Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Paris in Spring 1- the Mac post

As some of you may already know, I recently spent a long weekend in Paris with my dearest sister. It was a much-needed respite from the usual stresses of work and the daily grind. It was also a just-us-sisters QT getaway that we both wanted to have before real jobs and families get in the way. My sister had been to Paris once but I had never been to the city of lights, so I was uber excited about this spring getaway. And seriously, Paris in spring sounds just positively fabulous, doesn't it?

Overall, it was quite a decadent weekend, what with butter croissants, scrumptious desserts, wonderfully strong coffee and cheesy croques. Despite the calorie overload, I'm rather surprised that I didn't pack on the pounds. I suppose it can be attributed to our extensive walks around the city. Before the trip, I did some research on Robyn's and David's blogs for (what else, but) food recs around Paris. I totally recommend their sites for any Paris restaurants/eateries!

Armed with a list of some twenty restaurants, patissiers and boulangers, my sis and I explored not only Paris' stunning monuments and sights, but also its array of decadent eateries. Can I just add that we were totally gaga over maccarons? We have had maccarons in the US before. As a matter of fact, I tried to make them once but failed miserably. The maccarons in Paris were totally awesome and addictive! French maccarons are not to be mixed up with the American macaroon. American macaroons are basically super dense and super sweet cookies made with flaked coconuts, egg white and tons of sugar. I enjoy these on occasion, but I much prefer the delicate and elegant traditional French ones. French maccarons are basically sandwich cookies, where the cookies are made with ground almonds, egg whites and sugar.

Maccarons are sold everywhere in Paris; and I mean EVERYWHERE, whether it's just a chain bakery or artisan patissiers. The maccaron's status is almost like that of the baguette in France (though not quite, yet). We mostly made our maccaron pilgrimage to the legendary shops we've heard or read of online. The first maccaronerie we visited (or really, stumbled upon) was Ladurée on Rue Royale, the very first Ladurée shop. The bakery was founded by Louis-Ernest Ladurée in 1862 and this is the shop that invented the French maccaron. There was a 5-minute long line when we got there consisting mainly of women clamoring for their legendary baked goodies. Besides maccarons (they're on the top three racks in this picture), Ladurée also sells breads and cakes.

Trying to pace ourselves, we bought merely four mini macs (from leftmost, going clockwise): rose, cassis (blackcurrant), pistachio and caramel. Aren't they just pretty?

Unable to secure a table at Ladurée (they only allow lunch patrons at the time), my sis and I trekked to a nearby cafe and ordered some wonderfully strong French coffee as accompaniment for our macs. As a sidenote, although I don't normally drink coffee, when I do, I love super strong coffee. The French are pretty damn good at making strong cappucinos; its aromatic bitterness is the perfect contrast to the very sweet maccarons.

The Ladurée maccarons were yummy. My favorite was the nutty pistachio and I think I found out that I don't like blackcurrant. I find their cassis maccaron bitter and sweet, though not in a good way. Another maccaronerie we also stumbled upon is Toraya, a Japanese confectioner that has a Salon de Thé in the heart of Paris. Toraya specializes in the Japanese sweets, known as wagashi; but in their Paris branch, they also have maccarons. Unlike other maccaroneries, Toraya's macs have a Japanese twist. Toraya's maccaron offerings include distinctly Japanese flavors such as matcha (green tea), azuki (red bean), kinako (toasted soybean flour), shiro-goma (white sesame) and kuro-goma (black sesame). We tried all five and agreed that we liked all of them. The flavors were strong but not overpowering; the cookies were perfectly crisp on the outside and chewy in the middle; the cookie-to-filling ratio was just nice. Unfortunately, my hands were slower than my mouth because I didn't get to take a picture of these wonderful macs. But if you're in Paris, this is hands-down one of the maccarons to try!

Kitty corner from Toraya was another dessert bar/Salon de Thé, Jean-Paul Hevin that a friend recommended. The shop was inconspicuous and we almost missed it if we hadn't been looking so hard. There were so signs on the front door or window, just a little white piece of wood jutting out the wall of the shop. Upon entering the shop, I thought we got it wrong. It felt very much like an exclusive haute couture boutique or something like that! The counter was full of pretty dessert creations, lined up neatly like little soldiers. Shelves carried the signature truffles in beautiful blue tin cans and cookies in elegant boxes. Again, I tried out some maccaron; I think it was green apple and praline that I tried. Both were chocolatey and I couldn't taste the actual flavors they claimed to be. I guess it's to be expected as JP Hevin is really famous for his chocolate creations. My sister chose one of his meringue chocolate creations that was reminiscent of a giant, fluffy Ferrero Rocher. It was a chewy meringue surrounded with a crisp layer of cookie (I think), that's then chocolate-drizzled and sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts.
I must say that although the macs weren't my favorite, I regret not getting some of his legendary chocolates! Well, there's always next time...

