Parisian Macaron Crimes & Misdemeanors

Best Paris Macaron Disasters

For anyone who’s ever tried to craft their own macarons, there might not be a single more demoralizing experience. Even if you’re a master of cakes and creams, your first 20 attempts to get something presentable are pretty much doomed to fail. Most people either give up entirely or just resign to the fact that at least they can bake-up something edible, if technically and aesthetically inferior to the great Parisian pastry chefs. But I have a little secret to share with you . . . even the acclaimed World Champion and MOF pâtissiers of Paris bake and sell botched work every single day. In fact, there are only a few who focus on preparing their macarons correctly.

As someone who obviously gets a kick out photographing pastries and sharing them with the world, macarons are a major frustration. I always have to buy 5 or 6 at a time, hoping that at least 2 will look ok enough to shoot. I’m not kidding. And since the price on these little guys runs as high as 1.95€/each, that means I wind up spending and much as $15US for the chance to snap something worth showing you. Some shoots turn out so bad that I decide I can never use the photos – meaning I’ve cumulatively dumped hundreds of dollars and countless hours into shots never to be shared . . . until today. So, in a bid to feel my money and time weren’t for naught and to explain why many of the ones I do show still look like ****, what I wanted to highlight for you are just how common Parisian macaron disasters are. But of course the real aim is to bolster the esteem of bakers who’ve never achieved a perfect mac. You’re so not alone.


Best Paris Macaron Disasters

HOLLOW SHELLS: There are a few shops who habitually sell these hollow macarons. And, while it doesn’t affect the taste, it definitely takes a toll on the textural experience. It also makes for a lot of crushed and crumbling macarons in any gift box they make up for you. Even though I’m about to give a rundown of 12 ubiquitous macaron issues, this is one of three I think mean the product should absolutely not be put in the case for sale. A big void means the interior is no longer a meringue and what you’re being asked to buy is not actually a macaron. It’s heresy.


Best Paris Macaron Disasters

PUFFY SHELLS: Even though it’s technically taller than other macs, it still comes off as husky and bloated. I don’t need to be reminded of morbid obesity, while I contribute to my own by eating these. The shell winds up being a little denser and not quite as moist, as though it were somewhere between a soft cookie and the meringue it was meant to be. If we hybridize those words, I guess we could call it a cookingue or merinkie; I prefer merinkie. Still very edible, its only major deficiency is that it’s not pretty and might not make for a completely tasteful gift to someone.


Best Paris Macaron Disasters

OVERSTUFFING: While I’m not naming any of the shops I’m highlighting in these examples, regular readers know exactly who this mac is from. To be fair, aside from the collapsed feet, the interior of the shell is a lot more uniform than most shops’, so while other pâtisseries have crème that goes up into the interior of the shell itself, all the crème here is truly sandwiched between the two halves. That said, it’s still way too ******* much filling. I consider it more of a candy-like confection than a macaron, but some people – for God knows what reason – actually like this. Among 90% of Parisians foodies I’ve spoken to, it’s seen as silly and has even been described to me as écoeurant, which is a very colorful adjective that seriously translates as, “So gross it makes my heart want to vomit.”


Best Paris Macaron Disasters

UNDERSTUFFING: This is the second of three practices I think means a macaron should not be put in the case for sale. You wouldn’t buy a cake that’s half frosted, so why are you expected to spend as much as 1.95€ for a half-filled macaron? Especially when you’ve seen the speed with which macs are prepared and at the scale they’re done, too, it seems criminal. Macarons are probably the closest thing to pure profit a pastry shop can churn out, so getting scammed for something like the above is not cool.


Best Paris Macaron Disasters

GIMMICKERY: There are some genuinely clever pastry shops in Paris that come up with fun and inventive flavor combinations. But there’s one in particular who constantly cloys for media attention with absurd gimmicks. Knowing one of the salespeople at his shop, I’ve been told the staff dreads even the scent of certain seasonal macarons; they’re that sickening. Flavor and quality are clearly not the driving force of why these macs are put out for their, thankfully brief, month-long runs. In the case of the one you’re seeing here, it’s billed as “carrot, orange and cinnamon.” Not only is the cinnamon imperceptible but neither is the first ingredient listed – the carrot . . . at least until you get to the center and find the tiny little chewy piece of it. It’s the equivalent of the big fashion houses who come up with some ridiculous dress for their runway show – shameless attention whoring.


