Pastry chef François Payard, who runs François Payard Bakery (210 Murray Street, 212-566-8300), has become synonymous with chocolates and fancy French desserts. Payard is also currently organizing the third annual Macaron Day, which will be taking place on Tuesday, March 20, 2012, a citywide event to celebrate the beloved (and often belittled) colorful cookies. We called him up to learn more about trends in the pastry world today and to get his thoughts on the cupcake, that other beloved and belittled confection.
Why do you think France has such a pastry and bakery culture and New York City doesn’t?
France is all about food. In France, every corner has a bakery or pastry shop. It’s in the French culture to eat pastries, like how in American culture, you eat doughnuts for breakfast, or bagels, or go out to brunch. Every culture has its specific foods. But there is a difference between a bakery and pastry shop. The bakery is where you see a woman buying a baguette, and afterwards go to the pastry shop to buy cake. When invited for dinner [in France], we always bring dessert. In America, you bring flowers or wine, maybe. Only during Thanksgiving do you bring pie; it’s just a different custom. … Look and see how many pastry shops there are in Paris. And they are all busy!
What are the big trends in pastry today?
The new trend is the macaron. It’s become very big. The cupcake has stayed, but it’s not my favorite thing to have. I find it very sweet, but I think the cupcake is good for the kid market, while the macaron is for the everyday woman because it’s small. We come up with new flavors by the season. We develop them and work with a company in France that has developed the cold pressing of vegetables [to make flavor extracts]. It’s incredible what they do. To make an expression of coriander, they take 50 pounds of coriander and make five grams of extract. We’ll work with them to make new flavors. It’s very concentrated because it’s cold-pressed and not fake, and it just came on the market a few months ago.
How do you feel about the trend of having desserts be savory?
They become more savory because of people making them too sweet. They can be good, but it’s a fine line. … I still like a nice dessert. It doesn’t need 25 components. Simple but well-executed with the best ingredients. Sometimes, people work too hard and have about five to six on the plate and it gets lost. You need harmony. I think what makes a great dessert is simplicity and using the best ingredients. Most chefs think too hard. I loved Michael [Laiskonis] from Le Bernardin because he makes good things even if they are a little molecular. There’s not too much that’s extravagant. It’s all about the food. Sometimes when I go to restaurants, I’m not even sure if something’s a dessert. I had a chocolate mousse that was freeze-dried with some little fruits. I wasn’t sure if it was dessert or pre-dessert. People want to be so fancy now. … People want to impress the world by doing too much, but then the dessert doesn’t look like dessert. What are some of the flavors of macarons you’ll be debuting this spring?
For spring, we’re doing some Passover flavors. We are making a milk-chocolate-coconut and another with green apple, honey, and pecan. It’s the flavor of Passover. And after that, we’ll have a line with strawberry-rhubarb and lemon-basil that’ll come up in the spring. We work three months in advance.
What’s the secret to making good macarons at home?
It’s not difficult to make at home. What’s different is the oven. If you want to make them at home, do the less fragile ones, like chocolate or caramel. When you have the pink color, or green-color ones, they get brown too quickly if you don’t have a good oven. But keep the meringue warm, and don’t make the macarons on a rainy day. Make the batter, and pipe, and cook. If it’s humid, they’ll have a hard time drying and will crack. We cook them less in the winter because it’s dry, and cook them longer in the summer because of the humidity.
And tell me more about Macaron Day.
This year, we have more than 24 participants, and the idea is to celebrate the macaron. We don’t want to tell you what shop is best, but you can be own judge. You play food critic for a day. The idea is to make people know more about macarons. Each shop will make 1,000 macarons [to give out for free]. The only bad thing is that it’s on a Tuesday. We wanted to do it on a weekend, but Pierre Hermé in Paris, who created Macaron Day, said, “No, Macaron Day is March 20.” It’s become more popular now than two years ago when it started.
And you’re opening a new spot soon at 3 Columbus Circle. What can you tell us about that?
We’ll be open in May. It’ll be the same as [the location in the] Goldman Sachs [arcade]. But we’ll have soft-serve ice cream. I love soft-serve ice cream, but not the fake flavor. Vanilla always has that fake flavor. Chocolate is always weak chocolate. Our vanilla will be made with vanilla beans and the chocolate with dark chocolate, and for once people will really enjoy soft-serve. Everyone today buys a mix! And we’ll offer a bigger variety of food. It’s a much bigger space at 1,100 square feet, and everything will come from our factory like at Goldman Sachs.
And I hear you want to open a new flagship on the Upper East Side. How’s that going?
I haven’t signed anything yet; we’re working on a lease.
Check back tomorrow, when François reveals his all-time favorite dessert.