Monday, June 09, 2008

No surprises here

Wow - talk about procrastination. I think I have exceeded even my own expectations, if such a thing is possible. Maybe this post should be titled "Reasons for the Delay Since My Last Post, a.k.a. Character Flaws of Macaloon, Volume 6, Chapter 3 (condensed)". Since we last met, I have graduated from business school, moved to London by way of Singapore and New York, started a new career, met old friends, met new friends, eaten my 100th macaron - and still fear that I have nothing different to say. Or is my fear really one of performance trailing ambition, fear that the words in my head will seem a lot less compelling on screen? Or maybe it is fear that my words will fall on deaf - nay, absent ears, that the tree in the forest will have no audience and therefore be destined to stand for always.

I cannot decide.

What I do know is that unless I publish this right now, I will find another excuse to add to the dozen or so half-written drafts in my account. So bear with me as I issue this public challenge to myself - and see you again very, very soon.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A love letter

What is it about a macaron that captivates me so? There is definitely something to be said about the actual experience of eating a perfectly constructed specimen - crisp shell yielding under your teeth to an interior that is at once slightly crumbly and chewy; a sudden burst of taste and texture, silky and smooth or unctuous and intense; feeling the last crumbs dissolve on your tongue, leaving a wisp of flavour in their wake.

There is the knowledge that a single macaron is a work of art, a study of patience, a triumph of kitchen science. There are plenty of websites detailing the laborious process by which macarons are created, tips on how to keep the egg whites stiff, discussions on how to achieve the perfect 'feet'. Suffice to say that the delicacy of the macaron is no accident but instead a true labour of love.

Then there is the pleasure of the chase, heightened by the sheer variety of quality macarons in central Paris. There are the obvious variations in flavours or parfums, from the classic to the creative, from the inspired to the bizarre. A dark chocolate macaron will always satisfy, but will almost certainly not intrigue as much as its olive oil & vanilla cousin. But even beyond flavours, there are different interpretations of the model macaron. A caramel macaron can be small, glossy and filled with salted butter caramel in one patisserie; larger, with a denser exterior encasing a cloud-like caramel cream in another.

A macaron is a patisser's identity in a pastry-shell. This, in essence, is what lies at the heart of my obsession, an obsession which has guided me through the streets of Paris in the last few weeks, almost 2 years after my first love came to me in a pale green box embossed with light gold. Laduree's macarons are a worthy and unforgettable introduction to the genre, so unforgettable that they have remained until recently my absolute favourite. They represent French tradition at its most refined, embodied in Laduree's pretty tearooms and well-executed reportoire of standards such as millefeuille and religieuse. While Laduree experiments with seasonal flavours such as ginger & lime and black pepper, its strength lies in its delicate rendition of classics such as lemon, salted butter caramel, pistachio and red fruits. Each macaron is a single shot of flavour, the denser filling of pasty cream or confiture echoed by the airy shell.

In contrast, Pierre Hermé's macarons are bigger, bolder and - dare I say - better. His chocolat macaron is faultless, with the slight bitterness and intensity of quality chocolate, but his genius is at full play in more flamboyant creations such as chocolate & passionfruit, grapefruit & Campari, pistachio & cherry and the aforementioned olive oil & vanilla. I had my first Pierre Hermé macaron (white truffle & hazelnut) 9 months ago, to mark my first weekend in Paris. While intrigued by the inventiveness of his macaron flavours, I remember clinging steadfastly on to the simplicity and directness of Laduree, shunning Pierre Hermé as too complex, fussy and 'modern'. Even the sleek, black-dominated store interior and red-and-white boxes with stark black lettering struck me as less charming than Laduree's old-fashioned pastry counters and pastel boxes tied with satin ribbons.

My macaron assumptions started to crack when I came back to France after the summer break, armed with a magazine article highlighting where to find the best macarons in Paris. I had never stepped into a Dalloyau, Lenotre, Jean-Paul Hevin or George Mulot before, much less sampled their creations, and resolved to find my favourite macaron in Paris. I embarked on this quest with a disappointing purchase from Dalloyau, reputedly one of the oldest, finest and most expensive patisseries in Paris. The Dalloyau macarons I sampled were far from satisfying, although I could not precisely identify why. At this point, I decided against further comparions based on vague memories or impressions - no, this deserved no less than objective scientific methods.

A week later, I found myself in line at the Pierre Hermé in St-Germain, being laughed at by a native Parisien for commiting heresy by bringing in my Laduree paper bag purchased 2 blocks away. I was going to miss my train back to Fontainebleau, but nothing would stop me from brisk walking across the Seine to the chocolatier Jean-Paul Hevin, winner of "Le Meilleur Macaron de Paris 2005" for his chocolat macaron. I did end up having to catch a later train, but now I had the company of 17 petits-fours macarons to enjoy and a taste test to look forward to.

