“Macarons only weigh a few grams, but that’s enough to leave your senses quivering with pleasure. Their thin, crisp shell, slightly rounded shape, tempting colours and tender interiors draw devotees to devour them with their eyes, and caress their smooth surface. Their flavours solicit the nose and, when one bites into that crisp shell, the ears tingle with pleasure and the palate is finally rewarded.”
There certainly is something quite special about those petite, colorful, and oh-so-splendid little French sandwiches called macarons. (These are not to be confused with coconut macaroons– totally different animal.) I felt it necessary to dedicate a separate blog post to writing about my macaron experiences on my recent trip to Paris, because they are that amazing. In Part I, I talked about all the other foods that I ate and the places I visited– please feel free to read if you haven’t already!
When I studied abroad in Paris during college (1999-2000), I had not yet developed an interest in baking, and I had zero awareness of the existence of macarons. (So tragic, I know…) I honestly cannot recall how I came to learn of them, but it happened sometime around 2009 or so– not too long ago, actually. I took a macaron-making class in 2011, which was fabulous, but I soon learned that they are very difficult to make and extremely temperamental! I haven’t tried them in quite a while, though they have constantly been on my mind since my trip, so I will be taking a refresher class this weekend and hope to be making them again soon…
Anyway, I am very grateful that macarons came into my life, and if you’ve never tried them, well… Let’s just say, I struggle to conjure the proper words to describe just how divine they are. I cannot emphasize how hastily you should run to the best French bakery you can find and get acquainted with these delicious treasures!
If macarons are new to you, prepare for your confectionary world to be rocked. Essentially, they consist of two meringue-like shells (usually made with almond flour) held together by a creamy filling, which in itself might not sound all that spectacular; however, they are truly more than the sum of their parts. They can be easily recognized by two hallmark characteristics: 1) the pied (French for ‘foot’) that forms while the shells rise during baking, which resembles a ruffle around the bottom edge, and 2) their bright colors, which generally reflect their flavor. The flavors of macarons that one may encounter range from basic vanilla and chocolate to all manner of fruits, liqueurs, spices, unusual combinations, and even savory ingredients. Bakers are constantly experimenting and creating new flavors, which is part of the fun of eating them!
I refer to macarons as “cookies” or “sandwiches” for lack of a better term in English. In truth, there is nothing quite like them in American baking, and any French person or macaron connoisseur would balk at calling them something as pedestrian as a… cookie! As pretty as they are to look at, the real magic happens when you take your first bite. Upon gently biting into a macaron, one encounters the delicate crispness of the shell exterior, which immediately gives way to the tender shell interior, which in turn melts into the smoothness of the filling… The sweet aroma that meets your nose is slightly intoxicating; it is an utter delight for the senses. Dear god, even writing about them makes me a little hot and bothered… Macarons toe the fine line between delicious treats and tempting aphrodisiac; they are at once prim and proper… and a little sexy. It’s not just me… right?! *crickets*
So, um, anyway… For those of you already familiar with macarons, you may have noticed that they can be made such that one might believe they are sweet drops bestowed from the heavens… or they can be made really badly. This is one of the worst pastry transgressions in my opinion, and yet, it’s all too common. Like the photo below (from a Paris holiday street market), poorly made macarons may suffer from any of the following misfortunes:
- Dry/overbaked shells
- Goopy/underbaked shells
- Filling texture problems (too runny or too stiff)
- Poor flavor
- Cracked/misshapen shells
- Lack of “feet” on the shells
- Sloppy macaron assembly/decoration
These are a mess. Problems may occur due to poor technique in making the batter, humid weather, oven temperature, inferior ingredients, lack of attention to detail, or possibly because your hair is combed wrong; it’s hard to say. Because macarons are so finicky, even professionals sometimes produce some pretty sad lil’ French macs. In Paris, I knew there were three places where I had to sample the macarons before leaving the city: Ladurée, Fauchon, and Pierre Hermé. These are pretty much the crème de la crème, if you will, of French macarons, and for good reason!
The first stop on my Parisian macaron quest was Ladurée. I first attempted to patronize their shop on the Champs-Elysées, which was beautifully decorated for the holidays, but that location had a huge line out the door, so I opted to go to the Place de la Madeleine shop instead.
