Making macarons in Paris is the perfect alternative weekend when you’ve got a tooth as sweet as mine. Just don’t tell my dentist…
I’m a girl, I like cakes, I’m a walking cliché – sue me. I was going through a phase where I was OBSESSED with macaroons (we’ve all been there, right?) and, instead of signing my monthly paycheck directly over to Monsieurs Ladurée et Hermé, I decided it was high time I learned to make them myself. I mean, how hard could it be, right? I googled “macaroon making courses’, figuring I’d find a Groupon or something, when my eye was caught by a class…in Paris. Click!
Sweets. Travel. If you are going to combine two of my favourite things, who the hell am I to say no? Macaron Daze (we’ll defer to the French spelling from here on in because I’m pretentious) was a two hour class with La Cuisine Paris IN ENGLISH (phew) in their central Paris kitchen. With the next class taking place over the Easter weekend, I had a little over two weeks left to plan my trip (there were other classes later in the year, but I had a bee in my bonnet, sooo…) and prices for last-minute Bank Holiday Eurostar tickets were looking seriously offensive. I had at least one big trip scheduled for later in the year and couldn’t afford to drop too much cash on an impromptu escapade…without getting a little creative.
By the time I was due in class, it was 2.30pm and I’d been awake(ish) for about 28 hours. Not exactly the best condition for learning the finer technical points of French patisserie, but hey, we’ll go with it.
La Cuisine Paris is on Quai de l’Hôtel de ville, right on the bank of the Seine. There’s a homely reception area to gather pre-class and size –up your coursemates. There were 8 of us – an Italian couple, some British ladies now living in Paris, 2 German students and me. When we first went up to the kitchens, I was a little disappointed that we would be working in groups of 2 or 3 rather than individually but I’d soon find out that there was safety in numbers.
Chef Eric set the stage, giving us a little macaron history. We’d be learning the Italian method (wait, what? I’d come all the way to Paris to learn how to make a quintessentially French pastry only to be taught how to make them using an ITALIAN method? COME ON!!!) as it produces a more stable meringue, less prone to cracking. This is the method favoured by Pierre Hermé (well…o.k then) and involves the use of hot sugar syrup rather than granulated straight from the bag (French).
To be strictly accurate, though, there has been a little debate about the exact origins of macaron. Per Wikipedia, “Larousse Gastronomique cites the macaron as being created in 1791 in a convent near Cormery [in the Centre region of France]. Some have traced its French debut back to the arrival of Catherine de’ Medici’s Italian pastry chefs whom she brought with her in 1533 upon marrying Henry II of France.” So the use of an Italian technique isn’t too far off base. According to food historians, the base of the macaroon recipe dates all the way back to before the Renaissance and has its roots in the Arab world, who at the time, were great producers of almonds. However ,”le macaron parisien”, the filled pastel coloured bites of yumminess that we enjoy today, became popularised by Ladurée in the mid 19th Century.
Enough of the history lesson (if you are interested, Dan Jurafsky’s article for Slate is pretty fab), back to the baking.
We were grouped up (I was with German girls) to start on our fillings so they’d have time to set .So far so good: chocolate ganache I’d made before, the praline cream was new but not too tricky. The macarons, however?
Firstly, you need half of the John Lewis cooking department just to get started: digital scales, heavy-bottomed pans, Kitchenaid stand mixer (ooh, I’ve always wanted one of those!), digital sugar thermometer, piping bags, silicone liners… About 500 quid later we were ready to start on the ingredients. My teammates sieved finely ground almonds and beat egg whites while I was on syrup duty, heating sugar and water to exactly 118 degrees. Once the sugar syrup had been correctly incorporated into the egg whites and beaten to a frenzy, we divided the meringue into 3, each getting our own bowl to fold into the almond mix and colour to our hearts content. I’ve never had a steady hand so my planned “baby” blue went a little radioactive. Whoops. Next job was to tackle the piping bag (spoiler: epic fail on my part) and pipe perfectly spaced rounds on a silicone sheet. I just couldn’t control the damn thing. There is a knack to piping – I don’t have it. After a bout of stress sweats and a serious re-think of my life choices, I eventually managed to get something on the tray. A sharp tap on the counter to release trapped air, and they were ready to rest prior to baking.
When they came out of the oven, mine weren’t the worst (that honour went to the guy whose shells had merged into one big mass), but they weren’t going to win any pretty prizes either. Teacher’s pets were definitely my teammates (can we note that it was my sugar syrup that went into their mix, so I should get a little credit, no?), but whatever. While we divided our shells into pairs of equal(ish) size, Chef Eric prepared more piping bags (nooooooo!!!) of ganache and cream so that we could start filling. Because it was a team effort, all the finished macarons were put in the middle of the table and we were each given white patisserie boxes to fill pick-and-mix style. Et voila!
What. A. Car. Wreck. But you know what, they didn’t taste too bad! The choc ganache was a little rich, but the praline cream was yummy. As we filed out, Chef Eric handed us some info on cookery supply shops in Paris – where we can buy the best quality ground almonds, where you can get the best value digital sugar thermometer – and he and the other staff stuck around to answer questions and say nice things about our creations.
So what’s the verdict?
Overall, I enjoyed it. The class size was small enough for us all to get a little attention from the teacher (particularly those of us who were a little “challenged” by piping bags – naming no names). I was initially concerned about the group work aspect, but in the end, it didn’t take anything away from the experience. A class, cooking or otherwise, can be a fab activity to build a trip around, especially if you want to put a new twist on a location you might have visited before.
Even though I wasn’t particularly gifted on the baking front, I’d do it again without hesitation – though perhaps something a little less technical. When it comes to macarons, shop-bought are tastier, need less equipment and are a hell of a lot less stressful!
Macaron Daze is one of a selection of courses run by La Cuisine Paris (80 Quai de l’Hotel de ville 75004 Paris). Prices for a 2 hour class start at €65