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La Vie en Rose: Madeleine’s Macarons: How a Valentine's gift, fatherhood and a pandemic created a career for one Napa Valley family

La Vie en Rose: Madeleine’s Macarons: How a Valentine's gift, fatherhood and a pandemic created a career for one Napa Valley family

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Feb. 13, 2021 series
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Macarons

After attempting to make his wife's favorite French cookie, macarons, as a Valentine gift in 2020, Napan Dennis McIninch spent the shutdown months perfecting recipes with his daughter Madeleine. Their new business, Madeleine's Macarons, has a special box of Valentine macarons for 2021.  

A transplant to California in the early 1990s, Dennis McIninch, born in New Jersey and raised on Italian food, never anticipated that marriage, a daughter and a pandemic would set him on the path to perfecting a famous French sweet, macarons.

Or that after he had mastered the art of making the dainty, buttercream-filled creations, it would become a family business in Napa Valley.

McIninch, early on, spent summers as a lifeguard on the Jersey shore and the rest of the year bussing and serving tables in Northern California. For more than 25 years, he worked his way through the ranks of Napa Valley restaurants. He was a server at the now-defunct Oakville Grocery Café, members’ clubhouse manager at Silverado Country Club and Resort and waited tables at Tra Vigne for over a decade until it closed in December 2015.

At Tra Vigne where McIninch met his future wife, Aubrey. “The next to last day that Tra Vigne was open (December 20, 2015), I served a private party of 25 people for the 30th birthday of a second-generation winemaker. I was on a plane for New York the following morning,” he said. “The next evening, I popped the question to Aubrey under the Brooklyn Bridge. I figured it was a good time to propose. And there I was, engaged and unemployed.”

This employment setback did not deter McIninch from returning to Napa. “Over two-plus decades of taking in and appreciating everything that Napa Valley had to offer, I considered it home,” McIninch said.

As a customer, he was particularly fond of Bistro Jeanty, which he had frequented in the past to impress a date. “Besides the filet au poivre, every item on the menu was new to me. I got the filet, but I also ordered foie gras and rabbit pâté and crêpe Suzette and I was hooked. It became my favorite restaurant in Napa Valley, and I would celebrate every birthday there.”

McIninch began working there in early 2016. Still, he had never heard of a macaron until last year. “If I were a talented and trained baker, which I’m not, and inclined to start a baked goods company, which I never was, the natural choice should have been to delve into the world of cannoli, biscotti and zeppole,” he said. “Heck, I had to Google how to properly pronounce ‘macaron’ and I’m not 100% sure that I have it down yet.”

Yet, because macarons are his wife’s favorite, for Valentine’s Day 2020, he found himself baking macarons for Aubrey and their 3-year-old daughter, Madeleine (Maddie.) “(Aubrey) doesn’t remember the first time she had a macaron, but it somehow became a resilient participant in her birthday ritual. Every year she would meet her sister at Bouchon Bakery in Yountville for macarons and a heated game or three of Pente,” said McIninch.

This first attempt at making macarons was a near disaster. “With so few ingredients, I wrongly assumed that it would be easy,” he said. “Although the first batch resulted in no fewer than 80% of the final cookies being horrendously misshapen, a few turned out worthy of her tempered expectations.”

A month later, under the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, McIninch’s restaurant work came to a halt. For the next five months, he became obsessed with perfecting his macarons. McIninch and Maddie, spent countless hours in the kitchen practicing. “She and I baked together. She was eager to sift almond flour, pipe batter, and fill macaron shells with fresh buttercream.”

Maddie

Maddie McIninch helps make macarons.

The added benefit of being home for five months was spending time with his daughter. “Those months allotted me the never, nor ever again, opportunity to spend irreplaceable time with Maddie,” he said. “I learned all the words to the most popular ‘Frozen’ songs. When summer came, I enthusiastically ran through the sprinklers with her and hung a tennis ball in the garage, so she could practice her backhand.”

However, macarons were never far from his mind. “Maybe it was the challenge, especially considering how few ingredients were involved. What I wasn’t counting on were all the minuscule adjustments that would need to be made. Aging egg whites, drying out almond flour, obsessively weighing ingredients to the exact gram, reading books, watching countless videos explaining what macaronage was and when to know when you’re done. It was all so much work, but also, I was compelled.”

McIninch had found his improbable calling, even going so far as to play Edith Piaf in the background for inspiration “to give myself a fighting chance,” he said. “I would bake after everyone went to bed. I made hundreds of batches in my tiny oven, one half sheet pan at a time.

Dennis McIninch

Dennis McIninch making macarons for his new business

“Many nights the humidity would spike, inhibiting the formation of a proper skin on the piped batter, delaying the baking for up to two hours. I pulled far more all-nighters than I care to think about. Hundreds of batches, utilizing a dozen recipes, incorporating countless technique tweaks and equipment manipulation, resulted in slightly better macarons. When my Amazon silicone sheets weren’t releasing the cookies well enough, I desperately borrowed Maddie’s silicone craft mat. After washing the fingerpaint and Play-Doh off, it worked fabulously! I quickly ordered six more.”

When Bistro Jeanty reopened on Aug. 1 the restaurant invited McIninch to return. Still in was in the throes of making macarons, he found himself baking four or five nights per week and working full-time at Bistro Jeanty. Co-workers learned of his macarons and began to buy them. Then owner Phillipe Jeanty expressed interest.