This one was probably just as crowded, but I decided to go ahead and wait in line– I had to get my hot little hands on some macarons toute suite! The Ladurée shops are decorated in a very classic French style with soft colors and gold accents. Their window displays were probably my favorite of all the macaron shops: brown, gold, and green paisley holiday boxes dressed up with gold ribbon, Christmas “trees” covered in gold-painted macarons, and small stacks of chocolate macarons, all beckoning customers to look within at the decadent holiday treats.
Once inside, I gazed upon not only the impressive array of macarons, but also the spread of gorgeous petite gâteaux (cakes), tartlets, marshmallows, and pastries– my eyes must have looked like saucers! Meticulously wrapped holiday gift packages adorned the wall shelves and display cases. The macaron flavor varieties at Ladurée were both colorful and varied, with a decent mix of traditional and whimsical offerings.
Having visited the New York City Ladurée shop last summer, I knew that photos were not allowed… however, I had every intention of taking as many as possible until someone protested! I managed to take quite a few shots, and eventually one of the clerks said, “No photo!” No biggie, I had gotten what I came for: a sweet little box of French macarons and enough photos for this blog post. It was definitely worth waiting in the half-hour line… and it’s possible that I skipped out of the store. But I can neither confirm nor deny this allegation…
I settled on a box of eight macarons:
- 2 vanille (vanilla bean)
- 2 caramel à la fleur de sel (sea salt caramel)
- 1 chocolat (standard chocolate)
- 1 chocolat pure origine St. Domingue (single origin chocolate from Santo Domingo)
- 1 marron (chestnut)
- 1 saveurs de nöel (“Christmas” flavor)
I tend to like vanilla and caramel the best, hence the doubles. Predictably, both of these were absolutely *sublime*. As they should, the shells had a slight crunch upon first contact, and the interiors were velvety soft, almost melting into the filling.
I keep thinking I should love chocolate macarons, but I think I’m starting to accept the fact that they are not my favorite; the heavy chocolate flavor betrays the lightness of the macarons, in my opinion. (Maybe I just haven’t had good ones, but if they’re not good here, it’s hard to imagine better ones elsewhere…) The chestnut was okay, though not spectacular, and I didn’t care for the Christmas flavor, which was basically dark chocolate with cinnamon and some traditional holiday spices. I found it to be too heavy and dense. They also had several other flavors, such as citron (lemon), noix de coco (coconut), and réglisse (licorice– blech). In retrospect, I wish I had tried the guimauve bubble gum (bubble gum marshmallow), but I tried a similar one in New York and didn’t care for it, though it does sound promising!
My second macaron stop was Fauchon (also in the Place de la Madeleine), which has a wholly different look and feel than Ladurée. It is quite modern, with décor of sleek black-and-white with hot pink accents. Most of the holiday “decoration” was quite bright and abstract in design, in contrast to Ladurée’s more classical festive motif.
Unlike many specialty bakeries, Fauchon is a gourmet market (if you can even apply such a common descriptor to this place) that houses sweet and savory foods of all varieties. Their selection encompasses all things pastry, fabulous breads, artisan cheeses, charcuterie (cured meats), a deli, and a host of other foods. Every single item at Fauchon is a work of art. The individual cakes are perfectly displayed on tiny cake boards and lined up in the display case; the cheese wheels are stacked in neat geometric patterns, the baguettes are lined up like soldiers, standing at attention; the deli meals are packed in pristine boxes that are more suited for gallery display than lunch. And the macarons… they are carefully stacked in pyramids by flavor, each one perfect and even. I almost felt bad ordering them for fear of messing up the pyramids! (Okay, that *might* stem from my OCD pastry tendencies…)
I expected Fauchon to feature an haute attitude to go along with its haute cuisine, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that everyone who helped me was quite friendly and helpful, and no one hassled me about taking photos. I could have hung out there for a good hour exploring all the treats in detail, but I’m sure loitering is discouraged in such fine establishments. Here too, there was a reasonable mix of classic and creative macaron flavors, of which I purchased six:
- Vanille (vanilla bean)
- Caramel au beurre salé (caramel made with salted butter)
- Cassis (blackcurrant)
- Framboise (raspberry)
- Praliné (praline)
- Pistache (pistachio)
Some of the other flavors included marron mûre (chestnut-blackberry), fruits de la passion (passionfruit), and café (coffee), but these didn’t sound particularly appetizing to me. Once again, vanilla bean and caramel were the winners for me. I might even describe them as… transcendental. I clearly remember the aroma of the vanilla bean… *sigh* Fruit macarons don’t tend to be my favorites usually, but the cassis was quite lovely—sweet and tart, but not overpowering. It was also a beautiful, passionate shade of fuschia! The praliné was pleasant, but not especially memorable; the pistachio, I didn’t care for at all. I really wanted to like the raspberry, but I immediately detected notes of rose in the macaron, which is one of my least favorite flavors of anything, so that kind of ruined it for me. The raspberry element was wonderful, and it would’ve been most delicious without that wretched rose flavor! So this batch was hit-or-miss for me, although overall still very impressive. What I really wish I had bought is a little cake or pastry, all of which were stunning—too beautiful to eat, really. I was so focused on macarons that it didn’t even cross my mind to buy any other type of pastry, and in reviewing my photos later, I wondered quite out loud, “What was I thinking not getting cake?!” This is a definite must for next time… whenever that might be!