Ok, now, for the maccaron highlight of my life (so far, I hope), I present to you Fetish! Please rid yourself of any naughty thoughts now, I'm not that kind of girl! If you're a French pastry enthusiast, you probably know what I'm talking about. It is a theme that was launched by the legendary pattisier, Pierre Herme in 2006, to celebrate his "favorite tastes, sensations and epicurean delights". Now doesn't that sound simply pleasurable? And lucky me happened to be in Paris for his first Fetish of the year, and the theme is "Ispahan" this time around.

Ispahan is PH's most famous creation thus far. I've heard about and seen pictures of it all over the blogosphere, only to despair at not being able to taste this mythic pastry ... until now, that is! Ispahan is actually a clear pink, half-open Damask rose originating in the Middle East. Its name is derived from Isfahan, a city in Iran. In the pastry world, Ispahan is basically a novel combination of the flavors of rose syrup, lychee and raspberry that was created by who else, but Pierre Herme himself. We almost didn't make it to his shop because we left it until the last day (I can't believe I actually did this! We should've gone there on our first day!), but fortunately, we had some spare time on our last day to make our pilgrimage to his shop in St. Germain.

Everything about the shop was beautiful. As I went in, I felt like I was entering a box of precious jewels. The walls were a dark, deep chocolate, providing contrast to the bright pastries on the counter and the boxes of cookies and chocolates on the shelves. The store had gone Ispahan-crazy and so did I. There were many Ispahan creations, including cakes, nougats and tea. The PH packaging was also very simple and clean. Guess what I have in my box?

Okay, if you're not jealous yet, check out the loot I had in it!

Now, what about this angle? *winks*

There are really no apt words to describe this genius creation. It was delicious and the flavor combination was definitely more than the sum of its parts. It just simply, magically works! Of course, it helps that the cookies were baked to perfection and it was just so darn pretty! I also like the symbolism of the Ispahan; it combines flavors and ideas across multiple cultures: the maccaron (French), rose (Middle-Eastern), lychee (Asian) and raspberry (Western). I haven't tasted a better pastry ... yet, I hope. If there is a perfect dessert taste-wise and ideologically, the Ispahan is IT! You may think I'm crazy for waxing poetic about a pastry like this, but the Ispahan has inspired me to re-try making macs at home again soon :)

Of course, one maccaron from PH isn't sufficient to judge his genius, right? Here's our other set of loot (from top to bottom, left to right): olive oil, apricot, 2 Ispahans, vanilla and jasmine. They were all very delicious and beautiful. The apricot and Ispahan macs had a shiny, silvery sheen on the cookies. The idea of the olive oil mac was a bit weird but the flavor was very nice. I could definitely taste the olive oil but it wasn't icky or savory at all. I love jasmine tea and I wasn't at all disappointed by the jasmine mac. Its aroma was pleasant and the jasmine flavor was delicate.

It's quite unfortunate that maccarons are so fragile and delicate. I suppose that's part of its appeal too. If they weren't so delicate, I would've bought boxes of them, enough to sustain me for a few months. After being so spoiled for choice for a few days in Paris, I was yearning for some mac action back here in Chicago. Upon my return, while I was grocery shopping, I remembered that a French-style bakery in the same shopping complex had maccarons. I had one of their pistachio creations and was rather disappointed. It was nicely chewy but it didn't have a nice crisp layer at all. The creamy filling wasn't flavorful enough and the whole mac was ever-so-slightly soggy. You probably think that I've probably snobbed up, having had the best macs in the world. Maybe so, maybe not. I suppose I'll always have Paris...

Ladurée Royale
16, rue Royale, 75008 Paris

10, Rue Saint-Florentin, 75001 PARIS

Jean-Paul Hévin
231, rue Saint-Honoré, 75001 Paris

Pierre Hermé
72, rue Bonaparte Paris 75006


glamah16 said...

Great post. Are you referring to bakery in Lake Park shopping plaza? I have to try theirs. In all my years in Paris would you believe I never had a macaroon!Really. The PH ones look spectacular. Well back to the grind....

Sylvie said...

Sounds like you had a wonderful and very tasty trip.

jesse said...

@_@ I am so jealous! Looking forward to many more Paris posts!

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