Carmel Valley resident establishes delicious niche as the ‘Queen of Macarons’
By Karen Billing
Grace Abdo loves all things “beautiful and meticulous” so it makes sense that she would be drawn to the art of creating the fragile and luscious French confection, the macaron (French spelling). Since fall of 2012, the Carmel Valley resident has been staking her claim as the queen of the macarons with her catering company, La Reine des Macarons.
The round, colorful and completely handmade confections are delicately stuffed with a variety of ganache flavors such as coffee, caramel, crème brulee, lemon, mango, white chocolate, vanilla and raspberry. La Reine has become a popular choice for weddings, bridal and baby showers, corporate gifts or for anyone looking for authentic French macarons.
Abdo’s macarons are not frozen, there’s no buttercream, no artificial flavoring. She makes everything by hand using a technique she learned and perfected in France using only the most pure ingredients.
“It’s an extremely time-consuming method,” Abdo said. “You get very attached to the macarons, I call them my little babies.”
Williams-Sonoma in Fashion Valley recently invited Abdo to come into the store on Feb. 10 for a demonstration of her unique Valentine heart macarons. Not only did she have an interested crowd of macaron-enthusiasts, she also sold 600 macarons in two hours.
Abdo and her husband Ghassan have lived in Carmel Valley for 11 years, moving to this area from the French Alps. They have three children: Stephan, a chemical engineering graduate of UC San Diego who is working on his master’s degree in biological engineering at Duke University; Jacqueline, who studied finance in France and is now working at LPL Financial; and her youngest child, Emily, who is a sophomore at Cathedral Catholic High School and is one of La Reine’s biggest fans, helping with the company’s design of a colorful macaron crown.
La Reine took an interesting route to get to macarons. She was initially a registered clinical dietician who specialized in kidney disease. She worked as a dietician for several years in the U.S. before she and her husband moved to Germany where she worked for the American Red Cross.
When the pair moved to France, Abdo earned her master’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in e-commerce. She no longer wanted to work in a hospital setting so she went to work as an IT consultant (speaking German and French) for the enterprise software company SAP.
While she was good at her job and it paid well, she couldn’t get her mind off food.
“I kept cooking and cooking and my real passion was in the kitchen. I’m always thinking about food,” Abdo said. “I toyed with the idea of becoming a chef or having a higher culinary ability. More than anything I wanted a more professional cooking technique, techniques you can’t learn on your own.”
Family always comes first for Abdo so she waited until she felt it would make sense for her to depart the IT world and spend two months in France to launch a new culinary career.
With her family’s support, she was accepted into the Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyon, France, in the spring of 2011, lucky to be among only 10 accepted students.
“It was the most amazing thing, although it was extremely tiring. You’re in the kitchen cooking, on your feet for seven hours,” said Abdo, who combated the long hours working on savory dishes, sauces, fish, poultry and artistic presentation with nighttime yoga sessions.
The tail end of the two-month course focused on the baking and sweet foods and Abdo could not have been more thrilled with the lesson in authentic macaron-making.
“I learned the traditional, artisan method of handmade macarons with extremely gourmet fillings, which makes all the difference,” Adbo said.
When she came back to San Diego, she could not stop making macarons and it was clear to her she should start her own company. She began by selling at the French American School in La Jolla before renting a commercial kitchen in Mira Mesa in the fall of 2012 and officially establishing a catering company.
Everything La Reine sells is made by Abdo’s hands. No electric mixer for her, she mixes all of her ingredients by hand, a special technique of folding while mixing and pressing down the batter, and she can tell when it’s ready to be piped by how it shines and folds.
Flavor is the easy part, Abdo said, the trick is creating a particular consistency and texture to the filling. It has to have just enough moisture to hydrate the shell but it can’t drown the shell to make it soggy or disintegrate.
The cookie shells she knows are perfect, but the filling takes time to get just right.
“I eat a lot of filling,” Abdo said. “The finished product I don’t eat very often…because it takes so long to make it. I’m very protective of my macarons.”
Abdo is always dreaming up new flavors as she wants her food to be delicious and exquisite, with amazing flavors and unexpected contrasts — to ensure that “All your taste buds are awake.” That’s why there are creams infused with lavender, jasmine and Earl Gray tea. One of her Valentine heart macarons was filled with a new flavor creation of chocolate, whiskey and honey.
Abdo is happy that her business has become so popular with weddings. She can match any bride’s particular wedding colors and gets a thrill out of someone asking if she’d be able to create treats — for example, in Tiffany blue, white and silver — and know she can do a perfect match.
She’ll meet with brides as many times as they need until they achieve the perfect color and flavor combinations as she wants her clients to be satisfied.
She wraps or boxes the macaroons with labels and bows for wedding favors and in the interest of perfection will even array her treats at weddings for free so they look just right.
“That side of the business is fantastic because it’s very artistic and I have fun doing it,” Abdo said.
Abdo said people often ask her if she does anything other than macarons. She can do most any dessert but she prefers to concentrate solely on the French confection. She is currently experimenting with savory flavors such as goat cheese with caramelized onions, curry, salmon capriccio or dill.
“The more I dedicate myself, I can have more time to experiment and the more amazing my macaroons will be and I can set myself apart from other dessert makers,” Abdo said.
To learn more about La Reine des Macarons, visit lareinedesmacarons.com.
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