What is a Macaron?

New York’s macaron mania shows no signs of abating, so with our fellow aficionados in mind, ForknPlate set out to find Manhattan’s best. We learned some things along the way that you might like to know, too.

First, let’s clarify what we’re talking about: a macaron (pronounced mah-kah-ROHN, with a nasal inflection on the last syllable) is not to be confused with a macaroon, the sticky coconut confection often consumed during Passover.

Macarons, as a form of almond cookie, can be traced back to the Crusades, but our story begins with the immediate precursor to the ubiquitous, ganache-filled, pastel puffs that have ignited a worldwide craze.  These “original”  French macarons date from 1792, when two Benedictine nuns took refuge in the small town of Nancy to escape the anti-religious fervor of post-revolutionary France.  To support themselves, they began selling cookies made from ground almonds, egg whites and sugar according to a secret recipe that has been passed down for generations.

Macarons de Nancy are flat with a delicate, meringue-like consistency — crisp on the outside and slightly soft at the center.  They are still available today at La Maison des Soeurs Macarons (House of the Macaron Sisters), now baked by Nicolas Génot, who works alone in a locked kitchen to maintain security.

Louis-Ernest Ladurée opened his first Parisian bakery on the Rue Royale in 1862.  The official history has it that his grandson devised the modern, double-decker macaron sandwich in 1930 by putting two wafers together with a buttercream filling.  Ladurée has become a worldwide empire, but its product remains nearly the same to this day — elegant, traditional and somewhat “vieux jeu” compared with that of the new generation of “macaroniers.”

Perhaps nobody epitomizes the radical shift in macaron preparation more than Pierre Hermé, the mad genius of the Paris dessert scene.  The fourth-generation descendant of distinguished Alsatian bakers, Hermé apprenticed as a teenager with the venerated patissier Gaston Lenotre and briefly worked at Ladurée before opening his own shop in 1998.  Credited with inventing the salted caramel macaron, Hermé’s unfettered imagination has since produced flavors like olive oil with mandarin orange, and foie gras.

Given such a wide range of options, what then defines the ideal macaron? The basics call for adding whipped egg whites to pulverized almonds to create the lofty, meringue-like texture. Fillings require high butter content and low moisture to prevent the shell from becoming soggy.  For Christina Ha of Macaron Parlour, a graduate of Hermé’s macaron-making program at Ecole Ferrandi, contrast and balance are the keys to perfection. “When you bite in, the first impression should be crispness that gradually gives in to the soft filling.”

“The priority is flavor,” she adds. “Pistachio must taste like true pistachio. Lemon must be tart, tangy and fresh.”

Like Hermé, Ha likes to experiment and have fun.  She uses various nut flours, as well as brown sugar, to make her shells and skillfully adapts flavors for American tastebuds.  Her Elvis contains peanut butter and banana, and her Cheetos™ variation features white chocolate ganache and crushed Cheetos™ sprinkles.  Both are more subtle than they sound.

Other than that, it is important to note that Macarons are notoriously perishable.  They are best enjoyed within three days.  Store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator and take them out at least an hour before serving to let them come to room temperature.

Now that you know what they are, want to know where to get the best in the city? Here’s our top 5 macarons in New York City.

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