Herein, dear reader, is a tale of obsession, fervor and a French man. But not obsession and fervor for a French man. Sorry, Jacques.
It’s also a post particularly for my many foodie friends.
Most of my audience (both of you) know that, in addition to ending up in places like Antarctica and New Zealand and writing fiction (and occasionally truth), I’m a trained pastry chef. I also am what I’d call a fuss-free foodie. I am interested in the process of making food, in flavors and experiences, in understanding what makes an item popular or a place successful. But I have a very low threshold for pretentious nonsense, gimmicks and, worst of all, crappy food marketed as the Second Coming.
Also, I really like macarons.
No, not macaroooons, the dreadful haystack of shredded coconut and sugar and egg white that is sometimes, adding insult to injury, dipped in chocolate.
No, I mean macarons, also called French macarons to distinguish them from the aforementioned coconut-based abomination (which, as it happens, I like to call macaruins). A proper macaron—a little sandwich of two meringue-and-almond-flour cookies with ganache, preserves or buttercream in between—is a delight to look at, and feels like angels French-kissing you when eaten.
Macarons aren’t difficult to make, but do require a bit of attention to detail, several different processes and careful timing at various points, all of which, as your average borderline-OCD pastry chef, I love. They’re also a great canvas for both flavor and color. Though the chefs I worked with in New Zealand insisted on dumping gobs of food coloring into the meringue to make near-neon macarons (that tasted like food coloring—ugh), it’s possible to create a rainbow of hues with a more subtle hand.
And the flavors! Vanilla, pistachio, raspberry and chocolate are probably the most classic, but I’ve had peanut butter and jelly, creamsicle, green tea, lavender, rose, blood orange, black sesame and pandan, a slightly herbaceous flavor popular in East Asia, though I had it last year in Melbourne, a city that has gone mad for macarons (I approve).
As it happens, I’m currently in New Jersey for Thanksgiving with my mom, and today I decided to take the train into Manhattan to check on some pastry trends and sample the macaronmania that has gripped the City.
I was a little concerned about heading into New York. I get anxious in crowds, especially since living in Antarctica. I don’t freak out or anything, but I don’t enjoy it.
I had nothing to fear.
New York is home for me in a way no other place is. I feel at home in Antarctica, in most of England and New Zealand, and in southeastern Wisconsin. But in New York, a place I grew up around and lived in for four years, a sixth sense kicks in and I know where I am, where I’m going, how things work and, perhaps most importantly, where to find the nearest clean bathroom.
For example, the first place on my list, Sweet Revenge, was on Carmine Street, on the edge of SoHo. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been to Carmine Street (it’s a sliver of a thing tucked between Seventh, Houston and Bleeker), but getting off at the Houston subway station I found myself choosing the least convenient exit because my brain told me “it made sense,” going up the stairs, crossing an intersection again feeling a strange pull and, ta-dah, finding myself at Carmine Street.
Sidenote: my sixth sense also kicks in London, a place I’ve never lived but adore, yearn for and love to visit, but no other city. Huh. I think I may need to conduct further research. In London.
How could I not visit a place with such a delicious name? Sweet Revenge came up on a Google search for best New York desserts and is famous for pairing cupcakes with wine and beer. The friendly server told me “we’re famous for pairing our cupcakes with wine and beer” and I said “I’m famous for hating cupcakes.” ‘Nuff said about trying their signature. I will hold off on my cupcake rant (for the moment) to say it is also a charming mini-bistro with the cutest faucet in its (clean) bathroom sink. I’m just sayin’. If you ever need a clean bathroom on Carmine Street…
Service: Friendly and personable.
Size: about 20 seats crammed into a place not much larger than a living room with a shabby chic (in a good way) bistro feel.
Purchased: Tuscan savory “cake” (very muffin-esque) with house side salad and a latte, total with tip $18.
Crowd: Exclusively women during the weekday noon hour I visited, late 20s-40s, savvy but not hipsters drowning in their own irony.
The Package: I’m always thinking about how a place markets itself, what the website looks like, how they package product. I didn’t buy anything as takeaway here, but other than mixed font abuse on their website*, I think they do a great job of marketing. (*Yes, I fuss over fonts. Deal with it.)
Verdict: I thought it was just a bit pricey and can imagine it’s a nightmare when crowded, but the latte was top notch and I’d return to try a sandwich if I was in the neighborhood again.
Yes, I know, I know, I just admitted my deep hatred for cupcakes. I guess it would be more accurate to say I hate what cupcakes have become, this inexplicable (and apparently inexhaustible) trendy paragon of all that is allegedly awesome. I don’t mind a fresh cupcake made of plump, moist cake with a proper Italian or Swiss buttercream, natural colors and an obvious flavor. But I don’t understand why people go insane for flavorless, dry cake or confectioners-sugar-and-Crisco frosting, for garish colors that taste of grain alcohol and artifice, for just plain stupid flavor gimmicks and anything pronounced as “in” by self-appointed cupcake kings.
