Making Macarons in Paris

The first time I tried a macaron was on the sidewalk outside of Ladurée on the Champs-Élysées. Many people are drawn to the boutique’s iconic green and gold-gilded shops in Paris, similar to how tourists flock to Tiffany’s on 5th Avenue in New York.  And while Ladurée is often credited as being the “creator” of the macaron (which you can read more about here), a kaleidoscope of these colorful cookies now fill the windows of most venerable pâtisseries throughout the city.

Consisting of 2 almond-based cookies that delicately sandwich fillings such as chocolate, pistachio, coffee, rose, vanilla, lemon, strawberry and countless others, it’s hard to walk down the street without being tempted by these almost-too-pretty-to-eat-treats. Almost being the operative word.  At around 2 euros apiece they may be considered borderline pricy, but are worth the investment if purchased from a good establishment.  Or you can try to make them yourself.  Try being another operative word.

After my first encounter I returned home, scoured the internet for recipes and tips, even purchased Ladurée’s Sucré cookbook.  However, when I invested the time (hours) and effort (lots) into recreating macaron magic in my kitchen I was sorely disappointed.  Some were just ok, while others were disastrous (hollow shells, flat with no feet, etc.), despite following the recipes to the letter and the gram.  Blaming it on my high-altitude location, I decided to take a macaron-making hiatus until my most recent trip to Paris.

Enter La Cuisine Paris, which offers a variety of English-language cooking classes and food tours with a convenient location just steps from Notre Dame.  We chose the Intensive Technical 3-hour macaron class, which would cover 2 different meringue methods and 4 different fillings – a good variety of skills to (hopefully) add to our repertoire.  What I also liked about La Cuisine Paris is that their classes are taught in kitchens outfitted with the same equipment that most people have in their home kitchens (standard ovens, Kitchen Aid mixers and bowls, spoons, thermometers, etc. from IKEA vs. the professional equivalent) so that it’s possible to achieve the same results at home.  Already it feels like we’re being set up for success.

Our chef Ségolène was the perfect teacher, armed with the right amount of warmth and wit to keep the environment laid back and fun as she imparted her macaron wisdom on our class of 8.  We began by going around the room and introducing ourselves, sharing where we were from, why we were interested in taking this class and perhaps most important, our favorite macaron flavor.  Ségolène then made the executive decision to add a fifth filling flavor to the mix when it became evident that there was an overwhelming love for pistachio.

First up were the fillings, which were each assigned to a pair of students to make for the group after Ségolène’s explanation and demonstration.  One team worked on the chocolate ganache, another on a coffee-flavored buttercream, the third divided their vanilla cream recipe so that half could be made into pistachio cream and my team was assigned a fresh pineapple compote (later flavored with rum).

Next we moved on to the macaron shells, first with the Italian meringue method followed by the French method.  The main difference between the two is that the Italian method includes a hot sugar mixture, and contrary to logic, is the preferred method used in bakeries across France, primarily because it creates a more stable base to work with (there’s also a third Swiss method that no one uses according to Ségolène).  Each team made their own batch using both the Italian and French method, carefully folding the meringue into its respective almond mixture before piping cute-as-a-button circles onto prepared baking trays.  This is where the technique part comes in because it’s very easy to overmix the batter, at which point your macarons will be pretty much unsalvageable.

After all of the shells were baked, we assembled our macarons by piping the various fillings in between the rainbow-bright cookies, trading colors with each other like a game of Go Fish, and finally placing them in a box to take away (a nice treat to come back to in our hotel room after a long day of sightseeing!).  Perhaps the most challenging lesson we learned during the class is that you can’t eat macarons the day you make them, rather they need time in the refrigerator after assembly to take in moisture from the filling or else the shells will be too hard and crumbly.  Good things come to those who wait, right?

Overall, I loved how this class was so hands-on and brought these otherwise intimidating cookies down to a manageable level.  Ségolène helped create a casual and fun setting where everyone was able to succeed regardless of previous experience or culinary skills (for example, our class ranged from one person who never bakes to a couple from Philadelphia who owns a bakery).

Armed with copies of the recipes and the confidence to tackle these tricky treats, we couldn’t resists putting our newfound knowledge to the test the day after we returned from Paris.  I’m happy to report that the macarons we made (using the Italian method and a chocolate ganache filling) turned out great.  Looks like there will be more macaron making in my future after all.  :)


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