Taking in the window displays of various pastry shops in Paris is one sure way to gain a few kilos, and one sure way to fall in love with Paris as well as with the ubiquitous confection that has locals and visitors alike whipped into a meringue-like frenzy … the macaron.
NOTE: Americans should not confuse the French macarons—two delicate dome-shaped meringue cookies with a flavor-infused cream or ganache in between—with the American macaroon (double o)—a dense glop of a cookie made with coconut or almond paste.
Parisians are fou about macarons, and shops selling the almond-based, flavor-filled, cute-as-a-button delicacies are as much a part of the Parisian pastry scene as tarte tatin and croissants. From the individual boutiques of world-renowned pastry picassos to the classic Ladurée (who recently added a shop at Charles de Gaulle, in case you were craving one last crunch), Paris’ macaron meccas are a gourmet gallery walk for sugar seekers. No matter how small or large, the boutiques teem with people, all clamoring to take home the most edible of Paris souvenirs, with some folks waiting up to an hour! (Would you like NUTS with your cookies, madame?)
One of my favorite French expressions is: Lécher les Vitrines, which means to window shop, but literally translates: to lick the windows and the saying takes on a whole new meaning while perusing the patisseries of Paris. I love admiring the little round macarons, wearing their proud colors and lined up like obedient school children. Or stacked into pyramids and Christmas trees that would make the most delicious table centerpieces or even wedding cakes. I was only chased away once for literally drooling on the window! Ladurée, the famed house, and claimed inventor, of the modern day macaron, has gorgeous boudoir-esque windows at each of the four Parisian locations, with a color palette of cookies that glimmer like jewels against the signature pale green boxes. Behind the main Ladurée shop on the Champs-Elysees is even a bar with a menu of macaron-inspired drinks with similar colors and flavors. I had the violette-cassis cocktail, which was divine and topped with a purple macaron. My friend had the rose drink, which she didn’t like. Apparently it tasted too much like … a rose. Imagine? The cookie cocktails are, admittedly, an acquired taste and can be a little like boozy bubble bath but hey … that’s how the cookie crumbles. (Sorry, I just had to pun.)
While Ladurée is the most well-known and the cookies are certainly delicious, it often takes a Herculean effort (not a far off description of me given all the macarons I have been eating lately) to get into the shops since tour busses literally pull up in droves. The Champs-Elysees store is open on Sunday at 8:30 a.m., which is a manageable time to go if you happen to be awake and caffeinated by then. Luckily, Paris is full of other outposts equally worthy of a taste. Pierre Hermé (pierreherme.com), Dalloyau (dalloyau.fr), Carette (carette-paris.com), and Sadaharu Aoki (sadaharuaoki.com) are amongst my favorite window-licking (and macaron-eating) destinations.
One of the reasons I love France is for its passion for food. How can you not love a country that refers to a religious holiday, Candlemas, or La Chandeleur on February 2, as Crêpe Day? And the macaron-obsessed French have not disappointed me yet when it comes to fêting their food. Yep, you guessed it. March 20, all over France, is Macaron Day. Vive La France!
To prepare for my own Macaron Day festivities, I decided to take my obsession to new levels (am I turning Parisian?). Through the lovely Paule Caillat at her home in the Marais, and with her delicious gourmet tour company, Promenades Gourmandes (promedandesgourmandes.com), I learned (attempted) to make the cookies myself. This is no easy task and requires a lot of time and a Ph.D. in pastry bag manipulation. But Paule’s friend and master pastry chef Joel Morgeat was kind and patient, and possesses a bizarre, almost circus-freak-show like skill for handling boiling sugar with his fingertips. I don’t recommend trying this at home, nor after a few glasses of vin rouge! I left Paule’s house with a recipe in hand, a couple of burnt fingertips, a canon of cookie vocabulary to fool guests, and memories of a great afternoon in a laughter-filled kitchen.
But even if I could make them at home (not likely), I’ll still go back to Paris for my macarons. They simply taste better when coming from one of my favorite places on earth, and after licking a few windows.