Last December, I conducted an experiment. I had reason to suspect that I was not allergic to almonds, as I had always assumed, so I decided to test that theory. Now, I don't have a death wish; I had some evidence to support my hypothesis.
First, I learned that my cousin Jessica and my sister Bethany—both also allergic to nuts—had eaten Honey Nut Cheerios, which are made with almonds, and suffered no ill effects. Second, I've had almond extract before and had no problems. (Technically, some almond extract is made from apricot pits rather than almonds, but whatever.) Third, I knew that almonds were in the same family as peaches and other stone fruits, so they are different from walnuts and pecans. Fourth, and most important, I found the results of an allergy test from when I was almost three years old, stuck in my baby book. That test listed my allergies for peanuts, walnuts, and pecans as "4+" and soybean as "1-2." (I guess that explains why things with soy protein make my throat scratchy.) But almonds? "0."
For the last couple years, I had been lamenting the fact that so many French desserts use almond flour: madeleines, financiers, and macarons. It wouldn't have been so disappointing, but macarons are some of the cutest cookies imaginable. I've seen numerous pictures of the pretty French pastel sandwich cookies, and I so wanted to get some to try (both for photos and to eat). It broke my heart that I might be allergic to them for all of time.
So when I decided to test my almond theory, the choice of "how" was obvious. Why try just plain almonds when I could try beautiful cookies? And macarons were really my motivation for testing anyway.
One afternoon in December, I made my way to Hayes Valley and went into Paulette to select my first macarons. Obviously, I still had to avoid other nuts like pistachios, just in case. (Pistachios weren't listed on that allergy test, so they're still in the "unsafe" category.) And I decided against the Sweet Wedding Almond flavor, with almond ganache inside and almond bits on top; no need to be brazen about it. I ended up with a box of 6 macarons of various flavors, hoping that I'd actually get to try all of them and not be disappointed/allergic after a single bite.
From the left: violet cassis, pumpkin, raspberry, Madagascar vanilla, Columbian coffee, and Caribbean chocolate.
Of course, as soon as I got the macarons home, I had a photo shoot with them. That was the first priority. Then, when I couldn't wait any longer, I decided to try one. I would have waited until Steve came home from work, but I was too impatient. (Hey, I had Benodryl at the ready.)
Which one to try first? Vanilla. I figured I'd go with the classic, which meant that I'd save the more interesting flavors for Steve to try too. It was wonderful: slightly crispy on the outside, moist and vanilla-y on the inside where the cakey cookie and the buttercream melded together. The lingering texture in my mouth took a little getting used to, kind of like grated coconut, as I waited to see if any red flags would go up. But it seemed to be fine.
That night after dinner, we tried more of them. I had a couple nibbles, I'd let Steve take a bite, and then he'd let me finish it. The next night, we finished the last ones. My favorite? Maybe the pumpkin one, but the violet cassis was also really interesting. They were all fabulous, though. It was difficult to decide on a favorite.
A week or so later, Steve brought me a leftover chocolate macaron from Miette to try. (There had been some at work, and he saved one for me.) I enjoyed it, but it had gotten a tiny bit dry. I waited until he got some directly from Miette in January to take pictures.
The macarons from Miette were a little more rustic than Paulette's, making them a harder to stack too. This time, Steve brought home vanilla, chocolate, grapefruit, and chocolate-orange. As much as I enjoy chocolate, the vanilla and grapefruit may have been my favorites. Steve liked the chocolate-orange one best, though.
My next macaron encounter came by chance when I decided to visit Bernal Heights. I came upon the Sandbox Bakery and decided to have a look inside, since the design aesthetic of the place appealed to me. Then I noticed that they carried macarons, made by Christopher David Macaron. I got two to take home in a small paper bag.
The things I liked about the Christopher David macarons were the unique flavors and the presentation. I got butterscotch (with little gold flecks on top) and strawberry-lavender (with a speckly blue top). Unfortunately, the blue food coloring on top of the strawberry-lavender one wanted to come off on my fingers. It wasn't until I had a blue thumb that I noticed I was smudging the top of the cookie.
Flavorwise, these were pretty intense. They weren't kidding around with the butterscotch or the strawberry-lavender. I ate half of each cookie that afternoon and that was plenty of sweet for one sitting. I saved the two remaining halves to share with Steve after dinner, and he agreed with my assessment. These were a little less refined, with the flavor overshadowing the almond cookieness a little too much. I'd still buy them again, but they're not my first choice of macaron.
Paulette is still my favorite. They're pretty and colorful, there's a variety of interesting flavors (more than Miette or Christopher David), and they're still relatively refined.
The time was coming when I would need to try making macarons myself, but Steve beat me to it. I woke up on Valentine's Day, and Steve was making me macarons from the Bouchon Cookbook. He used caramel-chocolate-fleur de sel buttercream in the middle, leftover from making our Valentine's Day dessert. The cookies ended up a little large, and the buttercream was too runny and messy, but they were good. They even developed the signature "feet" at the bottom of the cookies.
Steve tried again the next weekend, this time using coffee extract (from instant espresso powder) for the cookies and chocolate ganache inside. The result didn't have a lot of coffee flavor, but the size was about right. They tasted good anyway, but they were a little dry.
I still haven't tried making macarons myself, but the important thing is that I can eat them now. It's taking some getting used to, this eating almonds thing, especially when at restaurants. We got a dish with almonds on top when we went to Contigo for Steve's birthday, and it was really strange to me to eat the halved almonds in it. Somehow, I still expected to have an allergic reaction, even though I knew from eating all that almond flour that it was safe. It still felt a little wrong to be eating something with a nutty texture.
So this is what nuts are like... It's a brave new world, friends.
So this is what nuts are like... It's a brave new world, friends.