In the Macarons Category in Paris the First Prize
In my quest to find the best macaron, those chewy bites of heaven the French know how to make just right, I devised a plan of attack: 4 locations in Paris, 12 macarons, and an evaluation sheet. More on that later.
First, what are macarons? Not to be confused with “macaroons” which are coconut cookies, macaron pastries look like little neon sandwiches: two somewhat crunchy, moist, and fluffy almond meringues separate a layer of jam, ganache (chocolate-and-cream glaze) or buttercream. Macarons are usually made with egg whites, almond flour or powder, almond extract, food coloring, a pinch of salt, and three types of sugar (powdered, confectioners, and granulated).
Who’s the genius behind these sugary delights? The short answer: a band of Italian monks from the 9th century! It is believed that Catherine de’ Medici brought the monks’ recipe to France when she married Henry II. Many think that Marie-Antoinette had something to do with macarons; however, just as the queen probably never said “let them eat cake”, she certainly never got the chance to devour macarons in her lifetime. Sofia Coppola’s widely successful film Marie Antoinette willfully plays with anachronisms, introducing macarons and their colorful, double-decker appearance before their time! Indeed, macarons, as originally conceived by the monks, were quite sober: colorless and stuffing-less, this version of the pastry was as exciting as present day Nilla Wafers.
You may be wondering: what makes macarons so special? Why the big hoopla? I wager that this worldwide infatuation has something to do with their striking colors and creative designs: the macaron beckons us through its bright hues, sheens, and dainty decorations, which vary from shiny sprinkles to rose petals and even gold leafs. Macarons manage to be luxurious, elegant, and slightly decadent all at once. Also, the “macaron” concept itself seems irresistible: a relatively simple pastry that can be infinitely altered (color, design, taste) to achieve savory greatness! For instance, instead of the traditional ganache or jam, some adventurous foodies have invented both the jelly doughnut macaron and the peanut butter and jelly macaron. It seems that when it comes to these pastries, the sky is the limit!
You know a dish has gained a substantial universal status when McDonald’s tries their hand at it: you can now purchase macarons at Mc Cafés in Paris! However, there seems to be little (to no) consensus among the French when it comes to these new macarons: while some online reviews like the Figaroscope don’t bother even mentioning these “little macs”, the Express ranked them #2 for their framboise flavor, ahead of famous gourmet brands like Lenôtre and Dalloyau!
Frozen macarons are even sold at Picard, France’s so-called favorite grocery store which specializes in freezing food technologies. This supermarket advertises an assortment of mini macarons (chocolate and coconut, salty caramel, hazelnut, and orange with orange flower) which are surprisingly tasty!
This brings us back to my macaron expedition. After perusing online rankings and asking around, I discovered that I would need to pick a side in “Paris’ Great Macaron War” between the two major players – Ladurée, the French luxury bakery that’s been around since 1862, and Pierre Hermé, a smaller scale operation instigated by Hermé, a famous chef pâtissier, in 1998.
Ironically, Pierre Hermé initially worked for Ladurée, where he started the trend of creating intricate macaron flavors that go beyond the typical chocolate, pistachio, coffee, raspberry, and vanilla. While Hermé is known for its artistry, Ladurée has become a timeless classic because of its history. Notably, Ladurée contributed to popularizing the salons de thé (tearooms) in 19th century France! In fact, if you are looking for a chic place to eat your macarons and/or a creamy hot chocolate, I would recommend going to Ladurée’s Parisian shop on the Champs-Elysées or their new tearooms in the Soho neighborhood of New York City.
Conscientious of my macaron budget, I picked a total of four shops in the Quartier Latin: Ladurée (rue Bonaparte) and Pierre Hermé (also Rue Bonaparte – coincidence?) were musts, as well as Gérard Mulot (Rue de Seine), a local favorite. Out of all the excellent macaron shops in the city, I decided to finish my tour by going to the Café Pouchkine (boulevard Saint-Germain), a trendy fixture in the world of pâtisseries in Paris since its inception in the early 2000s. I was intrigued by the Café Pouchkine because of the pastries’ rave reviews and the hype around the boutique/tearooms’ décor.
While taste is a subjective matter, the experience of eating a macaron is somewhat universal! It all starts when a macaron catches you eye, because of its color, shape or decorations. You take a bite and get a feel for the textures and consistencies. Finally, you get to the flavors, from the initial tastes to the ones you discover as you’re eating. I think this way of experiencing food can be translated to the following criteria for judging macarons: aesthetics (is it enticing?), shell texture (is the shell smooth, slightly crispy but not crunchy?), filling (is the texture light, velvety, and flavorful?), and flavor (is is distinctive but not overly sweet?).
My favorite macarons, by a long shot, were Pierre Hermé’s! Not only are they stunning to look at, but they are also the most exquisite pastries I have ever eaten! While I can’t say that I definitely unearthed the hiding place of the best macaron in Paris, a city filled with pâtisseries at every corner, I can tell you that I discovered some incredible sweets, and look forward to having the chance to find and taste many more!