A Paris Cupcake Diary, Featuring Macaroons, Too

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I like cupcakes and I like macaroons.

They are so much alike, I can barely tell them apart these days: both are pretty, colorful, happiness creations with a cultural identity; both are old products that became the object of food crazes as, in the early 2000s, the macaroon became the toast of the town in Paris while in the U.S. making cupcakes became a national requirement for getting into 7th grade and for getting a housing loan; then, in around 2008, each gained a foothold on the other’s shores and is now firmly planted there; each gives its pastry high in Paris for the same price, about $5 for one cupcake or two macaroons.

The cupcake and the macaroon are mirror images of each other, yet some see them as true opposites: the one easy to make, unsophisticated and flabby in the belly, the other subtle, refined and urbane. There is some truth to that, but there is more truth to their interchangeability, and only a snob would consider the macaroon as the “anti-cupcake.”

FR1 CupcakesThe Paris version of the macaroon was scarcely found elsewhere in France 15 years ago. Other French towns and regions had and still have their own local type of macaroon (macaron, if you prefer the French spelling), which is why the macaroons I refer to here are best called Parisian macaroons rather than French macaroons. The Parisian macaroon was even quite rare in Paris before the turn of the millennium. Though a late-19th-century creation, the Parisian macaroon was largely associated with a few time-honored bakeries, notably Ladurée, until then. Now Parisian macaroons—good, bad, indifferent—are found everywhere in Paris, from bakeries that resemble jewelry shops to gift shops that resemble bakeries to supermarkets that resemble grocery stores. They have also become a staple pastry of cooking classes and are now available throughout France.

Word spread to foreign travelers that Parisian macaroons were the “it” pastry in the French capital. Little explanation was necessary. Images of colorful macaroon buttons, photographed in perfect rows, spoke plenty about the pastel pleasures of life and travel in Paris and all that was tasty, tasteful and refined here. Photographed in a tower, like stones in a Zen garden, they promised nearly mystical yumminess while conveying peace, balance and sophistication all in one. There was no more pressing question among some food travelers then which was better Ladurée or Pierre Hermé, or was Deloyau just as good? The search for the perfect macaroon signaled the primacy of food and food coloring over other aspects of local color.

Then, in around 2008, in a seemingly synchronized exchange of know-how, cupcakes came to Paris and Parisian macaroons went to New York. It was no coincidence; as I say, the American cupcake and the Parisian macaroon had increasingly become mirror images of each other. Yet as much as American Francophiles and pastry lovers applauded the spreading of the gospel of macaroons to New York and beyond, many, upon hearing that the cupcake had arrived in Paris, thought that ridiculous, even a slap in the face. Imagine attaining ground zero of a precious pastry—le macaron—only to discover someone hawking cupcakes nearby, with a smile no less. “They always take the worst of what we make,” some would say, presumably speaking of the cupcake rather than the smile. Some spoke of cupcakes in Paris in the way others speak of same-sex marriage, as though it demeaned their sense of the inherent value, integrity and godliness of a couple of macaroons. When I dared mention to one American macaroon-lover my sense of the interchangeability of the cupcake and the macaroon, of their equal goodness and faddishness, she reacted as though I’d told her that another’s god was equal to her own and launched jihad against my Facebook page.

Sugar Daze shop window.
Sugar Daze, a Paris cupcake bakery.

