Introduction to French Macarons

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When most people hear the word macaroon, they think of a chewy mound of shredded coconut, lightly sweetened and held together by egg whites.

That's not what I'm here to talk about.

The macaron that I will expound upon this week is a dainty French cream-filled sandwich cookie which, in its best form, will fill your soul with warm, fuzzy happiness after one bite. I've converted many to joining The Cult of Her Majesty the Macaron, although not without answer to that first question...

Mac-a-what?

A Very Brief History of Macarons

Who could've predicted that the omission of one "o" could cause so many problems? Pronounce "macaron" like a French person to a non-French person and you'll have to repeat yourself, perhaps multiple times, until the back of your throat aches from forming one too many rolled Rs. The English word macaroon is derived from the French macaron, which in turn comes from the Italian maccherone, or "fine dough." ("Macaroni" is also derived from the word maccherone.)

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The original style of macaron cookies from Saint-Émilion.

The macaron's origin isn't clear, but it may have been brought to France from Italy as early as 1533 by Catherine di Medici and her pastry chefs. Macarons gained fame in 1792 when two Carmelite nuns seeking asylum in Nancy during the French Revolution baked and sold macarons in order to support themselves, thus becoming known as "the macaron sisters." The macarons they made were a simple combination of ground almonds, egg whites, and sugar. No special flavors. No filling. Just 100% cookie.

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Ladurée's Champs-Élysées location.

It wasn't until the 1900s that Pierre Desfontaines of Parisian pastry shop and café Ladurée decided to take two cookies and fill them with ganache. Today Ladurée continues to be one of the first stops for macaron-crazed fans in Paris. No longer a humble almond cookie, the macaron turned into a versatilely flavored treat with a thin, light crust briefly giving way to a layer of moist almond meringue following by a center of silky smooth filling.

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The innards of Pierre Hermé's limited edition ispahan macaron.

The basic equation for a macaron reads like so:

1 part cookie [ground almonds + egg white + sugar] +
1 part filling [buttercream, ganache, jam] +
1 part cookie [ground almonds + egg white + sugar] =
1 complete macaron [happiness]

What makes a good macaron?

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What's wrong and right with these macarons? The top left one should have more filling and the bottom left one is a bit chunky with the almond meal.

Although I don't consider myself to be a picky eater, I do have specific guidelines for the qualities a macaron must possess in order to be deemed "excellent." Will I eat a macaron that lacks excellence? Probably—it's hard to make a macaron taste repulsive. But I won't be very happy about it.

Here's what I look for in a macaron:

  • The cookie-to-filling ratio should be between 1:1 and 2:1. I have seen the atrocity that is a thin layer of filling spread upon one cookie, or a blob of filling that fails to extend to the edge of the cookie. Not cool, man, not cool. I feel like this is one of the easiest problems to "correct" when making a macaron; if the filling looks skimpy, just squeeze in a bit more. Just a bit! But no. We are frequently denied this extra squeezing.
  • The filling should be smooth, firm (like ganache), light, and not sticky. Aside from a few wayward crumbs, eating a macaron should be clean. Filling shouldn't squish out of the cookie nor should it leave much residue on your teeth. (This may not apply to all fillings, such as caramel or jams.)
  • The texture and surface of the cookie should be very smooth. Bumps show that the almond wasn't ground finely enough or wasn't sifted to take out the chunks. A chunky macaron might taste okay, but a finer one tastes better.
  • The crust of the cookie should be thin and only provide the most useless protection against the soft cookie layer underneath. Biting through the crust should be effortless. A dry, semi-hard crust that shatters into the soft center of the cookie is not fun.
  • The cookie's texture beneath the crust should be light, just a little chewy, and soft, but not so soft that it's mushy. It's okay if the cookie looks "uncooked."
  • As much as I love sugar, sweetness shouldn't take over in a macaron. They come in a wide variety of flavors for a reason—so you can taste the flavor. Cloying sweetness that forms a lump in the back of your throat is a no-no.

Where can macaron joy be bought? How can macaron joy be created at home? I can't claim to know all the answers, but I'll try my best over the course of the week to reveal some of them.

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