SOMERVILLE — In the back of EHChocolatier’s kitchen, tucked deep into the recesses of the industrial building that also houses Taza Chocolate, a solitary pastry chef turns out vibrantly colored, intensely flavored French macarons. With the most delicate layer of crunch protecting a slightly chewy center and generous layer of ganache filling, Northlight Baking Co. macarons could rival those from any of Paris’s famous patisseries.
Shira Melen, 31, produces about 400 petite almond meringue sandwiches every week. From the beginning, she says, she has focused on making her flavors stand out. “I don’t have just a chocolate; I don’t have just a vanilla,” says the baker. Instead, she offers a rotating selection that varies with the seasons and her whims. Her current favorite, and that of her customers, is kalamansi, a tart hybrid citrus fruit. London fog, made with blue Earl Grey tea and vanilla bean ganache, is another popular option. The two are packaged in Melen’s spring mix, along with orange blossom, passion fruit, and lavender. Macarons are made from almond flour (which is entirely almonds without regular flour mixed in), sugar, and egg whites. She sells her tiny confections to specialty markets. The name Northlight comes from her late father’s photography studio.
Macarons are typically colorful almond meringue shells sandwiching a layer of ganache, buttercream, and/or jam. They are a variation of macaroons, cookies made from almond paste or ground almonds, sugar, and egg whites (the rounds also have a coconut variation). Patisserie Laduree in Paris is credited with creating macarons in the early 1900s. A century later, French pastry chef Pierre Herme began to develop macarons in new and unusual flavor combinations, which expanded their popularity here and abroad.
An alum of both Flour Bakery and Sofra Bakery and Cafe, Melen works part-time at EHChocolatier, and uses the kitchen during off hours. The pastry chef started cooking and baking in college, but it wasn’t until she moved to Boston in 2005 that she took what had become a passion to the next level. After graduating from the University of Vermont with a major in sociology and a minor in studio art, the Ithaca, N.Y., native did what many liberal arts graduates do — took a job that did not make use of her degree. In her case, it was working the counter at Flour.
She stayed for three years, moving from the original South End shop to open the Fort Point location. She went on to work at Aroa Fine Chocolate, a short-lived but much loved shop and cafe, where she learned to make macarons, then Tatte Bakery and Cafe, Bella Moto in Arlington (no longer open), and Sofra, where she rose to head baker. She left in 2012. “After nearly eight years of getting up at 4 and spending 12-hour days, I needed time to reassess what I wanted to do,” she says.
Today, her macaron flavors range from ginger with ginger-infused milk-chocolate ganache to olive oil vanilla bean. Peanut butter and jelly features crunchy PB ganache and blackberry jam, while a fall macaron combines fig jam and milk-chocolate cardamom ganache. “Inspiration comes from lots of places,” says the baker. “The combination of being well-done and being a unique flavor makes it really special.”
On a recent Friday afternoon at EHChocolatier, Melen sets out her equipment. Some pastry chefs, she explains, begin macarons with Italian meringue — a mixture of egg whites beaten with hot sugar syrup — which she does not do. She makes a stiffly beaten egg-white and sugar meringue, then uses a plastic scraper to blend it with almond flour whirred in a food processor with confectioners’ sugar. Colors come from food coloring.
Today she is making orange blossom, which at this stage is a beautiful orange goo. Melen fills a pastry bag with it and pipes identical rounds onto parchment-lined baking sheets. She bangs the sheets hard against the table to release any air pockets and lets the unbaked macarons sit for about 15 minutes before baking. This step helps form the “nice crackly shell around the outside,” she explains.
Though the kitchen is temperature controlled, resting and baking times depend on the humidity and temperature in the room. “I have a recipe, but they’re always temperamental,” Melen says. Fillings are already prepared; she waits until the baked shells cool to make the tiny sandwiches.
When she was at Sofra, Melen made macarons for various holidays. About a year ago, when co-owner and pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick heard that Cocoanuts, a chocolate and gourmet shop in the North End, was looking for someone to supply macarons, she contacted her former employee. “I thought it was a nice way to be working for myself,” says Melen, who was volunteering at EHChocolatier at the time.
EHChocolatier co-owners Elaine Hsieh and Catharine Sweeney offered Melen use of their kitchen to produce the French pastries. Now one more confection can carry the label “Made in Somerville.”
Northlight Baking Co. macarons are available at Cocoanuts, 28 Parmenter St., Boston, 857-263-7768; Evelyn & Angel’s, 1702 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-547-0175; Central Bottle Wine + Provisions, 196 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-225-0040; or go to www.northlightbaking.com.Andrea Pyenson can be reached at email@example.com.