It’s 4 p.m. on a school day and 13-year-old Ashley Larson is already home baking macarons. She picked up the hobby last year after a serious back injury limited her activities for a while.
Since then, Larson has made a full recovery, but hasn’t truly been able to shake the baking bug.
“Baking was the only thing I could do and I really started to like finding challenging recipes,” Larson said.
Last month, Larson’s lavender honey buttercream macarons placed fifth at the Minnesota State Fair gluten-free baking competition. Larson also baked a gluten-free cake that scored higher, but didn’t place in the fiercely competitive cake category.
The macarons, however, came out ahead of 67 other competitors — almost all of whom were adults.
“It felt great getting the ribbon,” Larson said. “My little ticket with my name said Jordan High School on it, too. I was competing against all adults, so it was fun to place against a bunch of adults. They don’t have a kids’ division.”
The lavender honey macarons have become a hallmark of the Larson kitchen since Ashley started baking them a year ago. She reckons she’s baked more than 20 batches for family and friends. Larson chose the macarons for her fair entry for the same reason she pursued them in the first place: the challenge.
“They’re supposed to be one of the world’s hardest things to make,” Larson said. “It took a couple tries. They turned out flat at first and all oozy, but I figured it out and my family liked it. It’s also a really unique flavor.”
The lavender in Larson’s mararons is particularly special. Instead of using lavender extract, Larson was able to track down lavender buds at a Russian market in the Twin Cities. When biting into the cookie, the fresh lavender delivers an herbacious punch to the tongue.
“It’s more of an aroma than a flavor,” Larson said.
What makes macarons so intimidating for bakers is the meringue that composes most of the cookie. It’s formed by a precision process of folding, where too much or too little mixing will ruin the entire batch. Patience and attentiveness is key — something Ashley learned through years of figure skating.
“If you over mix it the macarons wont turn out at all,” she said. “You have to make it perfect.”
Two state competitions
Baking submissions, similar to art, are delivered to the fairgrounds a few days before the state fair begins. But unlike art, the food should be as fresh as possible. Larson baked her macarons and cake the night before and frosted and decorated in the morning before leaving.
“We had to drive all the way to the state fair grounds and drop everything off. There was a big long line from the creative arts building to the restaurants,” Larson said. “It took 45 minutes to get through the line.”
Luckily for Larson, the macarons don’t need to be kept cold.
“I’ve tried refrigerating them overnight but they don’t taste as fresh as they normally do,” she said.
And baking was no cakewalk either. The day before baking, Larson competed in the state juvenile figure skating championships.
“It was really stressful because I didn’t have any downtime at all,” she said. “I had to skate the whole day and then come home and bake for hours. I did it for a couple nights, I was baking for three days. I did some test batches to see if they would stay fresh for the fair.”
On the night of, Larson calmed her nerves by baking an extra batch of macarons first. Then she baked another and picked out the best cookies to enter into the competition. Only a single macaron is tasted and judged, she said.
This August wasn’t Larson’s first brush with the state fair, however. She competed last year but didn’t come away with a ribbon. This July, she was named a grand champion at the Scott County Fair for her gluten-free vanilla cake. She said she’ll be back next year for sure.
Looking ahead, Larson doesn’t plan on making a career out of baking — for that, she’s looking into anesthesiology — but that doesn’t mean she can’t make a buck or two off of baking in the meantime. Next summer she plans to sell her baked goods at the Burnsville farmer’s market.
She already has a name picked out for her company: Bonne Bouche — which translates to “tasty bite” in French.
“I just have fun baking,” Larson said. “I like it when people taste my food and like it. That makes me happy. I make stuff for my friends and it makes me happy to see everybody wants it. It makes me feel nice inside.”