Chantal Guillon chuckles that Americans feel it’s a required rite of baking passage to try to make their own macarons at home, while the French scoff at the idea and would just as soon buy them from a specialty patisserie.
It would be like trying to bake your own baguettes at home, she says. Why?
When she moved to the Bay Area in 2008, the cupcake craze was in full throttle. But most folks were still unfamiliar with the dainty French sandwich pastry known as a macaron and often confused them with American macaroon cookies made with shredded coconut.
Guillon, a former restaurateur in France and art importer, decided it was high-time Northern Californians got to know real macarons.
So, in 2009, she opened her namesake Chantal Guillon macaron and tea shop on Hayes Street. It proved so successful that this summer she opened her second shop on University Avenue in Palo Alto.
Recently, I met up with her at her brightly lit Palo Alto storefront. Inside, there are long glass cases of macarons of every hue and a whimsical wall art of women’s purses, each with a box of macarons sticking out of them — just like you’d see women doing in France, she says.
Sixteen flavors are offered each day — from Green Tea to Lavender Poppy to Red Velvet to Orange Blossom. All are made with natural ingredients, such as real mint leaves, Tahitian vanilla and seasonal fruits. Every month, she and her baker try to come up with a new flavor. For Christmas, that may mean a French Champagne one covered in glam gold leaf.
About 4,000 macarons in all are made each day, all by hand. They are all baked in San Francisco, then brought to the Palo Alto shop, where they sell for $1.75 each.
Chantal Guillon’s meringue-like shells are softer, less chewy than others I’ve had elsewhere. The fillings are extraordinary in their intensity. You bite down and wonder how something so tiny can set off such an explosion of flavor. The Green Tea one is like taking a slurp of a milky boba tea. The Chocolate Yuzu is deeply chocolatey with a punch of fruity tang. The Lavender-Cassis is like eating a whole bowl of blackberries with a floral finish.
The most popular flavor? Salted Caramel.
“I don’t know why,” Guillon says with a laugh. “It’s not my favorite. Mine is the Almond Amaretto because I’ve loved almonds ever since I was a child.”
Still, with its buttery, toffee-like flavor that’s like licking caramel off a spoon, it’s easy to see why the Salted Caramel is one that she can never take off the menu.
Her son, Cedric, and daughter, Alexandra, also are involved in the business. In fact, they just opened Bacetti on Harrison St. in San Francisco, which specializes in the gelato bonbons of Tuscany.
The two-bite treats are little bricks of gelato that are coated in dark chocolate.They come in three flavors: Vanilla, Chocolate and Milk with Roasted Pine Nuts. You also can try them at Chantal Guillon, where they’re $1.25 each. Or look for them at stores such as Andronico’s and Bi-Rite Market.
They’ll remind you of the ice cream bonbons you ate at the movie theaters as a kid — only better.
Like their mother’s macarons, these are the perfect little pick-me-ups no matter what your mood.