French macarons. I have always considered the ability to make these little French cookies the mark of a good pastry chef. The French macaron is a notoriously difficult cookie. Entire books have been dedicated to perfecting the art of the macaron. It has a reputation of being incredibly fickle and temperamental despite the fact that the base cookie really only consists of four freaking ingredients.
It is safe to say that its reputation has made me utterly terrified of the little things. The first time I ever attempted them myself was a disaster. They were all cracked and misshapen, and looked nothing like the smooth and perfectly round macarons I had seen in pastry cases my whole life. I tried twice that day before admitting defeat, and I spent the rest of the night feeling bad about the money I had spent on almond flour…shit’s expensive…
I never entertained the idea of a macaron for years after that. I read books and watched videos, but every single tutorial and recipe made it sound like you just had to know in your heart and soul how to do them right. It was cowardly, but I admit that I just shied away from the damned cookies, forever waiting for the day that I would build up the courage to attempt them again.
When I was at ICE, my chef for Module 3 was Chef Kathryn Gordon. She is a brilliant pastry chef, and if you know her, you probably know her as the author of the book Les Petits Macarons. Obviously, I desperately wanted her to teach me her secrets. Finally came the day that we’d be making macarons. I asked her tons of questions and listened intently, waiting for her to tell me that special tip that would make me the best macaron maker ever! That was my problem… I really thought that there was a solution to my issues. I thought it was a simple fix: “do this and they’ll be perfect every time!” There isn't. I watched her fold the batter in the macaronage stage and was disappointed to see that yet again–based on the texture, the fluidity, the “way the batter moved,”–she just knew when it was ready.
I went through culinary school, graduated culinary school, and entered my externship, still never having made a successful macaron on my own. I felt kind of like a fraud. How could I ever call myself a professional if I couldn’t even make this STUPID COOKIE?
So here I am, trying again years after my first ever macaron attempt. I spent the whole day before reading Les Petits Macarons, watching YouTube videos, and asking people questions online. I swear that I have read or heard every single “tip and trick” that there is to know about macaron making now.
It took two attempts for me to make a batch of successful macarons. There are three main methods to making French macarons: French, Swiss, and Italian. Each method is ultimately the same except for the type of meringue that’s used. For my first attempt, I used a Swiss meringue because it’s the meringue I use for my buttercream, and I’m confident making it.
My first attempt started out looking alright until I got to the macaronage stage. In Les Petits Macarons, Chef Kathryn states that the Swiss method results in a slightly firmer batter due to the cooking of the egg whites making their protein structure stronger. While folding my batter, however, I noticed that it was too stiff. It literally felt like a dough and not a batter. I knew something was wrong, but figured I’d bake it off anyway to see what would happen.
In all honesty, they came out better than I expected them to. They had feet! That was a big deal to me because my macarons had never had feet before. And the tops weren’t cracked, but they were discoloured and misshapen. They also didn’t have a smooth, hard crust–they were squishy. And when I bit into one, it was super chewy.
So… ultimately a fail. But it was honestly the closest I had ever gotten to success, so I was motivated. For my second attempt, I decided to try French meringue. People seemed to have success with it and it didn’t involve cooking, so that was nice.
The tip that helped me the most was actually the “Figure 8 Test”. It is impossible to articulate how to identify the stage in which the batter is ready for piping. People say things like “slack,” “fluid,” “glossy,” but when you’re in the moment it looks like lumpy batter…and the lumpy batter 20 folds earlier looked the same as this lumpy batter.
Thus, the Figure 8 Test. If you can hold your spatula 2-3 inches above the bowl and draw a figure 8 without the batter ribbon breaking, the batter is ready. I piped and baked off this new batch, terrified. I forced myself to leave the kitchen while they baked to avoid the agony of waiting, and when I came back, THEY WERE GODDAMN PERFECT.
They weren’t the smoothest, but they had beautiful feet, a hard shell, and peeled right off the parchment. When I bit into one, it was crisp at first, and then chewy underneath. As they should be. I was so happy.
I am still leaps and bounds away from being a macaron master, but I am proud to say that I am no longer terrified of the French macaron. I feel ashamed that I avoided them for so long, but I truly feel like now, I can conquer any dessert I set my mind on. That feels good. And I’ve actually become somewhat obsessed with them… They are so beautiful, and such a great vehicle for flavour. I am excited to experiment and try new flavours in this brand new medium.
No longer will I fear the beast that is a French macaron!
Also, huge, HUGE shoutout to Chef Kathryn Gordon and her incredible book. Without Les Petits Macarons, I probably wouldn't have been inspired to make them in the first place, and they definitely wouldn't have come out as beautifully as they did. Find the link to purchase her book here: Les Petits Macarons
My last day of high school was only a little over a year ago, and yet here I am today celebrating another last day.
Today was my last day of classes at the Institute of Culinary Education.
During this program, I have had the opportunity to learn from true masters in this industry like Chef Simon Cass, Chef Penny Stankiewicz, Chef Jeffrey Yoskowitz, and Chef Kathryn Gordon. I have met incredibly talented individuals in both pastry and culinary who I hope to collaborate with one day in the future, and I have proven to myself that while this industry is tough and unforgiving, I still love every minute of it.