The cupcake is no longer the domain of 7-year-old birthday parties and the macaroon is no longer a rarified, sophisticated commodity. They both belong to the middle ground of happy sweet things in Paris. As collateral damage the chocolate or café éclair, old reliable in the pastry case, though still found everywhere, became increasingly ignored by visitors to Paris. (I like éclairs, too.) Sensing that the macaroon has peaked and that their French staff doesn’t have the proper smile to sell cupcakes, some bakers in Paris have made an attempt in the past year to sell an array of colorful and various-flavored éclairs, but as pretty as they are many of them taste like rolls with sugary goop in the middle. But that’s another story.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, by 2010 the moment was ripe for NPR’s All Things Considered to present a segment entitled Move Over, Cupcake: Make Way For The Macaroon. Bon Appetit followed up by calling macaroons The New Cupcake. The following year ABC News asked Are Macaroons the Next Cupcake? and several months later Fox News asked, with a change of tense to hedge their bet, Will Macarons Be the New Cupcake? I suspect that Fox chose the French spelling to show that they were as hip to baking trends as anyone else but some other breaking Tea Party news had prevented them from informing their audience beforehand. It was then a full year before the Huffington Post, whose bloggers apparently enjoy getting back at the company’s payment policy by providing old news, declared the explosion of the macaroon in America as imminent in Macarons: The Next Cupcake Craze.

In 2011 I set out on week-long taste-tasting of cupcakes at five bakeries in Paris and interviewed some of the bakers. But after enjoying a couple of dozen cupcakes I didn’t feel like writing about them anymore. (I do that sometimes.) Anyway, I’d previously written with a touch of sarcasm about the first Paris edition of Cupcake Camp, which raises money for Make-a-Wish France, and then apologized for the sarcasm in announcing the second Paris edition. As a grown man, I felt that I’d done enough for the cause of the cupcake movement in Paris. And I stopped telling people that I thought macaroons and cupcakes were one and the same (macarons, cupcakes, même combat, as they say in the demonstrations). I simply said that I liked them both and that cultural habits lead me to pay more attention to macaro(o)ns when in France and to cupcakes when in the U.S.

My cupcake diary went silent for two years after that. I nevertheless kept an eye on cupcakes in Paris and macaroons in the U.S. They were cropping up in unexpected places. By the dessert trays at a cocktail dinner event to honor the restoration of France’s Catholic heritage sites, cupcakes led me to fall into a conversation with a monk about cross-cultural culinary adoption. Several months later, Brother sent me an e-mail on his return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land telling me that he’d been served a mini cupcake on an Air France flight from Tel Aviv. I was making own pilgrimage to New Jersey at the time, traveling around the great state checking towns off in my inverted bucket list (Hoboken, Asbury Park, Freehold, etc.), during which the barista in a coffee shop in Asbury Park  told me their macaroons were “incredible” (I selected a muffin instead—I like corn muffins, though a good one is hard to find). Sometime after that, back in Paris, I received in the mail a notice from an office supply store announcing that I could get a cupcake kit (cupcakes et gateaux décorés) free with my next purchase online.

Last winter I was walking on rue des Tournelles near Place de la Bastille and, remembering that I had once interviewed a cupcake baker there, had a rare and sudden urge for red velvet with cream cheese icing. But the shop was gone, replaced by La Moustache Blanche, a craft beer shop, and it so happened that I was then editing an article about craft beer. La Moustache Blanche has since become my preferred supplier of fine beer in a way that the cupcake shop could never have.

Cupcake display at Bertie's Cupcakery
Cupcake display at Bertie’s Cupcakery

Then last week I heard that the fourth edition of Cupcake Camp was coming again soon and I decided to pull out my dormant cupcake diary. After a week of cupcake hunting I share with you my latest entry.

November 10, 2013
Dear Cupcake Diary,
Cupcake Camp is coming soon. I’m not sure to go but hearing about it has made me realize that I haven’t had a cupcake in a while. So over the past week I’ve made the rounds of bakeries in Paris that emphasize cupcakes. I’ve found that some of their products are sickeningly sweet, some bakers seem to believe that winning the cupcake wars means piling candy bars as high as possible on top, some cupcakes aren’t fresh enough or are too dense, and some are decent but leave out one of the main ingredients of a good cupcake: love—for just as the macaroon, its mirror image, is best when offered with love, the cupcake is best when made with it.

But I also found some great cupcakes. At 3.50-3.80€ ($4.70-5.00) per full-size cupcake they ought to be good. So, Dear Cupcake Diary, before abandoning you to focus on my fledgling bagel and muffin diaries, here is a list of my two preferred cupcake bakeries in Paris, plus a notable third.

