After Pastry School – Macaron “Research”

Intending to take full advantage of our proximity to urban culinary delights, I have been visiting restaurants, cafes, bakeries and specialty shops in Boston, Cambridge and Somerville sampling desserts, pastries, cookies and confections.  Some of these treats I have written about here or shared via Instagram, but many were enjoyed in the moment without a photo op or pausing to take notes on taste, texture and appearance. These treats simply said, eat me! There are a few special items that I have made an effort to sample at several places and take pictures of to share.  The first of which is French macarons.  There was no love affair between me and macarons, said to be the new “cupcake”, until I went to Paris in May 2012.  It was on that trip that I discovered truly great macarons, eclairs and croissants.  I have been pursuing their American counterparts ever since.

Different than the moist, chewy coconut stacks that are their American macaroon cousins or the flat, almond Italian Amaretti, French macarons are small(ish) cookies made with almond flour, sugar and egg whites sandwiched together with jam, buttercream or ganache.  A good macaron shell is shatteringly crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.  They have little “feet” on the bottom, letting you know the shell was prepared and baked correctly.  Often times the shell is colored to indicate the flavor of the filling as the shell is sweet and almond-y, but subtle.  The shell can be flavored with extracts or crushed cookies, nuts, etc. but that is a more advanced pastry technique and so somewhat less common.  The filling should be thick enough so that you can easily discern the flavor and that the ration of shell to filling is just right.  In my very unscientific, fairly random sampling of macarons in the area:

Until this past April I had no idea that Boston had it’s very own macaron truck, Cameo Macaron.  I made this happy discovery one day outside of Back Bay station.  I met the owner of the truck, a delightful young woman who had studied fashion (and apparently macarons!) in Paris and after working in the industry back here in the states decided to trade fashion for food.  She developed the perfect recipe and now has a baker produce the macarons, handling the business aspects, marketing and selling of the macarons from the truck.  Flavors range from the traditional (vanilla, pistachio) to contemporary (creme brulee, island coconut).  The size was about 50% larger than the usual macaron and the inside of the shell a bit cakier than I had expected.  The filling to shell ratio was good and the fillings were sweet yet true to flavor.  I liked these a lot and given their shareable size weren’t too expensive at $2.50 each.

A coworker at Sofra introduced me to Praline in late May, it’s about a mile up the street on a nondescript block of small businesses.  I was surprised that I wasn’t aware of this fabulous, little new-ish French Bakery & Cafe, but given that they opened during the worst winter in recent history I wasn’t doing a lot of exploring from January to March.  The macarons were similar in size and filling/shell ratio to those I had in Paris, although they offered some decidedly fun American flavors such as the cookies & cream (above, right).  The shells were wonderful, crispy and chewy with their fat little fee and the fillings were spot on in texture and flavor.

Sam & I have a friendly relationship with the frozen food manager at the Gloucester Stop & Shop.  He’s a former foodie turned parent who loves to hear about all the places we’ve been trying in the city over the last few months while he eats mac & cheese and fish sticks at home.  When he heard I was going to pastry school he insisted I try these.  In the past he’s special ordered a few things for me (ice cream bars, pearl onions, etc.) so against my better judgement I decided to be a good sport and give them a try.  They were imported from France and all.  After defrosting according to the directions we tried them.  Yep, they looked like macarons and the shells had the crispy/chewy/feet thing going on but there was less than zero taste.  Bleh.  Moving on.

Few gourmet food shops make their own macarons, even those with in-house bakeries. They can be notoriously difficult to make and even more difficult to produce consistently which leads many places to source from vendors that specialize in macarons. Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge is the exception.  Known as Alice’s Macarons, named after their baker of over 20 years, the macarons are made weekly and offered in raspberry, pistachio and chocolate.  Comparing these to the ones made by places that specialize in macarons/french pastry they have a definite handmade appearance and they filling/shell ratio can vary from batch to batch.  Filled with American versus French or Swiss Buttercream they are a bit sweeter, but the flavors were well pronounced and the shells had a nice crunch, although there were some air pockets at the top, interrupting the chewy interior texture.  Priced similarly to those at Praline and other shops these are a nice addition to the bakery case and would be great on a plate with some of the Lakota Bakery cookies that Formaggio also offers.

While in Harvard Square at Formaggio I remembered that L.A. Burdick sold macarons as well.  Fantastic!  I’ll try those as well.  I’ve only been to L.A. Burdick twice, both times for hot cocoa, and it is the best cocoa I’ve ever had.  So good.  I enjoy their chocolates as well, especially those little chocolate mice.  I’m not sure if the macarons are made in house.  At first I thought they must be, given some small inconsistencies in the shell appearance, but flavor wise they tasted rather bland.  There was a lot more shell than filling and none of the flavors really popped.  The shells were crisp and chewy and the size was a perfect two bites.  Overall, the only way I can really describe them would be to say they tasted “corporate”.  I’ll be back to L.A. Burdick for cocoa and candy but I’ll pass on the macarons.

Last, but certainly not least, was this dazzlingly colorful assortment of ten macarons from Cafe Madeleine in the South End.  Intending to buy just two or three, only one flavor was available individually.  Wanting to finish this post in the next week or so, I decided the only responsible thing to do was to “buy the bag”.  I’m nothing if not dedicated.  Not made in house, I asked, they are sourced from Sugar & Plumm, an “artisan macaron-maker and chocolatier” in NYC.  The macarons were the perfect size, uniformly crisp/chewy shells with nice feet.  The flavors were a mix of traditional, raspberry, and more adventurous, green tea.  Some of them had accents on the shell, a nice touch, and overall it was the most eye-catching assortment.  The fillings were nice, but a bit on the skimpy side on a few of them.  They were good but tasted a little old, not stale, just not super fresh.  If I was giving macarons as a gift and was assured the macarons in the bag were fresh these would be my choice, consistent and visually stunning.

My favorite?  A tie between Praline and Cameo Macaron.  I loved the flavors and filling/shell ratio of Cameo Macaron, but the size and chewier interior of Praline’s.  They are both excellent choices.  I’ll certainly visit both again and these would be the ones I would eat with fellow pastry peeps.  But no, nothing quite compares to those in some of the smaller, out of the way places in Paris.  I’ll just have to go back.

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