In fact, I put cupcakes in the same category as the Kardashians and that honey-boo-boo brat. That would be my “WTF?” category.
I went in to Molly’s Cupcakes out of curiosity because I passed it on the way to the next place on my list and wondered how the verdammte cupcake* business is going these days, especially in a primo spot in the Village.
(Good friend Dread Pirate Iron Bluebird, also mystified by the enduring allure of the cupcake, has suggested I open a bakery to give the people what they want…Verdammte Cupcakes, which basically translates as “Goddamned Cupcakes!” I may well do that one day.)
Service: Disinterested. The two 20-something girls stood there talking to each other about hair while I waited to see how long they’d go before noticing me right in front of them. Answer: about 30 seconds which, given the scant number of people wanting to buy their cupcakes, was an eternity.
Size: Large storefront that was almost empty at 12:30 on a weekday.
Crowd: A tourist family with little kids were the only other customers. They seemed happy.
The Package: The overall decor was sunny and fun, perhaps ironically so given the soul-crushing pain the cupcake trend has brought to many a pastry chef who wants to make creme brulee and japonaise and chiboust but is repeatedly asked “Hey, can you make them cupcakes I seen on that Food Network cupcake show where they gotta make a bunch of cupcakes? That show sure is funny!”
Verdict: I can’t comment on the taste since I didn’t try anything, but then nothing looked appetizing enough to try. A lot of the product looked old (the fruit garnishes looked limp and dry in particular) and I’ve been burned by too many verdammte cupcakes in the past to part with another four bucks for stale cake and crappy seven-minute frosting. Maybe they were fabulous. Maybe there’s a pair of skinny jeans out there that would flatter my keister.
Dessert Club, Chikalicious
Service: Hipster-y but fairly helpful.
Size: Shoebox-sized. I think I could have stretched my arms out and touched both side walls.
Purchased: Black sesame shortbread (allegedly chosen as “the best cookie in the US” by USA Today, that paragon of gastronomy) and macarons (strawberry, green tea and salted caramel), total $14.
Crowd: the only other customers, leaving as I entered, were very East Village hip and rather pleased about it.
The Package: Respectable but anonymous and slightly old-fashioned packaging for what I bought. Sadly the actual Chikalicious dessert bar was closed today (and maybe for good? I couldn’t find it and it’s supposed to be across the street from the dessert club) so I had to make due with the more casual shop, which was decidedly unglamorous.
Verdict: I haven’t tried the shortbread yet, but the macarons ranged from average to good. All of them were a bit overly chewy and had too much filling (it oozed out when bitten into). The salted caramel had good flavor but was stale. The strawberry was fresh and had okay flavor but did not move me to write sonnets to it or anything. The green tea was the best of the three, with good flavor and a nice fresh shell. Not disappointing, but unless the shortbread is to die for, I don’t think I’d go back. I think one reason there’s so much filling is because they seem to use the same shell for all the macarons (they were sold out of chocolate when I visited so I don’t know if that’s entirely true) and expect the filling to do all the flavorfying. And yes, I just used the pseudo-word “flavorfying.”
Update: I tried the sesame shortbread. It was okay, but nothing to gush about. I’ve had better black sesame cookies in Vegas.
Not a macaron destination, or even an eatery, Kiehl’s sells expensive skin and hair care and I’ve always been a little curious about it. Having used up the free Lush and Aveda moisturizer samples I had, I went in and got a recommendation, then asked for a sample. “We don’t really give samples. We’re not supposed to,” said the shopgirl. I thought of saying “I don’t really buy $60 a half-ounce moisturizer. I’m not supposed to, until I’m independently wealthy.” Instead I gave her my Puss in Boots big sad eyes. She made me a sample with enough that will last for a couple weeks, certainly until I’m back in Wisconsin and can hit up another Aveda store for another sample.
Because that’s how I roll.
(Full disclosure: when I find a skin care product I love, or even like, I pay the big bucks for it…just ask the folks at Sephora. But too many of the goos and gels and creams out there are unremarkable to make that kind of investment without a test drive.)
Update: I like the Rosa Arctica Lightweight Regeneration cream enough to buy it when the sample runs out or Santa buys it for me, whichever comes first. Yes, shameless, I know. Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day–and it wasn’t built because the Romans sat around waiting for their slave laborers to feel motivated.
Service: Apparently, I had accidentally activated my cloaking device because I stood at the counter, the only customer doing so (everyone else was already sitting and eating), for more than a minute and was roundly ignored by all three unoccupied shopgirls, who leaned against the display, arms akimbo, looking at everything except the six-foot-tall woman directly in front of them.
