“If you interfere with the caramel, you will destroy it.” I stand in front of the stove watching a mound of molten sugar and butter cook in a copper-bottom pan, and next to me is my teacher, Chef Mickaël Thery. I’m tempted to grab a spoon and stir, but his stern eye forbids me. A simple shake of the skillet blends the ingredients into a fragrant, bubbling, sienna-colored concoction.
I’m learning to make macarons, a traditional confection here in France where I live with my family. These delicate treats look something like a small, brightly hued sandwich. Between two meringue wafers, the pastry chef spreads a heavenly ganache—the macaron’s prized ingredient—making them the perfect combination of crunchy and chewy.
Making macarons is all about patience and timing. If you take the caramel off the stove too soon, the sugar crystals will not blend. If you heat the chocolate too long, it will burn and begin to break down. The same principle applies to the meringue.
Chef Thery makes syrup from the sugar and adds it to the egg whites. My own experience of making meringue for pies tells me the hot liquid will cook the eggs and the water will weigh down the meringue and make it runny. But just the opposite happens: The egg whites, combined with the sugar and almond flour, expand exponentially and take on a dense, silvery texture.
Piping the miraculous meringue through a pastry bag into tiny circles is tedious, particularly when your instructor critiques the circumference of each one. If you rush the process, your cookies will be misshapen and won’t fit together. And to achieve the edging and the thin crunchy shell, the wafers must rest. You can’t hurry the process. Even simply fitting the fragile wafers together requires a slow steady hand. When, at last, they are finished, Chef Thery congratulates me on my hard work but says, “Vous ne pouvez pas les manger!” or “You cannot eat!” Because the flavor will not set for another 24 hours, I must wait to show them to my friends to be devoured.
Since I was a young girl, the tea ceremony has fascinated me, mainly because it is a form of gracious entertainment. Too often today, the preparation of delicate, crafted refreshments is relegated to specialists. In our homes, we opt for what’s fast or convenient, forgetting the satisfaction of doing a task with excellence. Instead of quick fixes, we should create things that will be consumed with joy. This is a powerful act of service—not only to people we serve, but also to ourselves.