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Marvelous macaroons

April 19, 2010

When the Town Crier asked me to write for their wedding section, I had a perfect excuse to write about macaroons. This article appeared in the Town Crier April 13:

Both aesthetics and history cast macaroons as the perfect eye-candy for a wedding reception.

Whether handed to guests as take-away favors, presented in colorful centerpiece towers, or affixed to the wedding cake itself, French-style macaroons (distinct from the American coconut mounds) make a bold, sophisticated statement. The modern flair of their shape and color—they’re like three-dimensional polka dots—belies a long history; they did, after all, figure in the opulent dessert spreads of an 18th-century French banqueting scene enamored with refinement and pomp.

Marvels of texture, these confections made of ground almonds, sugar, and egg whites have soft and chewy centers, but a crunchy outside that cracks and shatters like a meringue. Sandwiching the cookies together with butter cream, in the style of the “Parisian” macarons, accentuates their delicious contrast of textures. They become ethereal pillows, crackling, chewy and silky in the same bite, with a complexity of flavor that comes from the almonds.

Adding other simple flavorings transforms macaroons into gems as pleasing to the eye as to the palate. The classic flavors are pistachio, chocolate, and coffee, but a passion fruit syrup or powder from crushed dried raspberries can turn them glowing orange or deep burgundy. Many fine purveyors of macaroons bring out new flavors and colors seasonally. When it comes to catering a wedding reception, they are unparalleled candidates for color coordination.

Beyond their aesthetic appeal, macaroons have a pedigree that makes them perfect for a wedding feast. In their simplest form, they come from Renaissance Italy—Venice in particular. The Italian amaretto cookie is a close cousin, though distinguished by its bitter-almond or apricot-kernel flavor.

The French made macaroons famous, with their “sandwiched” variety. They are the stuff of folklore; one legend has two nuns, the “Macaron Sisters” from the city of Nancy, selling macaroons from their place in hiding during the French Revolution.

In the late 18th century, French chef Antonin Careme introduced the crème-de-la-crème banqueting world to elaborate pièces montées desserts. Architectural extravagances several feet tall, these “folly desserts” constructed on sugar paste or nougat bases awed guests with their sweet deceptions: Greek ruins of spun sugar perched on rocky meringue outcroppings, archipelagos with sugar crystal sand and marzipan palms, Chinese pagodas, elaborate rotundas.

Croquembouche, smaller versions of these wonders, are tapered towers built of small, spherical confections piled atop one another and sometimes glazed with a sugar syrup. The confections in question tend to be macaroons, meringues, or simple chou (cream puffs). At this intersection of patisserie and architecture, macaroons stake their claim to banqueting fame. They have traditionally been visual statements at baptisms, First Communion feasts, weddings, and other celebratory occasions.

French nuns in hiding may be difficult to track down, but San Francisco’s Paulette Macarons and La Boulange Bakeries provide alternate sources. Both offer macaroons individually or in boxes of 10 to 24. La Boulange covers the basic flavors, and also features beautifully speckled varieties: mango-passion fruit, for example, sports orange flecks on a delicate background of pink. Paulette Macarons, with a slightly broader range of flavors that include rose, lychee, and even “sweet wedding almond,” will build croquembouche-style towers to order.

Even more locally, BethAnn Goldberg, owner of the acclaimed Studio Cake in Menlo Park, will sit down with you to design a custom-made cake that features macaroons as cheerful rounds of color, if you should so desire.

For more information, visit laboulangebakery.com, http://www.paulettemacaronsf.com or http://www.studiocake.com.

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As this wasn’t included in the article, I want to note that the macaroons pictured are from La Boulange. And I want to thank food photographer Joyce Oudkerk Pool of JOP Photography for letting me use her studio space and draw on her professional insights.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2010 11:51 am

    Those are amazing photos, Eve!

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  1. Pistachio macaroons « the roots of taste

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