The sugary sparkle of macarons bejeweled the summer that I lived in poverty in Marseille, France. The city was a glaring contrast of rich and poor, and I experienced it from the lens of a sixth story apartment in the very center of the inner-city’s Quartier Noir. While conducting research on health and human rights conditions of Roma women in Marseille, this closet-sized 150 Euro per month flat was my lived experience. Each day, I inhaled cigarette smoke and construction dust deep into my lungs. Each night, my ears drowned in the deafening roar of music festivals and the eerie hum of domestic disagreements; my skin prickled with bites from an unrelenting army of mosquitos; my back broke on my soft cushion of a mattress; and my mind raced with the numbing reality of Brexit, a breaking heart, Nice terrorist attacks, and the climate of unjust discrimination against all things different.
On my few weekends of the summer spent at research presentations in Paris, macarons were my guilty escape. I found myself lost in the delicate structure of each sugary gem, distracted if only momentarily by their glow. I would turn my nose up with disgust at my need to remove myself from the harsh reality. Yet like magic, each first bite of my heaven would silence my temper as I remembered that these macarons were made from a labor of love for the sole purpose of beauty. If for only in Parisian macarons, a perfect world existed.
The next summer that I spent in France, my head was in a much better position to see the untainted charm in my surroundings. From my Hemingway-inspired writer’s garret with a breathtaking view of the Eiffel Tower, I felt that I was living in the lap of luxury at ten times the price of my quick housing fix in Marseille. Macarons were an afterthought amidst my mind’s overdrive whir of exploration. It wasn’t until my last week in my month of Paris that I was stopped in my tracks by Parisian macaron’s awe-inspiring beauty.
Graced with the possibility of a free afternoon and a long walk to my evening plans at The American Library of Paris, I meandered the stone streets slowly, simultaneously searching my maps for my next stop. I needed a coffee shop to work, but the summer sun made me itch to explore more outdoors. Between me and the 2.5 miles to the library stood Angelina, an upscale tea salon and patisserie facing the Tuileries Garden. I hustled to my destination, bypassed the Japanese tourists oogling at the pastries in the window display, and made a beeline to the macaron case. Je voudrais un macaron à la rose, s’il vous plait. The waiter, dressed to the nines in his fresh-pressed white button down and too-tight tie, used his silver tongs to carefully select my sweet and handed it over on a silver platter. My jaw dropped with anticipation of my two bites of heaven.
With my precious pink jewel one hand and my camera in the other, I raced to the Eiffel Tower. How else could I extend the fleeting pleasure of my macaron but to capture it in the sunlight against the best backdrop in Paris?
With my month in Paris nearing a close, I desperately longed to take a piece of this perfection home with me. I had two options: I could either fill my suitcase with oodles of fragile cookies or I could take a macaron-making class. I decided on the latter, promptly enrolling in a two-hour immersion at Patisserie à la Carte.
My most shocking takeaway from the class is that macarons aren’t even French. These ganache-filled cookies were dreamed up by the chef of Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589), the Italian noblewoman who later transported the treat when she married into her role as queen of France.
Yet it wasn’t until the French Revolution that macarons gained popularity in France. Legend has it that two Carmelite nuns saved themselves from starvation by selling off their delicious macaron cookies. At the time, their cookies were simple creations that truly did let commoners eat cake at a time when they could barely afford bread.
Finally, in the 19th century, Pierre Desfontaines, the pastry chef of Ladurée, concocted the Gebet, otherwise known as the “Paris macaron”. This classification of macaron is the elaborate ganache-filled delight that that we know and love today in all flavors under the sun, from Earl Grey to Crème Brûlée to Salted Caramel to Strawberry Mint.
Aside from the history, my greatest lesson learned from class was that macarons are incredibly tedious to make. I enrolled expecting to easily veganize a version (and had even tried and failed in the past) and left utterly overwhelmed by the level of precision that is needed to fabricate each beautiful cookie.
Our class began by making three simple ganaches: passion fruit, raspberry chocolate, and deep dark chocolate. While our ganaches were refrigerated until they reached playdough consistency, we made merengue for our shells using the “Italian method”, which our professor explained leads to a more resilient shell that is better in the humidity of the Parisian summer than the delicate “French method” or the time-consuming “Swiss method”. We prepared powdered sugar and almond flour, which was stated to be effective in absorbing humidity (as opposed to other flour variations, such as pistachio and black sesame).
Next, we heated water and sugar until it reached precisely 117° C and added it to our whipped egg white mixture. We “macaronaged” our flour mixture into our egg whites mixture, inflating the batter then using a cutting action to deflate the dough into a smooth, shiny, ribbony structure.
Once our batter was sufficiently set, we pipetted it into pre-made circles on a baking sheet.
We tapped the tray to remove air bubbles in the cookies, dried our perfect circles, then popped them in the oven. Just as they reached a perfect marriage of crispy-but-not-burnt, we removed the cookies to pipet ganache between two shells of the same size. Our professor informed us that our macarons could be frozen for a month or kept at room temperature for a week with the Italian method. However, most of the class couldn’t resist urgently popping half of the fresh creations in our mouths.
Macarons are frighteningly finicky and are best created by an exact science that counters my typically intuitive approach to baking. My macaron professor assured me that these were nowhere near as complicated as crafting chocolate sculptures. Of course, I believed her, but that hasn’t helped me to pick up the craft since I’ve returned home.
Is it possible to truly take my macarons home with me? Can I veganize them? Would my macarons even taste half as delicious as they did under the shade of the Eiffel Tower? The future remains to be seen. For now, the memories of my macarons are enough to keep me satisfied until I either make it back to Paris or bring them in full vibrancy to this corner of the world.