Consider the macaron

Bonjour, mes amis.

It took longer than I expected to write this; Paris was busy, and then I took the train to Cannes and have been seeing movies and writing about them ever since. But I carved out a little time to write this all down before it falls out of my head.

Paris is a city for eating, and I’ve done at least my fair share of it there over the years of work trips and just passing through. This year, I was there for a week with my mother, as well as my aunt and a childhood friend of hers. And we did a lot of eating.

So much, in fact, that I’ve broken it into three parts. Today’s is part the first.


I. The humble macaron

One night, drinking wine on the balcony in Montmartre, we hatched a plan: we’d spend the next day on a macaron adventure. (The name “Macaron Madness” was bandied about.) The first plan was to actually find a place that would teach us to make macarons, but as it turns out they’re pretty involved, being kind of related to a meringue. I love to cook but I don’t bake much beyond bread, and anything involving whipping egg whites into stiff peaks is off the table.

Plus, we were in Paris.

A side note: are you confused by the difference between macaroons and macarons? I was, too, for a long time, and so I pass this infographic on to you.

When I got home, I looked up the New York Times’s take on the matter, and of course they had a guide to the best macarons in Paris. I picked four — three located near one another, just north of the Jardin des Tuileries, and a fourth near the Jardin du Luxembourg, where Tom and I have often stayed when we’re in Paris for a month or longer.

The night before we’d been at La Maison Rose (more on that anon) and asked the waiter for his macaron recommendation. He told us the most famous macarons were from Ladurée (I later realized those are the macarons that Kirsten Dunst inhales in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette) but he recommended Pierre Hermé, and warned us that the battle for the Best Macaron title is a real “game of thrones.”

So we went to both, which are a few blocks away from one another (at 14 Rue de Castiglioni and 4 Rue Cambon, respectively). And we also went to Pierre Marcolini, too, at 235 Rue Saint-Honoré. Then we marched ourselves across the river and down to Sadaharu Aoki, at 35 Rue Vaugirard.

This is at Pierre Hermé — yes, I asked permission — where some of the macarons are airbrushed for an ombré effect, which is pretty great.

We bought lots and lots of macarons, in as many flavors and colors as we could carry — peanut butter and pistachio and salted caramel and strawberry and rose and lavender and chocolate and some goofier flavors, like “spring.”

I am not, to be perfectly honest, much of a hound for sweets; anyone who eats with me regularly knows I’ll spring for any dessert that has basil or black pepper or something like that as its main ingredient. I like some savory with my sweet. And I was in luck. At Ladurée I got a Szechuan pepper macaron, which was not very spicy (this is France) but had a distinctly Szechuan flavor. And Sadaharu Aoki, which was one of two Japanese-owned shops on the NYT list, was a gold mine; I came away with flavors like black sesame, genmaicha (flavored like the roasty rice tea), and wasabi, which again had more flavor than spice and was terrific.

These are the Sadaharu Aoki macarons, clockwise from top: houjicha, matcha, sesame black pepper, yuzu, wasabi, and genmaicha.

As you can see, we eventually got them all home and cut them up, the better for taste testing between us all with some good wine in view of the Eiffel Tower. And we were soon in a sugar coma.

But before we had to give up — I just finished the last of them last night — we had a good notion of how very different macarons are. Some have very soft biscuits (cookies?) and light, fluffy insides. Others are chewier, with crunchier outsides. They’re all very sweet, but the smallness and intensity of flavor (and the price point, at €1-2 apiece) encourages you to eat less and savor them. I can imagine a world where I’d dig my hand into a bag of lousy cheap macarons and eat them mindlessly, but I don’t want to live in it.

^^ aforementioned sunset.

Macarons are, to be clear, not a humble food. They are too difficult for most of us to make in our own kitchens. They’re sort of the height of French pastry floofiness, all pink and yellow and and purple, I mean, have you seen Marie Antoinette?

But then, why would you make them yourself? They may seem fancy (especially to Yanks like ourselves) but they’re still brilliantly affordable, if you just want one or two or six. They go with espresso or rosé. And they’re the kind of dessert that dare you to savor every bite, rather than wolfing them down mindlessly.

Plus, going on a macaron expedition is a very fine way to spend an afternoon in Paris.

Up next: how to cook dinner for four in a Parisian AirBnB kitchen — two burners, two pots, and some stuff from the Franprix down the street.