Picture it. Paris. You’re sitting on a park bench or at a local cafe. The air is light, the atmosphere romantic. No hustle and bustle of people, just the sounds of La Vie on Rose whispering through the air, entwining with the smell of fresh croissants and macaroons. No thoughts of work or worrying about school or taking the kids to soccer practice. Pure and simple bliss…
Sounds inviting no?
This week we chose a book that would provide just that. With the ongoing, everyday demands constantly hounding each of us for our attention, we all need a release once in a while that can help us escape and The Little Paris Bookshop enticed us with the possibility within its pages. Sadly, it proved otherwise…
Complete with all the elements that a Paris love story should have, the elegance and flow of Nina George’s words escapes the overall attempt at a connective story. Being a bookseller myself (along with everyone in The Group), this felt like a right choice for us as we in a way, mimic some of these actions in our daily lives. We all love books and find solace within their pages, hence our desire to pass along our loves to those who come through our doors each day. The expectation was that this book would find a special piece of each of us and hold true to our own feelings with its story.
The story follows Monsieur Jean Perdu, owner of a ‘Literary Apothecary’, a book barge on Seine river in Paris that “prescribes” books to people in order to help them with life’s hardships. Similar idea of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore but with a twist – an eccentric old gentleman selling books as medicine to those who are missing a certain something in their lives. His talent for looking into people’s souls and reading them allows him to provide literary release for his customers and a little “just what the doctor ordered”.
Sounds intriguing no?
The book snared my attention just from this excerpt:
“There are books that are suitable for a million people, others for only a hundred. There are even remedies—I mean books—that were written for one person only…A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.”
Unfortunately, the idea of a literary apothecary only covers maybe a quarter of the content of this book. Big disappointment…. The majority centers on a lost romance and Perdu’s inability to help himself as he has been in a state of limbo for the past 20 years ever since she left him suddenly with only an unopened letter for an explanation. It turns into a quest to discover the meaning of this forgotten love and its ultimate ending.
Sadly and even more bluntly, “It’s more a glorification of infidelity and one man’s inability to get over a tryst with a married woman who happened 20 years ago.”
Page after page, we meet a variety of characters, including Manon the lost love, Catherine the divorcee that moves in across the hall, Max Jordan the writer in search of a story, and many more that impact Perdu, but ultimately lack that degree of connection for us to ultimately care what happens to them. Each has a part to play, but none possess the impact for the reader to become hooked into their outcome.
I’m sorry to say, but I ultimately just got bored with the story…
It simply drudges along with the use of beautifully descriptive language of the appealing landscapes and cultural interactions along with meaningful quotes that keeps the reader hoping, but sadly lacks the luster.
I enjoyed the aspects of the Parisian setting and the idea of the literary apothecary, even the plot of love affair, but bottom line, romanticizing an adulterous affair did not work for me, despite the justification and explanation that is repeated numerously throughout the story. The borderline obsession and consuming pedestal-like worship of Manon becomes chapter upon chapter of continual droning, throwing the reader through the spectrum of emotions he goes through on his journey to discover who and what she was to him.
I’m not going to lie, we had trouble finishing. Only two out a group of ten actually made it to the final page by book club night. Many of us started skimming towards the end as we kept encountering cliché after cliche; it was never-ending. There was definite effort to claim the title of “sentimental tear-jerker of the year”, but beyond the conclusion of our hero’s tale and the big reveal of his quest’s ultimate purpose, I felt nothing but desire for it to end.
But, like any story, especially those set in Paris, the book is a celebration of love in all its possible and impossible forms complete with a happily ever after. It combines a love for books and their effect on changing lives as well as the universal ideals of family, forgiveness and friendship. Traditions, recipes, diaries entries, and the romantic grandeur of France sum up Nina George’s attempt at a heart-warming story and if you can get past the repetitive emotional roller coaster, there is a possibility you might enjoy the book. It just didn’t happen for us…..
<<<<<<AND NOW ONTO THE FOOD>>>>>>
Now on a happier note, because the book was set in Paris, we decided what’s more Parisian than macaroons!!!
