Tuesday, 23 October 2012


I went to a macaron class yesterday, mainly because I am stupid and accessorily because I thought it might be useful for the 'book', which I am trying not to lose faith in after my ambivalent, but not wholly negative, partridge slaying meeting last week (the basic tenor of which - kindly delivered - was 'yeah, it's quite interesting, there's some good writing in there, but WHAT THE FUCK IS IT?' I am not seeing gigantic pound signs in my near future). I don't actually have any aspiration to make macarons - the effort reward ratio is plainly skewed against them and frankly, I'm not even that crazy about the taste - which is probably a good thing, because on the strength of last night, I am more likely to grow a third arm.

It was quite a peculiar experience, not least the getting there which took me only slightly less than all my natural life. The 'there' was an unmarked office block on the wrong side of Waterloo (by which I mean 'the further away side', I don't think Waterloo has badlands) and I was navigating using only my still-somewhat-temperamental-after-its-soaking iPhone and running late before I even started. The journey involved half a dozen roadside stops in out of town shopping centre car parks and a rising level of crazy and by the time I found my way to the some kind of new age spa (?) round the back of the office block where the lesson was happening, I was nearly half an hour late and not particularly kindly inclined towards the whole enterprise as I edged my way, shamefully, through the ranks of deadly silent macaron-thusiasts. Thankfully, they gave you wine. They also, mystifyingly, gave you a peculiar tiny salad composed of cubes of cheese, thinly sliced ham, crumbled walnut and chicory. Perhaps this is the kind of thing you like: I don't mind any of the elements in isolation, but the whole 'salad with cubes of cheese in' thing gives me the heebie jeebies.

"I am NOT eating that" said the very camp man opposite me, decidedly. He was a welcome voice of mild dissent in the chorus of macaron-zombies, who were all taking copious notes (whenever something important was mentioned he would gesture imperiously at the girl accompanying him and hiss "Write it DOWN!", which I admired enormously). "Mademoiselle? I am not eating this". And he handed it smartly back. Later we got two tiny fish balls on a skewer. I ate those without complaint.

Anyway, I am far from sure I learnt anything at all because it was a resolutely hands off kind of class, where you are taught at from the front ("welcome to the French education system", said M when I complained to her). This seems to me quite unlikely to work with something so .. manual. Surely this isn't the norm in cookery classes? Shouldn't you, you know, get to cook? It was only my second ever, so I am an innocent in such matters. I should say at this point in the interests of fairness that the chef was charming, if somewhat serious, and that I actually think his patisserie is very fabulous indeed, and I had a lot of sympathy for him, because it seemed like a pretty dreary evening for him all round, basically doing his day job for an extra three hours watched by a crowd of gimlet eyed women asking him searching questions about the relative merits of silicone and baking parchment. Also, the problem here was definitely me, not the class. However. It was very odd.

The part where he was demonstrating "macaronnage", where you beat your meringue/almond mixture in a strangely precise way until it reaches a strangely precise degree of looseness was when I lost any faith I would ever be able to reproduce what I was watching. I can't even get crème pâtissière right, and this involved all sorts of fancy arm action, followed by dropping a rubber spatula of mixture back in your bowl in three dollops, and if the first dollop had disappeared by the time you dropped the third, it was ready, which strikes me as a loopy way to decide anything. Surely there should be some kind of science involved in something so delicate? No, apparently we must watch the way the blobs fall, like prehistoric seers divining stuff from toad entrails. I expected better of my cake. People took reverent photographs and indeed, in one case, video footage of him piping his macarons, but I was still traumatised by the macaronnage. 

Also, the choice of flavours made me cry, because I am no kind of macaron sophisticate and only really want salted caramel and, at a pinch, lemon. Instead, the only macaron we were allowed to taste in class (the 'here's one I prepared earlier' macaron) was ... carrot and cumin. YES. LIKE A SOUP. A soup-filled macaron. I would really rather not, thank you. The flavours he made during the class were slightly more conventional  not a great improvement: there was mango and white chocolate (blargh, so so sweet), chocolate (fine for most, but not for me) and ... WHITE TRUFFLE. Oh dear. Just because Pierre Hermé in his infinite, sad Tellytubby cake genius wisdom does something, it does not mean mortals should attempt it, and frankly, even when Saint Peter of Hermé made a white truffle macaron I felt absolutely no desire to go within ten feet of the blighter. I have one downstairs now, festering in clingfilm, waiting for one of the children to be sufficiently naughty that I will offer it to them (shouldn't be long now).  I could not really arrange my features into a suitable expression of reverent approval during the preparation of the white truffle crème mousseline, because: IT IS AN ABOMINATION. Instead, I shook my head involuntarily for a full ten minutes while there was discussion of such peversities as adding a slice of chilled foie gras to your macaron and dusting it with toasted pain d'épice and making a macaron with TOMATO JUICE or WASABI. I am sorry about all the capitals here, but it has been a rude shock, discovering this nest of patisserie deviance, like something off Cupcake Wars, except here in my own back yard (if my backyard stretched all the way to sodding Waterloo).

