At the intersection of art and science one usually find a mess – unless both vectors are French, in which case the result is amazing! The advances in chemistry gave us the colours that made Van Gogh’s Starry Night so brilliant. And who can forget the majesty that was Concorde? Forget breaking the sound barrier, that plane is gorgeous!
And in the French culinary field, the marriage of art and science has given us the macaron, and usually the only ones worth consuming were found in France. Enter Maureen O’Neil, and the intersection of art and science becomes a destination for one of the best road trips in the Garden State.
Macaroons in the United States are sweet coconut confections. Most recipes call for sweetened condensed milk, shredded coconut, and some vanilla essence. They share a similar sounding name but are a far cry from their European counterparts. The French Macaron is a meringue confection made with sugar, egg whites and almond flour, with a filling that can be either ganache or buttercream, sometimes jam is used. Sounds simple, at first, but anyone who knows anything about meringue is well aware of how easy a delightful treat can become aerated concrete if not done well.
This is where the Asalt and Buttery story gets interesting. O’Neil holds a B.S. from Seton Hall in chemistry and worked for many years as a high school chemistry teacher. That knowledge of food science – understanding the interplay of temperature, humidity, and moisture content – led to some special creations. For example, ground pistachio’s were used in making the meringue shell of the pistachio macaron. If you bite into whole pistachios, or almonds, you will experience a difference in density, oil content, and moisture – simple activities like that help people to understand the science part of baking.
Now with all that science going on this Slow Food fan started to wonder about how much science was going into these colorful creations. Of course, I had to pry, and some secrets were revealed. Real lavender buds are used to create the lavender macarons, lemons are squeezed to make the lemon varieties, and Johnny Walker is used in the Irish Coffee version. All but one of the fillings are made in-house. O’Neil explained that she “feel(s) dirty” when using “something from a jar,” but Nutella is in a league all by itself, so all is forgiven. Besides, most people wouldn’t know what gianduja is anyway!
My palate can identify the taste of colors, and since so many inexpensive colors have a chemical taste, I usually pass on most Red Velvet Cakes. But I gave the red macarons a try, actually several tries, and was impressed. It was then explained to me that the food colors come from powders that are somewhat costly, the really good stuff.
At Asalt & Buttery, the macarons come in a large varieties of flavors, and since they are made in small, seasonal batches, there is always something new and exciting to discover on each visit. The day I visited, the flavor palette included Black Currant, Passion Fruit, Blood Orange, Almond, Salted Caramel, Vanilla (with real bits of vanilla in the shell), and Lemon.
In addition to macarons, Asalt & Buttery offers a variety of traditional baked goods, including cookies and scones. Scones, the UK pastry, were a surprise discovery on my French Macaron adventure. The basic ingredients of all scones are the same everywhere. Instead of working the dough and pressing it flat and then cutting it into triangles, the dough here is gently mixed until it resembles something akin to those American macaroons. It is then scooped out like ice cream and dropped on baking sheets. By not working it so much, the gluten is not worked nearly as much as at other bakeries, the results is a much lighter scone with a nice crumb. I tried the orange ginger variety. Brilliant!
After premiering cakes at Taste of Montclair in March 2015, this boutique bakery has been invited to dozens of parties in Northern New Jersey. That pistachio cake is still talked about, and the chocolate ones are quickly becoming legendary. Follow-up visits to try all of the cake are a must, for legit journalistic purposes of course!
Caldwell NJ 07424
John Lee is Black Tie and Flip Flops’ Raconteur-In-Chief: the World of food is his playground ~ the whole world! Having a Navy Dad gave John the passion to discover the world. Whether in one of Mr. Boeing’s flying machines, as an armchair traveler with a great book, or a plate beaming with the exotic flavors and fragrances, his day is all about discovering the world and sharing the stories with everyone he meets.
John cut his teeth in commercial kitchens starting in high school and continued into his undergrad years, then the media bug bit. After University he spent time at the Washington Post Company before jumping on the first internet wave in the 1990’s at some of the major players of the era. John also established himself as a culinary instructor where his style of cooking was first called “Comfort Food Remixed.” Don’t get him started on Disney Dining, but yes, he tried “the grey stuff” and it is delicious. John jokes that he’s staying in NJ because he didn’t have enough miles to trade in for a return ticket home to San Diego, but we think he likes it here.