My third and final location was Pierre Hermé, purveyor of many beautiful cakes and treats; he is considered by many to make the world’s best French macarons. This shop is probably the most contemporary of the three that I visited, with its minimalist, black-and-gray glass décor. Holiday accents consisted of bold, bright orange displays.
Like Fauchon, these “holiday” artistic displays were rather abstract– not the traditional Christmas color scheme or style. Nevertheless, the shop managed to look festive, and I was hungry to see and sample the wares! Like the other shops, Pierre Hermé featured stunning little cakes and pastries, as well as copious packages of cookies and chocolates. As with Fauchon, I am still scratching my head as to why I didn’t think to purchase a tiny cake or tartlet. I did, however, buy a small box of very special little cookies: Sablés Diamant à la Vanille (vanilla sablé cookies rolled in sparkling “diamond” sugar). They are among my favorite things that I bought/ate on the entire trip– tiny vanilla gems made with some undoubtedly obscene quantity of butter. I can still taste them melting in my mouth… mmmm…
But back to macarons. I was initially disappointed with the flavor offerings at Pierre Hermé, because there were several rather unorthodox choices, such as chocolat et foie gras (chocolate and duck liver pâté– stunningly beautiful, but I’m not that adventurous), truffe blanche et noisette (white truffle and hazelnut), and réglisse violette (licorice violet– I want nothing to do with either of these). A couple of their other signature flavors are Infiniment Rose (Infinitely Rose… but we’ve already been over that), and Ispahan, a unique combination of raspberry, rose, and lychée.
Perhaps I should have been more open-minded, but none of these sounded remotely appealing to me. I do, however, regret not trying the Mogador (milk chocolate with passionfruit), which might have been a lighter, more pleasing chocolate. While I certainly appreciate creative baking and experimentation, I think sometimes bakeries take it a little too far in the spirit of pushing the envelope, at which point the finished product is far removed from the original version of that item. But this is, of course, just my opinion, and many people might find mushroom macarons to be utterly delightful! At any rate, there were very few traditional flavors, though they did thankfully have Infiniment Caramel (Infinitely Caramel, which was my cherished caramel au beurre salé). Whereas at Ladurée I struggled to choose *only* eight macarons, at Pierre Hermé it was hard to fill the small box of seven. I ended up choosing the following:
- 2 Infiniment Caramel (caramel made with salted butter)
- 2 Crème Brûlée (vanilla and caramel bits)
- 1 Praliné Noisette (hazelnut praline and crispy praline)
- 1 Infiniment Chocolat Porcelana (single origin Venezuela Porcelana dark chocolate)
- 1 PX (Pedro Ximénez sherry and steeped sultanas)
Although at first I was skeptical, as soon as I tasted my selections, the initial disappointment was gone. Now, I must preface this by saying that I didn’t get to eat this batch of macarons until the following day, so they were slightly dried out. Nevertheless, the caramel macarons were absolutely celestial– as in, delivered to this earthly planet on a silver platter by singing angels descended from the heavens. They possessed the perfect balance of sweet and salty, and the texture of the luscious caramel filling was exquisitely soft and creamy. My other favorite (and it’s hard to choose between them, really) was the crème brûlée. I’ve never had, nor even heard of, a crème brûlée macaron, and they actually didn’t look all that delicious with their speckled, grayish filling. However, they were rather spectacular– they had one vanilla shell and one caramel shell, which, combined with the caramel-esque filling, resulted in a macaron that truly tasted like crème brûlée! I believe there were teeny, tiny bits of burnt sugar in the filling, which is, of course, the same crackly topping that one finds atop a dish of crème brûlée custard. This is an example of how macaron experimentation can and does change lives.
