The Miraculous Macaroon: Parisian Style
Behold the macaron!
Or is it macaroon?
Exacting aesthetes will point out that the English translation of the French macaron is a macaroon. Thus, one would say they just sampled a macaroon from Ladurée, for example. (Although, I’m told a trend is underway to resort back to the macaron pronunciation in order to distinguish this famed delicacy from the, mercifully, undignified common coconut variety.
Make no mistake, confusion abounds when it comes to macaroons or macarons. For example, in a fine French restaurant, one may discover miniature macaroons among the petit-fours. But is the choice a French macaroon, an Italian macaroon, or that tasty hybrid, the coconut macaroon? Before embarrassment sets in or a faux pas committed, a small primer to alert the discerning on the differences.
The well-known American macaroon is made with almonds (or almond paste), egg whites, sugar, and sometimes a flavoring, like coconut or chocolate.
Yet, it is the Parisian-style version of the macaron, or macaroon, that has captivated hearts and palates alike. The legendary Ladurée and Pierre Hermé macarons, for example, are uniquely flavored butter creams in gorgeous pastel colors sandwiched between two soft little cake-like cookies.
These precious little delicacies have become so well-known internationally over other varieties of macarons to be found in France, that when someone says macaron without precision, they are generally referring to the Ladurée version. It’s evident an entire subculture exists on the macaron/macaroon. (Dedicated gourmands might be interested to know that the Almond and Macaroon Museum in the town of Montmorillon in France is a well-traveled destination).
In the infinite wisdom of Larousse Gastronomique, macaroons originated in Venice during the Renaissance with the word macarons derived from the Italian “maccherone,” which means fine dough. The Venetian word was “macerone” and the English term, “macaroon,” comes from the French “macaron.” It is all so bewildering, no?
As with the Madeleine, there are competing stories about the cookie’s origin; some say the cake came from a cloister in Cormery, made to resemble a monk’s belly and the lush village of Montmorillon was said to shape their macarons like little crowns.
There seems little dispute, however, that what came to be known as the macaroon, once called Amaretti (“the little bitter ones”) by the Italians, was created by Italian monks and refined by French pâtissiers. An agreeable global endeavor one might say.
Historians contend the macaron, ultimately, made its way to France in 1533 by the pastry chefs of Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henri II.
Yet, while royalty was indulgently partaking of these sugary pleasures, it was once again the ardor of the servants of the Lord who intervened with heavenly purpose, reuniting two Benedictine nuns, Sister Marguerite and Sister Marie-Elisabeth, both seeking asylum in the town of Nancy during the French Revolution, who used the heavenly discoveries as payment for their housing. Baking and selling the marvelous macaroons, the churchgoing pair became known throughout the land as the “Macaroon Sisters.” So infamous were the godly treats, the street was later named after them, a shop was opened and today one can still buy macaroons at that preordained and, some would quibble, sacred spot.
It was the thoughtful musings of Pierre Desfontaines Ladurée, however, that truly revolutionized the famed macaron at the beginning of the 20th century, when he had the deliciously tempting idea to join two meringues together, filling them with ganache. The “originals” combined two plain almond meringues with a filling of [chocolate] ganache; but today, all manner of fillings (ganache, buttercream or jam) is elaborately “sandwiched” between meringues of seemingly limitless colors and flavors.
It is claimed and repeated that one of life’s greatest indulgences is devouring luxury macaroons from the rose-tinted, elegant 19th-century Parisian tearoom, Ladurée. You don’t even have to go to Paris since a branch in Harrods of London beckons and another in Geneva calls. It is rumored that Ladurée sells 35,660 macaroons a day with popular flavours including chocolate, rose petal, salted-butter caramel and orange blossom.
Last November, a new baker boy entered the patisserie when artist Will Cotton took to baking some of the sweet confections that populate his paintings. “So much of my work in the studio has been about the smells and scents of baking that I wanted to bring that experience into a gallery-like setting,” he said of his bakeshop-cum-quasi performance piece.
Thus, a recipe for Mr. Cotton’s lemon macaroons, which I am assured, are certifiably scrumptious. They are light, delicate and tasty and while they may not approximate the divine concoctions of the famed Ladurée, or according to one of my readers, the newest rage of patisseries in Paris, la patisserie des rêves, they will not reduce one to a puddle of humiliation.
Parisian-Style Lemon Macaroons
For the lemon-curd filling:
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup superfine sugar
3 large eggs, beaten Zest of 2 lemons
Juice of 2 lemons
For the macaroons:
1 cup almond flour
1 1⁄4 cups confectioners’ sugar
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
Pinch of salt
3⁄4 cup superfine sugar
10 drops yellow food coloring
1. Prepare the lemon curd: Melt the butter in a double boiler over low heat. Gradually whisk in the remaining ingredients. Continue to whisk until curd is thick enough to hold the whisk’s marks, 6 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap and cool in the refrigerator for about 1 hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 320 degrees. Place one cookie sheet on top of another and line the top sheet with parchment paper or Silpat. Sift together the almond flour and confectioners’ sugar into a large bowl. In a mixing bowl fitted with a whisk, whip 2 of the egg whites and salt to stiff peaks.
3. Combine the superfine sugar and 1/4 cup water in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir over medium heat and from time to time brush the edges with hot water using a pastry brush. When the syrup reaches 241 degrees or the “soft ball” stage on a candy thermometer, whisk the syrup into the stiff egg whites in a thin steady stream. Continue whisking until the meringue forms soft peaks.
4. Using a fork, work the remaining egg white into the almond flour-sugar mixture to make a smooth wet paste. Stir a quarter of the meringue into the almond paste to moisten, then gently fold in the remaining meringue and the food coloring. Using a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch round tip, pipe 1 1⁄4-inch rounds on the cookie sheet. Gently tap the pan on the work surface to settle the meringue peaks. Let stand until a skin forms, about 20 to 30 minutes.
5. Bake with the door slightly ajar for 12 minutes; rotate the pan then bake for another 12 minutes. When cool, sandwich two macaroons together with a dollop of lemon curd. Let stand in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours. Makes 35 to 40 macaroons.