With the name Madeleine’s Macarons, McIninch and Aubrey launched their website on Aug. 17 and were granted the LLC the following day. For the next couple of months, McIninch continued to bake and work at Bistro Jeanty.

Family

Aubrey, Madeleine (Maddie), and Dennis McIninch have a new family business, Madeleine's Macarons. 

Once ordering began, he had to make a choice. “The pressure of filling orders and working full-time at the restaurant was taxing my health, happiness, and well-being, so I put my two-week notice in. I had zero wholesale accounts.”

Two days later, McIninch had his first placement in Oakville Grocery and within a month, six more locations. As of the publication of this story, one can find Madeleine’s Macarons at Oakville Grocery in Oakville and Healdsburg and the Napa Farmers Market. In addition, Gary’s Wine and Marketplace and Ranch Markets in Napa and Yountville will also have McIninch’s special Valentine’s Day “Box of Chocolates” beginning Feb. 11.

Madeleine’s Macarons also ships in the continental U.S., priority two-day. McIninch (often with Maddie) delivers orders in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. “We hate the shipping costs and currently, the unpredictability. We don’t want the exorbitant price of shipping to deter locals from ordering.” The Valentine’s Day boxes will be delivered on Feb. 11.

In making his macarons, McIninch uses organic almond flour and pasture-raised eggs from Napa’s The Hen Pen Farms. Because macarons are made with almond flour, they are naturally gluten-free.

One recipe difference that sets his macarons apart is that his buttercream filling has 20% less sugar, so they are not cloyingly sweet. In addition to classic flavors such as pistachio and vanilla, McIninch combines complementary ones, such as blueberry cheesecake and chocolate hazelnut.

Madeleine's Macarons

Assorted macarons from Madeleine's Macarons include classic flavors such as pistachio and vanilla and complimentary flavors like blueberry cheesecake and chocolate hazelnut.

“If the flavors aren’t muddled. It’s a fine line. I think our chocolate hazelnut is a perfect example of pairing flavors. It’s not unique, but it’s a classic for a reason. It eats like a fine wine drinks. You get chocolate and then, oh yeah, hazelnut. The last time I drank a ’93 Beringer Private Reserve Napa Valley Cab, I got chocolate-covered cherries, then black cherries.”

One of his most fascinating flavors is his London Fog. “The shell is a swirling nebula of grey and purple, and the buttercream filling is a combination of vanilla and Earl Grey tea. For this filling, I grind the dried pod of a vanilla bean with the Earl Grey tea. I incorporate with a two to one ratio of tea to vanilla.” He recommends pairing it with Oakville Grocery’s London Fog Latte.

McIninch also asks his customers to vote for flavors. “We just asked for advice in choosing our sixth and final flavor for our upcoming Valentine’s ‘Box of Chocolates.’ It’s looking like white chocolate raspberry is running away with it.”

“We also must think about the colors of the shells,” he added. “Great macarons must look beautiful as well as taste great.”

Aubrey McIninch manages the business side of Madeleine’s Macarons, making it a true family endeavor. “The logistical dilemma, legal hurdles, labeling requirements, and the boring minutia of starting a macaron business during a pandemic were unprecedented,” McIninch said. “Aubrey tackled all the clerical, legal and social media needs and continues to contribute immensely to product and company development.”

Aubrey is already designing a Mother’s Day “Bouquet of Flowers” box with flavors such as rose, lavender and violet.

“When the shelter-in-place is lifted and tourists come back, and they will in droves, we will seek placements in Napa Valley hotels and bed and breakfasts for the all-too-often overlooked turndown service, and also in wineries where a token of appreciation in the form of a couple of macarons might be just the unexpected gift that the faithful tourists didn’t know they were missing,” McIninch said.

McIninch is quick to credit the community, friends, and his peers in the food and hospitality industry for the success of Madeleine’s Macarons, especially his industry mentor, Chris Kollar of Kollar Chocolates, whom he describes as “the gold standard,” as well as Don Rickard of Platypus Tours, whose kitchen he uses to make his macarons.

“None of this would be possible without the tremendous support we’ve received from the community,” McIninch said. “We are forever indebted to these selfless individuals, whose influence, mentorship, support and unwavering encouragement, propelled us to endeavor to forge a more fulfilling career, while cherishing more family time and unearthing a more purposeful place in our community, in these most trying and uncertain of times.”

In reflecting on the past year since he made those fateful Valentine’s Day macarons for Aubrey, he still shakes his head. “In the middle of the most life-altering, worldwide cataclysmic event in generations, here was a Jersey kid, frantically degreasing Kitchen Aid mixing bowls with vinegar, in preparation of baking the most finicky French cookie, while listening to Edith Piaf,” he said. “Take a simple romantic gesture, unbridled enthusiasm and determination in perfecting the impossibly temperamental cookie, heaped with months of sheltering in place and sprinkled with a dash of OCD, and voilà, a new career!”

For more information about Madeleine’s Macarons, email info@madeleinesmacarons.com, call 707-289-7499 or visit madeleinesmacarons.com, Facebook @maddiesmacs or Instagram @madeleinesmacarons.

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Elizabeth Smith is a freelance contributing writer for the Napa Valley Register and Napa Valley Life Magazine as well as a communications and social media specialist. Reach her at elizabeth@elizabethsmithconsulting.com or visit her website at elizabethsmithconsulting.com.

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