Even with hues from subdued pistachio green to the brightest of red rose shades, macarons used to have an identity crisis, often being mistaken for their less vibrant cousin, the macaroon. Much has changed.
Slowly making more and more appearances in the finger-smudged display cases of pastry shops, macarons are no longer the forgotten French pastry. Be it the fact that they are prettier or more sophisticated, these pristine almond confections are the new kids on the block giving the ever-popular cupcake a run for its money.
As the subject of several upcoming cookbook titles, photo spreads in Vogue magazine and the ramblings of food bloggers, these cookies have made a name for themselves in New York City and now in Austin's culinary scene.
The soft treats handily play into America's fascination with all things French, from fashion sense, the slow food movement or the art of making cuisine aesthetically delicious. The famous almond cookie's roots go back to 16th-century Italy, when the Italian-born Catherine de' Medici ventured to France to marry King Henry II. Along with her she brought delicious Italian desserts, including the macaron. And it is in France where the cookies rose to pastry stardom.
Paris, specifically, is the city where macarons such as the rose, pistachio and dark chocolate were propelled to fame, gilded with gold flakes, finished with gloss and packaged in pristine metal tins and elegant boxes like an expensive piece of jewelry to be shipped across the world.
In fact, Paris is where Soraiya Nagree, owner of local French pastry shop La Pâtisserie, first tried the sophisticated cookie and realized she wanted to make her own in America.
"We were on a family vacation when I was 10 years old, and I remember walking into this patisserie, Ladurée, and seeing rows and rows of beautiful macarons. Gold, pink, lavender and green," said Nagree, who opened her shop on West Annie Street in November. "It was the most delightful sight I had ever seen in my life, and I remember thinking, 'I will do something with these one day.'"
The experience of eating a macaron wasn't like anything her taste buds had experienced before. It wasn't cakey like a cupcake or even rich like a piece of dark chocolate. It was a sensual experience that can only be compared to eating a truffle, she said.
"They perk all of the senses," Nagree said. "They catch your eye, and when you bite, there is this crunch of a soft cookie that gives way to creamy center."
Nagree's love of macaron places such as Ladurée and Pierre Hermé is common, if not expected, in France, where the cookies are sold in airport terminals and, more recently, at McDonald's. Macarons in flavors such as pistachio, lemon, vanilla, raspberry and chocolate are sold at some restaurants.
But before McDonald's scarfed up the cookie, Nagree was still trying to figure out how to put her spin on them. After working as a chemical engineer for a bowling ball manufacturing company, Nagree could deny her passion no longer. She left the engineering field to pursue her dream of owning a pâtisserie.
Her passion for the macaron coursed through her veins, and after attending and graduating from the Le Cordon Bleu school in Austin, Nagree opened Luxe Sweets, sourcing her own line of macarons to local coffee shops.
Finally, in November, after gaining a devoted following for her macarons, she opened her small, nostalgic French pastry shop, selling flavors such as lavender, rose, chocolate, vanilla and caramel fleur de sel, plus seasonal flavors.
She believes the recent infatuation with the cookie's sophistication and visual appeal helped her business take off.
"In a chocolate shop, all you see is brown. Most bakery color palettes are so bland," Nagree said. "Stick macarons in your window, and eyes are instantly drawn to them."
Nagree says the macarons have become "the new cupcake" and credits their initial popularity in the U.S. to being featured on the hit television show "Gossip Girl," a drama that follows the glamorous lives of wealthy New York City teenagers.
As a symbolic act of devotion, in one 2008 episode of the show, a female lead's boyfriend whisks off to Paris to fetch her a dozen; in a later episode, she devours them while taking a bubble bath.
"New York and 'Gossip Girl' made people aware of their existence. People saw them and wanted to try them and make them at home," Nagree said. "I hate comparing them to cupcakes, but that's what it is like. Just like you can't turn a corner without seeing a cupcake cookbook, nowadays you can't turn the corner without seeing something about macarons."