Best Paris Macaron Disasters

DRY SHELLS: This is the third of my three unforgiveable macaron sins, and it’s also the most egregious. If you walk out of a shop, bite into your mac and discover its consistency is that of biscotti, walk back in and ask for a refund. If they don’t give it to you, summon the police. Stale macarons are punishable by death – or at least a long, hard dirty look. In the case of this one, I wound up cutting through 6 of the same macarons and couldn’t get one to stay together without crumbling. Compare that to the hollow one in the first shot, where I literally had to slice through a wafer thin bubble – doing so in one pass – and you can understand how ridiculous the texture of this must have been that the solitary knife skill I’ve ever honed to perfection was worthless.


Best Paris Macaron Disasters

Best Paris Macaron Disasters

GRAINY ALMOND FLOUR: I’m showing you two examples of this because it isn’t necessarily a problem; it can actually be a benefit. I also want to highlight how both the exterior and the interior can be affected by this. In the case of the red/green mac, the grainy almond flour (which you can see in the rough surface of the shell) actually enhances the flavor, gently scraping along your tongue, while you chew, to help awaken your tastebuds and bring out the pistachio and cherry tones of the mac. In the second example, which is a Chuao chocolate flavored one, the very crudely processed almonds interfere too much with the fine chocolate within. “Excuse me, why do your macarons come in ‘chunky style’?”

Best Paris Macaron Disasters

Best Paris Macaron Disasters

DETACHING FEET: Much as I somehow enjoy the aesthetics of this, from a photographic perspective, it still represents bad technique. The feet should not be ripping apart into two layers, allowing you to see the filling in between them. These little ****-ups should be set aside, until day’s end, and then apologetically given to the homeless.


Best Paris Macaron Disasters

COLLAPSED FEET: Probably the most common mistake for home cooks, you wouldn’t think the macaron professionals are turning out collapsed feet, but they definitely are. So every time I have a mac like this, I think of the guy or girl who – probably at the same moment, somewhere in the world – is feeling totally dejected that their macs’ feet look amateurish. I wish I could show them what I’m nibbling on and tell them it’s really ok. Even the most famous macaron baker in the world makes the same mistake over and over again.


Best Paris Macaron Disasters

DULL SURFACE: I’m basically nitpicking on this one. The ideal top surface for a mac is closer to the “collapsed feet” example I just covered – nice and shiny. This dull/matte finish on this little guy is frowned upon. The particular shop that makes it often adds a spray shimmer/luster to work around the issue. I should point out that it’s an otherwise very well-prepared mac and happens to taste amazing.


Best Paris Macaron Disasters

ONLY USING ALMOND FLOUR: This isn’t a disaster of execution – it’s a disasterous lack of imagination and effort. In certain parts of Asia, where pastry is even more fetishized than in Paris, chefs often use different nuts for their macaron shells. It literally blows my mind that Parisian hauts pâtissiers haven’t tried this, out of shear boredom. Just start with hazelnuts. They’re to France what peanuts are to America; they’re already in everything else. How easy would it be to make a hazelnut mac shell and fill it with a nice chocolate crème? Then try pistachios and chestnuts. I swear to God that the first major Parisian shop to embrace this simple idea – and market it like Pierre Hermé does his macaron fillings – will make a fortune. Could anything be more obvious?


Best Paris Macaron Disasters

Best Paris Macaron Disasters

Best Paris Macaron Disasters

SLOPPY COMPOSITION: There’s a big part of me that actually prefers this look to the more tidily-composed macarons that follow. Crooked shells of mismatched sizes that are inelegantly filled come off as “homestyle”. Of course what’s actually happening here is that the owners and chef pâtissiers push their teams to crunch of the macs as fast as possible. It’s not the fault of those doing the work – but rather the attitude of those at the top. And, frankly, it might be out of necessity. I don’t know that many shops would be financially viable if everything was done with exacting precision. Café Pouchkine certainly comes closer than anyone, so my suspicion is that the other shops just don’t make it a priority. Anyway, while they don’t suffer as many pitfalls as the bulk of the macs listed above, you can still see a host of minor issues and that the feet aren’t quite as nice as they should be. Again, I like mine this way, but there are truer examples of the ideal.