Size: Only about a dozen seats but good space around them.
Purchased: Nothing. I might have bought a baked red bean bun, even though I prefer them steamed, but the service was so craptastic I decided to spend my money elsewhere.
Crowd: Everyone—staff and customers—was Japanese, in their 20s and a bit glum. It’s apparently a Japanese bakery chain. And, by the way, I’m not saying “everyone was Japanese” in a negative way, just saying that was the case, like the all-chick crowd at Sweet Revenge.
The Package: the place looked attractive and, at first glance, the packed case was full of inviting, perfectly golden brown baked goods, until you leaned a little closer and realized oh my god, that’s supposed to be a croissant!
Verdict: This is one of those Asian-French patisseries that has a bit of both with uncertain results. I can’t comment on the flavor because I didn’t buy anything, but their croissants frightened me. Monstrous, bear claw shaped things that bore no resemblance to a proper croissant. They also had Green Tea-ramisu which I was ready to mock until I realized almost every other place I went to had Green Tea-ramisu, which I can’t imagine being good. To me, a tasty tiramisu requires that play of bitter coffee and rich mascarpone, but most of the Green Tea-ramisus I encountered today seemed to be green tea mousse with vanilla sponge and white chocolate. That does not appeal to me.
Spot Dessert Bar
Service: Relatively pleasant but harried despite the place being only half full.
Size: Small but not tiny basement location
Purchased: Macarons (passion fruit, Oreo, taro, green tea, rose and caramel), total $15.
Crowd: Everyone, servers included, looked to be college age. Those not absorbed in texting were rather boisterous.
The Package: I liked the little box she put my macarons in: sturdy with a cute slip cover with logo. Simple, useful, unique.
Verdict: I’ve only tried the passion fruit so far, which was correctly made but didn’t zing me silly. I had an amazing passion fruit macaron in Melbourne, against which I measure all others. This fell short, as did the place overall. It had more of a college feel than the swanky website suggests, and the noisy table of students that kept interrupting me to ask the shopgirl for one more of this and another of that were obnoxious. (The fact that she kept walking away from me to help them also irked me, though she seemed too frazzled to pick on too much.) Also, on a personal note, I don’t like basement eating establishments, especially in slightly dodgy neighborhoods. Unless the other macarons are fantastic, I wouldn’t go back to Spot. It’s another Asian fusion place, by the way, and yes, there was Green Tea-ramisu. If anyone ever makes a Green Tea-ramisu cupcake I may have to shoot that person in the head (with a spritz cookie gun, of course).
Update: The passion fruit turned out to be the best of the bunch. A couple were really stale, a couple others were really bland and the rose was way overdone–unlike a lot of people, I love rose as a flavor so if I cringe at the soapy taste, you know they’ve gone too far.
Momofuku Milk Bar
Service: very chatty and personable.
Size: postage stamp. You might be able to fit a queen size bed in the space, but definitely not a king.
Purchased: two Compost Cookies and a Thanksgiving croissant, total $10.
The Package: basic but cute and consistent.
Verdict: I had my doubts about this fabled foodie hipster place, which got crazy amounts of hype for its cereal milk (milk soaked in cold cereal. Yes, essentially, sweet milk. They came for it in the thousands and the sidewalk is still marked with “line starts here” arrows) and “crack pie.” The Compost Cookies were probably the day’s bargain, the size of my palm for less than two dollars, and I liked the salty-sweet taste a lot (enough to steal the idea and make it myself). They also had good, chewy texture. The Thanksgiving croissant was the day’s biggest surprise. I bought it because it sounded kind of ghastly—an entire holiday meal baked in a croissant—in a way that made me curious. It was delicious. The dough was a little soggy and heavy but full of sage and thyme and other “stuffing” herbs, and inside was a fat piece of turkey breast, cranberry sauce and something gravy-like that would explain the dough’s sogginess. Each bite was like an idealized Thanksgiving memory. Nice job. Though I can’t get past someone selling “cereal milk” for $5 a pint and someone else, many someones else, lining up to buy it.
A girl cannot live on macarons alone. She also needs shoes. After milling around Union Square’s holiday market for a while and finding nothing of interest, I stopped by Nordstrom Rack to try on Italian designer raincoats on clearance, reduced to a mere $300. I bought nothing. I just needed a break from thinking about food, and slithering into a sleek designer raincoat will give you that.
Laduree is to macaron fanatics what Mecca is to Muslims. Wait, let me offend a few other world religions. Laduree is an audience with the Pope for Catholics. It’s the Wailing Wall for Jews. It’s Nirvana for Buddhists, and I don’t mean the band.
