French traditions and practices are the paradigm of true culinary artform. An aristocratic rich history and dedicated discipline are perhaps the fundamental ingredients for such a prestigious reputation. Whether based on Bocuse, Vergé or their godly predecessor Escoffier, many a book has been written about the French way of cooking, rather the 'proper' way to mise, prep, and plate dishes.
There's a saying in the commercial kitchen that goes something like this, “It ain't the French way, but it's effective” – used mainly, of course, during times of stressful quick fixes (i.e. correcting an issue some undertrained cook 'boogered' up). Short cuts are something to be scoffed at by geniuses that devoted their life to perfecting a craft, and improper pronunciation or misinterpretation, well, that is a crime just as deplorable.
If you ever want to feel like a total moron, call a Macaron a Macaroon in front of a French Pastry Chef. You may as well take a 'oui oui' in his cake batter. On this side of the Seine River, the almond based treat has skyrocketed into fame. Like we did with the cupcake, Americans have formed this obsession with the thing, yet so many people call it by the wrong name. Every bakery nowadays has them in stock, some labeled correctly, others not. So, to further clear this case of mistaken identity, allow me to explain the difference between a macaron and a macaroon.
A macaron is a round shaped often pastel colored cookie-sandwich. The size is that of a silver dollar in most cases, and the filling can range anywhere from jam to buttercream to ganache. Fancy renditions can come decorated in fresh fruits and gold flakes, however the basic fashion is simple. Made from eggs, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, ground almond and food coloring, the recipe is naturally gluten free. Being meringue based, the texture is quite soft making the confection fragile. Traditional flavors are lemon, raspberry, chocolate and pistachio, but nowadays you can have a savory foie gras macaron or one flavored like Thai tea. The proper pronunciation: mah-kah-rōn.
Ladurée is perhaps the most notably recognized and coveted brand on an International level. It's tres apropos that the company's flagship resides in Paris, France with a US sister store in the equally intriguing metropolis of New York City. Here in New Orleans we have many propinquitous bakery options to test our will to refrain from indulging like the sophisticated Frenchies and luxury lusting Manhattanites do. Sucré confirms everything there is to expect from a macaron. Texture, creative flavor and vibrant color secure the quality stamp, while decorative accents, distinctive of the Sucré brand, ensure patience and artful consideration have gone into the making.
The Sweet Life on Vicksburg in Lakeview has a massive selection of flavors in all colors of the rainbow. Their confections are made in house with a staple collection including almond, pistachio, lemon and chocolate. Their coffee macaron accommodates those with a breakfast time sweet tooth, and eating it along with the almond macaron, together the flavors coalesce saporously, much like a signature latte. Specialty flavors can be found at times in the pastry case, however these are typically made to order. MCRN Bar is the paragon of one sweet start up. Those of you that remember this online subscription only macaron launch recall how it was all the rage. Started in late 2012 by Louisiana-native Juley Le of the lifestyle blog Upperlyne, the company delivered Southern inspired French macarons on a monthly plan. Juley, who is back in New Orleans after a jaunt to Nashville for a work venture, tells me the operation is currently on hold – but good luck getting any further explanation out of the fashionable brainchild behind the brand. While I know she's preparing to sell the concept, I can only imagine it's because she has other delicious ideas brewing that demand her undivided attention.
Cheryl Scripter of Bittersweet Confections made a name for herself last year at Tales of the Cocktail by supplying the Stoli party with pear, strawberry, raspberry, and lemon macarons to go along with their line of vodkas of the same flavor. Also in stock at the haven of chocolate are handmade macaroons, which I will now further explain with the help of her description.
“Our coconut macaroon is made with ap (all purpose) flour, eggs, coconut and a few other secret ingredients, baked and then entombed in dark chocolate. That confection is very different from our French macaron, which is made with almond flour, egg whites, and other natural flavors to reflect the various varieties. French macarons are also filled with buttercream. They are much more labor intensive and a completely different flavor profile and texture. We sell them both, people go crazy for both but not usually at the same time.”
Because macaroons are very simple in recipe - coconut, egg whites and sugar - variations can be made to the ingredients elevating the flavor profiles without disturbing the integrity of the pastry. The elementary execution results in clusters toasted crisp on the outside with a chewy interior negating the idea that uncomplicated culinary methods are boring. Adding flour, nuts, citrus zest, almond flavoring, seasonal spices, coatings of chocolate or drizzles of caramel are suggestive and often practiced techniques.
Chef Dawn Snead of Shake Sugary is raising the bar with her own personal spin on the traditional process. Her creation? Citrus white chocolate coconut macaroons. Having grown up in a family of bakers, Dawn says her fondest childhood memories revolve around decorating birthday cakes with her dad and making breakfast rolls with her grandfather. With scratch baking in her blood, she earned a degree in Pastry Arts from Johnson and Wales University and decided to make New Orleans home after a visit to the city on a traveling art collective excursion. Her Bywater neighborhood bakery boasts beautiful handmade fruit tarts, creatively decorated specialty cakes, as well as vegan and dairy free goodies, perfect for the allergy sufferer or those with specific dietary needs.
This dessert is most popular during Passover when the consumption of chametz or leavening is prohibited. Leavened bread, wheat, barley, rye and oats are avoided as the grains will naturally rise if not cooked within 18 minutes. Since baking soda, baking powder and like products leaven by chemical reaction instead of biological fermentation they are considered permissible. Angelo Brocato may be known for it's grainy authentic Italian favorites like scadalina, seed cookies, and cannolis, but they've got a coconut macaroon that has developed quite the reputation.
Passover brings many to the famous gelato spot on Carrollton in Mid City to satiate sweet hunger pangs, and the macaroons make a fine combo when ordered alongside their creamy coconut Italian ice cream or with a mighty helping of spumoni. The coconut macaroon cupcake at Pralines by Jean combines macaroon, cake, and icing in one hand held nectarous course. Renowned for their regionally prized sugar syrup and nut candies, I certainly doubt that the French settlers responsible for bringing the praline recipe to Louisiana would be unimpressed with the other confection driven ingenuity coming out of the kitchen.
To a pastry professional, a savvy baker, or dessert conossieur, macarons and macaroons are stellar opposites. Based on the wildly different ingredients and composition of the treats, there are those that strongly believe the name macaroon is hardly interchangeable. For something so easily identifiable at first glance, perhaps an innocent language handicap is what allows them to continue to be mislabeled. Whatever you wanna call it, they're both fine choices, and in my humble opinion, equally delicious.