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Discovering the Macaron

... And Finding I Could Make My Own

by Jill Colonna

When I came to live in France nearly 20 years ago I didn't have a sweet tooth. Dessert was just an apple and some cheese. But the beckoning Parisian pâtisseries had me quickly lured in by their sophisticated window displays, and I was converted. How can you resist a perfectly presented delicacy called un mille feuille (a thousand leaves), crammed with fragrant vanilla custard cream between flaky, toasted layers of pastry under an artistic icing?

Hugo & Victor storefront, Paris

Hugo & Victor storefront, Paris 7e

Suddenly I felt so far away from our local baker in Edinburgh who produced something similar, but called it a mayo fayo with a posh accent. I wanted to practise this new mouthful, repeating "un mille feuille, s'il vous plaît" in so many pâtisseries until I discovered the best cakes in our Parisian arrondissement, and until I was no longer snootily corrected for my atrocious French accent. There was so much to learn.

After tasting my way through the pâtisserie classics using my student lunch money, it was finally a relief to be a working girl, working in Paris, in a château, in a chic part of town.

Occasionally I could indulge in the opulence of a salon de thé (tea salon), drinking tea from a porcelain cup. It was fascinating: like having afternoon tea in a grand hotel's palm court but without the piano or the sandwiches. The women were so stylish and slim! French women don't eat between meals. They are so strict at sticking to mealtimes. I had a friend who, if she missed lunch, was so disciplined that she would not eat until her tea and gâteau at 4 o'clock. They eat well and they stay slim.

Ten years ago, macarons were not in most pâtisseries as they are now in Paris. It was in Paris that I discovered the macaron. It was during a lunch break with the girls at the salon de thé on the top floor of a seriously classy ladies' department store in the 16th arrondissement. The macaron was on all the elegant ladies' plates like a fashion accessory.

It was love at first sight: they were perfection on a porcelain plate, so airy and delicate that you didn't feel like you'd have to play at dress sizes if you became hooked, yet they were just big enough to savour and appreciate their sweet voluptuous perfumed centre with a refreshing cuppa.

They looked so perfect and dainty and certainly not something you could obviously make at home. That was for the professionals, I thought.

Broadcast on STV "The Hour" – Scotland's Very Own Lifestyle Show
Valentine's Day, 14 February 2011, 11:21
See related videos: 0 1 2 3 4

The move to France was initially tough, coping with the language and adjusting to the culture. Their entertainment was inviting each other around for dinner, rather than going out. The conversation flowed, the wine flowed and my French apparently flowed better with the wine (I had a diploma in wine so had an excuse).

As a real chatterbox, it was frustrating for me to carefully construct a phrase to join in the discussion with my husband's friends at the dinner table, only to find by the time I was ready to contribute, the conversation had moved on and I looked like the daft Scottish lass. My pride was at stake. I had to impress them on a plate.

My husband's present one Christmas was a cookery course in Paris. It confirmed many things I was doing already and so it surprisingly boosted my confidence in the kitchen. I adore French restaurants. We do the French thing and entertain at home, so when we do go out occasionally, they are gastronomique affairs: from hidden Parisian bistros to sophisticated starred tables. That's where I can be inspired.

One day I saw a local pâtisserie holding a macaron workshop and I went for it. In the space of a couple of hours I was shown the tricks of the trade and suddenly realised that it was so much easier than it looked. Later, I experimented at home with different flavours, eliminating jam fillings to cut down on sugar. I would get up some mornings thinking, "The egg whites are ready! What flavours shall I try?" (It is best to age egg whites for at least four days when making macarons.) The biggest thrill was watching those around me look so impressed by the results. I could make macarons, and I'm not even French!

My confidence also improved with speaking the language. My bi-lingual children correct me too, which is so comforting. I often dream in French – and I dream about making macarons with my children: their favourite job is not only tasting them, but also marrying up the pairs before putting on their glorious fillings.

I'm now a macaronivore. My children are my best critics and so are interrogated with questions such as "Is that the right colour for a beetroot macaron?" and "Is this curry macaron too spicy?"

You may also be cast under the spell of macaron-making madness, of which I take absolutely no responsibility. Just give it a go: be imaginative, creative and you will impress friends and family with the most gratifying, do-it-yourself, glamorous and state-of-the art confection: the macaron!

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