On a recent trip to France and an intense week of research on the French school lunch, we were once again reminded of how special France, French food, and the French sensibility for beauty and practicality are, from macaroons to free bicycles.
Eggs seemed to be in the air this spring. From macaroons to fabulous salads with poached eggs offered as starters in brasseries, to desserts of soft meringue floating on an island of pastry cream (île flottante) offered at a junior high school lunch, the trip didn’t disappoint.
Pastry and chocolate shop windows from Bordeaux to Paris were full of delicate candied replicas of Wren’s eggs and chocolate versions of Rhode Island Red eggs. Small, brightly wrapped foil eggs were packed into huge chocolate eggs that were decorated with flowers entwined with ivy, all made of a rich pastry cream. The usual mounds of crispy, dry meringues that are an everyday item in France, were overshadowed by their more elegant cousins, the pastel colored, multi flavored macaroons, stacked in wondrous towers that seemed impossibly balanced.
French macaroons are special. They are an airy sandwich of two delicate cookies pressed together a layer of filling, such as ganache or pastry cream. The cookies themselves are made from three main ingredients: ground almonds, powdered sugar, and egg whites, to which food coloring is added, accounting for the incredible hues that are as brilliant as Easter eggs. Recipes for French macaroons can be found online, and there is even a book, “I Love Macarons” (Hisako Ogita, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2006). But the making of them — to achieve a perfect round with a crispy crust and chewy interior and soft, moist filling — takes skill and practice, and thus far, neither of us has attempted it.
Ladurée, the Paris-based confectionary with multiple shops throughout France, the Middle East and Asia, is perhaps the best-known macaroon maker. It started making the cookie sandwich in the early part of the 20th century, and the ‘French macaroon’ has become a craze. They come in the expected flavors of chocolate, caramel, pistachio, raspberry, and vanilla, but also such exotics as passion fruit, violet and orange water. Their packaging, boxes as varied and as intriguing as the macaroons themselves, reflect 19th century sensibility of etched designs, restrained colors and of course, gold and pastel green, as well as bright, contemporary colors.
Ladurée even has a shop at Charles de Gaulle airport. It exhibits the same elegant restraint as its other shops, and appears a calm oasis of timeless style in the midst of the airport shops 21st century glitter and electronics. Travelers were lined up to buy boxes of the macaroons when we were there, but we’d eaten our fill during our brief stay in Paris; and besides, we weren’t sure how these airy puffs would withstand the journey.
French macaroons are essentially a soft meringue, but there are many kinds, such as the standard very crisp, crunchy meringues used in the recipe below, to the soft meringue used for ile flottant and to top pies. Both are easy to make, and with chickens back in laying mode after a winter’s rest, local eggs are abundant.
For French style macaroons without a trip to France, visit Miette at the Ferry Plaza Building or Hayes Valley in San Francisco or Jack London Square in Oakland. It’s like a mini-trip to a Ladurée.
Although food of course, was the main focus of our trip, we couldn’t help but be smitten by a French response to traffic congestion and public transportation.
Everywhere we went in Paris, we saw banks of Velib’ bicycles and lots of people using the readily identifiable mode of transportation. It’s a system designed to supplement the public subway and buses in the city. Pick up a bike for a fee, ride it to your destination and drop it off at another bike site. The first half hour is free, but the hourly rate goes up the longer the bicycle is kept. This is designed to keep the bicycles in circulation, rather than the concept of renting a bike for the day. Banks of bicycles can be found near subway stops, commuter train stations, and elsewhere throughout the city and the suburbs. Started in 2007, the bikes have proved exceedingly popular.
This dessert is similar to Pavlova, in that it is meringue with fruit and whipped cream. In the traditional Pavlova, a small amount of cornstarch is used, which produces a crunchy outside and marshmallow-like inside. This recipe simply calls for a traditional meringue to be used. The dessert can be served throughout the year with seasonal fruit.
4 eggs, room temperature
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon white distilled vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 baskets strawberries
1 pint heavy cream (for whipping)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Putting it together:
Pre-heat oven to 275 degrees. Separate egg whites from egg yolks. Place the egg whites in a small mixing bowl if using a hand held beater, or the bowl of your mixer if using a standing mixer. Starting on low speed, beat the egg whites until stiff and dry, gradually increasing the speed. Switch the speed to low, and gradually add the sugar, very slowly. Add the vanilla and vinegar and continue beating the mixture until thoroughly combined.
Place parchment or waxed paper on a cookie sheet. To make the meringues, place a mound of the mixture onto the cookie sheet. You should end up with 8 meringues.
At this point you may either make a depression in each meringue so that you will be serving individual desserts, as if in a little cup, or, leave the meringues as they are. You will serve them out of one dish. This is easier for advance preparation for a dinner party, but either is fine.
Bake for one hour at 275 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point the shells will be dry and a very faint brown. Turn off the heat and let the meringues stand in the oven until they are completely cool, at least two hours or overnight.
To make the dessert, wash and slice the strawberries. Whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla. If making individually plated servings, place each meringue on a plate, fill the depression with sliced strawberries and several tablespoons of whipped cream. If preparing in one dish, place the meringues, slightly crushed, on the bottom of an 8×12 shallow serving dish. Place a layer of sliced strawberries on top, followed by a third layer of the whipped cream. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. Serves 8.
— Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan have a food and marketing consulting firm, Evans & Brennan, LLC, specializing in farm fresh food in school lunch. They co-lead Slow Food Yolo. Reach them at [email protected]