I’ve been obsessed with food and fine dining since childhood when I used to pore through my mother’s copy of Gourmet and make horrific messes in the kitchen. Then, like today, I was always way better at cooking than cleaning and then, like today, I found that kitchen experimentation teaches life lessons.
I learned about materials and the joy of Sil-Pat when I stained my mother’s counters with a turmeric pastry dough for Caribbean Meat Pies. I learned why you can’t bake a layer cake in pie pans with a chocolate/banana “vol-cake-o” (so named because I piled the trimmings of the cake on top and let them explode over the sides). Most importantly, I learned that when your mother forbids candy in the house, you can still indulge your sweet tooth if you bake dessert for the whole family.*
When I went on junior year abroad to Paris, I was in food heaven and learned that when you’re in Europe with your dad’s credit card, you should eat up! I had croissant or pain au chocolat every morning from my local pâtisserie. As I was studying at the École du Louvre, I was able to go to Angelina, the famous salon du thé known for its divine, thick, practically perfect chocolat chaud and fancy pastries frequently but absolutely despised their most popular dessert: le Mont Blanc which was a mix of chestnut purée and whipped cream.
Study abroad in general is a time when it’s best to say yes as often as possible. It leads you to amazing wine tastings, South African rugby bars, sketchy men, and strange art galleries. However, for me, it led me to my first opportunity for professionally published work. While flipping through Time Out Paris one day, I saw a small ad that read “do you love to eat?” The ad went on to explain that Time Out needed restaurant critics — something I had done for the Williams College newspaper in spite of the very limited dining options in the Berkshires. While I wasn’t paid, Time Out would reimburse me for my meals and needed someone to write the new reviews for the Salon du Thé chapter.
I suddenly had an excuse to spend more time at Ladurée and Pierre Hermés while also hopping around the city and finding new pastry shops. I said “oui” to every carb, sugar, cake, cookie, sorbet, and chocolat chaud I could find. I ended up trying virtually every macaron flavor on the map as well as pastries flavored with roses and flecked in real gold fit only for a princess. Since Paris is a magical place, I was able to do all of this while still losing 20 pounds.**
In the last few years, macarons have gained popularity in the U.S. especially now that Maison du Chocolat, Pierre Hermés, and Ladurée all have establishments in New York and, moreover, I was able to find delicious ones at ACKC in DC. However, now that I’m in Michigan, what’s a French pastry-lovin’ gal to do?
I thought I found the perfect solution: a macaron making class at Sur La Table . You may recall I’ve shared experiences at cooking classes before, but was hopeful a baking class for a fairly challenging pastry would attract a different crowd.
Today’s lesson in the kitchen is that I have no future as a pastry chef. I found myself thinking way too often: this is way more trouble than it’s worth. You see, I’m an ambitious but lazy cook in that there are some things that are just easier to buy than make. I’m never going to spend a day making fresh pasta and I feel similarly about ice cream. I’m now adding macarons to that list. While not overly complicated, a lot of effort goes into producing a final product that, for what it’s worth is tasty but lacking the sophistication of the originals. The meringue based pastry is actually rather simple to make: egg whites, cream of tarter, and sugar brought to soft peaks, fold in almond flour, pipe into circles, let sit for a bit, then bake.
However, it’s just very finicky material: easy to let sit too long pre-baking, can’t use food coloring drops because that’s too much added liquid so you must buy food coloring gel, etc. Furthermore, the fillings are a reasonable amount of work and if you want any variety at all, you do need to make multiple fillings or multiple shells. The results were tasty, but I know myself well enough to know this is likely not a project I will repeat.
Sadly, more memorable than my below average cookies, were the other women in the group. Out of 14, nine were women who belonged to the same knitting circle led by a tall blonde named Beth. I won’t judge them for their lack of culinary knowledge (although if you don’t know how to fold in flour, you might want to re-think the class), but will judge them for mean girl antics. They insisted on going four and five to a table even though we were supposed to be three and four. Then, when my table produced the only decent trays of lavender cookies, Beth and her comrades seized them and filled them. They commandeered all of the fillings leaving the remaining two tables with one each and walked out of the class with 3x the cookies the rest of us had because one of the women brought her daughter and kept sending her to the back to get the cookies that had just come out of the oven before the teacher brought them to us.
Perhaps that’s the the thing that was ultimately missing from the experience: there’s something about entering a French bakery and seeing macarons displayed like jewelry and needing to respect the food and the venue. Parisian culture is that certain “je ne sais quoi” that takes a macaron from mere cookie to food of the gods.
*Or smuggle in Tootsie Rolls and hide the wrappers under the bed. Guess we now know how I got those 13 cavities…
**I’m typing this and wondering why I came back.