At a recent red-carpet event in Music City, I had occasion to stalk a handful of celebrities and ask them what they eat when they're not basking in limelight or running from jock-sniffing reporters. The answers were surprising. At least for the beautiful people I interviewed, today's tour-bus grocery list comprises a healthy repertoire of whole grains, hummus and — most popular of all — almonds.
Nuts! So that's what it takes to get the luminous glowing skin of a crossover country-pop diva? In light of such nutritional hearsay, I started finding ways to bolster my diet with almonds of all varieties — sliced, slivered, blanched, crushed, toasted, roasted, smoked, Marcona, Spanish, skin-on, skinless, chocolate-dipped and cocoa-dusted — all in the name of high fiber and low carbohydrates.
For all my elevated almond intake of the last few months, my favorite vehicle is without a doubt, the macaroon. Not the sweet-and-stringy mounds of shredded coconut, but the French-inspired meringue-textured peaks of airy almond confection, glued together ever so decadently with a schmear of ganache. I even learned to make these macarons myself, courtesy of pastry chef Joanne Chang's gorgeous cookbook Flour. Factoring in ingredients, time and frustration, I calculated that my cookies cost about $45 apiece.
So imagine my delight when I learned that Hannah Lehner was churning out such labor-intensive gems, in multiple flavors and colors, at her jewel box of a patisserie in East Nashville.
"I love to watch people eat them," Lehner says, as she watches me slam three of the $1.50 cookies into my face in the span of a couple minutes. "Because it takes three days to make them, if you do it right." Gulp.
By the reckoning of the former ballerina-turned-baker, doing it right means starting with eggs from local Wedge Oak Farm in Lebanon, Tenn. Lehner separates the whites from the yolk and ages the whites for a day. Then she whips the whites and folds in blanched-almond flour and other ingredients. She pipes the meringue mixture into peaks on a cookie sheet and lets them rest for 40 minutes before placing them in the oven. There, she cooks them for four minutes, turns the pan, cooks them for two minutes, then two more minutes with the door open — possibly longer if the weather is humid. Next, Lehner joins two cookies with a layer of ganache and lets them rest for a day to soften the interior and infuse the flavor of the ganache into the shell. It's a formula Lehner and her assistant and childhood friend, Rae Ross, came up with after a year of experimentation, and the result is a crisp, plaster-smooth pillow that gives way to a chewy core.
The Almond Tree bakery, located in the retail and residential strip at the intersection of Porter Road and Eastland Avenue, looks like a pastry confection itself. Trimmed in pale buttercream yellow with chocolate-brown accents and adorned with handicrafts made with red-and-white pastry twine, it serves as both kitchen and showroom for the wedding cake business that Lehner owns with her husband Phillip. Meanwhile, a tantalizing array of pastel cookies and cupcakes lures loyal walk-in traffic, from merchants who work in the nearby retail shops to kindergartners who arrive clutching dollar bills in their tiny fists.
That was the scene on a recent summer afternoon, when Lehner and Ross were pulling apart warm chocolate cake to blend with cream cheese icing for a batch of so-called cake lollipops as a troupe of tiny customers arrived for their daily treat. The kids selected from cupcakes swirled with chocolate, pistachio and lemon buttercream. (Our favorite was the lemon cupcake, made with fresh citrus zest and filled with housemade lemon curd.)
After opening in November, Lehner still keeps a tightly edited assortment of sweets, which she describes as a blend of French pastries and the Southern desserts that her aunts in Mississippi taught her to make when she was a child. As the business grows, Lehner says she will ultimately expand the selection.
On our visit, the counter held simple sugar cookies with pristine white icing and intensely sweet cake lollipops dipped in dark chocolate imported from France and drizzled with a white-chocolate flourish. Deceptively modest chocolate chip cookies lived up to Lehner's promise of something extraordinary. Simultaneously crisp and chewy, the dark-bronzed cookies melted across the tongue with a buttery finish and a faint flash of salt.
Among Almond Tree's delectables, it is Lehner's French macarons that take the cake. (By the way, Lehner can make a cake from individual macaroons.) Piled in a pyramid under a glass cake topper, the two-ply cookies come in pastel hues of pink raspberry, green pistachio and cream-white vanilla, glued together with white chocolate ganache infused with raspberries, pistachio and vanilla bean, respectively. Flavors vary from day to day, and often include lemon and mocha varieties, with ganaches made of white and dark chocolates.
"Not many people have the patience to make them," says Lehner, a Mississippi native who used to dance ballet six hours a day before she got a job in a wedding bakery and never turned back. "When they see how much work is involved, they would just rather buy them."
The words are still in the air when Lehner's diminutive devoted clients arrive, piling out of their mother's car and pressing their hands and faces against the glass panels of the front door. She greets her guests warmly, then adds, "I can never seem to keep the windows clean. The door is always covered with fingerprints. And I couldn't be happier about it."
The Almond Tree is open noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.
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