This is the trendiest dessert/cookie to hit the food industry since probably Baked Alaska. No, not the coconut “macaroon” you see in the grocery stores at Passover, I’m talking about the classic, tiny, ganache-filled French Macaron … pronounced with a short “O” like “on” not a looong “O” as in “une” … and made with ground almonds, not shredded coconut.
I first discovered this little, crunchy, chewy, filled confection quite a few years ago at a patisserie in London. There were trays and trays of the pastel-colored cookies lined up in the window. The colorful display and the exactness of each cookie was eye-catching to say the least. The next time I saw them was a few years later at a wholesale food show in New York City, and buyers were standing in line to place their orders. I stood in line too (not to place an order, but just to sample one). A delicate, light, crunchy exterior with a soft and gooey interior … maybe one of the best little mouthfuls of sweetness I’ve ever had. Fast forward to today and now these little confections are everywhere!!! Not only on bakery shelves, but packaged macarons can even be found at Home Goods and Marshalls! Really??
The Middle East should really be credited with giving us the origins of the macaron. By the 1st century, they were exploring the culinary possibilities of adding honey, fruit and nuts to food, which resulted with almonds becoming their biggest export. By the 7th century Persians were indulging in rich, luxurious cakes and pastries, made from these ground almonds called “marzipan”. These treats reached Europe by the 14th century and it is actually Italians who created this little marzipan nugget. The name “macaron” comes from the Italian word for paste which is “macaroni” (pasta is a paste made from flour, water and eggs). I grew up calling pasta macaroni, didn’t you?
The cookies were produced in Venetian monasteries for centuries. They were referred to simply as “priest’s bellybuttons” because of the round shape. You have to know that these cookies were rather plain in color and not sandwiched together as they are today. In fact, the Italian amaretti cookie is also a ‘macaron’. The differences are the amaretti is still not sandwiched together with a filling and is flavored with an almond liqueur.
The cookies remained an Italian treat until the Italian princess, Catherine de’ Medici, requested her pastry chefs travel with her to France to make these little delicacies which were to be served at her wedding to the future king of France, Henri II. This all occurred in the 16th century, but the almond meringue cookies didn’t become popular until the 18th century when, during the French Revolution, two Benedictine nuns began making and selling the cookies in order to support themselves. Sister Marguerite Gaillot and Sister Marie-Elisabeth Morlot became so popular they were referred to as the “Macaron Sisters” and the village of Nancy in France has now dedicated a square to them.
The delicate, yet crisp meringue cookie stayed very traditional until 1930. It was the brilliant idea of chef Pierre Desfontaines, grandson of the founder of the famous French Ladurée Tea Rooms, to elevate the cookie from its humble beginnings to what we know today. Desfontaines quite simply decided to take the two cookies and sandwich them together with a ganache filling. The tea rooms became the fashionable spot for London’s grand dames to gather, enjoying not only a pot of tea, but macarons as well. Today Ladurée claims to sell over fifteen thousand cookies every day!
Have you ever been to Ladurée? I have not (but I adore PAUL, their smaller venue).
Ladurée is definitely on my bucket list!!
The myriad of colors and flavors, shapes and sizes, available in shops today are never ending — from mint to chocolate chip, peanut butter and jelly, to lemon or peach, pistachio or strawberry cheesecake, salted pretzel, maple and, of course, pumpkin. On and on it goes. Every cafe in Europe has macarons on their menu, including McDonald’s in France and Australia. If McDonald’s here in the U.S. sold macarons, I might even consider going.
Baking shows on the Food Network use the macaron as one of the ultimate baking challenges. They can’t be that difficult to make, can they? After watching an episode of Jacques Pepin’s cooking show, he made it appear so simple, using prepared marzipan (almond paste), beaten egg whites and sugar. Mix it all together and pipe onto parchment paper, let rest and then bake. Well, if Jacques Pepin says they are easy to make, then I’m going to give it a try. And I have the perfect party coming up this weekend. So here goes ….