I was so excited when I set out to make these….little did I know what I was in for. Fair warning, I went through lots test batches to try to get these puppies right (and by lots I mean 4 batches total).
The key to macarons………pause for dramatic effect…….is beating the egg whites long enough until those peaks look like Mount Krumpet from How The Grinch Stole Christmas and sifting the flour mixture until it is fine as Joe Manganiello 😉
There are many forms of the perfect recipe for macaroons. One of the members of The Group suggested one from Baking Chez Moi as the author is quite fondly known for her expertise in making these delicious pastries. Apparently, this recipe is one of the better known one to use as she has stuck by it for years, kicker is it’s timely.
Because I do not have an abundance of time, money, or energy, not to mention kitchen space to devote to testing her recipe a multitude of times (as should be expected due to the number of factors that contribute to successful macaroons) I chose a version that was geared more for the little people of baking….
Prep Time: 30 m
Cook Time: 10 min
Total Time: 24 h
- 3 egg whites (large eggs)
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1 2/3 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 1 cup finely ground almond flour
- Line a baking sheet with a parchment paper or a silicone baking mat and preheat oven to 285 degrees
- Sift confectioners’ sugar and almond flour in a separate bowl until fine powder with no clumps*
- Beat egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment until whites are foamy (roughly 1min); beat in white sugar and continue beating on high until egg whites are glossy, fluffy, and hold soft peaks (can be up to ten minutes)**
- Re-sift confectioners’ sugar and almond flour once more to make sure its free of any clumps and quickly fold the almond mixture into the egg whites (about 30 strokes)
- Spoon a small amount of batter into a plastic bag with a small corner cut off and pipe a test disk of batter, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter, onto prepared baking sheet. If the disk of batter holds a peak instead of flattening immediately, gently fold the batter a few more times and retest
- When batter is mixed enough to flatten immediately into an even disk, spoon into a pastry bag fitted with a plain round tip. Pipe the batter onto the baking sheet in rounds, leaving space between the disks.
- Place trays roughly 12 inches above a flat space and drop them down flat to allow air bubbles to release from mixture (maybe have to do a few times and don’t be gentle)
- Bake cookies until set but not browned, about 10 minutes; let cookies cool completely before filling (Let the piped cookies stand out at room temperature until they form a hard skin on top, about 1 hour)
* Super Important step, don’t skip as this can make or break the pastry. The finer the mixture, the smoother it turns out
**Same here, if you beat the eggs too soft, the peaks wont hold and the cookies will flatten. They say not too overbeat them, but once you think they are ready, I say leave it beating for an extra five seconds just to be safe
Sooooo with this version, I found it much simpler than preparing the batter and letting it sit for 24 hours. Partially because I was too lazy to wait that long (or too excited to try it), I found this version submitted from a baker’s apprentice and thought that it was enough up my alley to handle and enough of a challenge still to try.
In doing this recipe, I have found that I do now prefer to set up my kitchen almost cooking show style. What I mean by this is I measured out ALL the ingredients into their own bowls and had them ready to go prior to commencing the baking.
Saved me immensely as time is a bit of a factor here….
Preheat the oven to 285F. Have it preheating as you make everything, that way its good and ready when you are.
So first, separate the eggs. Sure you can buy egg whites already separated, but what fun would that be. And make sure you get the full amount of egg whites when separating, don’t skimp. I tried adding an extra egg in to see if it would help measure up to the amount as everyone was stressing the metric values and measuring at home…blah blah blah. Just don’t be wasteful with the whites and you’re all good.
After that, place them into your mixer or if you separated in the mixer (then you were smarter than me) mix them on a high speed until they start to froth. At this point, you will pour your sugar into the mixer, flip it to max high and watch as they begin to blend into a beautiful mount of creamy white fluffiness.
Here is the trouble most of us run into…..
If you beat the eggs too short, you’ll get no peaks. If you beat them too long, they wont be fluffy. Trick is to beat them until you get a nice clump of meringue in the middle of the beater and a nice peak formed on the ending. As per the picture, aim for firm peaks….
