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“Je voudrais acheter trois macarons, si vous plait,” I told the woman behind the display in the patisserie. They were the first French words to form on my lips after I arrived in Paris.
“I would like to buy three macarons, please.”
The woman looked at me curiously. “Trois?”
At the time, I believed she was surprised I wanted to buy so many.
Now I know better. She must have wondered why I would buy just three of the infamous French pastries.
Often pastel and always chewy, they look innocent enough. Yet there lies something more beneath each French macaron’s desperately sought pied.
When Catherine de Medici moved to France from Italy to marry King Henri II in 1533, she is said to have brought her pastry chefs who—lucky for us—brought along the first variation of what would eventually become the French macaron. Later in 1792, two Benedictine nuns fled to the French town of Nancy during the French Revolution. The “Macaron Sisters” baked and sold their macarons to pay for housing. Although at this time, the macaron was simply one meringue cookie. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that Pierre Desfontaines gave the macaron a makeover.
Pierre Desfontaines, second cousin to Louis Ernest Ladurée—the founder of the first Laudrée tea salon in 1862—put two macaron shells together with a ganache filling to form a sandwiched cookie. Viola! The modern French macaron.
Recently, macarons have gained popularity in the United States. Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, a sugar-induced depiction of the Queen of France’s overindulgence, brought macarons to an American audience. In fact, Coppola commissioned Ladurée to make all the pastries and even used a box of Ladurée macarons as her color palate for the film. Not too long after, macarons were brought to the teenage masses with an appearance on the popular TV series Gossip Girl. All of a sudden, sophisticates and fourteen-year olds alike desired the sweet foreign treat.
With its newfound commercial appeal, the macaron has overthrown the cupcake for favorite bite-sized indulgence. Today, the French delicacy is more accessible than ever, with macarons appearing at bakeries across the United States. Even McDonald’s in Paris began to sell macarons in its McCafé in 2007 and Laudrée opened a boutique at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
The rest of us are on our own. That’s why I made it my goal to conquer the French macaron.
The word “macaron” derives from the Italian word maccherone, which means “fine dough,” but I quickly learned that if your macaron batter can be described as just “fine,” it produces less than desired results. Made primarily of almond flour and powdered sugar, macaron batter is fickle to say the least. Mix the meringue one too many times and you can forget “fine.” It’s fin. Finished.
Before starting your first batch, you need to acknowledge three things:
There is a very small chance you will master the art of French macarons your first try. (Or second. Or third.)
Complete focus is required. Watching a Jean-Luc Godard film while baking sounds like a good idea until you’ve over-beaten the egg whites because you were too engrossed reading subtitles.
French recipes are trés difficile. If it says to twirl around after each stir, you better twirl around after each stir like a prima ballerina.
Grind the almond flour and powdered sugar in a food processor for a minute. Set aside.
To make the meringue, beat two egg whites until it foams. Then, gradually add granulated sugar. Keep mixing until the mixture is white, glossy, and stiff. If the meringue forms peaks when you lift the beaters from the mixture, it is done. If the meringue is too liquid-like, the macarons will not form pieds when they bake. French for “feet,” English for “Why aren’t these things rising like the recipe says they should?” pieds are essential to macarons and are what give them their cake-like texture.
If you wish your macarons to be colorful, add food coloring along with a teaspoon of vanilla (or other flavoring) and gently stir with a spatula. Next, add half of the flour and sugar mixture to the meringue and stir slowly. After adding the second half, fully incorporate the mixture into the meringue. It’s time for the macaronnage.
Macaronnage, which is the term for combining the flour and meringue, is the most important step. Take a spatula and press the batter into the sides of the bowl, then scrape the batter from the bottom and turn it upside down at least ten times, but no more than twenty. After this, the batter should drip slowly from the spatula. If it doesn’t, hope for the best.
Now that the batter is done, transport it into a pastry bag and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, squeeze out the batter into one-inch circles, each at least one-half inch apart. Rap the bottom of the baking sheet before letting the macarons dry for 15 minutes to form a slight crust. This is designed to help the macaron to later form feet. Let them dry too long though, and the macarons will get clumsy on their feet and topple over them when they bake.
Place the macarons in the oven, but don’t stray too far away—have a staring contest with the macarons if needed. They should bake for about fifteen minutes, but if they start to brown, immediately remove from the oven to let them cool.
Once they are cooled, pair off the macaron shells and fill them with your choice of buttercream, jam, Nutella, or honey. Eat liberally.
The first time I tried this, it was a disaster. The feet spread out from beneath each macaron shell mockingly as if to say, “Nice try, wannabe French girl. We’re not standing up for you.” Macarons look sweet, but in reality they are very high maintenance.
It wasn’t over yet though. I had enough batter left for one more batch.
Ten minutes later, I pushed the oven light button and gasped. They were rising! They were coming alive! They were…working?
It didn’t seem possible.
Tentatively, I removed the baking sheet with my oven mitt. I went to pick one up from the parchment paper and—
The macaron was stuck. They were all stuck.
I groaned, adding to the collective exasperation bakers around the world have felt trying to bake macarons.
One year later, I am still trying. Sometimes they crack, sometimes they stick, sometimes they are too flat, too crunchy, or don’t form feet. All I can do is say, “C’est la vie.”
Yet sometimes I bite into one and my teeth break the crispy outer shell and sink into its moist pieds and buttercream filling. Sometimes, c’est magnifique.