The 8-year-old-version of me loved caviar. Loved it until I ate a bad bunch and threw up… for the next two days. But to be honest, the younger me didn’t really like caviar at all, or least not the taste of it. But I liked what it represented, its cachet, its snob appeal. There is an often-used quote “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French lawyer-statesmen who wrote The Physiology of Taste. The quote showed up again on last week’s article in the New York Times about obsessive food photography at restaurants. My “liking” for caviar was more of a “tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you want to be.” (I found my love for caviar again, this time a truer form after tasting its briny, fishy, intense pops of flavor in Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls dish at Per Se.)
Macarons are the grownup version of my childhood caviar. There is a rarefied sophistication to a macaron. Well that was before the whole macaron craze hit Singapore. Now you can find them almost anywhere. The factor that kept me from loving macarons was that most of the time it was too sweet. But I liked everything else about the macaron. I love the buttercream and I love how they are a vehicle for so many flavors; rose-lychee-raspberry, salted caramel, hazelnut brown butter, I could go on and on. I loved the textures too, the smooth crisp thin domes giving way to the frilly-skirted “foot” and chewy, moist interior. But texture was what kept most macaron cookies too sweet. Sugar stabilizes and along with egg whites, gives structure to the delicate cookies.
It’s a fragile balance. I’ve been looking for that elusive combination. And I’ve found it.
I’d been hearing from K-Dubs about his cousin’s girlfriend, Danielle Chong, making some magnificent macarons while she was in San Francisco. We were talking about it over brunch a few weeks ago and later that night Yixiao informed me that Danielle was whipping up a batch for some of her friends and if I wanted any. It was $30 for 15, not bad at all, I signed up immediately. It was the best 30 buckeroos I spent that weekend.
I had to wait till the next day to eat them as I wanted to photograph ’em in the early morning light. It was such a tease because they looked so good. Her macarons were plump and poofy, filled with a very generous layer of buttercream. By the time I was done taking pictures, I was without exaggerating, ravenous with desire to devour them. Like an alcoholic co-ed double fisting at spring break, I was the nom-noming version, descending into a food frenzy. I finished them all in less than 5 minutes. Danielle, if you are reading this, I apologize; your macarons deserve to be savored. I couldn’t help myself they were so good.
Some of Danielle’s macarons were a feat of structural engineering, its unusually high domes supported only by the thin vertical walls on its circumference. It leads to an airy macaron, an exquisite eating sensation as it offers just the barest resistance before crumbling from the pressure of my mouth into its substantial interior. Others have less headroom but are equally pleasurable. They are airy, moist and chewy. She uses a variety of methods for her macaron cookies, considering which is best for a certain flavor. Only the pistachio macaron cookie was slightly dry and dense.
However the pistachio macaron cookie and rose buttercream made an inspired flavor combination. When I asked Danielle what made her think of putting those two flavors together, she answered, “Turkish Delight.” I couldn’t help but smile.
I’m a fan of the flavors of her macarons. Although some, like the black sesame, passion fruit and raspberry are more punchy than the others, they never taste artificial. That artificial taste is an increasing occurrence with other lesser bakers attempting to up the flavor factor. Danielle has a sensibility with flavor; it is a talent. Her honey lavender macaron is subtle, just kissed with its floral notes. I love lavender, but most food flavored with it tastes like soap, too pronounced and artificial. She proves that lavender used judiciously with skill and high quality ingredients can have devastatingly delectable results.
The reason I love Danielle’s macarons though is because of the buttercream, specifically her generous use of it. It’s my favorite component of a macaron and they just don’t make it like that in most stores. Danielle’s macarons are the real artisanal deal, exquisite, small batch confections made with a generosity of heart. It would be easier to use the same base for all her macaron flavors, but she doesn’t do that, her hazelnut brown butter macaron doesn’t even use almonds but hazelnuts. Logical but just more work. It’s why her macarons are so good, and something that you just can’t buy at shops.
