I am not at all qualified to be explaining macarons. They have a following that makes twi-hards and trekkies look apathetic. There are blogs upon blogs and books upon books dedicated to them. When it comes to macarons, I’m pretty much just a casual observer. A friend of mine who actually knows how to make these incredibly tricky gourmandises says that there’s a special technique to whip the batter (almond flour, sugar, and egg whites) into the fluff that gets baked and hardens into the macaron shell. Two macaron cookies are then sandwiched together like a gorgeous hamburger and filled with buttercream, ganache, fruit jam, or even special surprises, like a whole (pitted) cherry. Wikipedia says that this stereotypical macaron is actually the Parisian version, created by the pâtisserie Ladurée in the early 1900s. This makes sense, because at the artisanal foodmarket here in Aix, I’ve seen rustic cookies looking much more like American macaroons than Ladurée’s creations.
So, did I discover macarons in a pastry shop here in France? Nope, I first had one in the kitchen of Josh’s neighbor Mrs. L. We went over to say goodbye to their family before we left for France in 2008, and sat at Mrs. L’s kitchen counter and sampled some of the delicacies she was in the process of whipping up that day. Chief amongst them was an Ispahan macaron, a marriage of raspberry, rose, and lychee with fresh berries tucked into the rich buttercream and cubes of some magical sugary substance that I cannot even hope to describe. Mrs. L showed us the inspiration on Pierre Hermé’s website, and I kindof nodded and mmmmm-ed, oblivious to the privilege I was experiencing.
It turns out that Pierre Hermé is rivalling Ladurée for recognition as the top macaronerie in the WORLD, and Mrs. L had managed to re-create a Pierre Hermé concoction in her kitchen in Pennsylvania. The magnitude of this didn’t start to dawn on me until we got to France and I got around to shelling out 75 centimes for a macaron at a bakery and it didn’t even hold a CANDLE to Mrs. L’s. I started doing some research, reading Paris Breakfasts (a macaron lover’s paradise of a blog) and asking des françaises in-the-know for their opinions. It finally boiled down to one thing: I was going to have to do some in-person experimentation.
So, when my family came over to visit last April and we went to Paris, on the itinerary was a macaron taste test. We stopped by Ladurée and Pierre Hermé and made some purchases, and then took them to the Luxembourg Gardens to get down to business.
From Pierre Hermé, we had pistachio-cherry, vanilla-olive oil, jasmine, blood-orange cointreau, passionfruit-milk chocolate, and rose-grapefruit (I think. . . it was a lot of sugar and my memory is a bit blurry).
From Ladurée, we had. . . I think green tea, coffee, caramel au beurre salé, and rose. And oh, the experience. The shell is craquant and makes a little pop as your teeth break through it, and the inside is creamy and rich. And then there were surprises, like the cherry inside this pistachio-griotte macaron.
Winner of the macaron challenge: Ladurée’s rose-flavored macaron. Ladurée’s flavors were simple but amazingly intense.
Because we were going for mini-macarons, we didn’t buy one of the full-sized ispahan creations from PH. We DID, however, get an ispahan croissant. De-li-cieux. It was filled with a raspberry-rose paste with candied rose petals sprinkled on top. We ate (worshipped) it on the TGV back to Aix.