Chewy on the inside, crunchy on the outside, coconutty all the way through, these little gems are nothing like the oh-la-la pink, purple, or green macarons that replaced the cupcake for Hot Bakery Trend of 2008. These are the cookies that cemented my coconut admiration many years ago. I grew up in a house with no store-bought cookies or sweets of any kind, so my brother and I were forced to improvise with my mom's baking ingredients. She always had Baker's Angel Flake coconut, in the iconic blue and white bag, and bittersweet chocolate, the cornerstones of coconut macaroons.
A well-executed macaroon satisfies on three criteria for me—consistency, taste, and appearance. Appearance is the wild card here, because these are iconic cookies and have to be recognizable as such, at least in part.
So, in developing this recipe, I broke it down step by step.
For my macaroon journey (a really, really long one), I began with a recipe from my mom's cookie collection, which may have originated with Good Housekeeping circa 1957. This one had sweetened shredded coconut, whipped egg whites, sugar, and vanilla and almond extracts. While it was pretty classic, I found the cookies a little piece-y—that is, they broke into pieces as you ate them—dry, and horrifically sweet. Plus, throwing away the egg yolks irked me. (In retrospect, I should have saved those yolks—I used the better part of two dozen egg whites to get to the perfect macaroon. Ah, the lemon curd I could've made!)
So, for the next batch, wanting a little creaminess to combat the piece-y-ness, I added yolks back. What a mistake—the cookies were rubbery and flat. Yuck! Okay, so no more yolks, but I did want some creaminess. I saw several recipes calling for sweetened condensed milk and decided to give that a shot. It was sugar overload, and it made a pretty wet macaroon that didn't hold its shape. Freezing the cookies for a few minutes before baking helped a bit. What about reducing the moisture in the coconut to compensate for extra moisture from the condensed milk? I found that toasting the coconut made the consistency a little drier, but the cookies still didn't hold that iconic macaroon shape.
Next I tried dried, unsweetened coconut (found in supermarkets or specialty stores), which is a little finer in texture. It resulted in a crunchy outside and perfectly chewy inside, and it produced the best macaroons yet. Success! (By the way, just like nuts, coconut is easy to toast in the microwave: Put it on a microwave-safe plate and toast in 30-second intervals until lightly golden, about two minutes total.)
Then a crazy idea struck me: Dulce de leche is just cooked-down sweetened condensed milk. Perhaps that would give even more creaminess, with an added flavor boost to boot. It worked like a charm and was absolutely amazing—chewy, creamy, and moist.
The one problem? It yielded an un-iconic golden macaroon (curse you, Appearance!) that had to be dealt with.
My first move was to ditch the almond and vanilla extracts altogether. I found they lacked subtlety and overwhelmed the coconut, even in small amounts. Vanilla bean (seeds scraped) or vanilla paste added a pleasant aromatic depth in place of the vanilla extract. Being a good Italian, I had a bottle of nut liqueur in my bar that I used in place of the almond extract. Don't worry if you don't have any—brandy or cognac is a fine substitute. Finally, toasting that coconut was not only great at improving consistency, but also boosted the flavor.
On to the final criterion, and perhaps the least important: appearance. Out of my dozen or so tests, I had a few definite favorites—that dulce de leche version among them. But try as I might, I couldn't get over the fact that it turned the macaroons brown instead of the traditional pale golden, nor could I find a way to get the same flavor without it.
Instead, I'm going to take the easy way out and leave the choice entirely up to you. My final recipe uses unsweetened shredded coconut (lightly toasted), whipped egg whites, vanilla paste, and nut liqueur, along with your choice of either sweetened condensed milk (for a classic appearance) or dulce de leche (for the best flavor and texture).
No matter what route you choose, one step is not optional: dipping and drizzling the macaroons with bittersweet chocolate. There are some traditions you simply don't mess with.