Musings of a macaron-maker

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Rose.lychee.raspberry

I think I’ve made it no secret which creation of Pierre Hermé happens to be my favorite. I think his Ispahan fetish remains to be his most popular too. He originally developed the recipe at Ladurée with just raspberries and a rose cream. I believe he added the lychees when he already had his own pastry boutique. Ispahan is the name of a rose also known as Rose d’Isfahan. Isfahan is a province in Iran although I am not sure there is any correlation except in the name alone.

Macarons are growing in popularity in the United States. I’ve seen a definite uptick in interest here in Richmond, Va. These French confections as wedding favors appear to be a hot item nowadays and who doesn’t like delicious edible parting goodies. Though still getting confused 95% of the time with the less glamourous homonymous macaroon, I think it is slowly creeping into the consciousness of the masses, okay maybe, in the trend-conscious crowd.

Not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. I somehow want to keep its “exclusivity” but how are we going to make money at Petites Bouchées if we don’t spread the macaron love, right?

Anyway, with its surging popularity there have been several articles of how macarons are becoming the next cupcake. There’s also been several social media quips about how making macarons are easy or how macarons aren’t all that or some elitist lambasting 95% of the blogsphere for giving macarons a bad name by making them too popular.

When I first made macarons successfully, I remember them tasting a tad too sweet. I started with Stéphane Glacier recipe and then I also looked at Gerard Mulot’s. I wanted mine to taste less of a meringue, so I lessened the confectioner’s sugar and added more almonds. Most people who has had my macarons (and are not familiar with what they are made of) couldn’t believe that they have no flour in them. But because my macarons have more almonds , they get bumpy sometimes which annoys me but taste to me is more important and so I learned to live with it.

Being in business selling macarons can be very stressful. If your customer is a big fan of this petite sweet you are constantly being compared to the greatest patisseries of Paris. I’ve had great feedback of how my macarons taste better than Ladurée’s or are comparable. But I’ve also had to deal with negative comments. It’s all part of the business, you can’t please everyone. Macarons are prone to being mishandled once they leave your hands. For example, leave them out in 90F weather in your car & your buttercream might morph into something else. But you never tell a customer they have not stored it right, just make sure that you give them proper information when they take their macarons home.

I’m the first to admit that my macarons can never be better or comparable to Pierre Hermé’s simply because the man is one-of-a-kind, effing brilliant. But even he has had problems with customer satisfaction. He said he was frustrated about customers complaining about the buttercream fillings because they eat them straight out of the refrigerator so he had slowly gotten away from buttercream and had been developing rich, luxurious ganaches that never crystallize too much when refrigerated. His macarons are built with a science of their own.
But the biggest reason why my macarons can never achieve the exalted stature of Herme’s is in the almonds. Valencia almonds to be exact. I have made them both with my regular blanched variety and with the Valencia almonds I brought back from France. Big difference. The shells are fuller and are so perfectly round with the latter. Valencia almonds can be ground very fine without being greasy. Phooey for me, right?

So instead of crying about it, it’s best to work with what you have and make your macaron your own. My standard chocolate macaron does not taste like a macaron at all because the shell never gets too crisp with cocoa powder. I have adjusted it so it’ll have the crisp shell but when I got a new batch of cocoa powder – same brand – it all changed again. How do I fight that? I don’t, I continue to make it and it may get a tip or get too thick but it still remains to be my second most popular flavor.

For me, it is better to get a tip from undermixing because you can flatten it with a wet finger but if you overmix it, there is no coming back from that and your batter will spread unevenly when piped and be very flat.

Macarons are finicky. Unless you work in a climate-controlled room and have control of all your ingredient sources, you can never predict how they’ll turn out. But the more you make them – the more you’ll understand them and you can make adjustments accordingly. Right now I am using the French Meringue method more than the Italian Meringue, but that may change eventually as I get busier and conservation becomes an issue.
 

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My macaron posts are the most popular on this blog and I am working on a redesign to make it easier to navigate, which will include videos and different experiments. I’m also working on a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page on macarons. I have received dozens of emails with macaron questions and most of them are the same problems with a little variation mostly to deal with humidity in other countries. Though most of the answers are scattered across different posts, I think it’s time to put them all in a comprehensive format which I can add to as more queries come in. It’s hard for me to go through all those emails again, but if you would leave a question for me in the comment section, please do so and I would use this to build my FAQ page. Also what part of the video would you want me to focus on, 90% of me thinks it’s macaronage. Thanks!

Also check out MACTWEETS, a wonderful monthly event hosted by Deeba of Passionate about Baking and Jamie of Life’s a Feast, there’s a spicy roundup of lovely macaron creations from around the globe.