I gobbled down the food. I didn’t know when my next meal would come, and it was going to be a long day. I filled up some mineral water bottles from a jerry can. The water was warm, and as I stuffed them into ammo pouches on my load bearing vest, I regretted not bringing my water bladder. I spent the last week observing another infantry unit as it took its evaluation. Today was supposed to be short, an easy day, just watch the final morning attack. We didn’t plan to be there for more than two or three hours. But now I was roped in to replace an umpire for the evaluation. I lifted my vest and put it on, feeling around to check that I had everything. I needed more water. I buckled the vest’s belt around my hips and the straps across my chest. I put on my jungle hat, its wide brim shaded my eyes and provided some reprieve from the scorching sun. I said goodbye to my CO and Brigade Sergeant Major, both men whom I respect immensely, before I briskly trotted out to the sound of gunfire.
The firing was sporadic now, with only pockets of resistance in two or three buildings. As I got closer, the constant high-pitched buzz from the harnesses’ of the “dead” increased. It was a costly engagement. As I approached a building, five soldiers, remnants of a platoon or I feared, perhaps a company were pinned down from the front. Someone was firing at them from their half-left as well. They were paralyzed, their commander just got “killed.” The medic in the group had had enough. He threw down his stretcher and said,
He started to rally the rest of the men. He told someone to throw a smoke grenade to obscure the OpFors’ line of sight and together with his motley band, moved forward to continue the assault.
I linked up with the rest of the empires, reservists as well. I went up to a sergeant and asked him what we were supposed to do, and how to do it. At least they’ve had extensive briefings on their assignment. That was how I met Gery Dachlan. He helped me throughout the day as we followed the OpFor for their counter attack. It was almost 10 p.m. when we headed home, he offered to give me a ride and we started talking about food. He was a foodie as well. We kept in touch though Facebook and almost a year later, I got an email from him asking if I would be interested to buy some macarons from Jean-Philippe Darcis, a pâtissier and the “ambassador of Belgian chocolate.” They were $30 for 11. Pricy, but I’ve seen more expensive ones in Singapore.
Unfortunately I was out for most of the night after he had passed them to me, so they weren’t in ideal conditions for a few hours. I can only imagine how they would have tasted if I had gotten them into a fridge immediately, because they were excellent even for having been mistreated (one or two shattered.)
Like Macarune’s they were generously filled with buttercream. The macaron cookies were also soft, chewy and moist with a smooth, thin crisp dome. But of all the macarons I’ve tasted, these were the least sweet, a very good thing.
I can’t remember all the flavors, it was February when I tasted them. But I liked all the flavors in the pack, rare especially when I didn’t pick the flavors. I’m finicky when it comes to macarons and when it’s a random selection, there are one or two that I won’t like. The thing I remember most about them was that they tasted and felt refined, more so than most macarons in Singapore. I’m no macaron expert so I can’t tell you why. It just is.
Two years ago I was on a course with the army. It was grueling and during our finale exercise the training cadre kept on changing the plan on us, they injected scenarios, imposed problems and generally my cohort thought they were harassing us. Some started to switch off, started to take it personally, started to get an attitude. But that’s the way life is, there’s always something unexpected. I was surprised by some of their reactions. We were seasoned soldiers, earmarked for higher command. Maybe it was because most of us were in the infantry, and were used to things moving at a set pace and plan. If there was one thing I learnt during that exercise it’s that almost nothing goes as planned. You just have to prepare for the contingencies, adapt and make the best of it.
I could have bitched and moaned about my mission changing from an observer to an umpire. I thought I would be home for lunch. Instead I got a serious farmer’s tan from the furious sun. I just rolled with it, as an umpire I had an opportunity to learn more, and I was glad. But the best part about being thrown into that role was that I met Gery and he introduced Darcis’ macarons to me. I didn’t know it at that time but it made a sweet ending to a hard day.
UPDATED Singapore website: http://www.darcis.sg/
A store is planned at Marina Bay Sands in early August.
Meanwhile to order email Gery: email@example.com
Delivery is free.
ET Artisan Sweets
ET Artisan Sweets website.