As Valentine’s Day speeds toward us, on a recent morning we made our way through the mizzle (mist + drizzle) to The Langham Huntington where a pink flag flies from the pink roof, and pink parasols on the courtyard shield guests from the elements year-round.
Entering the lobby, we were greeted by the sharp, fresh perfume of hundreds of pink carnations in sparkling crystal vases. Our destination: the pastry kitchen of Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef Monaliza Ayson.
Pasadena’s most glamorous and certainly pinkest hotel offers you and your beloved many romantic and memorable Valentine’s season experiences, including fine dining and divine Chuan Spa-ing. But we were there for only one reason. Our mission: macarons.
Chocolate bon bons are, of course, traditional for Valentine’s Day. A romantic Armenian tradition involves eating a salty cookie the night before the moveable feast of St. Sarkis (February 16 this year), the patron saint of young love. Eat the salty cookie without a glass of water, and enter into dehydrated sleep, where you may dream of your future mate.
But The Langham Huntington’s pink macaron sets a new standard for confectionary courtship.
Macaron, not macaroon
If unicorns assisted by cherubs decided to whip up some sandwich cookies for an enchanted tea party, the ballet slipper-pink, gold-brushed macaron at The Langham Huntington would be the result. These sweets are kept out of the casual reach of retail; they’re not for sale. Instead, enjoy these exquisite bites at The Langham Afternoon Tea as a room amenity and for banquets, corporate events, and gifting.
Although the name arises from the Armenian and Persian “marzuban,” the contemporary confection is unmistakably, unforgivingly, French in attitude. And in case you’re wondering, these are not macaroons. Like a macaron, the macaroon contains whipped egg whites. Both types of cookies are gluten-free, containing no wheat flour or leavening agents (baking powder, baking soda).
But that’s where the similarity ends. The macaroon, deliciously sticky with shredded coconut and sweetened condensed milk, dropped from a spoon to bake, may be a humble country cousin to the haughty Parisian macaron.
Chef Ayson, a Glendale resident, reassures us that the ingredients needed to make macarons are simple and few, and she makes the prep look effortless. But don’t be fooled. A lot can go wrong, even in the most skilled hands. Chef Ayson has worked with The Langham culinary team since 2012 and, during the pandemic, worked in near solitude in the vast, immaculate hotel kitchen.
Baking by eye, rhythm and memory
“It’s called macronage,” smiles our Chef, who began working in her family pastry shop in Pampanga, Philippines, when she was four years old. The term refers to the mixing technique that blends the wet meringue (egg whites, granulated sugar, food coloring) with the dry ingredients (almond flour and powdered sugar).
And here is where the X-factor enters into the proverbial mix. The drama begins with the fact that a macaron is a piped cookie, meaning that the batter for each half is squeezed through a pastry bag onto a silicone mat or parchment-lined baking sheet. Although beginners would be wise to rely upon a scale and a timer, Chef Ayson uses neither, not even a measuring spoon or cup, instead eyeballing the mixture as she works, guided by appearance and feel, informed by thousands of reps. She explains that some chefs use a template for shaping, not needed in this kitchen where 100-200 macarons are prepared on an average day, and many more are produced for conferences, weddings, and events hosted by The Langham Club.
She says, “Every stove is a little different; every mixer is a little different. A mixer that’s too fast makes a runny batter. If the batter is over-mixed, your macarons will turn out flat or cracked.” She also advises using the common stabilizer Cream of Tartar in the meringue, as it helps stabilize the meringue, especially if it’s humid.
Macarons: The “Goldilocks” of cookies
Mastering the art of macronage matters. The macaron demands a set of contradictory effects to be produced. The cookie is more than mere meringue. The halves must be light, with a crisp, whisper-thin shell that gives way to a contrastingly chewy bite. The shape needs to form a subtle mound versus being pancake-flat. The bake must produce a glossy finish on a perfectly silky topside untroubled by air bubbles or cracks. Oh, and the feet. Macaron halves sit atop a dainty bubbled, ruffled edge known as “feet.” As with an Olympic gymnastics meet or a purebred poodle competition, these details carry weight. Bonne chance.
