Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Mystery Revealed

Mysterious box.
Very carefully, open the lid:
I cannot believe what's inside!
Macaroons! Delicious, yummy, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate macaroons:
Ashley spent all of my birthday making these as a surprise for me. She used this recipe and they turned out perfect.
There is a story to this gift, as you might imagine. When Ashley and I were visiting family in France two years ago, we went a little crazy at the patisseries. Once we had tasted the delicious French desserts we had to return to a patisserie every day for more. We had tarte citron (lemon tart), pain aux chocolat, pain aux amandes et chocolat (chocolate bread and chocolate almond bread, respectively; aka croissants), gateau basque (Basque cake) and... Macaroons. Delicious macaroons that came in more flavors than you can imagine. On my first patisserie visit I thought the macaroons would be like the ones I had tasted here, and of course I was uninterested - until I saw them, then tasted them, then got hooked on them.

When we returned home, Ashley and I began our hunt for French macaroons. All the bakery websites in our area promised authentic French macaroons. We would try one and instantly be disappointed. We didn't give up however, and occasionally I would get a phone call from Ashley that would go like this: "Shelbi! I found a French bakery and they have macaroons! I'm buying a couple - I'll let you know..." Then, a few minutes later, a text message: "never mind, they were horrible!"

We finally gave up. It seemed so ludicrous that the bakeries that promised authentic French food from owners/chefs who had supposedly visited/studied/lived in France turned out to be as American as other bakeries. How could you have visited France and tasted the food and then turn out something that didn't even resemble the French equivalent?! Even the patisserie chains in France have superior macaroons, which look like this:
See the difference?
Not hard, ultra sweet American cookies. These were melt-in-your-mouth, bittersweet delicacies.

So, for my birthday, Ashley found a recipe and decided to try her hand at making macaroons. You will notice that the recipe calls for almonds, which have to be blanched then ground into powder. This is one secret to French desserts that American bakeries fail to note: the French almost always use almond powder or flavoring in their pastries. Everything has a slight almond taste, from the tarts to the croissants. It is so much better than our use of vanilla extract, which makes our desserts very sweet tasting. Almond flavoring counteracts the chocolate and sugar in French recipes, offering a sweet but flavorful dish. Go ahead, give the recipe a try. Have a French tea. Dress appropriately (French women are femininely dressed: always skirts, loose slacks/pants or dresses, even for grocery shopping or visits to the park!), practice your best manners (the French excel at this! For instance, the first thing my cousin schooled us on was to always greet and always take leave of people, even to waiters at the cafes - it is culturally unacceptable and considered very rude to not do both). Decorate with natural botany from your surroundings. Make tea or petite cafe au lait. Relax and fall in love with the French lifestyle, like I did two years ago. :-)

Note: when Ashley and I were mall shopping in France, we would always stop by this patisserie chain for a pastry fix. Paul's offers a guide to French manners on their website, which is hilarious and informative all at once. For instance, take this advice on greetings:
"Greet friends and family with La Bise, a kiss to each cheek, starting with the right, and accompanied by the words “Salut! Ça va?” or similar. Kissing on the lips should be a private activity, as should feeding each other PAUL chocolate or coffee éclairs…"
Or this one:
"Sitting down to Eat: Men take their seats after women. Once everyone is seated, if a woman gets up from the table, it is customary for all the men to get up as well. It is also customary for men to stand up when new guests arrive – unless they are children. Women remain seated. If a woman returns to the table or arrives late, the men must stand and remain standing until she has sat down. And no, it’s not a game of musical chairs. After all that, you will have worked up an appetite for some PAUL bread."

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