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There's more to macaroons than sugar and coconut

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Though Americans tend to think of macaroons as coconut cookies, most macaroons are really made from almonds or from a combination of almonds and apricot kernels. (In fact, one famous Italian brand of macaroons is made entirely from apricot kernels.) The ingredients for macaroons are simple -- almonds (or almond paste), sugar and egg white. But with these few ingredients it is possible to achieve a great variety of different tastes and textures.

Typical French-style macaroons are moist and slightly chewy, with a rounded, cracked surface that comes from moistening the macaroons right before they are baked. Usually made from almond paste, these are the easiest macaroons to prepare. Among the variations of French-style macaroons are gommes (pronounced go-MAY); the name derives from the fact that the glaze was originally made from gum arabic -- "gomme" in French. Gommes are macaroon stars decorated with shreds of candied fruit or almonds and glazed with corn syrup as they emerge from the oven so that they have a shiny surface after they cool.

Italian macaroons or amaretti tend to be dry and crisp, somewhat like the famous amaretti di Saronno, still made near Milan. Though these are typically made from apricot kernels, it is easy to approximate them using almond paste. Another style of amaretti is made by the nuns at the Santo Spirito Trappist convent at Agrigento in Sicily. These very basic, flavorful macaroons are made from almonds ground with sugar, with only the smallest addition of egg white. Somewhat irregularly shaped, they are moist and nutty, unlike macaroons made with fine almond paste.

Probably originally made using a mortar and pestle to crush the almonds, these amaretti are made in a convent that has been in virtually continuous operation (with only a short break during World War II) since it was founded in the 13th century.

Swiss macaroons, called Luxemburgerli ("little Luxemburgs"), are very much like crisp almond meringues with chocolate filling. To my taste, they are the most light and delicate of all macaroons. A specialty of Zurich's famed Sprungli pastry shop, Luxemburgerli are baked in many different flavors, but the vanilla-chocolate combination is the most popular.

Though the recipe is a secret, my experiments have resulted in a close approximation of the original Sprungli version.

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Whole blanched almonds are shelled almonds with the brown skins removed. If only unblanched (sometimes called natural) almonds are available, place almonds in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and drain. Fold hot almonds into a towel and rub to loosen skins, then go over almonds one at a time to separate nutmeats from skins. Use within a few hours. For longer storage, place in plastic bag and store in freezer.

Almond paste is a smooth paste made from blanched almonds, sugar and almond extract. Use only almond paste sold in cans (an 8-ounce can is the retail size). Though there are several brands sold in cellophane-wrapped cylinders, the canned almond paste has a more vivid flavor and a lower sugar (and higher almond) content.

Macaroons are elegant, satisfying cookies. Baking them yourself not only results in a beautiful confection, but also in a great increase in quality over what is usually available commercially.

French Macaroons

Makes about 5 dozen small macaroons

1 (8-ounce) can almond paste

1 cup sugar plus extra for sprinkling

3 tablespoons egg whites (whites from about 1 1/2 large eggs)

Set racks in upper and lower third of oven. Line 2 cookie sheets or jellyroll pans with parchment paper.

Break almond paste into 1-inch pieces. Combine with 1 cup sugar in bowl of heavy-duty mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Mix on slowest speed to crumb ingredients together. Pour in egg whites in 3 or 4 additions, beating well between each addition and scraping down bowl frequently.

Scrape mixture into pastry bag fitted with plain tube that has 1/2 - to 3/4 -inch opening. Pipe 3/4 - to 1-inch macaroons on prepared pans, leaving 1 inch between each macaroon.

Wet flat-weave towel (not terry cloth) or napkin and fold it into 2-inch-wide strip. Hold one end of strip in each hand and lower it onto macaroons, one row at a time, to flatten them slightly. Sprinkle macaroons with granulated (or powdered) sugar. Bake at 375 degrees until well puffed and golden, about 10 minutes. Cool on rack. To remove macaroons from paper, turn paper over and moisten back.