I chose the PX macaron for lack of another flavor that I wanted to try, and it was a most pleasant surprise! The combination of Pedro Ximénez sherry and sultanas (a type of grape/raisin) resembled rum raisin– another creative win for Pierre Hermé! The chocolate was, again, not my favorite, and the hazelnut praline was tasty, but not especially amazing.
After examining and tasting macarons from these three French mac masters, I came to some conclusions. In comparing the “anatomy” of the macarons, I considered the following elements, all essential to macaron success:
- Flavor: Across the board, my flavor preferences run along the lines of vanilla/caramel for sure. Caramel was the only “control” flavor that I had at all three shops, and quite honestly, they were all fabulous. Next time, I would like to do a side-by-side comparison to flesh out the finer details. (Because, well, I’m a little
obsessivenerdy like that…) Also in general, I didn’t love any of the chocolate ones. I only tried fruity flavors at Fauchon, with mixed results. Furthermore, I’m coming to realize that nut flavors tend to be so-so for me– most were pleasant, but never created the same ecstasy as caramel.
- Shells: I declare Pierre Hermé’s macarons to be the most visually beautiful, including (especially?) the flavors that I didn’t purchase. All the shells were perfectly shaped and featured uniform “feet”. While the Ladurée and Fauchon macarons were mostly lovely, there were a couple of slightly cracked shells amongst them (though this easily could have happened in transport, which would obviously be my fault), some were a little misshapen or uneven, and overall, they were flatter than Pierre Hermé’s.
- Color: Again, Pierre Hermé takes the cake. Their colors were extraordinarily lush and vivid; even though I wasn’t enamored with some of the flavor choices, the colors were unparalleled in their creativity and enticement. They also decorate the macarons with painstaking attention to detail, as many are topped with luster dust or other tiny garnishes. Also, one of Pierre Hermé’s signatures is to use two different macaron shells, affecting both the flavor and visual effect. Sometimes they feature monochromatic color schemes (like the crème brûlée with its neutral-toned vanilla and caramel shells), and sometimes the colors provide striking contrast (like the purple and gray réglisse violette). Each and every Pierre Hermé macaron is truly a jewel to behold, a work of art to appreciate. Fauchon and Ladurée certainly offered some bright, pretty colors and decorations, but they didn’t quite possess the same passion or care.
- Shell-to-filling ratio: Yet again, Pierre Hermé wins here, hands-down. Every single macaron was stuffed with a smooth, plump layer of filling nestled between the two ruffled shells, which extended all the way to their edges. At Ladurée and Fauchon, I wouldn’t say the filling was lacking per se, but it was definitely a thinner layer, and in some of them, the filling didn’t cover every micro-millimeter of the shells to the very edges. And frankly, every micro-millimeter counts!
- Creativity vs. tradition: I would say that if you want something very original, artistic, and innovative, Pierre Hermé is the place for you. The combination of colors and flavors render these macarons adventurous and fascinating. However, if you prefer more traditional macarons, you may prefer Ladurée, while Fauchon lies somewhere in the middle. Both places carry fewer eccentric flavors and colors, opting for a more conservative approach. I’m having trouble choosing an overall favorite macaron place because they all make some pretty stellar ones, as well as some that were underwhelming. All three had strengths and weaknesses, so I suppose it just depends on your own personal macaron priorities.
I was so thrilled to have the privilege of running around Paris sampling pastries– this was truly a gift. I firmly believe that it is the baking capital of the world, and for me, French macarons are an integral piece of that confectionary magic. I found that these elite bakeries are Parisian institutions, and they truly blur the line between food and art. It was really special for me to explore this city that holds so many memories through the eyes of a baker– I think of it as “Research & Development”. Any time I have the opportunity to visit new places and sample baked goods, it informs and deepens my own baking experience, and I try to put into practice various techniques or other aspects of what I’ve learned in my travels. If you have the chance to visit Paris, I highly recommend taking the time to seek out some French macarons and other pastries of your choosing. Baking is a huge part of French culture, and I firmly believe that to experience and understand Paris, it is necessary to partake of this cultural element. Not that I really need to twist your arm.
Thank you for reading about my sugary travel adventures! I always enjoy visiting far-away places vicariously through others, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this (ridiculously long) two-part blog post. I am working on the final portion of my holiday trip chronicles: food in the “Land of Milk & Honey”– Israel! I will be posting soon, and I hope you’ll keep reading!
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.