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.
“This is new in pastry shops,” he says of the popularity of verrines, though he introduced his emotions in 2001. But it was in the mid-'90s that chef Philippe Conticini says he started creating desserts in glasses. In 1999, he became consulting chef to Petrossian in Paris and New York, where he introduced Manhattanites to his tentations, or temptations, and emotions salees, savory emotions -- desserts served in coupes or glasses and filled with intriguing components both savory and sweet.
Among the many emotions Herme has in rotation are emotion satine, a passion fruit compote layered with orange segments, creme au cream-cheese and pate sablee; emotion vanille, with vanilla gelee, vanilla baba and a vanilla-flavored mascarpone cream; and emotion Ispahan, with a gelee of litchis and raspberries, fresh raspberries, a raspberry compote and a rose ganache.
A recipe for emotion exotic comes from his latest book, “ph10 Patisserie Pierre Herme,” in which an entire chapter focuses on emotions and sensations. (Sensations, which are also verrines, have more gelee and are offered in the summer, Herme explains, because they’re refreshing.)
Herme’s emotion exotic is a look at the architecture of a verrine. “There are a lot of steps, but it’s not so difficult” to make, Herme says. The first layer is a pistachio creme brulee, then comes a crisp, almond dacquoise cookie, next a “salade” of pineapple accented with cilantro and Sarawak pepper, then another cookie and a layer of coconut tapioca; at the very top is a disk of white chocolate. The pineapple looks as if it’s magically suspended between the two thin cookies.
Dig into it with a spoon, and you come up with an amazing array of flavors and textures, the creaminess of coconut pudding studded with chewy tapioca, the crunch of almond cookie, refreshing pineapple and the deep, almost sweet note from the Sarawak pepper, and finally the velvety pistachio creme brulee.
It’s worth going through all those steps to make it. (We’ve adapted and simplified it, substituting a simple tuile for the dacquoise cookie and eliminating the white chocolate disk.)
Chefs might tend toward the elaborate, but a verrine offers the perfect opportunity to experiment in one’s own kitchen. “Maybe one with carrot puree and an emulsion of arugula with a little cumin and curry,” suggests Sensing’s Van Peteghem. “Or fresh berries with white chocolate mousse and a berry coulis.”
Salad in a glass
The French cookbooks include versions such as one with sable cookies and lemon curd or another with eggplant “caviar” with ricotta and coppa. Even a favorite dish can inspire one: A simple Italian salad becomes a verrine with layers of slow-roasted tomatoes, burrata and pesto, with a garnish of crisp prosciutto. Or butterscotch pudding, a wafer cookie, chocolate sauce and whipped cream.
Meanwhile, French chefs have brought verrines with them to Las Vegas.
At L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, diners sitting at the counter get a peek into the kitchen, and general manager Emmanuel Cornett says they’re often intrigued by a verrine called l’oeuf en cocotte, an egg steamed in the glass on top of a parsley puree. Once the egg is cooked, it’s topped with sauteed mushrooms and a mushroom foam.
“People are often pointing to it and asking, ‘Oh, what is it?’ ” says Cornett. “I hadn’t heard the word verrine. I called it layered things in glasses.”
One of the signature dishes at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas is a verrine, one that Savoy calls “colors of caviar.” The first layer is caviar suspended in a vinaigrette, topped with creme caviar, a puree of haricots verts, and finally a sabayon of golden osetra caviar from Iran.
“We play with the different tastes,” says executive chef Damien Dulas, “like the acidity of the vinaigrette with the softness of the cream and sweetness of the French bean. We tell people not to eat just one layer by one layer but all layers at the same time. They’re all complementary.”
He says special attention is paid to the types of glasses that are used, such as double-walled insulated Bodum glasses or handblown glass from Poland. He serves an amuse with cauliflower puree, layers of pink watermelon radish and jicama diced into a brunoise, toasted bread crumbs tossed with herbs, hazelnuts and diced cauliflower, with an emulsion of mizuna on top.
To date, only a few verrines have been spotted in Los Angeles. Chef Christophe Eme at Ortolan has done a few; one has layers of pureed potato, ratatouille of escargot, chorizo and a lettuce emulsion.
There’s another at Opus. “I didn’t know what it was called,” says chef Josef Centeno. “I was inspired by a dessert panna cotta,” he says of a tiny verrine he serves as an amuse -- celery panna cotta, celery root puree and pureed Okinawan purple potato with tonburi, the dried seed of broom cypress (also known as land caviar).
“Each layer is a different temperature,” he says. “The panna cotta is chilled, the celery root puree is at room temperature, and the potato is warm, because the flavor of each layer is best at each of those temperatures.”
“The temperature is very important in some verrines,” says Sensing’s Van Peteghem, “because the temperature is directly related to the flavor and the texture. It’s an unconventional way to serve food, but it’s important to use tastes that balance each other,” that hold up to each other. “Each [verrine] has its own story.
“They are an elegant miniature,” he says. “This is the fashionable side of cuisine.”