My macarons story
I’m pretty apathetic about being called a foodie. Even though I didn’t really enjoy cooking until a handful of years ago, in my late 20s, you could say I’ve been a foodie since I was 5 years old, demanding that the crusts be cut off my peanut butter sandwich before I’d even grace it with a glance. You could say it goes deeper than that, like knowing at the same age that you should twirl your spaghetti onto your fork to get a proper mouthful on it. Or even deeper, like knowing that a chilly, overcast day was best mourned with a bowl of homemade turkey soup. Even then, I recognized that a proper turkey soup needed shells and celery—it made as much sense as an orange’s being round. Everyone has those seemingly built-in tidbits of knowledge, though; everyone has their foodie traits. A lot of people think that being a foodie entails having some sort of higher knowledge about food, or eating only high end, or having an advanced palette. I disagree. I’d call anyone a foodie who was more than apathetic about food. I remember watching guys in college argue passionately about who had the best delivery pizza—national chain A or national chain B. Those guys were foodies.
But what is it for me?
For me, being a foodie is multi-faceted. Part of being a foodie means learning why ingredients do what they do when combined with other ingredients, or when combined with heat or cold. Sometimes, it’s Googling histories of why a dish is named a certain thing or why potatoes look the way they do or why cumin is used so commonly in both Indian and Mexican food. It’s finding new recipes that become old favorites, like the pot of chili I make regardless of the season or weather—sometimes every month for months on end. It’s remember how Mom used to make it and trying to recreate it, calling her up to walk me through, estimating what “some of this” and “a little of that” translated into when fumbling around with measuring utensils. Lately, a huge part of being a foodie is trying as much as I can, both in my own kitchen and in other peoples’ kitchens. It’s a lot of wondering—seeing, reading, or hearing about a food, and succumbing to a deep-seeded curiosity of what it tastes like.
I don’t remember the first time I saw a macaron, or even the first few times. I know those first few times were strictly in photos. Almost overnight, photos of them sprouted everywhere. I had to take notice. I made my brain separate the French macaron from the dry, crumbly, coconut macaroon I already knew I didn’t favor—such a horrible case of mistaken identity. I learned about the other ideas: pillowy meringue, almond flour dissolving on your tongue, complex creamy filling, and all this, in variety. I watched as instructions started to appear on food blogs I’d read, documenting the numerous failures suffered before the baker finally turned out a decent macaron. I started collecting good tips in my head.
My Advanced Pastry Arts chef-instructor told me he’d taught the Classical Desserts class how to make them, and I felt a little wretched for having taken the class a year earlier with a different instructor who spent very little time on any cookies at all. I asked eagerly if they were light inside with a crispy, yielding surface and if they’d developed the desirable “foot” when they’d baked them. He assured me that they had. I got excited—if the students in that class could bake them, then maybe I could, too! I was already starting to boot-kick memories of failed pavlovas and meringue cookies into the abyss and run home to start baking when he then added, “We don’t bake them at the F— (enter name of high-end resort where he keeps a day job)—they’re too too much of a pain in the ass.” I told him I wanted to try, anyway, and asked if the class had made its own almond flour. “Oh no,” another student who’d been in that class said, “we had to buy it—home-ground almond flour isn’t fine enough.” Bah. I’d turned almonds into roasted almond butter, fine genoise, and delicious almond paste—how bad could it be? Weeks later, I was still daunted. A big problem was not knowing what to aim for. I’d never eaten a macaron, and they weren’t like the common chocolate chip cookie, where you could fine them in every sandwich shop, bakery, or grocery store.
Then, in April, I was in Las Vegas for a daytrip to attend a friend’s wedding. Las Vegas, thankfully, is blessed with many patisseries branded with the names of skilled pastry chefs from around the country. RAD. The first thing I did was buy a package of five macarons from Payard. They were exactly what I’d imagined—the taste of almond, both light and teasingly crisp, landing on and then dissolving on my tongue before yielding to the settling of creamy, fruity or chocolaty filling. The tastes were great, but it was the almond taste combined with the texture that I kept returning to. Later, I stopped by Jean Pierre’s Patisserie and bought a legendary Ispahan—two big rose meringues surrounding rose cream, lychee, and a plump circle of raspberries to wall the cream in. And, to clinch it, it's topped with a sugar-coated rose petal. Yeah. This was no cookie. I couldn’t imagine Sesame Street’s furry blue beast gobbling these away, rose crumbs and raspberries flying everywhere. This was the type of thing you should eat with small, shiny, delicate silverware. Or, lacking that, do what I did—find a nice little nook overlooking the pool and gardens at the Bellagio, tuck your paper napkin over your lap, slide open the sturdy pink and brown dessert box, and remember to keep breathing while you take a bite of one of the best things you’ve ever wrapped your mouth around.
It was inspiration enough. David Liebovitz had a chocolate macarons recipe on his blog, and I decided on a non-chocolate version of that. I’d made almond meal for the Daring Bakers opera cake project the previous month, grinding the almonds with a little flour so it wouldn’t turn to paste. Everything else, I already had in my pantry. I went for it.
Aside from my overzealous piping (spherical macarons), I got what I was hoping for. Of course, while the taste and texture were there, the macarons’ sheer girth were . . . a challenge, and in the end, I decided to serve them “open-faced,” with a slice of strawberry on top.