Cookbook Review: I Heart Macarons by Hisako Ogita: Sweet, Fluffy, and Imperfect
Hello! This book review comes with a contest! Make it all the way to the end for details on how to win your own copy of I Heart Macarons.
I've never made macarons before. I'm really way too impatient and haphazard by nature to be much of a baker, I've had zero experience with meringue or a pastry bag, and my kitchen's oven is ancient and finicky with plenty of hotspots. But despite all that, I followed the instructions for the basic vanilla macaron in I Love Macarons (Amazon), by Japanese pastry chef Hisako Ogita, and the very first batch I made came out so close to perfect that I hardly believed it.
Maybe even more surprising than the near-perfect cookies, though, was that I found the process of macaron-making surprisingly straightforward. This was not something I expected, given the gallons of virtual ink spilled on the subject on practically every cooking blog I read — some time in the last year or two, everyone (myself included) became obsessed with macarons. Brightly colored but prim, sweet but not too childlike, mysterious and beautiful and ephemeral, truly they are the Zooey Deschanel of bite-sized desserts. And nothing seems to fuel the allure so much as the myth that they're hard to make. That's right, myth: friends, macarons are not actually that difficult. I measured my ingredients, whipped my meringue, folded in the dry stuff, did my dozen turns of macaronnage, measured, piped, slammed, rested, baked, sandwiched, and ate. All told it took about an hour. Okay, call it two, if you want to count the time it took to bring the egg whites to room temperature.
Unforgivable recipe sins
The question of the recipe's success answered, though, others arise. Like: how much of the creation of my perfect macarons can I really attribute to this book? Because macaron making is such a precise science, Ogita's recipe and instructions aren't terribly original, hardly deviating from the established methods put forth by such pastry sages as David Lebovitz, the folks at Serious Eats, and countless others; ditto for her analysis of what could go wrong (and how you can fix it next time).
What is unique in I Love Macarons, though, is that each step is illustrated with an in-the-moment photograph. This is tremendously helpful as a visual aide to knowing when, say, your eggs are appropriately foamy. But it is not so helpful when you complete step 2 (sift the almonds and powdered sugar) and realize that the two "pointer" steps that immediately follow in the horizontal photo layout are in fact supposed to refer to step 3 (beat egg whites and gradually add granulated sugar), except (I think) in reverse order. Even after a bit of mental reorganization, the instructions remain nearly unparseable: unexplained leaps between steps, unclear references to mysterious "remaining meringue," a way too late in the game note that it's okay to use a stand mixer, and contradictory estimates for drying time. For a book that is essentially built around one recipe, these are unforgivable sins.
I'm tempted to blame I Love Macarons's lack of clarity on its translation. The book was originally written in Japanese, and the copyright page credits Japanese editors and Japanese-to-English translators but, notably, no English-language editor. But there are editorial quirks that are certainly not any translator's fault, most frustratingly the page devoted to "Macarons Parisien Style," where the cookies are marbleized with vivid colors but — after being told how this aesthetic is "the latest fad" among the effortlessly chic, there's no set of instructions for achieving it.
But it's just so darn cute
Still, like a darling floppy-eared puppy that eats the piping off the sofa and pees in your closet, but is just so cute that you can't bring yourself to admit that maybe getting a dog was a bad idea, I Love Macarons is a wonderful little book. It's designed to make you love it, from the sweet use of the heart dingbat in the title to the giggly captions that float on the full-bleed photos. The recipe for buttercream is, if a bit involved, quite foolproof. The charts for matching cookie colors and flavors to fillings are so adorable and sweetly laid out that I'm tempted to demand a poster. The photography is perfect. In an inspired touch, the book closes with recipes designed to use up the leftover egg yolks with which all this meringue-making will leave you.
Of course, this is all padding. Think of I Love Macarons as a long blog entry or a magazine recipe feature, stretched barely to book length thanks to copious glamour shots of vividly colored cookies in tantalizing close-up and lots of fluffy sidebars and notes. Even allowing for two types of meringue preparations and the full-spread photo-illustrated lists of ingredients and necessary equipment, the recipes take up just sixteen of the book's 80 pages (plus, in my case, post-its noting what I believe to be the meaning behind certain steps that make no sense). But, really who cares — there really isn't much more to say about macarons than what's said here, except maybe how to achieve that marble effect. These cookies are light and fluffy and pretty and tiny and notoriously imperfect — it's perfectly logical that the book devoted to them be exactly the same.
Okay, so I Heart Macarons is flawed as a cookbook. But as a document of squee-inducing cute pastry it's in a class of its own. We'd like to give you a copy — leave a comment below (something substantive and at least vaguely on-topic — no "Pick me!" and its ilk) before noon EST tomorrow, November 24, and don't forget to use your real email address. We'll randomly pick a winner.
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