As this is happening, as the beating taken roughly 5-10 minutes depending on how high your mixer goes, I went ahead and sifted my confectioners sugar and almond flour together. The original recipe called for ground almonds, but the problem is you need the mixture to be SUPER fine. No clumps, lumps, bunches, etc…. Leaves a bad flour taste in the mouth and doesn’t help piping the mixture onto the pans either.
I chose to use Bob’s Red Mill Almond Flour as it was already claiming to be super finely grounded. DO NOT TAKE THIS AT FACE VALUE!!! I am totally calling the kettle black here, but its super important not to be lazy and skip this step. You have to invest the time and sift this mixture as finely as possible. First time around, I chose to use a ninja processor because I thought it would save time and I could multi-task.
Wellllllllll, in theory it worked, but it tended to clump under the blades and upon pouring the mix into the meringue, messed the whole lot up!!
Second time around, I placed a strainer over a bowl just a hair smaller and sifted the mix back and forth until it was powder.
*Tip: using a whisk to move the mix around the strainer helps break up clumps as its being sifted. I had a few stubborn pieces in the bottom of the flour mix that wouldn’t break. Using the whisk uncover them before they could hatch their dastardly plan to ruin my pastries…
Once your meringue has been beaten enough, remove from the mixer and add in slowly half of your flour mixture. Begin folding it into the meringue, adding the other half to make it a smooth mixture. Think roughly 30 folds to do the trick and try not too fold too hard or you will deflate the meringue.
Detour for a moment….now one site said I could add food color here when folding, another said before when beating the egg whites. My first time around, I added a food coloring gel to try to get a nice pink to match the book cover.
Maybe it was due to the overall theme of the book why they turned out so bitter or maybe because I later discovered that the coloring gel is meant more
for batters than meringues. Either way, don’t do it. Took too many extra folds to try to get the color to be consistently blended throughout the meringue that it may have had an effect on their outcome. The second go, I added just straight food coloring to the egg whites prior to beating and they came out a pretty pink.
Once the mixture is nice and folded, you’ll want to add it into a ziplock bag or piping bag if you have them.
*TIP: place the empty bag into a tall glass and form around the lip of the glass so to hold the bag while scooping the mixture in. Frees up the hands and keep the mixture centralized for piping
The recipe that I tried had a hint to only place a little in a smaller ziplock bag to test to see if the mixture was ready prior to doing the whole thing. In my hurry to see my beauties, I skipped this step. This is the end result….
Test out the mix prior to. If it peaks when piping, it needs more folding. Once the mixtures form nice round disks, proceed with placing them on the tray with space between them.
There are templates out there for piping macarons onto the sheet. Some people prefer the silicone baking mats instead of parchment paper as they claim they stick, but I didn’t find this to be the case.
**KEY TIP: You need to get the air bubbles out to the mixture. Though you may not see any, as my husband said, they are there, waiting, in the darkness…. Take your sheets and raise them roughly a foot above a flat counter top and let them drop straight down. The impact with scare the bubbles right out. You may have to do it a couple times, but trust me it will make a difference. The macarons will split if you dont…
Place them in the oven at 285 F for 10 minutes.
Now some macaroon bakers prefer a single sheet to bake at a time (per my numerous reads) whereas some advocate that you can do two. In true spirit, I tried two. Key is to place one sheet on top, the other on the bottom for five minute intervals then switch places. Worked perfectly for me just make sure that they are set and not browning when you remove them from the oven.
Let them cool COMPLETELY prior to removal. That’s the issue with parchment paper; if you try to remove them prior to full coolment, they break. They are fluffy goodness after all…
Once cooled, pipe in your filling. One member of The Group chose a Dark Chocolate Ganache, once more to go along with the book’s cover colors. After piping it in, you need to place them in the fridge for 24 hours. Tip from the pros that I followed, well worth it. Take them out 30 min prior to serving and enjoy 🙂
Hopefully you all enjoyed this week’s food/book choice and will comment when you try it for yourselves. This next time around, we flip into the mystery category and will be reading Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz. It continues the story of Sherlock and Moriarty after they fell from the Reichenbach falls. We will also be making Black Forest Gateau so get out that magnifying glass, grab your pipe and tweed cap, and get ready for a golly ole’ time.
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