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Paris – it’s a love-hate relationship…

…mostly love, actually :)

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A view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero

So we ate…a lot, but we walked a lot too. In fact, I’ve never walked so much in my life. I shall spare you most of my sightseeing pictures as I’m sure that there are more than enough travel blogs that cover this, but I think it is my duty to tell you about my adventures in Paris in relation to food.

I didn’t prepare too much. In fact I did not make an itinerary or reservations at any popular restaurants at all. Since sightseeing, getting together with "Hungry" Hubby’s aunt and his friend are priorities, we needed to play it by ear. From past experience, after spending the entire day walking everywhere, the last thing you want to do is to dress up and sit down to a 10-course meal.  What I did do was to make sure that I knew how to buy macarons and tarts in a pastry shop and my good friend Helen helped me brush up on my French (I took French language lessons from her over a year ago). She also recommended the restaurant where I had one of the best meals of my life…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

My first day in Paris was marred by an embarrassing incident at the Paris metro. Taking Helen’s advice to take the RER B and skip the 50 € cab fare from Charles de Gaulle to the 6th Arrondisment, I think she did not realize  we had 3 huge suitcases, which was fine for the RER but the Paris metro was a different matter. I went ahead through the composter (the machine that accepts your ticket and the portals or turnstile let you through) but I was not quick enough and  was horrified that the jaws of the machine clamped down on my suitcase! HH, who was struggling with the 2 bigger suitcases saw my predicament and heaved from the other side to pry my suitcase free but not after an earnest struggle and a lot of stares from les Parisiennes.

We did get to our hotel without further incidents but became embarrassingly aware of our awkward burden as we passed more experienced, well-traveled Parisians pulling their dainty suitcases behind them. Our concierge conversed well in  English, and to our pleasure we were upgraded to a junior suite for the whole of our 12-day stay. Yipee!

When we got to our room, it was gorgeously appointed with luxurious silk drapes but our awe was short-lived once our American-sized suitcases filled the room and every inch of available space diminished. It had a gorgeous bathroom and an Elchim blow dryer – wow no cheesy Sunbeam blow dryer here. Bathtub was also lovely but not very friendly to take showers in. Ahh…the Parisians… they want nothing "pas jolie". Extra hooks to hang towels and toiletry bags would have been useful, but I guess they were "pas jolie" too.

Anyway, you are all here for the food, right?

I think the biggest misconception I had about Paris was regarding its coffee. The only French-press I saw was an antique and was not in use.  When we were in San Francisco at La Boulange, they served our coffee in a bowl and HH exclaimed that his Uncle in Paris prepared it that way every morning. So imagine my disappointment when I was served coffee in an espresso-sized cup – their café . I attempted their watered down version called café allongé but my face below says it all.

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not a drinkable cup

No wonder, there is an abundance of Nespresso boutiques in Paris. Even Parisians can’t drink their own coffee! Through sheer tenacity, we finally did find a great cup of coffee at Malongo Cafe (and I do mean great).

Okay let’s start with the best Macarons and overall Pastry.

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Pierre Hermé on rue Bonaparté

Sorry Ladurée fans, but Pierre Hermé simply blows everyone out of the water. I visited Ladurée’s tea room and had one of the most ordinary chocolate eclairs of my life.

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Tea at Ladurée

I also visited Ladurée’s boutique and was met by a pouty salesperson who treated me like I was scum as though if I touched anything on display I would contaminate it. So, uhm I was wearing a hoodie and did not look like I was dressed for high tea but I visited Pierre Hermé in the same outfit and they were cordial, helpful and extremely professional.

I did not let this prevent me from trying Ladurée macarons on another day. Sorry, but I can’t understand the hype. They were not good. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.

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Laduree Macarons

In fact, I liked the macarons of Sadaharu Aoki and Gerard Mulot better than the Ladurée. Aoki’s matcha millefueille and Mulot’s canelé were also very good.

So why does Pierre Hermé rule (rock!)? Vivid taste, balance of flavor, luxurious ganaches. His white truffle macaron was sublime but I really loved his macaron Chuao – a macaron with single origin chuao chocolate infused with cassis (black currant), that also had pieces of the fruit in it.

At this point I realized that several of you are already up in arms for my remarks about Ladurée. The concept of how a macaron should taste is wide and varied and it’s all a matter of preference. I do not like shells that taste obviously crunchy. I like my macarons to have a shell that my teeth would not have a problem with. I like a macaron where I do not have to guess what its flavor is from the rest of the group. That said, the macarons made by the hands of Pierre Hermé and his assistant were still the best, so there is an obvious loss of vision in the end product when it gets pushed to production. The difference seems to be the outer layer. The egg-shell thin outer layer gives an audible snap that does not reduce to crumbles in your mouth. More about this in another post.

