Viator contributor Terence Carter and his wife Lara Dunston are three months into their grand tour of the globe they’re calling Grantourismo.
10:00am “You actually let people do this?” I ask Pastry Chef Pino, pointing to a laser digital thermometer pointed at a saucepan bubbling with scorching hot caramelized sugar – something not to be trifled with in a kitchen. “Well, not all the time,” Pino says, as I pour a little more sugar into the sauce that will eventually become the filling for the most blogged-about sweet treat in the world after the cupcake – the macaron.
Visitors to Paris (Americans in particular), and even the odd Parisian, go gaga over the things, oohing, ahhing, and salivating over the sugary confections through shop windows, so I have decided to find out first-hand just what the fuss is all about on a pastry cooking class organized by our friends at Viator.
I’m here at Paris cooking school in our neighbourhood of Montmartre and Italian-born Pino Ficara, my instructor today, is preparing to take me through the first steps of the other desserts we’re making today: a classic tarte tartin (an upside-down apple tart) and some diet-demolishing chocolate ice-cream. That appears to be a lot of work for three hours!
10:17 Pino pours the cream over the caramelized sugar when it reaches the desired temperature – confirmed by the digital thermometer rather than a clumsy, messy sugar thermometer that most of us stick in the side of a pan. Very high tech!
10:30 We start separating eggs to make the macaron mix. Pino tells me these are normally separated a few days in advance and kept in the fridge. What kind of voodoo is this?
11:08 I’m now mixing together the whipped whites and the almond meal and sugar very vigorously. It’s odd because meringue is meant to be light and fluffy not beaten to within an inch of its life! I’m wondering if Pino has the wrong recipe… after all, he’s Italian! But then I recall that the word ‘macaron’ comes from the Italian word ‘maccherone’ but don’t tell the French that, they get awfully upset.
11:15 We go over to the food processor and Pino quickly mixes the butter and flour for the crust of the tarte tartin. I’m relieved that we’re not making puff pastry from scratch. You really don’t want to know how long that takes…
11:25 The longest process of the day starts – choosing the colours for the macarons. We finally decide on red, green and orange, although Pino warns that to achieve a vivid colour you need to use titanium dioxide to make the mixture whiter to make the colours stand out. We skip the E171 (titanium dioxide). It doesn’t sound very appetizing.
11:30 Colours mixed, Pino shows me some piping bag tricks. The tricks are brilliant but my piping is far less dazzling, even though Pino has placed a guide sheet beneath the parchment. Let’s just say the first few looked like those double-sized macarons you see in Paris bakeries…
11:40 Now I’ve got my groove. I’m mixing my own colours, putting together my own piping bags, and piping pretty consistently sized shapes. I’m actually enjoying baking.
11:50 Macaron shells made, we start peeling apples for the tart. Pino has three types of apples. I’m relieved that it’s the rustic tart where you chop the apples into quarters and not the one where you have to slice the apples thinly into a trillion pieces.
12:00 We’ve put some water and sugar into a pan on the stove that will become the tart case. Pino reveals that caramel is best just before it burns and warns that it should never be left alone on a kitchen stove.
12:10 We take a sneak peek in the oven to see how our first batch of macarons is doing. Pino has marked the time that each sheet was prepared so he knows when they should go in the oven. We start making the chocolate ice cream and Lara points out that there is something smoking on the stove. Caramel saved in the nick of time!
12:15 I’m feeding small pieces of butter to the Kitchen Aid. It appears to be enjoying them very much. I just wish I could remember which dish it was for!
12:20 It’s for the caramel filling for the macarons that are just coming out of the oven. They’re damn perfect! Now I’m excited! Except another piping bag has appeared…
12:30 I’m carefully scraping the macarons off the baking sheets. These things are sticky when they’re fresh out of the oven.
12:45 The apples have gone into the caramel mix for the tart. I’ve made the base of the ice cream. It’s decadent and has some fabulous vanilla-infused rum in it as well as the chocolate. Everyone is eyeing off the bowl. Pino laments the fact that the ice cream machine requires alcohol to work. I’m with the ice cream machine on this one.
12:55 Now Pino is bashing some pastry within an inch of its life. He says it makes the pastry roll out without cracking. I actually think it’s because he’s upset that I’m already taking full credit for the macarons.
13:00 We have half a dozen trays of macarons and I’m piping like I’m on a production line. Who is going to eat all these macarons? Perhaps I’ll go out on the street and listen for people with American accents and give them away.
13:30 I now have all the trays of macarons done. They look like the ones in the famous patisseries except without crazy foie gras fillings of the likes of Pierre Hermé. My work here is done.
13:40 So is the ice cream. Eric and his admin staff troop in to try some – surely they don’t do this every day?
They’re slim too! The ice cream is not perfectly frozen (it needs another hour in the freezer) but at least we can finish our bowls in record time without brain freeze.
13:40:15 We’re finished our ice cream.
The next night I arrive at a local’s dinner party with macarons I made myself. It’s only a slight exaggeration…
- Terence Carter