After walking to every patisserie that sold French macarons during my first month in Paris, my once sensible walking shoes began to seriously malfunction. Fashionable in California but not exactly stylish in Paris, they were losing the battle with cobblestone streets and city walking. With one sole flapping in the breeze, they were clearly gasping their last breath. And given the awkwardness of encountering giggling little children and elderly women pointing at them, it was time to spring for something a little more, well, Parisian. And black.
I memorized how to say my shoe size in French and put the prettiest pink collars on the adorable, but fake Bouledogues Français, Lulu and Phoebe (they're really Boston Terriers but no one in Paris understood the translation). I’d already learned that dogs were always welcome everywhere in Paris and warmed up even the most sullen storekeeper. I was not beneath using them to get what I wanted.
Sure enough, la vendeuse des chaussures, and in fact everyone in the shoe salon greeted the dogs warmly in rapid fire French. But when I asked to see shoes in my size, the very proper elderly French saleswoman looked at me, looked down at my feet, frowned, pointed (again) and yelled out: MON DIEU! QUARANTE TRIOS!
The small shoe salon got awfully silent as every eyeball moved to my feet, which were sadly, still clad in the ugly American shoe now being licked by one bored dog. Satisfied that everyone knew the great dilemma the sales woman faced in helping the American with huge feet, she sighed loudly, and we moved up to the second floor where they apparently kept the clown-sized footwear.
She brought out an array of the ugliest shoes that not even a catalog of podiatry shoes from 1943 would have advertised. I politely rejected them all. After tossing her hands in the air, doing that rapid fire French again, which I understood far more than I wanted (big ox feet, ugly shoes will be only yours should you ever find anyone willing to sell you anything you American giant). And that was the kind part. I think she also asked Lulu and Phoebe to smell my feet, or to sell my feet. Clearly, that was lost in translation.
Finally, the shoes she began to bring out were from the downstairs public display; translation, pretty shoes. Perhaps the hideous selection was a test to see if I had a scintilla of good fashion sense which would not have been obvious given my current footwear.
Exactly 15 minutes after noon, the saleswoman started packing up the shoes and told me to pick something because she was leaving for her déjeuner. Lunch break, it seems, happens whether you have a customer or not. Though I wasn’t quite finished, to promote goodwill between the France and America, I purchased a pair of shoes. Good thing I noticed they had two more locations in Paris where I could be humiliated all over again in a new setting because I certainly wasn't going back to that store ever again.
And continuing on my quest for French macarons, we detoured on the way back to the apartment by way of La Printemps Department Store to visit Maison du Chocolat. They had just gotten in the most delicate and delicious French macaroons I’d tasted yet.
I tried to recreate the macarons when I was home in California months later. After several macaron wrecks (getting them out of the oven without any cracks on top is tricky) I came upon a different solution; meringues with filling.
These meringues are easy, inexpensive and dazzling. Each time I make these I am reminded not only of that shoe shopping day, but of both France's persistent use of Nutella on everything, and of course, Maison du Chocolat and those amazing macaroons.
The meringues are gluten free and elegant enough to serve at a party or to give as a gift; if there are any left, that is.
Nutella Meringue Drops
- 4 large or extra large egg whites
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- pinch of salt
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla
- ¼ teaspoon almond extract
- ½ cup Nutella, or melted bittersweet chocolate
Preheat oven to 225. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silpats.
Crack the eggs carefully and separate the yolks from the whites. Store the yolks for another use. Pop the whites into a stand mixer or in a very large bowl and add the vanilla and almond and the salt. Whisk away on high until frothy but no peaks are formed.
Whisk the sugar with the cornstarch and with the mixer on medium speed; pour the sugar mixture in a steady stream at the edge of the bowl until it is incorporated. Scrape the bowl once with a spatula to make sure all the sugar is incorporated. Now whisk on highest speed until stiff peaks form and mixture looks glossy.
Use a pastry bag or very large Ziploc bag with a 1/2 inch tip to pipe the Meringues onto both cookie sheets, filling them – they can be placed very close together. Or use a spoon to place some on the cookie sheet and use a twist of the spoon to shape them. They should be between 1.5 and 2 inches in diameter. Either way, the recipes yields dozens.
Bake 30 minutes and rotate the baking sheets. Add about another 35 minutes to the cooking time and then turn off the oven and don't open the door! Leave them in the oven 60 minutes more.
Remove and let them cool completely before handling.
While they cool, gently melt the chocolate (in a water bath or the microwave) or Nutella until spreadable. Let the mixture cool somewhat. Take two Meringues and spread a bit of Nutella or chocolate on the bottom of one cookie. Attach the other cookie. Cool the cookies completely before serving – if you can wait. Très bon!
Notes: Don't try to make them on a day when your house might be humid - they won't dry. Keep an eye on them in the oven because while they will still taste great if they brown, they won't look as pretty. Don't be tempted to open the oven door - and if you err on the side of too much time, not a problem. They might get soggy stored in plastic wrap. A tin is best.