Trust the French, and particularly their patissiers, to raise cookie making to an art form.
First off, let’s make it clear that the French macaron resembles the standard, slightly sticky, coconut-chewy confection commonly known as a macaroon in only two ways—they are both cookies and they are both round. That, however, is decidedly where the resemblance ends.
The original macaron is thought to have originated in Italy, perhaps imported to France via the chefs of Catherine de Medici during the 16th century. In its most fundamental form, the macaron consisted of naught but ground almonds, egg white and sugar. Over the years the macaron has morphed into one of France’s most beloved and prized confections – the almonds are now ground so finely and sifted as to give the cookie a silky texture.
It was in 1930, however, when they were first formulated into a sandwich cookie by grandson, Pierre, of the founder of the esteemed Parisian purveyor, Ladurée. Today, the name Ladurée has become synonymous with macarons, arguably the first and foremost macaron maker in Paris today. The consummate macaron possesses a delicate crisp crust barely encasing a soft almond meringue center, complemented by a sandwich-like filling, most commonly a rich buttercream, a creamy chocolate ganache or a jam, marmalade or citrusy curd. Even a soft caramel works wonders on the taste buds.
One of Ladurée’s more contemporary patissiers, the now famed Pierre Hermé, went out on his own and elevated the elegant macaron to even loftier heights. Subsequently dubbed the “Picasso of pastry” by Vogue magazine, Hermé began experimenting with very unusual flavor combinations, lacing macarons with his myriad, delicate and exotic cream fillings that regularly send his devotees into fits of ecstasy. His most famous and eagerly sought after macaron is the Ispahan, a rose-flavored macaron cookie encasing a center of raspberry gel surrounded by a rose and litchi (lychee)-flavored cream. Hermé, himself, dubbed this classic his “Chanel suit.”
The making of a French macaron is certainly achievable by any home cook but it does take considerable preparation and is by no means a cookie to be made on the spur of the moment. French pastry chefs will warn you that the process needs to begin as much as five days before the actual baking occurs. For example, the egg whites must be separated and left to sit for several days, as fresh egg whites will not produce the desired height and texture. The making of a macaron is more about the precision of your technique than the casual combining of ingredients and baking them. Unforgiving of inconsistencies such as varying oven temperatures (a convection fan oven works best) and precise piping, making macarons is quite labor intensive. It is also well worth the effort, as anyone who has tried them will tell you.
Nowadays, many home cooks can easily acquire or even already have the necessary professional equipment on hand to make conjuring up a batch of these almond meringue delights easier. These include a flour sifter to ensure the finest almond powder with no lumps, quality parchment paper liners for easiest cookie removal, air-filled cookie sheets (you can also sit one plain cookie sheet inside the other) to prevent burning the bottoms, a pastry bag with a plain piping tip to form the cookies and, if you are making your own filling or using a recipe which calls for Italian-style “cooked” meringue, a precision-style candy thermometer. Oh, and don’t forget! Our favorite templates to use when piping these delicate little cookies: Ikea Ljuda place mats!
Whether you try your hand at baking macarons yourself or prefer to let other, more experienced hands do the work, French macarons are a delicacy everyone should try, at least once. Although consider yourself warned — you can’t try just one!