French Macaroons: A Tale of Three Cities

They’re the macaroons that Parisians go crazy for, traveling from one end of the city to the other to get their favorites from their favorite patisseries.  And they’re the ones that pastry chefs are having the most fun with these days.  (These are from Laduree)

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Made with ground almonds, sugar, egg whites and a touch of magic, perfect macaroons (the correct French is macarons) – the term refers to both the little cookies that sandwich a creamy filling and the finished sandwich – have a crust that’s thinner and more fragile than an egg shell, innards that are preternaturally light and moist and a filling meant to contribute mightily to the sweet’s swoon factor.

They might be the most popular sweet in a pastry shop’s case, but they can also be the most finicky to produce.  To get an idea of what it’s like to be on the “macaroon team” at Pierre Herme’s, read Fanny at Foodbeam.  And, if you want to try making the little cookies yourself (and you can work with a French cookbook), get a copy of Lecon: Macarons.

There are so many things about macaroons that interest me: their texture and flavor, of course, but their sociology too.

I’m not sure when macaroons were first made, but in a recent issue of Regal magazine (a French food magazine), Pierre Herme recalled that during his apprenticeship at Lenotre, they made macaroons in just four flavors: vanilla, chocolate, coffee and raspberry.  Today, the number of flavors (they’re called parfums) borders on uncountable and patisseries like Laduree post their new flavors-of-the-month outside their shops, the way restaurants advertise their plat du jour. 

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I also don’t know when macaroons went from being a polite little sweet often found on a good French restaurant’s petits four plate to a full-fledged fetish, but I do think I can put my finger on when the flavor fest began – I think it all started when Pierre Herme showed his first pastry collection.  (Maybe it was in 2001?)  At the end of the collection he introduced his newest macaroon, which,  if my memory is right, was hazelnut and white truffle.

After that, the sky was the limit and it seemed that new flavored – and shaped – macaroons could be discovered daily.  (These were from Lenotre – I don’t know if they make square macaroons any longer.)

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Caught up in macaroon madness, I asked a friend of mine who lives in Angers if there was a patisserie with great macaroons in her town.  “Macaroons,” she said, “are very Parisian – the rest of France doesn’t really care about them.”

She was almost right.  France does care about macaroons, just not the ones you find in Paris.  There are rustic-looking almond-based macaroons made all over France and I recently had the chance to sample a pair of them.

This one came from Maison Adam in the beautiful oceanside town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz

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The cookie is small, intensely almondy – I’ve since learned that it’s made from a combination of Valencia and Marconia almonds from Spain (just across the border) – and possessed of an enviable pedigree: it was enjoyed by Marie-Therese and her husband, King Louis XIV.  Among people who love this kind of macaroon, Maison Adam, founded in 1660, is a landmark.

The other macaroon I had was from Mme Blanchez in Saint-Emilion, the medieval village outside of Bordeaux that’s a must-see.  Actually, Saint-Emilion is a must-see and Mme Blanchez’s macaroons a must-have.

When I spoke to Madame B, she told me that it was her husband’s grandmother who had bought the secret recipe in 1930, and that today, the macaroons are made by three women who work just as the bakers had worked decades and decades before.  The almonds for these cookies are peeled, soaked and dried by hand, then ground between marble rollers before they are added to the beaten egg whites and sugar.  The recipe, the techniques and the oven that Mme Blanchez oversees may be old, but the papers that the cookies are baked on are new (Madame says they’ve been using them for about five years now) and so clever: they are perforated squares that can be pulled apart to serve as a little plate or a frame for each macaroon.

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After my trio of tastes, I pondered how the same ingredients could produce the city-sleek “Paris” macaroon and the comfy sweets of the provinces – this is part of what makes food so fascinating to me. 

Of course you could have a Pierre Herme Ispahan (rose-litchi-raspberry) macaroon in Saint-Emilion or a rough, chewy, crackled-topped macaroon from Mme Blanchez in Paris’s chicest arrondissements, but in both cases they’d seem exotic.  Eaten where they’re made, they’re just right.  I guess that’s really what regional cuisine is all about, isn’t it.

IF YOU GO TO SAINT-EMILION

Because even we sweet-lovers don’t live on cookies alone, I suggest that before you indulge in Mme Blanchez’s macaroons, you walk up the street and have lunch at L’Envers du Decor (11, rue du Clocher, Saint-Emilion), a bistro that takes its food – but not itself – seriously.  The restaurant, cleverly decorated and beautifully situated – the large garden backs up against the stone walls of the church – is the chou-chou of owner Francois des Ligneris of Chateau Soutard, the favorite watering hole of the local wine trade and a place where you’ll find lots of wines by-the-glass and a daily menu based on the market.

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Dorie Greenspan

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