People first go to Paris for its clichés: climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower, losing an afternoon people watching on the terrace of a café, listening to an accordion player on the steps of the Sacré-Coeur, wandering along the Seine, getting lost in the Louvre. These are all great getting-to-know Paris activities, but as with anywhere you get to go several times, gradually you find your off-the-tourist-trail favorite spots: your favorite bakery, bistro, street, park or arrondissement.
I have to say that I’m not objective at all about Paris; I’m literally in love with the place for its qualities and its faults (that’s true love, isn’t it?). I can’t wait to go back there again (soon, soon), and in the meantime, I dream about my favorite things in the City of Light: wandering in the Jardins du Luxembourg early in the morning just after it opened; sitting on the steps of the Église Sainte-Madeleine, nibbling on some snack I just bought at Fauchon; grocery shopping at La Grande Épicerie; and eating macarons.
Before I first went to Paris in 2005, I had vaguely heard about these “cookies” that you supposedly ate very fashionably while having tea at La Durée (this is one of Paris’ clichés). While I was curious to taste them, they didn’t figure on top of my to-do list during my five-day cross-Atlantic trip there. I did go to La Durée, squeezed myself up to the counter, gasped at the price of these little wonders, and bought three, which I shared with E. I loved them, but the experience was so brief that I bookmarked it in my head as something I’d have to investigate further on my next visit.
Since then, I have eaten more macarons than I can count, starting with the more classic and famous ones at La Durée and Fauchon, through those you find at pâtisseries throughout the city – which I don’t recommend. Macarons are a specialty and must be made by those who take them seriously (that’s not you, McDonald’s!). If you want to really enjoy them, go for the classics.
But those that bring tears to my eyes, sweep me off my feet and make me buy plane tickets just to get some are Pierre Hermé’s. I happily go to his tiny black and orange Rue Bonaparte store, choose an assortment of seasonal flavors and classic ones, walk back a few steps to sit on a bench in front of the St-Sulpice fountain and eat them as slowly as I can. Of course, this is a happy moment I love to share with E (who probably loves them as much as I do), but I have also often traveled back home with boxes to share the joy, and I’ve lured everyone who visited Paris with me, promising they would be bowled over by these bites of happiness (nobody’s ever been disappointed, I think). Mr. Hermé’s macarons are unconventional, yet perfect in a classic manner. The way he combines flavors is always surprising, always harmonious. There are the classics like the colorful fruity ones, the decadent single-origin chocolate ones, the light and flowery ones (rose and violet, which I admit are my least favorites) and the savory ones (foie gras and black truffles anyone?). The best thing is that his offering changes seasonally, so you’re always certain to find something new. My all-time favorite Pierre Hermé macaron was a fuchsia and green wonder – raspberry and pistachio to be precise. One side of the cookie was pistachio, the other raspberry. The cream was pistachio but the ultimate surprise (enter the tears in my eyes) was a square piece of juicy raspberry gelée de fruit hidden in the middle. Very simple but so sublimely executed.
I had never thought of making my own macarons, somewhat considering them rocket science, before I lived in Paris for a few months and my friend, who had been living there for many years, taught me. Seeing someone making it really unscrambles the mystery, and you figure out that the secret behind macarons consists of three basic principles:
- Be patient. You can’t rush anything or skip any step. This is not a last-minute dessert.
- Use only high-quality ingredients.
- Get to know your oven and be prepared to have to make many tries with every new oven you work with.
Since then, I have made a few unsuccessful batches and many absolutely delicious ones. I’m even at the stage where I’m starting to think of my own flavor combinations, being able to adapt the basic recipe and make the necessary tweaks that are in order with every change you make. As with anything else, practice is key! My friends and family are very happy whenever I try a new flavor because I make way more than E and I could eat in the few days they’re at their best. Since it’s one of the hottest new food trends on this side of the ocean, why not try your own? You’ll understand the hype, and with all your efforts, get why they are so pricey!
Many people who try my macarons ask for the recipe. In a perfect world, you would watch someone with experience make some before you. But since it’s not always possible, I am preparing a detailed step-by-step recipe that should help you be successful quickly. It should be up in a few days!