Wait, I hear you saying, isn't 'macaron' just the fancy French spelling for 'macaroon'? And if so, where's the coconut? We all know the American conception of macaroons, surely - little misshapen mounds of sticky coconut baked into a moist mass everyone insists on calling a cookie. When I had the good fortune to be allowed into a bakery as a kid, I stayed as far away from the macaroons as possible - they were definitely not crunchy yet also not really soft, incredibly sweet but still somehow lacking taste, and they always required an inordinate amount of chewing to break down all those woody coconut shreds. They were definitely not on my hit list and I'm reasonably certain that to this day only the most die-hard of coconut fans eat them regularly. But anyway, back to the question. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that macaroons and macarons are actually one and the same - they stem from the same parent confectionary and share the same root in their name. Technically, they are the same cookie. Or are they?
History has conflicting stories on the origin of the macaro(o)n. Most people seem to agree that the original item comes from Italy - possibly from the Veneto region, but nobody's sure - and baked for the first time around the 14th or 15th century. Linguistically the macaro(o)n shares the same root as the word for a particular kind of elbow-shaped pasta, which interestingly used to be the catch-all term in Italian for anything made from a flour-and-water paste, a.k.a. macaroni or maccheroni. Maccarone (from the Venetian dialect) were given their name because they were based also based on a paste, this one being comprised of egg whites and nuts. Maccarone weren't so much a recipe for a cookie as a type of preparation, actually; across Italy many different kinds of egg-white-and-nut confections surfaced, including almond-based amaretti and ricciarelli as well as similar things made with pistachios, hazelnuts, pine nuts and walnuts.
So naturally for someone food-obsessed like me, the logical step after discovering macarons and tasting a couple of prototypes was to attempt to make my own. Macarons are in fact notoriously difficult to make: too airy and they dry out and crumble, too dense and they become tough and gluey. The tops must be smooth and lightly domed, the bottoms should be dimpled and airy with ruffled 'feet', the filling should be soft and flavorful and the whole thing pleasantly chewy. Luckily I found some words of advice from a more seasoned macaron baker, so I knew to watch for things like the batter texture and the formation of a skin. The macarons I produced were naturally not perfect by any means - the tops could have been a little smoother, the feet a little more uniform, the centers a little more tender - but all things considered they weren't bad, and I'm particularly fond of their sporty little feet and satisfying crunch. The thing I was least satisfied with, however, was the filling - buttercream is traditional, as it's dense and firm enough to support the two cookie halves, but the result I got when paired with the macarons was verging on almost inedibly sweet. I also experimented with the other, less-sweet possibilities - a tangy blood orange curd (which worked very nicely), tart raspberry preserves, and a lightly-sweetened creme-fraiche and yogurt mixture (based on a macaron filling from Gordon Ramsay) which unfortunately ended up too soft and runny to sit still between the cookies. In any case, there's still a lot of experimenting to be done, and since I doubt I'll be prostrating myself in front of Pierre Hermé to beg for his secrets anytime soon, I'll just have to assume that practice makes perfect!
Basic Macaron Batter
Source: based on Clement's recipe here. He recommends that you mix the egg whites and almond mixture together gently until it 'flows like magma', or until a peak in the batter will slowly sink back down to a flat surface.
1 1/4 cups icing/powdered sugar
4 oz (1 cup) almond flour or finely ground almonds (if grinding yourself add some of the icing sugar to keep them from getting gummy)
2 large egg whites
pinch of salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon extract of choice: almond, vanilla, orange, lemon, pistachio... (optional)
few drops food coloring (optional)
On three pieces of parchment, trace 1-inch (2.5 cm) circles about 2 inches apart. Flip each sheet over and place on baking sheets.
Sift almond flour and icing sugar together into a bowl. In a large clean, dry bowl whip the egg whites with salt on medium speed until foamy. Increase the speed to high and gradually add granulated sugar, extract and coloring (if using). Continue to whip to stiff peaks – the whites should be firm and shiny.
With a rubber spatula, fold in the icing sugar mixture into the egg whites until completely incorporated. The mixture should be shiny and ‘flow like magma.’ When small peaks dissolve to a flat surface, stop mixing.
Fit a piping bag with a 3/8-inch (1 cm) round tip, or take a medium-sized plastic sandwich baggie and snip off one corner. Fill the piping bag or baggie and pipe the batter onto the baking sheets, in the previously drawn circles (I found spiraling out from the center to work best). Tap the underside of the baking sheet to remove air bubbles. Let dry at room temperature for 1 or 2 hours to allow skins to form.
Heat the oven to 160C/325F and bake for 10 to 11 minutes, or until set and firm on top. Rotate the baking sheets after 5 minutes for even baking.
Remove macarons from oven and transfer parchment to a cooling rack. When cool, slide a metal offset spatula or pairing knife underneath the macaron to remove from parchment.
Pair macarons of similar size, and pipe about ½ tsp of the filling onto one of the macarons. Sandwich macarons, and refrigerate to allow flavours to blend together. Bring back to room temperature before serving.
Rounded 1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup water
1 1/3 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 sticks (2 cups) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces and softened
2 teaspoons vanilla or other extract
Meanwhile, put thermometer into sugar syrup and continue boiling until syrup registers 238 to 242°F. Immediately remove from heat and, with mixer at high speed, slowly pour hot syrup in a thin stream down side of bowl into whites, beating constantly. Beat, scraping down side of bowl with a rubber spatula, until meringue is cool to the touch, about 10 minutes in a standing mixer or 15 with a handheld. (It is important that meringue is properly cooled before proceeding.)
With mixer at medium speed, gradually add butter 1 piece at a time, beating well after each addition until incorporated. (Buttercream will look soupy after some butter is added if meringue is still warm. If so, briefly chill bottom of bowl in a large bowl filled with ice water for a few seconds before continuing to beat in remaining butter.) Continue beating until buttercream is smooth. (Mixture may look curdled before all of butter is added but will come back together by the time beating is finished.) Add vanilla and beat 1 minute more.Bittersweet Chocolate Filling
1/2 cup (4oz) unsalted butter, diced
Bring the cream just to a boil in a medium saucepan (or in the microwave). Remove the pan from the heat. Add the chocolate and butter and whisk until smooth. Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate covered, for at least 30 minutes, or until the filling is firm enough to hold its shape when spread.
Zest from 6 blood oranges (if blood oranges are unavailable, use any type of tangerines or clementines)
8 ounces blood orange juice, strained (6-8 oranges or tangerines)
3/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
8 ounces butter
few drops red food coloring (optional)
Bring a pot of water to a simmer. In a bowl fitted atop the pot, combine eggs, sugar, yolks, zest and vanilla. Whisk well until mixture starts to warm. Add orange juice and allow to thicken, whisking occasionally. When mixture coats the back of a spoon thickly, it is ready.
Take off the heat and purée it well with an immersion blender and pass it through a fine-meshed strainer. Allow to cool to room temperature. Add butter in pieces and optional red food coloring and whisk or blend with the immersion blender until smooth.