Best Paris Macaron Disasters

Best Paris Macaron Disasters

Best Paris Macaron Disasters

Best Paris Macaron Disasters

EXAMPLES OF GOOD WORK: Still not immaculate perfection, the four above are as good as it gets in Paris. When I started putting this entry together, I actually had to hunt for these in my files. Almost every macaron I’ve ever photographed looks like the first dozen shots I shared – egregiously ****** up; finding those examples was effortless. Clean work is truly a rarity. So, if you’re a home baker and turning out pieces like the four above, you can seriously consider yourself an aesthetic master of the Parisian macaron. You’re doing work as good as the best days Café Pouchkine, Jean-Paul Hévin, Ladurée and Sadaharu Aoki ever have.

If I’ve excited you enough to take another crack at macarons and refine your technique a bit, you might want to check out my friend Jill’s book Mad About Macarons or pre-order a copy of Pierre Hermé’s MACARONS (in English now!). Of course I’d recommend you use about ½ the amount of filling Pierre Hermé would advocate using, but it’s an otherwise useful volume of recipes and insights.

I also want to note that these shots underscore something important about what I write about and how I do it. If you’ve ever thought I was too hard on certain chefs, imagine spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars scouring a city for the best work and winding up with not only macarons but also full pastries that are just as messed up – if not moreso – than what you see above. Mold, insects, burn marks, human hair, assorted hairs/fibers of indeterminate origin, stale gâteau, bleeding fruit, completely unripe fruit, glaçage so mottled and grainy is makes the pastry look like it endured a minor nuclear disaster, finger-poke marks, and beyond are way more common than they should be when you’re spending up to 7 or 8 euros/piece. I am cool with those issues at the corner shops, where I only pay 2 or 3 euros/piece; a six-legged friend crawling across some blue-green mold on the raspberry tarte at one of these dumps is part of the “charm”. However, when you’re tripling the price on me and the people I encourage to visit your shop, the production ethic needs to be tighter and the ****** work needs to get tossed. If Jacques Genin and Emmanuel Ryon can do it, I don’t get the disconnect for others. And, yeah, I might subject myself to it voluntarily, but it’s still an embittering experience and hopefully explains why I have no problem ripping apart someone like Arnaud Larher, the greatest habitual offender of my sensibilities. It also explains why most of my reviews are very upbeat and end with recommendations you buy the work. What I ultimately share with you is a fraction of everything I’ve eaten and photographed.

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34 thoughts on “Parisian Macaron Crimes & Misdemeanors”

  1. I knew I was in heaven/Paris when I found myself actually being picking about macarons, and passing some by because they weren't up to snuff! :)

  2. Wow!!! I didn't know there were so many ways to **** up a macaron. How about nipples? Have you found any macarons with nipples? I know you would not approve of that. Thanks for exposing the dark underbelly of the Parisian macaron world.

  3. OMG!!! thank you, thank you! You have no idea how happy i am as i’m perusing this one. I’m like a kid in a candy store. I’m planning on making some come New year…we prepare food that’s round for prosperity and what a better way to make macarons.

  4. It's me again. My first comment was sent sans reading this time i've read and again thank you. When ever i go to Paris…i will now know where to go thanks to you. I will be looking for your friend's book. I love making macarons but i know i need tons of practice to make mine presentable.

  5. I'm still in search of the my favorite macaron. Each time I sample a new one, the scale slides. My last few attempts at Ladurée have been surprisingly disappointing, while Café Pouchkine proved to be a delightful treat. I'm willing to labor on in this pursuit until I have a winner.

  6. This was great. I'm sending the link to my macaron baking friend. Next time I overpay in Paris for one, I'm giving it the once over to check for ****ups. I might even start photographing some myself!
    V

  7. The reality is that it's extremely difficult to make macarons that are consistently pretty, so I "kind of" feel bad for giving folks a hard time in this entry. Yet there are shops outside of France that achieve even better consistency that the Parisians here. And, yeah, I support your future macaron photography endeavors!

  8. I am the macaron-baking friend (along with my daughter Holly) and we have about 10 pages of notes for each session of macarons. They are fabulous but we identify with the frustrations you outlined. We have two kinds of macarons: 1) perfect, and 2) family macarons. We have used macadamia nuts, pecans, and pistachios in varying proportions with almonds. I am disappointed by any macaron book that does not address the cookie ingredients. What exactly is a framboise macaron? Surely it can be more than a regular macaron with framboise filling.

    Thanks for mentioning the correct proportions of filling/cookie. There should be a gentle competition of flavors and textures as you bit into a coffee macaron with caramel au beurre salé filling or a rosemary macaron filled with a lemon ganache.

