough but can’t taste when it’s baked. The dough rolls easily, cuts cleanly and folds like origami paper.
The crust, cut into a circle and drawn up around the apples, is sturdy and flavorful, flaky and equally important as the apples, adding another taste, a different texture and its own soupçon of drama to the dessert. The surprise here is the way the dough is folded around the fruit to create a five-sided pie, each side anchored by a corner formed by pulling the folds down and pressing them into the base of the pastry. Watching the bakers, I noticed how each one had her or his own way of crafting the pie, lifting the dough up around the apples, pinching the seams and sealing them. Each left a print like a hallmark, and all fashioned pies that, in the end, were beautiful. These observations reassured me: No matter how I shaped the dough, my pie would be good.
As for the filling, it was thoroughly and abundantly apple, often Golden Delicious, a variety more prized for baking in France than here. The fruit is sliced very thin and left unpeeled, adding more flavor, color and texture and making less waste. The startling part of the filling was what was missing: spice! No cinnamon. No allspice. No cloves. No ginger or any other flavoring that we Americans think of as pie spice. The filling tasted of only apples and lemon — so much lemon and zest that even though the pie was hearty and made in the season of mittens, it was refreshing.
Maybe it was this illusion of lightness that made a pie for two seem right for one. It’s good that this recipe makes three — Michael’s still not sharing.
Recipe: Apple Pie, Circus Style