Last Friday was National Macaroon Day. Why is this so important after the fact? Because any day set aside specifically to celebrate something so lovely as a tiny, bite-sized, intensely sweet and beautifully colored cookie must be special!
Americans typically associate macaroons with the crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside, almond cookie studded with coconut and sometimes dipped in chocolate.
Possibly Italian in origin, this type of macaroon is traditionally made with almond flour, egg whites and plenty of sugar whipped into a meringue and dropped with a star-shaped pastry tip onto the pan. Italian Jews made this cookie their own: because it has no flour or leavening, it is kosher and can be enjoyed during Passover.
As the Jewish Diaspora spread across the world, so did the macaroon. Over time, coconut was added to the recipe. Eventually, it became de rigueur to make a simple recipe fancy by dipping this coconut cookie in melted chocolate.
Macaroons were especially popular in home parties during the 1960s and 70s because they are super easy to make, and yet taste rich and decadent.
Italian macaroons somehow made their way to France, where they became macarons, now ubiquitous to the French dessert pantheon.
Chris Ford, Executive Pastry Chef at The Four Seasons in Baltimore and winner of Food & Wine's "People's Best New Pastry Chef of 2012," wants folks to be clear that the French version of a macaron is completely different from the chewy, coconut-y macaroon.
Although the two have that meringue base in common, the macaron features intricately flavored pastry cream sandwiched between two lightly-domed cookies, so soft as to be clouds, but characterized by a tiny thin, ruffled and slightly crunchy "foot", or edge where the cookie and the cream come together.
In a recent conversation, Ford helped me to better understand why these little cookies have become such a culinary trend. They were barely known in America even five or six years ago, until famous French bakeries such as Laduree opened outposts in New York and California.
After the French invasion, a sprinkling of boutique patisseries appeared in foodie towns, their arrival corresponding to the recent popular appreciation for ingredients and effort. Now macarons seem to be everywhere.
Good pastry chefs, Ford says, are drawn to macarons because they are incredibly difficult to perfect.
"Making a good macaron is almost like baking good bread - the baker is in the passenger seat and the dough is in control."
A perfect cookie, he notes, has a high moisture content, so that when it sits overnight, it turns from a sandwich into a confection. If the cookie or the crème fail to take on the desired flavor, if the cookie turns crusty or even mushy, you have to start over. Time is money, and every bite a chef presents should be consistently flawless. Most bakeries just don't have time for a product that is susceptible to mishaps.
Kristen D'Angelo is the chef/owner of Sweethearts Patisserie in Annapolis, located in the Clock Tower Plaza on Forest Drive. While she sells cakes, croissants, éclairs and other desserts, she specializes in petit fours and macarons. The recipe she uses in her shop took more than two years of experimentation to perfect.
Sweethearts presents 16 flavors of macarons at any one time and makes about 1,000 cookies each week, including at least 400 of her most popular flavor, Salted Caramel.
Although there are many techniques that can be used to make the meringue base, D'Angelo notes macarons are particularly difficult no matter what approach you master: if the dough is too stiff the cookie will crack, if it is too runny it won't rise. The recipe has to have just the right amount of properly mixed meringue to achieve a slight dome, but not so much that the cookie rises too much, resulting in a tough "foot".
I celebrated National Macaroon Day with a visit to her shop, where she explained to me that time, temperature, the quality and balance of ingredients, even the weather can affect the final outcome of a macaron.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of aspiring to the perfect macaron is that while the dough must be technically perfect, everything else can be left to the chef's imagination. Flavors are as subtle as lavender, as comforting as peanut butter and jelly, as fun as red velvet or as wild as D'Angelo's maple bacon. Color gel can be used to produce bright jewel-like tones or soft, cloudy pastels. The filling can be ganache, pastry cream, buttercream or even marshmallow.
While coming up with an idea for a particular macaron flavor can be relatively easy, it is finding the right ingredients and achieving consistent (and good) flavor that can be hard. Since the macaron is so tiny, every bite needs to be a summary of all the flavors. Ford noted that to come up with deep, punctuated flavors, bakers turn to high-quality nut or fruit oils, exotic spices and professional grade extracts.
Flavors used in the cookie base must be dry enough to be ground into flour before adding to the dough, just as the traditional almond or sometimes pistachios would be. For his wildly popular Oreo macaron, which was featured in The Wall Street Journal, Ford dehydrates Oreos before adding them to the meringue.
His s'mores recipe requires drying graham crackers for the base and creating a soft, sticky marshmallow crème for the center.
Ford's over-the-top version, which he created for LAMILL Café in Baltimore, is the macaroon macaron. Imagine homemade coconut macaroons, dried and ground into a paste, added to the macaron dough and whipped into the pastry crème filling. The cookie is even dipped in chocolate.
D'Angelo's maple bacon is equally delightful: it features a buttery maple-syrup base and a salty filling with bacon ground so fine and so well emulsified into the crème as to barely be distinguishable. Sweet, salty, soft and crunchy - all in one bite.
While macarons may never surpass the cupcake in popularity - a cupcake is a canvas for myriad flavors and arrangements - this little powerhouse of a cookie is definitely in competition to be the hottest dessert this summer.
The colors of each cookie lined up make a delightful presentation on a table, tiered stand or in a little box. Ford notes cupcakes will always have a direct connection to childhood and comfort: they are sweet and messy, and there are millions ways to eat one. But macarons, he says "can take color and flavor in just one bite, and can really breathe life into whatever kind of moment you want to have, whether fun or serious."
Where can you find macarons? Head to Sweethearts Patisserie in Annapolis, where a dozen macarons lined side by side in a tiny blue box make a great gift, or LAMILL Café in Baltimore, where Chef Ford offers two or three seasonal flavors plus other standards every day.