The process of making a macaron, however, isn't as easy as baking traditional chocolate chip cookies or vanilla cupcakes, Nagree said. Her journey in perfecting the art of making a macaron was two years in the making.
With problems ranging from too much humidity and cracks in the macaron shells to the most common problem, "feet" that don't rise enough, Nagree now has mixing the delicate ingredients, piping 1-inch meringue circles, and filling the inside of the cookie down to a science.
In New York, Cecile Cannone, author of "Macarons" (Ulysses Press, $14.95) and her husband decided to fill a Parisian niche in the Big Apple. Little did she know that New York would be the place where the French cookie gained its American foothold.
Cannone spent her childhood in Paris, learning how to make pastries. Her mother and grandmother taught her family recipes including the traditional macaron, made without a drop of food coloring or a spread of filling.
"At the time, Parisians weren't making macarons with food coloring or buttercream," she said. "My mother and grandmother taught me how to make the shells, the almond cookie with meringue, (but) about six years ago, patisseries started putting filling inside, changed the colors, and little by little, macarons took over."
Cannone opened MacarOn Café in 2007 in New York's famous Garment District, selling more than 15 flavors each day. She started to realize she had something spectacular on her hands when the same customers were stopping in up to three times a day, she said.
The success of the first store led to the opening of a second in the summer of 2010. Her cookbook, released in December, is designed to help cooks avoid the pitfalls she encountered through years of trial and error, Cannone said.
She finds it no surprise that the well-traveled residents of New York were excited to see the famous French cookie finally in their own stomping grounds.
"Macarons arrived four or five years ago in New York City, and ironically, in Paris, cupcakes are getting more popular. I don't know if it is a phenomenon of inversion, but that seems to be what is happening," Cannone said.
Aimee Olson, the dean of pâtisserie and baking at the Le Cordon Bleu school in Austin, believes the flowering of colorful macarons stems from novice pastry chefs experimenting and creating more than ever before.
"In Europe, there is a generation difference between the old pastry chefs making macarons the more traditional way and new chefs wanting to push the envelope," Olson said. "We are seeing a new dynamic. They don't really have a lot of cookies in Paris. The macaron is their cookie."
Victoria Davies, owner of La Boîte Cafe, a quaint industrial shipping container converted into a roadside eatery on South Lamar Boulevard, at first had envisioned opening a shop praised for flaky, buttery croissants.
Although she had experience in restaurant work, Davies figured Paris was the ideal place to authentically learn how to re-create the famous bread.
Yet walking around the City of Light, Davies realized croissants weren't Paris' main attraction. People weren't biting into the flaky layers of a croissant so much as the soft shells of macarons, sold at nearly every pâtisserie in the city, she said.
"They had piles of them everywhere," Davies said. "And the brighter they were, the more they sold."
Ever since La Boîte was featured on a trailer tour last March, Davies said, more and more people have been stopping by to try a bite of the vibrant French cookie. The flavors include strawberry and peppercorn, pistachio and chocolate ganache and hazelnut with fleur de sel caramel, and offerings also vary with the season; in honor of Valentine's Day, the menu included rose, passion fruit and chocolate and chipotle.
"It seems to be a fad right now," Davies said. "Americans love French culture and cuisine, but I think part of the reason for the macaron's popularity is because it is time for the cupcake to go away."
Using a pastry bag requires some practice. It might seem awkward at first, but you'll soon get the hang of it.
Prepare the bag (if it hasn't been used before) by cutting about 2 inches off the narrow end, just enough so that when you insert a decorating tip, about a third of the tip extends outside the bag. Push the tip firmly in place and spoon in your filling, leaving enough room at the top to twist the bag shut. It's best to fill the bag with half of the batter at a time so it's not too heavy. To make it easier to fill your pastry bag, place it upright in an empty jar or other straight-sided container. This will help steady the bag while you fill it with batter. Squeezing the bag slowly, pipe each macaron shell out in a single dollop. Lift the bag quickly to finish.
