It began as a New Year’s resolution. Frustrated by previous failed attempts at loftier goals—generate world peace or floss twice a day—lowering my expectations seemed like the best course. I would dedicate the year to becoming more French.
How difficult could it be? After all, I had spent most of my adult life in the Escoffier rank and file of professional kitchens, and family will agree that I am inherently wired with the attitude of doing what I want, when I want—trés French. I just needed some refinement. With a case of wine waiting in the wings, I ordered a language software program, loaded Serge Gainsbourg on my iPod, and planted myself in the kitchen with several well-loved cookbooks. I’m mad about boeuf bourguignon; I could eat a slice of tarte tatin twice a day if my waistline allowed; and I’d savor both a soufflé au fromage and crème caramel for my last meal on earth. But the object of my desire was the French confection known as macaron.
Not be confused with macaroon, the American cookie made with coconut and almond paste, macaron (pronounced mah-ca-ROHN) is the dainty sweet made famous by the Parisian patisserie Ladurée: two pillows of crunchy meringue veneer yielding to a moist layer of dreamy, smooth filling. I had become enamored with them during visits to New York City’s Payard (named after owner François Payard), the luxe sanctuary of the Frenchiest pastries this side of the Atlantic. Brightly hued, in an array of both classic and contemporary flavor combinations, my adoration quickly moved from shameless indulgence to expensive obsession. At upwards of $2 each, I would need my Francophile resolve and professional pastry chops to keep me in macarons.
Only four ingredients—ground nuts, egg whites, confectioners and granulated sugars—form the basic macaron, but it’s tricky to produce. Dedication and a willingness to accept an occasional failure are also key ingredients, even (and perhaps especially) for someone trained in pastry arts. Two batches and 85 cookies later, I celebrated mastering the art of macarons with a glass of Bordeaux. Humidity is meringue’s enemy, so unless your kitchen is air-conditioned, skip the summer months and purchase macarons from local bakeries. At Frieda’s Desserts in Madeira, Armin Hack’s pastry case gleams with bite-size jewel-tone buttons in 16 different flavors (mocha, red velvet, and pistachio are my faves), while at O’Bryonville’s BonBonerie, both the lemon curd and hazelnut filled with dark chocolate ganache are generously sized, texturally perfect, and not cloyingly sweet. You may know his authentic Belgian waffles, but Jean-François Flechet’s new line of macarons—27 flavors in rotation (Peanut butter and jelly! Tangerine! Black raspberry!)—is likely to give my wallet another workout. Now if only I could parlay personal care into billable hours. Mais oui, that would solve the problem.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue.