This post orignally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on February 22, 2006
In general, I am not one for window shopping, but when it comes to French patisseries, I’ve got my nose plastered to the glass. The displays are always breathtaking in these pastry shops – tiers of exquisite chocolates, boxed and bowed, tiny tarts filled with jewel-like fruits, tortes and gateaus layered with rich buttercreams and ganaches and simple but perfect croissants and pains au chocolat.
Yes, the displays are always extravagant, but in February, the month we most often visit Paris, the the patissiers outdo themselves. With Valentine’s Day on the docket, their window displays are designed to inspire true love, dreamy romance and massive sugar highs.
A block or two behind the small, family-run hotel where we like to stay is Gerard Mulot, a pastry shop par excellence that specializes in enticing its customers to up their caloric intake in the most elegant and expensive way possible. There are other fine patisseries in Paris, ofcourse – you can find raging debates on the Internet about the comparative value of Laduree, Dalloyau, Lenotre, and Pierre Herme, among others. Don’t follow my recommendations on this; one of the chief joys in life is testing them all for yourself.
As soon as we arrive in Paris, wee stroll around to Gerard Mulot to see what’s in the window. For the last couple of years, the pastry indulgence that has tugged on my heart strings is not a gooey cake, custardy tart or layered puff pastry creation but something much more humble, at least on its face – the French sandwich cookie called the macaroon (or macaron.)
Macaroons, in France, are are not the mountains of chewy coconut that we think of over here, although they are remotely related through the use of whipped egg whites and absence of flour. French macaroons are pastel colored meringues sandwiched with buttercream or ganache. They come in all flavors – chocolate, almond, lemon, pistachio, raspberry, caramel, champagne, violet, basil-lime, wherever the impulse of the patissier takes him.
These cookies are sensationally delicious -chewy, crispy, creamy, fudgy, melt-in-your-mouth-wonderful. They are beautiful too – it’s hard not to be happy looking at them piled up in a store window, their gorgeous, whimsical colors glowing behind the glass. This year Gérard Mulot had a huge cone of them towering over the other sweets in the display like a multicolored croquembouche or an edible Christmas tree with lights ablaze. Our first night in town, I skipped dessert at dinner and headed back to the hotel with a box of macaroons instead.
Made from egg white meringue, ground almonds, sugar, and various flavorings, macaroons have a long history in france but authorship of the modern multi hued sandwich cookie is claimed by Ladurée, who began making them early in the 20th century. Today their chefs invent a new flavor every year and sell 10,000 a day (that’s 8 million per year.)
Eight million macaroons in Paris – just from one bakery! – and none in Bloomington. It hardly seemed fair. From my hotel I e-mailed David Fletcher, one of the pastry chefs at BLU Culinary Arts, and begged. Though his partner, Scott Jackman, accused me of suffering from Franco-euphoria, within days of my return they had a box of pistachio macaroons for me. Sans green food coloring they weren’t as vibrant as their French cousins, but they were nuttier and even more delicious. You can make them yourself, or head to Harmony School thisSaturday, where David and Scott will be selling them (as well as chocolate and caramel versions!) at the Winter Farmers Market. Just be sure you get there before I do.
Click here for more on the history of the Macaroon
(From Nigella Lawson, “How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking,” Hyperion, 2001.)
For the macaroons:
5/8 cup or 3 ounces pistachios
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 large egg whites
1 tablespoon sugar
For the buttercream:
1/4 cup or 2 ounces pistachios
1 2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or wax paper.
Make the macaroons:
Grind the pistachios in a food processor with confectioners’ sugar until as fine as dust. Whisk the egg whites until fairly stiff, but not dry. Sprinkle with sugar and whisk until very stiff. Fold the whites into the pistachio-sugar dust and combine gently. Pipe small rounds (2 to 3 inches in diameter) onto your baking sheet using a plain 1/2-inch nozzle. Let them sit for about 10 minutes to form a skin. Then put them in the oven and cook for 10-12 minutes. They should be set, but not dried out. Remove from oven and let cool on the baking sheet.
Make the buttercream:
Grind the nuts and the sugar in the processor as before. Cream the butter, and continue creaming as you add the nut dust. Make sure you combine them well. Sandwich the macaroons together with the buttercream.
Makes about 20 cookies.