Laduree claims to be the original French macaronier*, so revered and so protective of its reputation as the Platonic ideal of the macaron that they do not trust American hands or American egg whites or American almond flour to do justice to their recipes. I mean, mon dieux! Sacre bleu! Zut alors!
That exhausts my non-culinary French. Oh wait, here’s one more thing: merde.
Every day, macarons made in France by people Laduree trusts not to muck it up are flown to their New York store in, I imagine, a pale chartreuse Concorde kept in service solely for that purpose, or perhaps in baskets carried by flocks of faeries with fluttering, pale chartreuse wings.
(*By the way, yeah, I just made up that word. Just because it’s fake doesn’t mean it’s wrong.)
While all the other places I went to on this trip were in the Village, I had to go to the Upper East Side for Laduree’s tiny shop, done up in that classic French look of Versailles without quite so much gilt.
There was a line of Asian tourists and Upper East Side socialite-types and a couple women taller than I am, with zero body fat, fabulously shiny hair, perfect skin and smartphones apparently surgically attached to their heads, whom I suspect were models.
As the line shuffled along, I noticed one member of the staff was not a twenty-something wearing a tasteful sweater or black shirt and pencil skirt. He was tall and gray-haired and in a suit jacket, and looked like an older version of the French actor Vincent Cassel. I figured he was the guy in charge because he wasn’t doing anything, just looking around and fussing over the exact angle of a few display boxes.
He kept glancing at me and then turning his back. I worried that my Fuggs and bootcut jeans had branded me as someone not of the appropriate socio-economic class to be at Laduree, but, when I reached the front of the line and a young shopboy began to offer his help, the older guy turned around, smiled and said, in what I can only describe as a Pepe le Pew bedroom voice, “I ‘ave beeeen waiting for you.”
Uh, okay. Slightly creepy.
Sadly, despite my apparent animal magnetism being strong enough to lure him away from straightened boxes that needed re-straightening, I did not score any kind of discount and the final tally, including a couple very small but tastefully wrapped gifts, would have gotten me almost halfway to Paris.
As I was leaving, he came around the counter to hand me my coveted Laduree bag personally instead of passing it over the case like everyone else was doing. As he put it in my hands, he purred “I weeesh you a lovely night.”
I was tempted to tell him it would indeed be a lovely night, in my flannel pajamas (the red ones with a print of an elk drinking out of a beer keg), gorging on macarons and an entire Thanksgiving meal crammed into what passes for a croissant in America, but I remembered I’ve been trying to be more gracious so I just wished him the same.
He went back to straightening boxes.
Service: Surprisingly friendly for a (mostly) French staff, one member of which I suspect would have been willing to feed me the macarons as I reclined on a swooning couch had I asked.
Size: Just enough room for a large display case, tiny “gift” area and double line of macaronaphiles patiently salivating while waiting their turn.
Purchased: Macarons, of course (blood orange and ginger, pistachio, rose petal, cassis and violet, caramel with salted butter, lemon-lime, lime and basil, green apple, and orange blossom) as well as a couple holiday gifts that will remain unspoken until Santa delivers them, for a grand total perilously close to triple digits.
Crowd: Upper East Side elites and upper crust tourists. Let’s just say I was the only one wearing fake Uggs.
The Package: Are you kidding? They are the Tiffany’s of macaron packaging, from the hardshell cylindrical macaron cases with latches–latches!–to the color-coordinated slide shows on their website.
Verdict: Nothing can live up to that much hype, and Laduree did not, despite the charms of its senior staff. (Don’t get me wrong…I’ll still demolish them over the next couple days.) So far I’ve had the orange blossom (classically sized and executed with a whiff of orange blossom. Probably the best made of all the ones I tried today but a little too subtle for my barbarian taste buds), the rose petal (overzealous application of filling but otherwise textbook classic rose macaron) and the blood orange and ginger (the right size and perfectly made, but tasted of orange, not blood orange, and no ginger). Now, blood orange, ginger and macarons are three of my favorite things in the universe (if they’d found a way to work “dinosaurs” in there, I might have wept) so I was crazy excited about this. But. Eh. Also, I noticed a number of the macarons in the case were cracked or a bit crushed, overfilled or with bubbles baked into the cookie tops. It’s not horrific, but, given Laduree’s mythic stature in the macaron world, I would have expected perfection.
Maybe the green-winged faeries bring the seconds and irregulars to America.
Update: I spoke (or typed) too soon. Those were some of the best macarons I’ve ever had, and I think the green apple was my favorite ever. Wonderful flavor with perfect tartness and no taste of chemical tomfoolery. The pistachio and the cassis and violet were also in my all-time top ten. Every single one was perfectly made, too, and fresh. Okay, as much as I hate hype, I’ve got to say Laduree comes closest to actually deserving it. Splendide!