We were despatched home with two violet macarons he had prepared before we arrived, one chocolate, one mango, and a white truffle one hermetically sealed in a layer of clingfilm to avoid contamination, and strict instructions not to taste until the next morning. The wait did not trouble me unduly, I am afraid, because a late night snack of white truffle crème mousseline is not a key part of my bedtime routine. Indeed now, 24 hours later, there is still only one sad, tiny bite out of the white truffle monstrosity (Fingers) and a half of each of the mango and violet have been eaten. Not a roaring success. I am in two minds whether I could ever give up three hours (well, honestly it would probably take me five at least) of my life to do this, but if I ever do, I might try his recipe for salted caramel which included alarming instructions like "wait for the blue smoke" and "there will be some spitting" and "ensure there are no children in the house". If you're going to do a thing, might as well do it in a cloud of blue, and possibly truffle scented, smoke.


Anonymous said...

I saw this: http://www.broadsheet.ie/2012/10/23/the-most-generous-cat-in-russia/ and thought of you. Also, the second comment under the piece has made me weep with laughter.

Margaret said...

I'm beginning to think macarons are not what I think they are.

ali_jane said...

While I know this question goes against the theme of the (brilliant) narrative, I'm very curious as to his thoughts on the silicone vs. parchment paper issue!

Also, thank you to the commenter above for the link; sorry that I was initially worried that you (being anonymous) were trying to send me to either some kind of pornographic and/or malware infecting site.

Waffle said...

Ali_Jane - He said he preferred parchment (which he stuck to baking trays with a blob of macaron mixture), but silicone was fine too. Inconclusive.

Waffle said...

Anon - OH GOD THAT IS AMAZING. Both hedgies and comment. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't macaroons supposed to taste of almonds? I've got to agree with the cat/hedgehog comment: it's a very slippery slope indeed if people are allowed to put carrot/cumin into macaroons. Lucy

Barbara said...

I was in New York and walked past LaDuree macaroonery. Having heard people twitter on for quite a bit about macaroons i braved the very nervous making establishment, threw caution to the winds and purchased 4 macaroons for the ridiculous sum of 11 dollars. The young girl, dressed in a french maids costume behind the counter looked down her tiny nise at my skin flintedness. Regardless i paid, snuck out if the shop and took my new tiny posessions home and With great ceremony ate the coffee one. Meh. I wasnt even tempted to try the others. In fact i found the one i did eat overly sweet and faintly sickening. I assumed the problem was me. I cannot understand their popularity.

Anonymous said...

You have delighted me beyond words with this post. I have been sat here beaming widely, except for when I reached 'wait for the blue smoke' - which is when I frightened the tortoise into giving a moody hiss by guffawing at volume. Nearly everything I cook would benefit, if written down, by the addition of 'wait for the blue smoke'. And there is often spitting, usually me in disgust. But, being a closet perfectionist, and despite the fact I have attempted macarons exactly once before (they were... not successful) I would beg for his recipes, were it not for the fact that my french is just not up to the deciphering job. So I think you should try 'em! And take pictures!

frau antje said...

The strangely precise physical coordination reminds me of trying to learn how to swing a golf club. All the aging pros my father could muster were incapable of wringing anything from me, but serious loss of motor control. He was left with nothing but a rather surly caddie. I used to tell him what I thought of his golfing buddies, he found this hysterical.

vivien y said...

Amazing - you probably need to start learning when you're about two to get the arm action right.

Anonymous said...

My mother had a Jewish fish cookery book whose recipe for fishcakes was the highlight of my childhood.Especially the misprint which said "If must begin to smoke..." It was perfect for my Mum, who got through 20 Gauloises a day. Love your blog, Rachel

Anonymous said...

My neighbor makes jalapeno cupcakes, with cream cheese frosting. They are wrong in every way and it was difficult to thank her for sharing them without giving away how gross we found them. Certain things aren't meant to be combined.

Having never heard of macarons, google has told me that they aren't the same as macaroons, which I love dearly. Happy to hear that news!

Candace, Reno, USA

Crystal said...

Parchment because that's what my Mum uses, I'm not hedging!

Pat (in Belgium) said...

I always thought macarons had coconut in them and so, have avoided them at all costs (since the "idea" of coconut in anything but its original shell makes me retch).
I now discover, at a rather late date in my life, that what I detest are macaroons (much thanks, Candace from Reno!).
That said, the macarons still look like they should be sweet not savory and certainly NEVER with truffle anything in them. I applaud your courage at even tasting a nibble!

CAD said...

I also thought of you this week reading David Sedaris on owls in this week's New Yorker

Xtreme English said...

I've seen macarons at Whole Foods and Paul's (French bakery here in DC) but never tasted one. They don't look appetizing to me. So happy to learn they may not be delicious after all. I think it's a marketing trick to sell inferior cookies: load them with dye, use two of them, and paste them together with frosting. Can you say "profitable"??

Margaret said...

Xtreme English: I would rather say profiterole. Much more delicious.

Anonymous said...

No, I'm sorry everyone but you are all innocent of the full horror of pudding mutations. Cumin? Pah.

Smoked chocolate, that's what you want to watch out for. I recently watched a ripple of faltering then judderingly halted conversations around a room as people absent-mindedly nibbled on the strawberries dipped in smoked chocolate that had been served, and found it utterly impossible to continue polite chat.

We surreptitiously pulled faces like my dog did when he stole what he thought was a sausage but actually turned out to be a chilli. Someone discreetly told the caterer that there had clearly been a terrible mixup in the kitchen with the smoked fish that had featured earlier on the menu, but he said - rather aggrieved - that it was meant to taste like that.

The taste lingered, oleaginously, for HOURS. I cannot even write about it without writhing.

WT Softie

Waffle said...

Mr Softie - WAAAAAAAH. Ok, you win the dubious honour of bad pudding survivor.

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