    I am a devoted reader of your site and have tracked down many of your recommendations.

    Bises,
    Genie

  9. Macarons.. they excite imaginations in so many ways ! I resolve the problem of not-so-good-and-much-too-expensive-macarons found in my city. I found the perfect macaron recipe, impossible to miss. And now I just have to decide what flavour, what colour, what design I feel like having…(life's tough :))

    Latest creation for the holiday : http://maminicuisine.blogspot.com/2011/11/macaron

    Thanks for all your interresting articles and wonderfull pictures on my favorite subject ; pastry

  10. I have tried several times making macarons. If you stick to the recipe really close they come out perfectly. I have the book by Pierre Hermé. With his book, they are perfect every time. But… they are not shiny!!!! They are dull. if you look closely at the pictures in the book by Pierre Hermé, you will see they are dull too.
    However, there's a French lady on the internet and she has a totally different recipe. She doesn't use an Italian meringue for making them ( cooking the sugar). Her macarons are shiny. I have tried her recipe. The results are shiny macarons. But… although I tend to stick to the recipes very carefully they don't always come out like they should. With cooked sugar, they always come out right, but they are dull. With plain, uncooked, sugar, it gets a lot more difficult to get a good result.
    Have to say, you should really check out this lady. Strange you don't have pictures of her work here. What she does is marvelous !!! http://www.puregourmandise.com/recettes By the way her fillings are great too.

    Claudine Roelens

  11. This post is mostly helpful because it shows people what macarons should be like. They're such an illusive little devil that it can be hard to know when you've reached perfection (which is apparently impossible). So many times I see people blogging about how they've made the perfect macaron and I always want to ask for a cross-sectional photo. I've had problems getting them without an air space and so am suspicious of those who claim success when I can't see the inside! Certainly not an easy thing to execute perfectly, it's still nice to know what perfection should be.

  12. I feel better after I read your article. I have a dessert shop in NJ, Asalt & Buttery that specializes in macarons. I am very critical of my work. I know my macarons are good but I can't help being obsessed by imperfections. Of course mine are at a jersey price of 1.65. By the way, I use 1/3 pistachio flour in my pistachio and the same for the hazelnut. the texture of the pistachio can be slighly drier. It takes an extra day to mature. I don't know how it would turn out with 100% pistachio. I will have to try it when I have some more experimental time

  13. I have tried the Laduree, and liked it. But I have also tried Paulette's aka Lette's Macarons in Beverly Hills and love it!

  14. dear adam [ [met you in paris last year]]….

    i have a super article , which i am sure you would enjoy…..re paris food from a journalist in london….that i would like to send to you[ personally]….could you send me a separate/different one from your 'paris patisseries' email address

  15. Hello!
    My name is Sãozinha Botelho, i'm from the Azores Islands and i am very fond of cooking, especially sweets and desserts. I've been looking for recipes for macaroons, but i've never found them. I was very amused by this article, al well as seduced by the photographs. I was wondering if you could share legitimate macaroon recipes or if you could direct me to a website that specializes in such. If you or someone could do that for me, I would submit them to your critiques. Hehehe! My email is maria-ra2011[at]hotmail.com (if you decide to e-mail me, please remember to replace [at] with @). Also, you can reply to this comment. I'll be watching. 😉
    And if anyone is interested in Azorean cuisine, I can definately help you. ***

  16. Hi Adam,
    Really enjoyed this post and the fun photos! It's great to catch a glimpse behind the scenes of what you do, and your tips for what to watch out for will really help me refine my macaron tasting experience in Paris. You're so right how expensive they are, and often I'm not sure whether to give them a shot when looking at the pretty window displays at patisseries. Sometimes knowing what not to look for is more helpful than a glimpse at perfection!

    While reading your post, I was reminded a fun blog post I read while back detailing the nearly impossible – if not actually impossible – task of recreating Pierre Hermé's macarons at home: http://www.parisperfect.com/blog/2009/10/making-t
    I don't know if I'm up to that! :-) I think I'll try some of your suggestions next time I'm in Paris … and, of course, watch out for the top macaron sins!
    Thanks so much,
    Laura

  17. I always knew when a macaron wasn't quite right but could never put my finger on each of the specific faults. This is a great and comprehensive reference for us macaron nuts! I want some for breakfast now! lol

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