Monday, July 30, 2012

Makin' Macarons!

Have you discovered macarons yet? Not macaroons, those "eh" coconut cookies. Macarons.

Yes? Welcome! You're among friends here.

No? If you're in Pittsburgh, get yourself to Paris 66 on Center Ave. near the new Target pronto!

Go visit!
They are essentially a half-dollar sized sandwich of almond flour (ground up blanched white almonds) based meringues filled with some kind of filling, depending on the flavor and texture you're going for. Some are a little on the crazy side -- check out some of the creations at Pierre Hermé (lychee, vanilla basil, rose).  And some are just plain delicious, like coconut, salted caramel, and my personal favorite, lemon. You'll find the more "standard" flavors at La Durée, which has been around since 1862.

But what was really neat was the opportunity to take a mother-financed (thanks, mom!) amateur cooking class at the school run by Le Nôtre, one of France's premier pastry and prepared food shops. They have two amateur school campuses: one in a beautiful building at the beginning of the Champs d'Elysses, and the other waaaay the heck on the east side of Paris in a bit of a sketchier neighborhood.

When I got the bright idea to sign up for one of these classes, I was, as it turns out, not the first to do so. All the English classes at other cooking schools were filled, as were those at both Le Nôtre campuses. So then, I thought, "Okay. I want to do this, so how about looking for classes in French?" I switched over to the French language class lists, and wouldn't you know, a three hour macaron class at a time I could do it! Sadly, it was at the east Paris campus so I had a super long metro journey, but it w worth it.

Our pastry chef and instructor of the evening, Alain, and his sous-chef led my class of four (which included a pastry chef from Dijibouti) through the recipes for coffee and chocolate macarons. He demonstrated through most of the coffee recipe, giving us smaller tasks like sifting the almond flour and powdered sugar together (which are the solid in the cookie part of the macaron) but we were pretty much in charge of the chocolate.

They are tough little guys to make! I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that they are a genuine mixture of science and art.

The results! Coffee and chocolate macarons made by my class
Science: our recipe includes precise temperatures (the filling for the coffee macarons is heated to 82 degrees C on the stove, before cooled down to 30 degrees through whipping it in the stand mixer) and Alain busted out a laser thermometer (MIND BLOWN!) to check the temperature of the filling while it was mixing away inside the stand mixer bowl. Also, you need a really precise oven to do these things, which means I am going to be co-opting my mom's kitchen because my oven is usually about 25° off...

Art: at each stage of the process, the macaron batter needs to be at a certain texture that you have to know "by feel." Alain taught us some tricks to check the consistency, but it's still one of those things that is probably only going to come with lots and lots of practice and guinea pigs to test them on.

They look pretty good, right? They are, but there's a definite difference between how well the coffee ones turned out (made mostly by Alain) and how the chocolate ones fared (made mostly by the class), with the coffee being better.

Up close and personal with the results

In Paris, I have been on a little bit of what I like to call the Tour de Macarons. As you know, the Tour de France finished up last Sunday (and made for difficult traveling around the city for my visitors and me). While those lads were biking around this fine country, I have been walking around this fine city and sampling these little darlings where and when I find them. I'll be revealing the results of the Tour at a later date!

Au revoir et bon appétit!

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