Watch out, cupcake! The macaron is angling to be the new darling of the pastry world. And it is one cute cookie.
"They're adorable," says Angie Dudley, who blogs about baking at Bakerella.com and recently took a class on how to make the meringue-based treats from France. "I think it's just the colors and they're so uniform, they're so perfect-looking if you do it right."
The dessert (pronounced MAC-a-RON) comes from France and consists of just a few ingredients, mainly egg white, ground almonds and sugar. They're often also called macaroons, which is confusing because a macaroon more commonly is a coconut-based sweet.
A proper macaron consists of two rounds of meringue cookies sandwiched together with filling. Flavor? You name it. Macarons generally are treated like a blank canvas that can take on just about any color and flavor.
Sandro Micheli, pastry chef at Adour Alain Ducasse at the St. Regis New York, has long been a fan of the confection, crisp outside, creamy inside. In the last year, he's noticed the appetite for macarons growing and has been teaching regular macaron classes.
Fans include Jason Wu, the designer who made Michelle Obama's inaugural gown, who says he's asked Micheli to create macarons in his signature color of gray to hand out at a June fashion show.
Moment of baking truth: Macarons may be easy on the eye. But are they hard to make?
"Hard, no. Finicky, yes," says Helene Dujardin, a food stylist and photographer who lives in Charleston and taught the macaron class Dudley recently took. "No matter which method you use, French or Italian meringue, there are certain steps that require absolute focus. If the meringue is not stiff enough or too stiff before mixing in the almonds, the shells can be too weak or too hollow. If the whole batter is overmixed, the shells can spread too much, crack. It takes a little bit of practice."
Dujardin, originally from France, began making macarons regularly after moving to the United States about a decade ago and missing the treats.
Dudley, who lives in the Atlanta area, discovered macarons after coming across pictures of them on the Web. That's not surprising since this trend seems to have gotten a lot of its oomph from bloggers, with numerous posts and websites as well as "mac" baking sessions on Twitter.
"They are the perfect item for blogging," Dujardin, who blogs at www.mytartelette.com, said in an e-mail. "You can teach your readers something, express your process, frustrations and joys included, and mac-driven emotions are perfect writing materials -- trust me!"
Three years ago when Paulette Koumetz opened a macaron shop in Beverly Hills, the French treat took a bit of explaining -- was it a cookie? Was it a cake?
But she was confident macarons would win over American palates, and she was right.
"What is wonderful here is that American people are very open. When they have something new they want to try it," she says. She has since opened a second "Paulette" store in San Francisco.
Visual appeal is a big part of macaron madness. The colorful confections make for spectacular displays whether built up into pyramids or other shapes or simply stacked neatly in a glass baker's case.
"We have all those colors, all those beautiful little, round cakes," Koumetz says. "They are very good."
Dudley specializes in cake pops, cupcake-like confections on sticks -- she's got a book about them, titled simply enough "Cake Pops," coming out this fall. After taking Dujardin's class, she tried her hand at making macaron pops, they worked pretty well, although she feels she's got work to do before she masters macarons.
In the race for culinary charmer, will macarons take the cake?
"I don't think it's a question of which one is more popular," says Dujardin. "Some of us have the mac vibe, some have the cupcake one. Some of us have both."
Makes 24 cookies
This classic French cookie is forever being reinvented with new flavor combinations. Almond, raspberry, pistachio and chocolate are among the most common. This light and slightly peppery combination of strawberry filling in a spiced shell is particularly nice.
If you'd like to experiment with different flavors, extracts can be mixed into the meringue just before adding to the almond flour. Dry flavoring ingredients should be mixed into the flour. And fillings can be a simple jam as in this recipe; ganache and buttercreams also are classic fillings.
2/3 cup (3 ounces) almond flour
1 1/2 cups (5 1/4 ounces) powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
3 egg whites, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Strawberry jam, to fill
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a food processor, combine the almond flour, powdered sugar, cloves, allspice, cardamom and cinnamon. Process for 1 minute. Using a mesh strainer, sift the mixture, twice, into a medium bowl. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the egg whites and salt. Using the whisk attachment, beat the mixture on medium-high until very frothy.
Slowly add the granulated sugar while continuing to beat until the mixture is bright white and makes firm, glossy peaks.
Fold half of the egg mixture into the almond flour mixture. Add the second half of the egg mixture and fold together until thoroughly combined. Fold carefully but thoroughly until the mixture is thick and it takes about 30 seconds for a dribbled line to flow back into the rest of the batter.
Put the mixture into a piping bag or a zip-close bag. Snip a 1/4-inch hole in the tip or corner of the bag.
Pipe 1-inch mounds onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between mounds. The mounds should spread slightly. Tap the baking sheet on the counter firmly once or twice. Let sit at room temperature until a skin has formed and the mixture does not stick to your finger, about 20 to 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
Bake the cookies for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the baking sheets top to bottom and front to back halfway through the baking time. The cookies should remain quite pale but be slightly firm to the touch. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets.
Peel the parchment paper back from the cookies. If you have difficulty removing the paper from the cookies, put them in the freezer for a couple of minutes.
To assemble the cookies, spread a thin layer of strawberry jam on the flat side of half of the cookies. Top with a second cookie to make sandwiches. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Nutrition information per 3 cookies (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 177 calories; 49 calories from fat; 5g fat (0g saturated; 0g trans fats); 0mg cholesterol; 30g carbohydrates; 4g protein; 2g fiber; 82mg sodium.