We took a selection of pastries back to a friend’s house for dinner.

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Clockwise from top: Vanille tart, hazelnut ?, Coffee tart, Chuao tart ->my favorite

Hubby cannot shut up about the coffee tart and wants me to reproduce it.

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Ispahan gateau – I had a smaller version of this back at the hotel
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More macarons at Pierre Hermé boutique

Best Duck Confit?

Chez Dumonet it is.

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Unbelievable Crisp Skin!
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Yes, that’s a thick slab of foie.

I’ve had good confit at a chain restaurant called Chez Clements too, in fact the taste of the meat was a bit better, but did not match the skin crispness of the Chez Dumonet one. I had a bad duck confit at another establishment, but I won’t say where since it is a historic restaurant. But I must say my own duck confit would give them serious competition, actually HH said in terms of flavor mine was still the best. :)

I wonder if Chez Dumonet deep-fried their confit leg?

So let’s insert something else I hate about Paris and would be a reason why I might not survive there. The wine, I just cannot take the wine. I know there are a lot of French wine lovers but I truly love Napa Valley wines. All I can say is, watch the movie "Bottle Shock".

So who had the best Hot Chocolate?

This is tough – the best le chocolate chaud. But I gotta hand it to La Maison du Chocolat. Its hot chocolate was thick and bitter yet glides smoothly  down the throat. A close contender was Angelina and Patisserie Vennoise – both these places get very packed so be prepared to wait.

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Angelina hot chocolate
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Watch out for the buses when you step out of this cafe

A chain called Le Deux Maggot also serves a decent hot chocolate. Stay away from the shops that have their hot chocolate in a swirling machine or you’ll get something akin to Swiss Miss.

My favorite place involves the kitchen shops. HH’s friend had us take bus #85 with him so we can see Paris from above ground. We got off at the Etienne Marcel stop.

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The historic cookware store, E. Dehillerin
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Can I say, hold on to that credit card?
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More Stuff

It can be real confusing when you get into this store. Most of the prices are listed in a book and you have to look it up with the item number stuck to the product. Someone actually followed me around and told me the prices of each, I felt a bit hurried but the salesperson was nice enough. I managed to get out of that store without having to take out a 2nd mortgage but I did leave with a very nice copper jam pot which HH later hauled all over Paris. :)

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Mostly haute pastry stuff here

Another kitchen store is Mora. It looked like it was manned by a couple hoity-toity pastry students. One of them yelled at HH for taking a silicone mat off an induction burner. Good thing HH’s friend was with us and he told off that dude in French which translated to " If you do not like working here, go home". Score one for the tourists. Yeh!

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Great ingredients here!

When we got to G. Detou, I had to mentally compute how much luggage room we still had. Shelled Iranian pistachios, plump vanilla beans, foie gras paté, canned duck confit, Valrhona chocolate packed to the ceiling what more can this girl ask for?

Why can’t we have a store like G. Detou in Richmond, Va? Shall I open one? :D.

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Butcher shop

My most favorite street in Paris is rue Montorgueil not too far from all the kitchen stores above. Now this is the kind of neighborhood I would love to live in. A neighborhood butcher shop, hubby refused to take a picture of the dead bunny on the display window (what happened to investigative reporting?)

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A fish shop

And home to the historic Stohrer Patisserie.

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A breakfast at Tiffany’s moment, instead of jewelry – food!

HH’s friend is a fan of Paul a boulangerie/patisserie that was further up the road.

Which reminds me, one thing I love about Paris is that everyone had great baguette. Even the shittiest tourist joint serves great bread! Unlike croissants which HH and I swore off after having them for a few days for breakfast, the smell and taste of bread is a constant welcome encounter.

One of the things I hate about Paris that could give any tourist heartburn is their constant strikes. When we were there, some museums were on strike. But the worst of all was the transportation strikes. Two days before our flight home, the taxis went on strike. I felt sorry for a guest at the hotel who had two kids (thankfully one was a teenager) who had to drag her suitcases around Paris looking for a cab to take her to the airport because the concierge couldn’t find her a taxi. Then on the day we left, the RER went on strike and that cost a bit of traffic too.

But you gotta love the Paris Metro (when they are not on strike). It can get confusing at first, but after a few tries that’s all you need to get around Paris. In fact, because of the taxi strike we decided to just take the metro to L’Ami Jean and it was easy-peasy…

…. and where I had one of the best meals of my life!