CHOCOLATE MACAROONS: Add 3 tablespoons sifted unsweetened cocoa powder with sugar.

PINE NUT MACAROONS: Cover moistened macaroons with pine nuts, shaking away excess, before baking.

GOMMES: Decrease egg whites to 2 tablespoons in macaroon paste. Pipe mixture with star tube into star or rosette shapes, decorating centers with almonds or pieces of candied fruit. Do not moisten macaroons with towel. Allow them to dry several hours, then bake at 450 degrees just until lightly colored. Brush tops with heated light corn syrup as soon as they come out of the oven.

CRISP AMARETTI: Increase egg whites to 1/4 cup (whites from 2 large eggs). Do not moisten macaroons with towel. Sprinkle with granulated sugar and bake at 350 degrees until crisp and dry, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool amaretti on pans. Remove from parchment paper and store in tins to keep them crisp.

Sicilian Amaretti From Agrigento

Makes 24 large macaroons

1 1/2 cups (about 8 ounces) whole blanched almonds

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 tablespoons egg white (from 1 large egg)

1 to 2 teaspoons water

whole unblanched almonds for decoration

Set racks in upper and lower third of oven. Line cookie sheet or jellyroll pan with parchment paper.

Place almonds and sugar in food processor bowl fitted with metal blade and process, pulsing on and off, until very finely ground. Scrape inside of work bowl with metal spatula. Add egg white in 4 additions, pulsing between each addition, until paste is smooth and firm. If paste is dry, add water in 3 or 4 additions and pulse smooth.

Scrape paste from food processor to work surface and roll into 12-inch cylinder (flour hands if paste is sticky). Cut into 1/2 -inch slices, making 24 equal pieces. Roll each into small ball, flatten slightly and arrange on prepared cookie sheet at least 1 inch apart in all directions. Press whole unblanched almond into center of each macaroon.

Bake at 375 degrees until lightly colored but still moist, about 15 minutes. Cool macaroons on pans. Remove from parchment paper and store in tin.

Swiss Luxemburgerli

Makes 24

ALMOND MIXTURE:

1/3 cup whole blanched almonds (about 2 ounces)

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon water

MERINGUE:

1/4 cup egg whites (from 2 large eggs)

1/2 cup sugar

FILLING:

1/4 cup whipping cream

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely cut

Set racks in upper and lower third of oven. Line 2 cookie sheets or jellyroll pans with parchment paper.

To prepare almond mixture: process almonds and sugar in food processor bowl fitted with metal blade, pulsing on and off, until very finely ground. Add vanilla. Pulse again and scrape inside of work bowl with metal spatula. Add water and pulse again to mix. Leave mixture in work bowl while preparing meringue.

To prepare meringue: Whisk egg whites and sugar in mixer bowl. Place bowl over pan of simmering water and whisk until egg whites are hot and sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes. Whip meringue by machine until cooled and fluffy. Add about 1/4 meringue to work bowl with almond mixture and pulse to mix. Add another 1/4 and pulse to mix again. Remove blade and scrape almond mixture from work bowl onto remaining whites. Fold into egg whites.

Scrape mixture into pastry bag fitted with plain tube that has 1/4 -inch opening. Pipe 24 ( 1/2 -inch) macaroons on each paper-lined pan (48 total), leaving 1 inch between each macaroon. Bake macaroons at 375 degrees until lightly golden, about 15 minutes. (Switch pans from back to front and top to bottom once or twice during baking.) Cool macaroons on pans. Remove cookies from parchment paper.

Meanwhile, prepare filling. Bring cream to boil in saucepan. Remove from heat. Add chocolate and allow to stand 2 minutes. Whisk smooth. Scrape filling into bowl to cool.

To assemble: place dab of chocolate filling on flat side of 24 baked macaroons. Press flat sides of remaining 24 macaroons against filling. Store in cool place. Serve macaroons on day they are prepared.

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