The oven, with its rotating racks, is set to 350F. We begin at the gently whirring KitchenAid as the meringue materializes. Chef creates soft peaks in the egg whites, followed by granulated sugar and gel food coloring.
“Gel creates a more vibrant color than liquid,” she explains. “You have to add the sugar slowly,” she says, “or else you might deflate the meringue.”
Next, she sifts the dry ingredients through a fine mesh sieve, with just enough almond flour to impart a sophisticated suggestion of marzipan. The dry ingredients meet the meringue in a chilly steel bowl, turned by hand with a classic silicone spatula. The Chef recommends a slow, gentle folding technique and says, “Be calm. Focus and enjoy yourself while you work.”
The blend of dry to wet is the sweet spot of macaron-making.
“If you overfold, it will spread too much, and if you don’t fold enough, you’ll get a cracked shell,” she says. She describes the ideal batter texture as “relaxed, like a lava lamp. You need to have a soft ribbon that doesn’t break apart when you make a figure eight.”
She wrangles the flamingo-hued mixture into a pastry bag and pops four dime-sized dots onto the baking sheet, one in each corner, to secure the sheet of parchment paper. Another tip from the Chef: once the prepared batter is spooned into the piping bag, start piping immediately or the batter will thicken in the bag, resulting in lumpy mac halves.
From there, she pipes out a grid of uniform dots, which will bake into macaron halves. The trick: Press lightly but firmly enough to feel the metal tip make contact with the paper. Raise, with a slight flip for lift. She explains that macaron purists may opt to let the tray sit out for 30-40 minutes, allowing a skin to form on the top of the dots. This skin ensures a nicely frilled foot and prevents cracked tops and hollowing inside the macaron. Allowing the dots to set for 30 minutes also produces higher feet. Chef Ayson doesn’t require this step but recommends it for home chefs.
She taps the tray from below with her fingertips to break up air bubbles, then places the tray in the oven for seven minutes, followed by a draft of cool air from the opened oven door. As with any baked good, the macarons must be allowed to cool for 10 minutes or longer before icing or filling, depending on kitchen conditions.
How to tell when they’re ready? “The top should not be wet,” she says, flipping one over. There’s no footprint. “If it sticks to the parchment, it’s not ready.”
Think they’re too pretty to eat? Nah.
Too pretty to eat? We felt that way for maybe an additional seven minutes, tops. We chose to fill them with vanilla buttercream (chocolate ganache or jam are also options), and we matched halves, making rows of adorably plump, pink sandwiches. Then comes The Langham Huntington’s coup de grace: edible gold, flicked across the surface with a bent paintbrush.
Chef Ayson explains that macarons freeze well and will stay fresh in Tupperware for up to three days.
Of course, I’ll never know.
More Valentine’s Day Decadence
As if macarons were not enough, more pleasures and treasures await. At the hotel’s Chuan Spa, unwind solo with the “Loving Glow” treatment (CBD-infused salt scrub with warm ginger and rose oils, 30 minutes, $180) or the “Pucker Up, Valentine” (Kensko Diamond Radiance Collagen Lip Mask $35 for the treatment). Couples may renew their “Wows!” with the “Cupid’s Bliss Retreat” (side-by-side rose petal and lavender CBD mineral soak and exfoliation treatment, followed by Chuan Harmony Massages, accompanied by champagne and truffles, 90-minutes, $740 for two).
Still hungry? Valentine’s Night dinner at the hotel’s The Royce Wood-fired Steakhouse menu features a five-course, prix fixe menu with dishes including Wagyu Carpaccio with kimchi powder and chili oil, Santa Barbara Uni Toast with scallop mousse, Aspen Ridge Filet Prime with amber king trumpet mushroom, Glazed Duck Breast with kumquat conserve and compressed daikon, Barbeque Beet Risotto, served from 5:00 PM to 9:30 PM, $235 per person, plus 20 percent gratuity.
Or choose Valentine’s Day Dinner at The Terrace, with a four-course, prix fixe menu featuring warming choices including Winter Chanterelle Risotto, robust Five-Spiced Short Rib, and yodel-worthy Red Velvet Black Forest Cake. Served from 5:00 PM to 9:30 PM, $150 per person, plus 20 percent gratuity.