Parisian Macaron Crimes & Misdemeanors
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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’?”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.