The macaron challenge was admittedly not perfect. Amongst the 3 patisseries, there was only 1 flavor in common, dark chocolate. Between Pierre Hermé and Laduree, however, there was also coffee and caramel; between Pierre Hermé and Jean-Paul Hevin, chocolate & caramel, and chocolate & passionfruit. Imperfect competition aside, the results were clear. To my surprise and initial denial, Pierre Hermé pipped the rest in both taste and texture. Critics be damned, B and I liked the Jean-Paul Hevin macarons the least, which is not to say that they were not decent. The chocolate ganache fillings were rich but sticky, almost like the uncooked batter of a brownie. Coupled with thin, flat macaron shells, the ensemble was tasty in the way all good chocolate is, but lacked sophistication or finesse. Laduree fared better, with airier shells and slightly moist pastry reminiscent of dessicated coconut.

But the Pierre Hermé confections - what a revelation! Bigger and thicker than most petits-fours macarons, with almost perfectly round domes and generous fillings, I feared that they would be loud and flashy compared to the demure and refined Laduree specimens. Biting into one, however, all my reservations were dispelled. The outer shell was indeed crisper and sturdier, but gave way with minimal crumbling to a light and moist interior that had enough body to lend the perfect bite, but steered clear of toughness. The chocolate ganache was luxurious, with hints of smokiness and saltiness that lingered pleasantly in the mouth. As a whole, the macaron was indeed a complex gustatory experience, but of the kind that inspires lip-licking instead of head-scratching.

Since my macaron epiphany, I have discovered another patisser who plays with unusual flavours to great effect. After reading about Sadaharu Aoki in various blogs and discussion forums, I finally picked up a dozen macarons at his Lafayette Gourmet outlet. Sadaharu Aoki differentiates his confections through the use of Japanese flavours such as green tea, black sesame and Japanese plum. However he continues to exemplify the mastery of French classical techniques, not least in his macarons which are texturally perfect but suffer from their overly petite frames.

And so, I remain hopelessly addicted to Pierre Hermé. Each visit to Paris - and there have been many in the last month - starts with a visit to his temple at 72 rue Bonaparte, where I pick up a fresh supply of macarons to last the week, and a pastry creation or two to enjoy in the neighbouring park. On my last visit, the store slipped a tiny fold-out brochure inside my paper bag, announcing the upcoming launch of his Fall / Winter collection. I pondered the return of Japanese-inspired flavours such as chestnut & green tea and chocolate & yuzu with great relish, before I noticed a single page dedicated to a limited run of two new flavours - chocolate & foie gras and eglantine, fig & foie gras.

The mind boggles, but already the heart craves.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Rojak, French style (aka 101 ways with leftovers, #22)

A little roast chicken goes a long way, especially if you're lucky enough to have your pick of European summer produce. Until an hour ago, the most I had ever done to put together a salad was whisk up a simple vinagrette and drizzle it over a bagful of store-packed salad leaves. Faced with half a leftover roast chicken and a fridgeful of random supermarket purchases, however, today seemed like a good day to experiment.

I am happy to report that the result was extremely encouraging. The salad itself consisted of cold chicken breast, roughly shredded; morsels of gorgonzola cheese, creamy with a blue-veined bite; wedges of juicy allongee tomatoes, crimson with a summer blush; mixed salad leaves, grassy with the occassional kick of bitter rocket; grapefruit pulp, little sacs of citrus tartness; and a scattering of raisins, sweetness concentrated in bursts of textural contrast. Over this went a homemade dressing of red wine shallot vinegar mixed with honey, seeded Dijon mustard and olive oil.

Like a serious sandwich, a good salad strikes me as a contrast of strong flavours, smoothened over by a central theme - in this case, sweet summer fruitiness kept interesting with peekaboo notes of tart and savoury. With flavourful ingredients, a salad needs no more complicated a dressing than a variation on a basic vinagrette. Adhering to these principles, the chicken and gorgonzola salad would make a good base for further experimentation. Fresh grapes insteed of raisins, perhaps, and the additional salty crunch of roasted pinenuts. Springy mozzarella to replace the gorgonzola, or even creamy avocado. The possibilities seem endless.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reunited and it feels so good

Anybody who does not believe that absence makes the heart grow fonder has never lost his luggage. Ditto the person who thinks that man can live on bread alone.

If I trace events back far enough, one could make the case that I triggered the tragicomedy myself, on the fateful day I purchased a flight departing from London Stansted instead of Gatwick or Luton. Fastforward 2 weeks to Friday, and B is urging me to buy travel insurance that will cover my check-in luggage. London's airports are on terrorist alert, and hand luggage is restricted to passports, wallets and enough infant formula to feed accompanying babies for the duration of the flight.

Travel insurance for over 10 quid? It takes me all of a second to decide against it. A little nagging voice - let's call it Murphy - reminds me that this could be the break my lucky luggage streak has been waiting for. In the light of student austerity, however, this doesn't seem all that important compared to the grand equivalent of 30 Singapore dollars.

Fastforward another 18 hours, I'm in line at the Easyjet counter with my flight scheduled to leave in 15 minutes, and I'm thinking to myself - wouldn't it be funny if my bags don't make it onto the plane? Just as it's my turn to check-in, the luggage conveyor belt breaks down, and I'm still thinking 'funny' with the naivete of someone who is too used to flying Singapore Airlines.