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That’s Chef Stéphane Jégo the genius of Basque cuisine

The interior was unassuming, I love the homey feel with ham hanging from the ceiling and football (rugby?) paraphernalia on the wall. Amusingly enough the cuisine is Basque not French. The menu was, despite my passable restaurant French, totally alien and all I understood was langue de veu (veal tongue) and lapin (bugs bunny). Our waiter spoke English (thank goodness) and he rattled down the menu in the language we understood.

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Pumpkin soup

I am not a fan of foamy dishes (visual yuck!) that seem to be popular nowadays with haute cuisine but this soup absolutely transported me to heaven with every creamy spoonful.

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Veal tongue

If there was a dish I wish I could savor forever, it was the braised veal tongue. I loved the texture but the flavor was just an assault on my gastronomical senses. It was hard to describe, heck I didn’t even know what was in it.

For dessert I had riz au lait. The waiter proclaimed it the best in the world. I took his word for it and it came in a big bowl enough to feed four people. It was pretty good but nothing as sublime as the hubby’s apple tart!

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Apple tart with granny smith ice cream

I was beginning to doubt that Paris could make an edible apple tart, I’ve had quite a few in several places and all of them were so tasteless I could only think of Helen’s remark about how most pastries in Paris are bland.

But this, this was perfect! I had a bite (okay 2) and this was second to the best apple tart of all time.

BTW, you get a better deal when you order entrée+plat+dessert. For our three course meal plus 2 glasses of wine, this fantastic dinner only cost 91 €, a bargain in Paris. The food here is haute comfort food!

Other notable eats were at Le Comptoir du Relais, Chez Christine and other brasseries and bistros but this post is already so long, maybe HH can cover them at his Hungry Hubby website (if he starts updating it again…slacker!) including the time when we asked for ketchup for our moule frites. :) Also, lest I forget the touristy Fouquet’s, where I had the most expensive bottle of coca-cola ever, 8 €, you can be sure I savored every drop of that soda from the bar till the end of our late lunch.

We’re at the home stretch, how can I not mention ice cream at Berthillon?

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Tarte Tatin with Vanilla ice cream at Berthillon

The ice cream was incredible, the Tarte tatin was not and was an example of a bland dessert. Do not be fooled by the beautiful caramelization. Here’s a view of the elegant interior of this famous ice cream shop.

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Berthillon

Along this stretch of road on Ile st. Louis is an amazing foie gras shop!

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foie gras galore!

I so wanted to bring home a couple of jars but HH was feeling icky of stuffing it in our suitcases. The guy did say he had U.S. customs clearance forms and I should have listened to my stomach this time instead of my Mr. Pasteurized Hubby.

This is in no way an expert’s guide to Paris. On the contrary, HH and I were a couple of wide-eyed tourists as any tourist can be on their first time in Paris. We were lucky that HH’s aunt (did I mention she lived a couple of doors up from Mariage Freres near Hotel de Ville) and his friend showed us a couple of places we probably wouldn’t have gotten off the internet without specifically looking for it. We love the architecture, we love the food and the bread! We just loved the walking and the metro! The only time we used a taxi was when we left for the airport to come home – with four suitcases.

If you are planning a trip to Paris, I suggest you read David Lebovitz  book "The Sweet Life in Paris" and website for great recommendations on places and how not to piss off the Parisians. :D And luckily, David had a book signing while I was there.

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The photographer should have told me my book was facing the wrong side!

And I found this map indispensible, Streetwise Paris. I also had the book "Hungry for Paris" by Alexander Lobrano. I did not use it much but it was no fault of the book, simply my unfamiliarity of Paris. Now that I have an idea of how Paris is oriented and have done most of my sightseeing, the next trip will be planned around eating.

Until then,

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Au Revoir!

Some notable addresses:

Pierre Hermé – 72, rue Bonaparte

Ladurée – 16, rue Royale

Sadaharu Aoki – 35, rue de Vaugirard

Gerard Mulot – 76, rue de Siene

La Maison du Chocolat – 52, rue Francois 1er

Angelina – 226, rue de Rivoli

Chez Dumonet – 117 rue de Cherche-Midi

L’Ami Jean -  27, rue Malar

Berthillon – 29-31 rue Saint Louis

G. Detou – 58, rue Tiquetonne

Mora – 13, rue Montmartre

E. Dehillerin – 18, rue Coquilliére

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My prized copper jam pot that the hubby hauled for a day in Paris

* All the pictures were shot with the Panasonic Lumix, LX-3, a great camera to take on a trip! The picture of the Tarte Tatin and most of the outside pics were unretouched. Pictures are best viewed in the lightbox just click on the picture to open the lightbox.