French Meringue Macarons
Makes 50 to 60 shells, for 25 to 30 filled macarons
23/4 cups almond flour
23/4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup egg whites (from 7 or 8 eggs), at room temperature
pinch of salt
2 tsp. powdered egg whites, if weather is humid
3/4 cup superfine granulated sugar
5 to 7 drops gel paste food coloring (optional)
Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Blend the almond flour with the powdered sugar in the food processor to make a fine powder (or sift together, discarding any large crumbs and adding a bit more almond flour and powdered sugar as needed to compensate). Then sift the mixture through a strainer until it's as fine as you can get it. This keeps crumbs from forming on the macaron tops as they bake. With the wire whip attachment on the electric mixer, beat the egg whites with the salt and the powdered egg whites (if you're using them), starting slowly and then increasing speed as the whites start to rise. Add the granulated sugar and the food coloring. Beat until the egg whites form stiff peaks and your meringue is firm and shiny.
Pour the beaten egg whites onto your almond flour mixture and gently fold them in, using a rubber spatula. Move your spatula from the bottom of the bowl to the edges with one hand, using your other hand to rotate the bowl. Now hit the spatula against the rim of the bowl until the batter falls in a wide ribbon when you raise the spatula. When you can't see any crumbs of almond flour and the mixture is shiny and flowing, you're ready to start piping.
Fit your pastry bag with a No. 8 tip and fill with batter. Start by squeezing out a small amount of mix onto a parchment-lined baking sheet to form a 2½-inch circle. Be sure to leave 1 inch of space between macarons so they will not touch each other while they bake.
If the peak that forms on the top of the macaron does not disappear after piping, it means the batter could have been beaten a little more. To eliminate the peaks, tap the baking sheet on the tabletop, making sure to hold the parchment paper in place with your thumbs.
Let the piped macarons rest for 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees (325 degrees for a non-convection oven).
Bake for 14 minutes. After the first 5 minutes, open the oven door briefly to let the steam out.
Let the macarons cool completely on a rack before taking them off the parchment paper. Press the bottom of a cooled baked macaron shell with your finger; it should be soft. If the bottom of the shell is hard, reduce the baking time for the rest of your macarons from 14 minutes to 13 minutes.
Assemble with a filling such as Pistachio Buttercream, below.
1 cup superfine granulated sugar
1/2 cup ground raw pistachios or 2 Tbsp. (1 oz./30 grams) canned pistachio paste
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (2¼ sticks) chilled unsalted butter, preferably European-style
Beat together the eggs and the sugar with the electric mixer at high speed; you want your batter to double in volume and become fluffy. Pour into a saucepan, then stir in the pistachios. Heat over medium temperature, stirring, until the mixture forms a compact batter. Pour into a shallow dish, cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator.
Cut the butter into small pieces and beat with the mixer at high speed, using the wire whip attachment. When the butter starts to expand in volume and become fluffy, add the chilled pistachio batter and whip again.
Dress up your filled macarons by rolling the edges in finely ground pistachios spread on a plate or in a small bowl.
New and upcoming books about macarons
‘Macarons: Authentic French Cookie Recipes from the Macaron Cafe' by
Cecile Cannone (Ulysses,$14.95)
‘Mad About Macarons!: Make Macarons Like the French' by Jill Colonna
Macarons by Bérengère Abraham and Marie-José Jarry (Release date April 18, Waverly, $12.99)
‘Macarons' by Annie Rigg and Kate Whitaker (Ryland Peters and Small, $15.95)
‘Macaron' by Alison Thompson (Release date in April, Apple)
Macaron or macaroon?
Although both words come from the same Italian base, ‘maccarone' or ‘maccherone,' in English they denote two very different sweet treats. A macaron is meringue-based and is made from a mixture of egg whites, almond flour, and granulated and confectionery sugar. It comes in a variety of flavors, with a distinctive domed shape, resembling a mini sandwich filled with jam, ganache or flavored buttercream. A macaroon is also merigue-based but incorporates coconut flakes, which a macaron does not.