When I arrive in Nice, airport-approved clear plastic bag in hand, I can barely hear Murphy screaming 'I told you so' amidst the hubbub of fellow passengers complaining about their mishandled luggage. 60 bags do not make it onto Easyjet flight 3107 that night, 2 of which contain my laptop, mobile phones and clean underwear. I remain surprisingly calm, if very testy, possibly because the nice lady at the Easyjet baggage service counter has assured me that my bags should arrive sometime the next day, and given me a telephone number to call and check on their status.

My veneer of calmness lasts through my second trip to the airport the next morning, but unfortunately not my third. Frustrated by the lack of information and the fact that nobody ever answers the aforementioned number, my temper is kept in check only after the English gentleman in front of me is threatened with being hauled off by a policewoman for his outburst. ("Je ne pas comprend! Comprend this! I WANT MY F***ING BAGS!") Instead, I resort to tears, which are duly rewarded with the reassurance that I am not alone as many, many bags have been lost. The downside to this (for there is always a downside) is that the Easyjet staff in Nice are too busy to answer the ringing phone to explain where the bags are. Which is a lucky coincidence for them, as they are also too busy to find out where the bags are.

By the time I make my fourth trip to the airport the following day, I am prepared for the continued absence of my luggage and have (figuratively) packed my bags for Italy. Predictably, my luggage arrives on the first flight to Nice after I leave for Tuscany, which must have caused the Easyjet staff no end of excitement for they take 12 hours to collect their senses before calling on Tuesday morning to inform me. After some discussion, the Easyjet guy agrees to fly my bags to Pisa - am I able to wait until Wednesday afternoon to pick them up, as he has to arrange another delivery to Paris Orly first? The conversation ends with him promising to call me again with details of the flight that my bags will be on.

With the benefit of improved judgment, I make a few more futile attempts to contact Easyjet in Nice, then wait until Thursday afternoon to call at Pisa's Galileo Galilei airport, whereupon I am informed that my bags should be coming in on that evening's flight from Paris Orly - and oh, here's a number to call and check whether they have arrived. After a few more unanswered calls, I trudge out to the airport again, fingers tightly crossed.

A quick discussion at the baggage counter. I push my luggage tags over to the lady. She goes into a backroom, I engage in nervous conversation with a woman in the queue who has chased her bags to Milan and back. I catch a fleeting glimpse of the lady moving around in the backroom, holding something in her hands. My breath catches. The door swings upon. For a second, all I see is blue. Samsonite blue, Nike blue - glorious, glorious blue. I clap my hands, jump on the spot, and suddenly I'm on my knees, hugging my bags, grateful that my camera is still intact, grateful that my phones are undamaged, grateful that my laptop is still working.

Most of all, I'm just grateful that my days of handwashing underwear everyday are over.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

It's been a long time coming ...

I have recently been alerted that no new blog entries = no more loyal macaloon fans. A fairly intuitive equation that has somehow managed to slip my mind, along with how to construct a replicating portfolio (useful for calculating the options I gave up by coming here) and how to figure out how much longer I'll have to wait in the supermarket queue (longer than in the queue I just left, no doubt).

Anyways, this is a nice juncture for me to start blogging again. Exams are upon us once more, so in a way, it's almost like picking up right where I left off. (That is, if you discount the last 2 months of new classes, new friends, and new weight gain.) So without further ado, let me leave you with a promise of a post-exam rendevous, and a few words which are long overdue:

aggers - thank you for those Chinese New Year goodies that you so sweetly sent here! Er, 3 months ago! Happy belated birthday, and I expect to see some good discounts coming on a cool set of retro furniture ...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Never trust a Greek man

How strange is it that the main emotion evoked in me by the Microeconomics final is one of newfound respect for my Greek professor? That was one kickass paper - tricky yet not unnecessarily so, covering fundamental concepts in an applied (read: disguised) manner. One dark, twisted part of my mind actually found it rather fun. Nothing could have prepared me for how difficult it was. Understood what was actually being taught in class? Natch. Did and re-did the exercises? Natch. Breezed through the sample exam? Natch. Aced - nay, completed - the actual final? So not natch.

Hello z-curve! I'm almost inspired enough to junk Finance for Grey's Anatomy.

Monday, March 06, 2006

How low can you go?

The ignominy of it all! After two wasted trips to pick up the statistics past year exams I had sent to the printer one floor down, I decided to stake out the printer from my vantage point upstairs. Dutifully lined up my print jobs, listened out for the sounds of the printer kicking in, and leaned over the banister like a child waiting for Santa Claus. I'm surprised it took me as long as ten seconds before I squealed at the guy riffling through my printouts. Don't say I don't give people the benefit of the doubt.


Just came out of the accounting final - suffice to say that I'm scared shitless enough to head straight to the library. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. It's as if someone just slapped me over the head with a wet tuna, and about time too. Somehow, "I just need to pass" doesn't quite cut it anymore. That's just self-justification and reassurance, when what I need is a liberal dose of wake-up-and-smell-the-euros-you-just-flushed-down-the-toilet. And maybe a good spanking when it's all over.