However, the most important thing I learned in my journey through this course hasn't been a technique or a recipe–it's been a sentiment a chef shared with me. I'll get to the message at the end...
My final project assignment was a fully decorated three-tier wedding cake. This cake turned out to be one of the most creatively straining cakes I’ve ever constructed. The day before the first design draft was due, I sat hunched over my dining table sketching until 1am. Nothing I drew looked cohesive or interesting and I was desperate to challenge myself and create something dynamic and unique. The prompt was “autumn wedding” and I really wanted to capture the feeling of autumn without designing something that was tacky or childish.
Chef Penny, my chef instructor for my final module and founder of Sugar Couture was the one who taught me my most important lesson. She said something to me that changed my entire outlook on cake designing and art in general: “Creativity is a muscle just like every other muscle in your body. In order for it to get stronger you have to exercise it. You can’t sit around waiting for ‘inspiration’–inspiration isn’t going to strike down upon you every time you’re designing a cake. You have to sit there and struggle through bad ideas until something usable comes around.” My view of art has always been that you were either blessed with a naturally creative mind or you weren’t. I have always resented the fact that ideas never came as easily to me as it seemed to come to my classmates and colleagues.
When Chef Penny said that to me I realized that I wasn’t the only person working in a creative field that doesn’t feel creative all the time–and that was incredibly comforting. The night I had to design this final cake, I very much struggled through the creative process. I sat there for hours googling autumn flowers and leaves, swatching colours, sketching, erasing, and sketching again. It wasn’t until I stumbled across a random stock photo of crushed leaves that I thought to myself–Could I translate this texture to cake? Would it look cool?
Soon after that eureka moment, I stumbled upon acorns laying in the grass at a park. I picked one up and immediately knew that I would somehow incorporate it into my design. I had forced myself to find my inspiration and it had resulted in a beautiful cake I was very proud of.
Of all the things I learned from my months at culinary school, what Chef Penny told me may have been the most important to me. I wanted to pass this message along to anyone who reads this, and any artist who doesn’t always feel creative.
I am sad that we are done, but I am also excited for what’s to come! I wish all of my classmates luck on their externships and future endeavors! I hope to see all of us succeed one day. And a special thank you to ICE for an awesome 100 classes.
I had just come home from class when I realized I had a voicemail. It was from a number I didn’t recognize, and that usually means it’s a potential client.
Well this potential client happened to be Dame Diana Rigg: English actress who was currently in New York performing in the Broadway show My Fair Lady.
What was it like making a cake for someone as iconic as Diana Rigg? I remember the event planner in the voicemail hadn’t referred to her by name but instead told me that he needed four cakes for “a well-known actress’ 80th birthday party.” Like any sane human being, I immediately began searching for all actresses in NYC who were 79 and had birthdays in late July. I asked my boyfriend when he got home and he said, “maybe it’s Meryl Streep!” We then proceeded to look up Meryl Streep’s age and realized we had just insulted Meryl Streep by thinking she was 10 years older than she actually was.
This order was the biggest order I had ever gotten. They were asking for two sheet cakes and two 10” cube cakes all made with vanilla cake, vanilla buttercream, and filled with lemon curd. I knew it was going to be an insane amount of labour and ingredients, and I knew that LEMON CURD was not a very stable building material. The order was placed months before the event, and the weeks leading up to the event were the most panicky weeks of my life. I had spent the past weeks ordering bulk ingredients, doing geometry equations I never thought I’d do again to figure out how much batter was needed, refining and altering my lemon curd recipe, and mentally trying to figure out the best methods for production, structure, and transportation. This cake was a result of tireless planning and ridiculous logistical organization. Every single step we seemed to encounter a problem that needed solving.
The night of production I enlisted the help of my incredible boyfriend and a friend from culinary school. My boyfriend and I hauled several boxes of ingredients that we had been storing in our studio apartment over to the kitchen we’d be working in. The three of us worked non-stop in the small, dimly-lit, hot basement kitchen of a local bakery for almost 10 hours. I had never worked with so much cake batter, buttercream, and damn lemon juice all at once before. Without the help of my boyfriend and my friend I am convinced I couldn’t have pulled this off. They were endlessly helpful.
By the time the cakes were fully baked, the buttercream fully whipped, and the curd fully set, it was time to assemble the four cakes. Each cube cake had 7 layers of cake and 3 layers of structure just to ensure they would both make it to the venue the next day. By 2am, the cakes were done, my feet were tired, my face was sweaty, and I was delirious–but the cakes were fucking done. I had dreamed about this moment since I got the order.
After the delivery, the event planner I had been coordinating with sent me some photos of Diana when the cake was unveiled. Seeing those photos and seeing her smiling face, she made me almost forget about how hard it was to make it happen. I’d do it all over again if I knew it’d make people as happy as it did. And I was unbelievably proud because I had proved to myself that I could handle this industry and this massive order.
That’s what it was like making a cake for Dame Diana Rigg. An unforgettable experience.