Mastering the macaron, a tale of joining in, learning new skills and the fact that you should eat macarons on the third day after making them. The making of a great French classic by Susie Woodhams, a finalist in The Good Life France 2014 Writing Competition.
I knew my mistakes. I had wielded my spatula too vigorously, for too long, when the situation required careful folding. So, instead of “relaxing” and sliding gently toward the perimeter of the bowl, my batter lay thin and limp from the mindless flogging.
Such disrespect for ingredients – an Italian meringue, plus a paste of egg whites, ground almonds and powdered sugar – might sink an amateur baker attempting to make macarons at home.
But I wasn’t in my kitchen. I was in the pristine, spacious workspace of Alsatian pastry chef Nicolas Koerber, the 38-year-old owner of Nikola-Pâtissier in Saint-Louis, France.
I was also among 10 expat women who had paid 60€ to learn the art of making this dainty, sandwich-shaped confection. Our hope was that after three hours, we’d each leave with 18 macarons to rival ganache and cream-filled biscuits sold at Ladurée, the famous Paris tearoom on the Champs-Élysées. We can always hope.
“Ah, this is actually good!” Koerber said, motioning the others to my end of the counter. “See what happens to Susie’s because it’s trop liquide?”
Assuming my role as the bad example, I hunched over and piped the mixture through my pastry bag. Out came another amoeba-like mini pancake, compared to my classmates’ rows of perfectly round, slightly plump disks.
Before I get to the happy ending, let me say that a lot of people in France are selling macarons today, in forms quite different from the delicacy Catherine de Medici brought from Italy in the 16th century. Often found in pleasing pastels, the macaron also shows up in garish Play-Doh colors, or gilded like Christmas packages. Violet, green tea, pumpkin, foie gras – you name it, someone is revising it, capitalizing on a rock-star popularity that trumps the cupcake craze.
Yet, even if that first bite is a grocery-store product, most of us swoon as outer crunch melds with inner creaminess. And then we taste an exquisite caramel “beurre-salé” (salted butter) version – which Koerber offered as a mid-lesson snack – and we wonder if we’ll ever be satisfied with a street-market macaron again. Certainly, it reaffirmed that we were learning from one of the best.
Passionate about baking since his teens, Koerber built a resumé with prestigious stints in Paris, including working for the so-called “Macaron Pope” Pierre Hermé and chocolatier Jean-Paul Hévin. Because he wanted to raise his children in the same small village in which he grew up, he returned to his native Alsace, and two years ago launched his shop in neighbouring Saint-Louis, a mile from Basel, Switzerland. While many French, Swiss and expat customers drop in during opening hours – Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings – Koerber takes special orders during the week for wedding cakes, confirmation party guimauves (marshmallows), and of course, 17 flavours of macarons as sublime as those he made for Hermé.
When time permits, he also offers lessons to groups of six to 12. In a mix of English and French – and relying on me, the group’s French speaker, for translation when necessary – Koerber guided us through steps to make three varieties. He’d chosen vanilla, dark chocolate, and milk chocolate-passion fruit, which is Hermé’s top seller in Paris.
As serious as a professor, Koerber explained as he demonstrated, and then we duplicated. We measured ingredients on his digital scale. We timed the beating of our egg whites to coincide with the boiling of our sugar water to no more than 117 degrees C. Some of us stirred rather than overly whisked a boiled cream and milk mixture as we had poured it over dark chocolate pieces. Others did the same with passion fruit juice boiled with sugar, then poured over milk chocolate. We even took notes as he reviewed nuances, such as egg-white adjustments when using liquid rather than powdered colorant, and leaving our oven door slightly ajar so our biscuits wouldn’t crack. Most home convection ovens wouldn’t have the evacuation system his professional model has to release excess humidity.
Finally, we gazed proudly at more than 400 dainty, cooled biscuits in yellow, cream and chocolate brown – including a few of my misshapen ones that looked less awkward after Koerber tweaked my piping mechanics. In the final minutes, we filled, assembled and boxed our creations, to be stored in refrigerators.
“Now, you wait before you eat — not one day, not two days, but on the third day, it’s best,” Koerber said. Would we have the will power?
“I’m down four,” a friend confided that night. I also had one of each, plus another milk chocolate-passion fruit, just to confirm it was as tasty as those I’d bought at Hermé.
At least we had the recipe to make more. And his address if that failed…
Susie Woodhams is co-author of The Expat’s Guide to Southern Alsace, an ebook sold through Amazon stores. A former American TV and newspaper sports reporter, Woodhams has also written travel articles since moving to Alsace in 2008.