Sugar Daze, 20 rue Henry (also written Henri) Monnier, 9th arr. Metro Pigalle or Saint-Georges. Tel. 09 83 04 41 77. Open Wed., Fri., Sat. noon-7:30pm, Thurs. noon-6:30pm, Sun. noon-6pm.

Cat Beurnier, Sugar Daze
Cat Beurnier, Sugar Daze

When the history of cupcakes in Paris is written, Cat Beurnier will hold a place of honor as one of the early purveyor of quality cupcakes. Wait, this IS the history of cupcakes in Paris! Cat, one of the queens of made-to-order cupcakes in Paris since 2008 and a co-founder with Bryan Pirolli of Cupcake Camp Paris, finally opened a shop of her own in 2012. She, like others with storefront bakeries, still does a brisk made-to-order business. (There are a handful of other well-respected cupcake bakers in the made-to-order business who fully operate without a brick-n-mortar shop but they weren’t considered for this sugar-and-cream taste-taste). Cat’s cupcakes are a well-balanced mix of traditional and more recent or personal recipes, and if my recent visit to get a red velvet fix is any indication they clearly please the French residents of the residents of the neighborhood, not simply foreign residents and visitors. Coffee and some bagel lunch offerings are also available here. Sugar Daze is located in the happening area of the 9th arrondissement  between the St-Georges, Pigalle and Anvers metro stations. Rue des Martyrs, at the center of this area, has become one of the trendiest food-and-drink streets around, but there’s plenty going on on neighboring streets as well. Sugar Daze is on a parallel street, several doors down from Buvette, a New York riff on the traditional-cum-chic Paris bistro.

Bertie’s Cupcakery, 26 rue Chanoinesse, 4th arr. Metro Cité or Hotel de Ville. Open 11am-7pm. Tel. 01 43 29 18 70. Open daily 11am-6:30pm.
I had three reasons for not wanting to like Bertie’s: 1. It’s just around the block from Notre-Dame, where I thought it sacrilege to sell anything but bad crepes, stale sandwiches and Université de Paris sweat shirts, 2. I found the following quote on her website disingenuous: “I think the French are already doing a fantastic job with a their macaroons and I wasn’t going to mess with that!” and 3. I expected that as a relative latecomer to the cupcake lovefest (Bertie’s opened in Oct. 2012) her goods were going to be the same-ol’-same-ol’, with excessive icing. But Bobbie’s cupcakes (Bertie is what she was called as a child) are clearly made with love. They’re sweet to be sure but with light purity of heart and cute without being cutesy and they have just the right amount of flower-shaped butter cream or cream cheese icing on top. And I sort of like that quote. Why mess with the macaroon?

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Cupcake & Macaron, 1 rue du Four, 6th arr. Metro Mabillon. Tel. 01 72 34 64 02. Open daily 11am-11pm, until midnight Fri. and Sat. Metro Mabillon.

Cupcake & Macaron
Cupcake & Macaron

Despite its name, this miniscule shop, part Alice in Wonderland, part Willy Wonka, wasn’t messing much with macaro(o)ns either when I stopped by. The fellow in red livery was only selling mini-cupcakes (2€20). They may be making a mockery of the whole cupcake-macaroon thing here, but C&M cupcakes nevertheless get a shout-out for being light, not overly sweet and relatively delicate. The 6th arrondissement, a.k.a. pastry heaven, is well known for finding le mot juste to brand their business, like a hotel named L’Hotel and a bagels and brownies shop named Bagels & Brownies. Most delicious of all is La Tarte Tropézienne which sells the delicious creamy cake of the same name (I like Tropeziennes) just across the street from C&M.

© 2013, Gary Lee Kraut

November 11, 2013
Dear Cupcake Diary,
P.S. This article has given me such cupcake cred that I’ve now been invited to be a judge of the goods at the fourth edition of Cupcake Camp, November 24, 2013. Be there or be macaroon.

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