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I Tried It

In Paris, an amateur baker meets her match — macarons

Taking on the quintessential French confectionary takes precision, multitasking, and confidence.

By Lian Parsons-Thomason

I was running late and out of breath when I ducked into the small Paris storefront and ushered into a small, pink basement kitchen. My timing would have to be more precise if I wanted to achieve my amateur baker’s dream: making macarons from scratch.

The macaron is one of the iconic French confectionaries, made of meringue and almond flour and filled with ganache. Long had I been enchanted by their pillowy texture, tongue-tingling sweetness, and unforgiving difficulty. I’d watched many an accomplished home baker on shows like “The Great British Bake Off” crumble under the challenge, their flattened, discolored meringues sliding off lilting cookie sculptures of castles and dragons. I’d already conquered multi-layer cakes, pavlovas, and even cream puffs. But this was my baking Mount Everest.

Our teacher, a meticulously bearded Frenchman named Guillaume, walked us through each step of baking the tricky little treats over the course of our three-hour class. First came the cookies: a combination of sifted almond flour and powdered sugar, folded into Italian meringue to give them a soft but chewy texture. They should be smooth on top, not a single crack in sight, with the quintessential slightly crispy “foot” at the base where the batter spreads out and bubbles ever so slightly.  

I’d watched many an accomplished home baker on shows like “The Great British Bake Off” crumble under the challenge.

Working in pairs, we took turns sifting flour and sugar through a fine sieve. When the mixture piled up, a blizzard of silky powder in the metal bowl, it was ready for the meringue — egg whites and perfectly tempered sugar syrup. 

My partner monitored the egg whites in the bowl of the stand mixer while I kept a close eye on the candy thermometer in the saucepan of sugar syrup, waiting for it to hit 244.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Any higher or lower and we’d have to start again.  

“What happens if it’s not right?” I asked Guillaume. 

“The macarons will not rise in the oven and will be flat.” He mimed a collapsed dome with a cupped hand. “They will be too chewy to eat.”  

At €99 per class, inedible macarons would be an expensive failure.  

Heeding his warning, I took the pan off the stove just in time to pour the syrup in a steady trickle into the egg whites. We turned the speed of the mixer up and the mixture ballooned, forming stiff, glossy peaks.  

Next, we folded the almond flour into the meringue. “Pull upwards, not out, comprenez-vous?” Guillaume demonstrated with a deft flick of his wrist. “Otherwise it will crack and that is no good, no?” 

“Only three more, then stop and do not continue!” he called, peering over the thick, black rims of his glasses. He was our North Star in this little kitchen, offering brisk critiques, the occasional ooh la!, and jokes to fill the time. When he deemed our mixtures acceptable, we divided the batter in half, dyed it with powdered food coloring, and piped it onto baking sheets lined with nonstick silicone Silpat mats. 

I hustled my little pink and blue cookies into the convection oven, fighting the urge to watch for the dreaded cracks through the oven window. Fortunately, I had the ganache to distract me, and my anxiety disappeared in a haze of melting chocolate and simmering heavy cream.  

Fifteen minutes later — but what felt like seconds — a mini symphony of kitchen timers began beeping away on the counter. I held my breath and slid my macarons out of the oven, scanning them for flaws. Most would withstand a steely-eyed Paul Hollywood critique. But not all of them. Unwilling to risk a rebuke from Guillaume, I quickly scooped a few of the less-perfect cookies into my mouth. 

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Lian Parsons-Thomason is a writer based in Boston.

 

Illustration by Dom McKenzie

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