I’ve waxed and waned rhapsodic on Greece, Scotland, Ireland, New Mexico, and Greece again. And of course I love my home state of California with almost every last bit of me. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also admit to my enduring, somewhat passionate, and ever-compelling fascination with France.
When I was little, I read all the Greek myths I could get my hands on, and dreamed of the day I’d finally see the Mediterranean. This made sense: my grandfather was from the small island of Aegena, my last name is irrefutably of Greek origin, and, really, who could read about Athena springing forth fully formed from her father Zeus’ head full of vim and vigor and otherworldly intelligence and not yearn for that dusty country? [Another reason to love the Greek myths: while their goddesses were sometimes lovelorn, they were mostly tough, smart ladies who could take care of themselves.]
I’m getting distracted.
Despite my amour for Greece, I somehow became convinced France was the country for me. I took French lessons sporadically before I went to high school (where I took classes for all four years), listened to tapes, and thought about moving there straightaway, no college necessary. Alas, it was many years before I was able to visit — and even then, only for a week. At that point, I hadn’t studied the language in a few years, but I was able to get by well enough, and fell utterly in love. We spent our last afternoon in Monmatre, sipping red wine at an outdoor cafe and savoring an omelette avec frommage. I watched wonderfully dressed women and their dogs take in the warm and lovely day, and felt an almost physical pain when it was time to leave for the night train to Norway.
Back in the States, my affinity for all things French continued unabated. One July 14 I threw a party complete with quiches, pastries, French wine and the ubiquitous cheese (each and every Bastille Day the French independence anthem taught me by my wonderful high school French teacher comes to mind). On the bus to work, I’ll often listen to a French rap guy — and will try to translate to jump start my brain for the workday — or Amadou et Mariam. I tell myself I’ll dig out my French dictionary and tackle one of the classics that survived my university college lit class (still working up the time for that one). And of course, I love to make French food.
Miette, in the Ferry Building here in San Francisco, sells Parisian macarons, which are entirely unlike the American macaroons. I’ve tried a macaron or two, and loved the soft crackly texture of the tiny cookies. For last week’s Easter lunch and dinner extravaganza, I got it into my head that I must make them myself and so began the hunt for a recipe. Online, I found many suggestions — but I also found tales of woe: that they did not rise, that the texture was not right, that they didn’t bake with the appropriate “foot.” I was initially daunted. Was it worth the extra effort?
Let me tell you: it was. I decided not worry if they were not ‘perfect’ and forged ahead. Consisting of simple ingredients (a bit of cocoa powder, sugar, egg whites, and ground almonds), the cookies bake up light and chewy – and are surprisingly not that difficult to make. Mine were not as aesthetically pleasing as Miette’s ($1.50/per) offerings, but they were just as delicious. I filled some with a rich chocolate crème and others with raspberry jam. You may make them with any filling you like –- I imagine vanilla bean would be lovely –- and can make the cookies sans cocoa powder for a change of pace.
They are especially delicious on a hot day. Were I part of Renoir’s Boating Party crowd, I might have taken piles of macarons to nibble upon while floating lazily down the river. The sun would blaze down upon our little vessel, the wine cooling in floating bottles alongside. My macarons would be crisp and delicate, the conversation would meander dreamily, I’d indulge in a plate of strawberries and cheese …
France, je t’aime toujours.
Chocolate Macarons, from David Lebovitz,
1 cup (100 gr) powdered sugar
½ cup powdered almonds (about 2 ounces , 50 gr, sliced almonds, pulverized)
3 tablespoons (25 gr) unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
5 tablespoons (65 gr) granulated sugar
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
4 ounces (120 gr) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 tablespoon (15 gr) butter, cut into small pieces
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (180 degrees C).
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and have a pastry bag with a plain tip (about 1/2-inch, 2 cm) ready.
Using a food processor, grind together the powdered sugar with the almond powder and cocoa so there are no lumps. Beat the egg whites until they begin to rise and hold their shape. While whipping, beat in the granulated sugar until very stiff and firm, about 2 minutes.
Carefully fold the dry ingredients, in two batches, into the beaten egg whites with a flexible rubber spatula. When the mixture is just smooth and there are no streaks of egg white, stop folding and scrape the batter into the pastry bag.
Pipe the batter on the parchment-lined baking sheets in 1-inch (3 cm) circles (about 1 tablespoon each of batter), evenly spaced one-inch (3 cm) apart.
Rap the baking sheet a few times firmly on the countertop to flatten the macarons, then bake them for 15-18 minutes. Let cool completely then remove from baking sheet.
Fill with chocolate or jam and let sit overnight to let the flavors meld.