For sweet tooths, Nadège Nourian is a fairy godmother. Think of a confection and she has probably made it. Parmesan chocolate? Gin and tonic marshmallows? Cotton candy macarons? She has perfected all of them.
Originally from Lyons, France, she made her way to Toronto (with an eight-year pit stop in England) in 2008. Since then, she has injected a bit of French gourmandise into the city with her two pâtisseries. And she is about to extend her sweet empire across the country with an online shop, set to open in early 2013. She sat down with Globe Life to give a sneak peek at the holiday season's flavours and share her tips on mastering the macaron.
How did you learn to bake
My grandparents were pastry chefs. So were my great-grandparents on my mother's side. But my mom didn't get into the food business until later in life, when she and my dad opened a restaurant. I worked there as a teenager and I learned a lot of skills in terms of running a kitchen and managing the front of house. After that, I went to pastry school in Normandy. Deciding to go into pastry was the biggest gift I could give to my grandmother. It was a big deal for her, especially since there weren't a lot of women becoming pastry chefs at the time. And it allowed us to spend more time together.
What was your favourite treat that your grandmother made?
It was definitely the chocolate truffle she would make for Christmas. We never bought chocolate from a shop during the holidays because she would make so much. We would pretty much eat chocolate every day in December. Her truffle was dark chocolate. It had the perfect crunch. The outer shell was very thick and the inside was so rich and creamy.
So now, when you create sweets, where do you get your inspiration?
There are different processes. First, we look for seasonal ingredients. Fruit in the spring and summer. Nuts and chocolate – the comfort foods – for the winter. Then we do varieties of the same item. For example, last year, I created a line of Christmas logs. So I'll make six different ones. One will be the traditional flavour, like cranberry and lemon. Then one will be more innovative, like chai tea and dark chocolate. Then one will be luxurious, like strawberry and Champagne. Or I'll get an idea from an ingredient that I discover and I'll have to think of a flavour to balance it. Other times, I work with a theme and I'll associate flavours with it.
What flavours are you playing with this holiday season?
I haven't completed my menu for the holidays yet, but I have discovered some really neat whiskies. I don't know what I am going to do with them, but I want to work with them. I also think I'll make a special macaron for my Rosedale shop. It'll probably have Champagne in it.
How do you vet your new creations? Do you have taste testers?
First, I have to love it. Then I let my partner, Morgan (McHugh), taste it. He has an amazing palate. If I like it and he likes it, then my team will try it. And my team is a mix of Canadian and French pastry chefs. My French chefs tend to have a very traditional palate. They aren't used to crazy flavours, like our bacon and maple macarons we made for Canada Day.
How did you make a bacon ganache for that macaron?
First, cut the bacon into tiny pieces, then boil your cream. Let the bacon sit in the cream for an hour or two. Then blend the bacon and cream together. Finally, strain the mixture to take out any bits of solid bacon that are left.
How do you create the perfect macaron?
The perfect balance requires that you cook the cookie right for the crunch. But don't cook it too long or it will be dry. Then the macaron has to sit in the fridge for a bit. You can make the filling at this point. But once that's done and you add it to the cookies, you have to let it sit in the fridge again with the filling inside of it. The filling will give it moisture. It's funny because when people have a dry macaron, they think it's stale. It's not. It's actually too fresh and hasn't set for long enough. People don't realize this, but the perfect macaron will take 48 hours. It is very labour-intensive. And that's nothing compared to the croissant.
What are three tools every home baker should have?
You need a stand mixer. It's the No. 1 one thing you have to have. If you're going to make chocolate or macarons, you need two candy thermometers. That way you can be very accurate. Pastry is much more of a science compared to cooking. You need precision. So have two thermometers; that way you'll know you have a good reading. And you have to know your oven. It doesn't have to be a good oven, but you have to know it.
Do you weigh your ingredients or just measure them out?
We weigh them – precision is everything.
When baking, do you use room-temperature eggs or eggs straight from the fridge?
It depends on the recipe we are making.
Dark or white chocolate
Current favourite macaron flavour?
Butter croissant or almond croissant?
Neither. Pain au chocolat!
This interview has been edited and condensed.