Macarons are my favorite cookies. There’s something very special and unique about the versatility of these texturally perfect special treats: light enough for a snack, fancy enough for a gift, yet tasty enough for anytime of the day. Is there any meal that wouldn’t pair perfectly with a macaron? I certainly can’t think of one. They even come savory, as seen with the foie gras macarons at Eleven Madison. You can only imagine my excitement to find out that Pierre Hermé would be along my walk to school, and also, ironically, on the way back from the gym. But so far, in the two weeks that I’ve been here, I’d always woken up a little too late and had to walk quickly to classes without time to stop by. And by the time classes end, Pierre Hermé was always closed. My nutritionist friend would be proud; that is, until this past Sunday, when I made it the day’s goal to stop by while it was open, and finally taste the wondrous goodies Pierre Hermé had to offer.
I stopped by just after breakfast, only to see a long line of hungry people standing outside. I tried to convince myself that this line wasn’t for Pierre Hermé; but that thought was quickly interrupted by the defensive voice of a macaron-hungry french woman telling me, “the end of line is back there, sir.” What did she think, that I was going to cut? God … who would so such a thing. Though people have been known to do crazy things while under the influence, of macarons. My stomach and I waited about twenty minutes before being admitted to this reputed macaron heaven. Upon entrance, I glanced at the extensive selection. This was going to be difficult. Carefully, I decided to get one of everything try a few things here and there that looked appealing. Since the weather was nice, and since there were no tables inside, my friend and I headed to the Luxembourg garden with our four boxes and three bags of reasonable amount of pastries to eat à l’extérieur.
We found a nice bench in the sun, and decided to start with the macarons, clearly, a beautiful assortment of pastel-colored treats. The first victim was the Truffe Blanche & Noisette, a glittering tiny cookie of white truffle and hazelnut. The surface literally shimmered in the sunlight, the sparkling film transferring to my fingers which soon became iridescent as well. There was quite a bit of crème in this cookie. Nearly a third of the cookie, perhaps more, consisted of this crème layer. This made the cookie somewhat dense and, as a result, a bit heavy. The first bite was indeed pleasant, the savory taste of truffle followed by a cool and sweet vanilla crème finish. But, while the flavor was enjoyable for the first bite, the excessive amount of crème became cloying.
As for the beautifully colored Rose macaron, it should be noted that I generally dislike Rose-flavored macarons. In fact, I cannot recall anything rose that I would willingly order a second time. This macaron was the exception. It was exquisite; essentially a light crème flavored macaron with a slight hint of rose petal. Its scent, paradoxically, was nothing of rose; but the flavor was there! It tasted as I expected it to smell, and it smelled as I would have expected it to taste not knowing that it was rose, that is. Frankly, this was the first rose macaron I’ve tasted that was not reminiscent of soap, a memorable feat in my book. This was the highlight of the Pierre Hermé macarons, for me. And, unfortunately with the other macarons, it was sort of downhill from here.
Next up was Infiniment Vanille, or infinite vanilla. It should be said that vanilla and pistachio are my two staple flavors for comparison, so I certainly looked forward to this. Sadly, it did not taste much like vanilla. I waited for the strength of the vanilla beans to kick in; but eventually, I gave up waiting. It was really bland, and I was disheartened. Additionally, and most upsettingly, the texture of this was awful. Despite having waited for the macarons to adjust to the proper temperature, the crème layer had a texture of refrigerated butter. No good; way too dense.
The fourth macaron was the Mogador, Fruit de la Passion & Chocolat au Lait, a melange of milk chocolate and passion fruit. The texture of the crème was heavy, very similar to cake batter — way too pasty! That being said, the flavor was a balanced mix of chocolate and fruit, with the first taste being of bittersweet chocolate, and the second being the sweetness of passion fruit on the finish. This was not at all excessively sweet and, as said in the three little bears, it was just right. The cocoa powder dusted shell, while pretty, certainly did make a mess! But I can certainly sacrifice a clean shirt for some macarons anytime.
Next came my second staple flavor, and generally my favorite, pistachio. This macaron would be a little different, however, as the ganache was of white chocolate rather than pistachio. Perhaps that’s what made this excessively sweet. The taste of pistachio was somewhat muted as this tasted a bit more like vanilla than pistachio. The green color of the inside was also very bright, which felt overly artificial. There was slightly less ganache in this macaron, which made it more texturally appealing; but the flavor was just too sweet.
I first thought I had accidentally purchased double pistachio macarons; but after the first bite, I was very quickly reminded that there was indeed another green flavor: olive. This macaron, titled Huile d’Olive & Vanille, was surprisingly tasty at first. Mainly because it tasted like essence of olive rather than actually tasting like an olive. But, this quickly changed when there was a solid piece of green olive in my cookie. What the? This flavor completely assulted any sweetness of the cookie, the acidity of which cut through any form of pleasantness this cookie had to offer. There was also a bit of a metalic aftertaste that irritated me. Eesh.
The final three macarons were up, and I began this countdown with chocolate. So thick! I couldn’t help but think of a marshmallow-less s’more, a bar of chocolate placed between two cookies. Why was this chocolate so thick? Where was the crème? Where was the love?! This did indeed taste like chocolate; but it didn’t taste so much like macaron. Too much chocolate!
Oh god, chestnuts. I do indeed have a strong attraction to chestnuts. The next macaron was of chestnut and matcha green tea. I was disappointed that they did not have just chestnut; but I kept an open-mind and embraced the new flavor. But the texture was awful. The pastiness of the matcha green tea weighed down the entire cookie, the texture of which was very similar to marzipan; only a vibrant green. Too heavy for a macaron, I think. The green tea flavor also removed the distinct whisper of autumn that chestnuts give. I couldn’t consider the green tea anything more than a distraction.
