Dec 09 2007

About Macarons

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Assorted MacaronsThe first macaron, with its crisp crust and a soft interior, was an almond meringue cookie similar to that of today’s amaretti. The macaron was inspired into existence through the cultural and intellectual pursuits of enlightened individuals within the Renaissance Era around the 14th or 15th century.  It is believed by culinary historians to have originated in an Italian monastery, possibly from the Veneto region, which was at that time, a major maritime power and a valuable center of commerce for the trade of spices and grain.

In various Italian dialects, maccarone refers to a fine dough or paste and the macaron is so named because of the fine ground nuts, sugar and egg whites that form the structure of this cookie. All over Italy, there were numerous confections being created with egg whites and nuts, but it was in the different preparations of these delicacies that they were distinguished from one another.

 The macaron appears to have been introduced to France through the chefs of Catherine de Medici in 1533. She was married at that time to the duc d’Orleans, who in 1547, as Henry II, became the king of France. Supposedly the granddaughter of Catherine de Medici avoiding starvation by eating macarons in the town of Nancy, and in 1660, Louis XIV’s wedding showcased macarons. Over 100 years later, two Carmelite nuns locally known as the “Macaron Sisters” (Sister Marguerite and Sister Marie-Elisabeth) gained fame by paying for their housing through the baking and selling macarons while seeking asylum in Nancy during the French Revolution.

The modern macaron was introduced to France In the early 1900’s by Pierre Desfontaines, the grandson of Louis Ernest Ladurée. Pierre was the owner of the famous tearoom and pastry-shop Ladurée in Paris at the time, and he got the idea of placing a layer of chocolate ganache between two single macaron cookies while on a trip to Switzerland. These larger macarons, with flavored fillings quickly swept through Paris as well as the rest of France. Today, Ladurée sells upwards of 12,000 macarons daily, there is a macaron museum in Montmorillon, and French chefs continually compete for titles from who has the most unique macarons to mastering the classic macaron cookie recipe.

The macaron, with a variety of colors and exotic flavors often available, looks very much like a dainty tea sandwich. It is comprised of two delicate cookie halves, encasing a generous dollop of butter cream, ganache, caramel or fruit conserves, and then pressed together to form  arguably one of the pastry world’s finest creations.

Each macaron cookie halve should have a smooth, and perfectly thin skin with a slightly domed crust, rising from a base ‘foot’ that is ruffled and airy. The macaron’s skin of crust should teasingly offer only the faintest resistance to a soft, slightly chewy interior that is all at the same time, moist, light and airy.

A macaron’s filling should be firm and smooth, yet light enough to compliment the cookies without detracting from their flavor or texture. When you bite through a macaron, the filling should never overflow from between the cookies, nor should it ever leave a sticky residue. The amount of filling in a macaron should be almost equal in volume to that of the cookie itself. It should have a perfect balance of flavor, yet an obvious contrast to the texture of the cookies.

All that should be left after indulging in a macaron, save perhaps a lost crumb or two, is a delicious wisp of enlightenment. The macaron is a sublime understanding of balance in ingredients, textures, techniques, the arts and science; all coming together to form a gastronomic masterpiece.

The macaron is after all, a child of the Renaissance; a culinary marker that intellectual pursuits, and the European palate, had left the middle ages.

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