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Macaron Madness

Lenôtre, Dalloyau, Gérard Mulot... whisper just one of these magical names to any sweet tooth in the know and you will see eyes light up, lips twitch into a smile and the word macaron will roll gently off of the tongue, escape on a sigh.
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Ladurée, Pierre Hermé, Lenôtre, Dalloyau, Gérard Mulot... whisper just one of these magical names to any sweet tooth in the know and you will see eyes light up, lips twitch into a smile and the word macaron will roll gently off of the tongue, escape on a sigh. Delicate, tender and sweet, the French macaron is formed of the perfect union of a feminine froth of white meringue gently, lovingly folded into snowy powdered sugar and fine almond meal, then barely scented with whatever you choose, whatever your mood, whatever your desire. Piped out into beautiful shiny mounds, silky smooth, to puff up in the warmth of the oven and transform into perfectly domed, crisp yet tender shells, nutty and sweet. Light as air, each ethereal shell is paired with another and sandwiched around a smooth, luxurious ganache, cream or jam filling allowing for an imaginative pairing of flavors, colors, textures. Hold one tiny creation in the palm of your hand, admire the elegance, the shape and color, anticipate the taste sensation as you would a first kiss. Bring it up to your mouth, to your lips, hesitate, but only briefly, knowing that ecstasy is not far behind. Now bite down * crack * into the crisp barely there outside and find yourself pulled into a tender chewy center, a burst of flavor and you are utterly swept off your feet.

Chocolate Pistachio Macarons with Dark Chocolate Amaretto Ganache

What is the fascination with these tiny treats? Macarons are all the rage these days; the food blogosphere is abuzz with recipes, information, tutorials and reviews. Everyone wants to make them, eat them. Both fanatics and the simply curious patiently stand in lines outside of pastry shops in Paris, New York, London, Toronto and cities in between; lines that wind around the block as the macaron crazed make their choice between an ever-growing number of flavors ranging from the simple (vanilla, chocolate, pistachio, cherry) to the impressive (saffron, olive oil, rose, fig, cotton candy) to the outrageous (truffle, wasabi, Foie gras, mushroom, tahini). For years the decadent, dark chocolate truffle was the perfect, romantic gift. Later, chocolatiers the world over were taking the simple, handmade chocolate and infusing cream and ganache fillings with an exotic twist by adding liqueurs, teas, flowers and spices such as pepper, fennel or ginger. Yet chocolate, no matter how we love it, is overpowering and ever-present, the added flavors simply a hint, a mere suggestion. The macaron is intriguing in its bareness: it is a pastry, a sweet, just slightly nutty confection that allows for an incredible artist's palette of creativity, a blank canvas for almost any combination of flavors, both sweet and savory or even a little of both. There is something so special, so sophisticated and elegant about the macaron that its makers have become legend and the mystique surrounding this friandise continues to grow.

Not quite a cookie, certainly not a candy, this tiny French delicacy is a confection requiring patience, care and concentration to create. It is a delicate balancing act in which so many conditions play a heavy role: perfect measurements, oven precision, the quality of the ingredients, outside temperature and humidity, the change in any one of which can wreak havoc on the results, leaving the anxious baker in front of disastrous results: flat, cracked or gluey blobs instead of the much desired perfectly formed, light-as-air shells. A professional pastry chef working for a renowned name once confided to a friend of mine that even their bakery kitchen ended up throwing out tray after tray of collapsed shells while waiting for perfect, saleable results. Practice, in this case, does not necessarily make perfect!

Fragile, temperamental, tricky: why would the home baker want to attempt making macarons? Elegant and oh-so French, the macaron is a thing of beauty and the perfect macaron brings oohs and ahhs beyond what any other dessert brings. Yet price and availability of store-bought macs have pushed many of us to attempt making them in our own kitchens. And there is certainly something exciting in a challenge for any seasoned baker and this one may just about outdo all the others. Each step is a test from whipping egg whites into the perfect meringue to folding the batter until just the right consistency to piping the batter out in even circles, from knowing when to slide them into the oven to the neck plus ultra of them all: obtaining feet. Feet, as any well-versed macaron aficionado knows, is the tiny frill at the base of the macaron shell which appears during baking, the true sign of success.

Bluberry Hibiscus Macarons with Vanilla Blueberry Mascarpone Cream

I made my first macarons on a food blogger dare. A mac virgin, I was terrified of this daunting procedure but decided to forge ahead on instinct and bravura; I screwed up my courage, shook my proverbial fist at the challenge and dove in. These first macs were perfumed simply with a dash of violet sugar and filled with a dark chocolate violet ganache and were stunning! A piece of cake, so to speak. As were my second and third attempts in traditional coffee and chocolate espresso fleur de sel. But these perfect beauties, 3 batches of them, were then followed by an epic failure and then another, shattering my confidence completely, but the bug had already bitten! Despite the ever-present risk of failure, I now make my own macarons once a month and although I have my ups and downs, my successes and utter flops, I have grown to love the sifting, whipping, folding and piping, the game of experimenting with flavors, the exhilaration of pulling a baking tray of perfect shells from the oven, the pride I feel in watching my son's friends gobble down an entire batch and beg for more or having my husband ask if he can bring them into work, full of pride himself.

Fascinating, elegant, the chouchou of the pastry world, le macaron has created an excitement, a passion rarely seen, a frenzy of creativity among professionals and food bloggers alike. Sweet or savory, macarons can be nibbled on while sipping a cup of coffee or a glass of Champagne. One single macaron is the perfect sweet ending to a meal with the last of the wine or an unusual, intriguing appetizer when filled with smoked salmon, caviar or Foie gras, ideal for celebrating that special occasion, the kiss of sweetness an unexpected twist in a savory delight. Macarons are a sophisticated gift, more romantic, more wow-inspiring than chocolate, tastier and more personal than flowers. Connoisseurs everywhere rave about the macaron's divine, ethereal character and the astounding array of flavor possibilities. Indulge in this delicacy and you, too, may be swept away in Macaron Madness.

What's the best macaron you've ever eaten? Or do you dare make your own? Visit the Mactweets blog for macaron information, links, tutorials and macaron baking challenges.

Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.