The macaron degustacion finished on a higher note, with a Pléntitude Chocolat & Caramel, a dual-colored macaron with a chocolate top and caramel bottom. My friend commented that this had a slightly burnt taste, which I appreciated very much, as the combination of this flavor with the fleur de sel really grounded this cookie and prevented it from falling off the cliff of too sweet. Caramel on the edge of burnt, with fleur de sel, is a brilliant combination. The texture was still a little too dense for me, with a significantly thick layer of crème; but the flavor was wonderful.
Finishing up with the macarons, we moved on to the cannelé. My favorite cannelés are at Petrossian Bakery in New York. I do have a small theory that tap water drastically effects the flavor of cannelé, which could possibly explain why New York’s Petrossian bakery has the most delicious cannelé; but, texture is also crucially important and somehow, Petrossian always gets that right. For me, the magical part of cannelé is the first bite through the outside layer, which if made properly, is chewy and tight at the same time. A cannelé should never be dry, and the inside should be so rife with moisture, like a fresh bread pudding. This cannelé was very dry, likely a factor of my arrival at the store in the early afternoon. The shell was crispy and began to flake. I almost wanted to take a spoon and scoop out the inside, which was indeed tasty.
Next up was the plain butter croissant. The artisanship of this pastry was very clear: a thousand fine layers blanketed together with butter in the shape of a crescent. Maybe I arrived too late because this was parched! Granted, there was a shatter effect; but I had to forcibly break this thing apart, with both hands! Pulling or tearing would not suffice. Ouch.
The almond croissant was a bit more interesting: perhaps the icing acted as an insulator locking in the moisture. But while the texture was a bit fresher, the distribution of almonds was a thin tube throughout the croissant, making each bite very uneven. Aside from that, the icing was wildly sweet, evocative of cake frosting. While definitely more enjoyable than the butter croissant, this was too sweet for me.
And now for what I believe to be the golden jewels of Pierre Hermé, the tartes. At least all of the three that I sampled were magnificent. Oh god. The first off was titled Désiré, what I believe to be a round pistachio-crusted lemon crème, layered with wild strawberry and banana compotes, supported with a lemon-accented biscuit, and garnished with whole wild strawberries. At first glance, this looked like it would be dense; but then, I lifted it up. Extremely light! The ground pistachio let me poke the outside without the crème sticking to my fingers, the resilience of which was much like prodding an ultra-soft marshmallow. Oops, I poked too hard … looks like I get the first taste; oh well. What a pleasant balance of textures! This dish was carefully thought out. This dish was by no means monotonous. Each soft bite was sprinkled with the crunch from the pistachios and finished with the lemon biscuit at the bottom. There was no one particular flavor that dominated, the banana, lemon, and strawberry joining together. The bites with wild strawberry were particularly fresh, a reminder that sometimes nature supplies quite wonderful ingredients that don’t need modification. Mmm.
The Victoria was next, an almond dacquoise crowned with a pile of fresh pineapple, mint leaves, lime zest, and coconut atop a coconut crème. My first bite of this was a reminder of summer, a cool refreshing splash of succulent pineapple and mint, with the comfort of coconut crème. Essentially, this was the piña colada of tartes, with a very balanced flavor profile: those black specks are not vanilla beans. It’s black pepper. It sounds startling, I know; but don’t hate. Those specks added a hint of spice that made this impressively more complex. It should also be noted that there was not a single dry part on this entire tarte — every single corner was teeming with moisture. Another hit, in my book!
But, save the best for last. Isaphan – biscuit macaron à la rose, crème aux pétales de rose, framboises entières, avec letchis. This rose macaron was filled with rose petal crème, whole raspberries, and lychees! What an engaging combination: rose and lychee. But before we get to flavor, this presentation was visually gorgeous, especially the sugar “dew” that beaded on the rose petal sitting atop. Beautiful. The raspberries were flawless as well, and aligned perectly with the hollow-side down. It became clear very early on the level of care and intricacy that went into this. The flavor was also stunning — a gentle rose crème which tasted like vanilla but smelled mildly like rose, accented by the crisp lychee and raspberry, with the ultra-fresh meringue from the macaron. Something about eating this just felt delicate and elegant, as if magnificence were edible. Amazing.
This pastry tasting ended on a relatively good note with the Kugelhopf, although candidly, it’s very quickly put in its place by the one I had at Alain Ducasse. I thought this was excessively sweet, which can be seen by the excessive amount of sugar. In addition, this Kugelhopf had quite a few raisins, which only amplified the sweetness. It was a little dry by the time it met its maker, with the crust soaking up the internal moisture with each bite.
So, what did I think of Pierre Hermé. Did they have the best macarons I’ve ever tasted? Will I never be able to eat macarons from anywhere else again? Is it worth flying to Paris just to taste these treats? Do French people just do everything better? I would say no to all four of these (with an emphasized no on the fourth one). I found all the macarons (every one) to have way too much ganache: this is the Pierre Hermé trademark. Some people like it; for me, it’s cloying and makes these delicate cookies too dense.
Some of the flavors were very original, particularly the white truffle and hazelnut — I almost want to dissect it and remove half of the crème, that would fix a lot of the problem. As of right now, the best macarons still lie at L’Atelier, New York; although my pâtisserie list is indeed large and that is bound to change. I would, however, say that Pierre Hermé was much stronger with its tarte selection, particularly with the Ispahan. Were I to return only able to purchase one thing, the Ispahan would definitely be it.