Published November 30, 2009
There are people who are mad for macaroons and then there are people who are mad for macarons. That’s because American macaroons and French macarons have about as much in common as do pâté and apple pie.
American macaroons are holiday treats, gloriously dense amalgams of shredded or flaked coconut, egg white and sugar, often dipped in or drizzled with chocolate. Popular year round, French macarons are small, delicate, glossy confections of varied complexions. They’re pink, green, blue, yellow, brown, lavender, even black. And that’s what attracted Soraiya Nagree of Luxe Sweets in Austin, Texas to them in the first place.
“I saw this rainbow of colors in pastry shop windows,” says Nagree of a family trip to Paris when she was just ten. “Right then I knew I would do something with sweets. Not necessarily French pastries, but definitely with sweets. I wanted to make those macarons.”
While macarons often inspire love at first bite, most people are satisfied with just eating them. Nagree left a career in chemical engineering to pursue perfecting them.
Macarons are shaped like Nilla Wafers but the similarity ends there. For starters, macarons are technically meringues. Their lustrous, paper-thin tops curve down into a narrow ruffled edge called a “foot.” The smooth brightly-hued disks are then sandwiched around a rich ganache (a mixture of butter, cream and chocolate), buttercream or jam. With one bite the crisp dome collapses into an airy, slightly chewy meringue that in turn yields the center’s silky filling. For some, it is the ultimate cookie.
“They’re a feast for your mouth as well as you eyes,” says Nagree. And judging from their royal origins, they’re meant to be.
Some historians claim that Catherine de Medici’s Italian pastry chefs brought macarons to France in 1533 when she married Henry II. In the 1600s members of the Dalloyau family - whose descendants today run the family “gastronomy” house, a combination restaurant/tea room/caterer/shop in Paris - served macarons to Louis XIV at Versailles.
During the French Revolution in 1789, two Benedictine nuns seeking asylum paid for their housing by baking and selling macarons, becoming known as the “Macaron Sisters.” These were all single-layer meringue cookies, not today’s double-decker variety. Credit for inventing that goes to Pierre Desfontaines. In 1930, this descendent of the founder of the Parisian luxury patisserie, Ladurée, sandwiched two macarons with ganache, creating the cookie, and inspiring its fanatical following. Today, Ladurée sells 15,000 macarons per day.
When her husband’s job forced a move to Austin, Nagree took off the lab coat and picked up a whisk, enrolling in the Texas Culinary Academy, which is associated with the renowned French cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu.
Halfway through cooking school, Nagree started her company by making Christmas peppermint bark. White Callebaut chocolate and mint-infused semi-sweet chocolate topped with cracked peppermint candies, which she still offers. But “macarons were my passion project,” she says. Her scientific dedication to precision served her well as they proved to be a challenge.
Macarons are made with a simple recipe built around just four ingredients: confectioner’s sugar, egg whites, ground almonds, and granulated sugar. The egg whites are left to sit overnight, unrefrigerated, to thicken, and then whipped with the granulated sugar. The confectioner’s sugar and almonds are ground together and folded in to the egg mixture and, Voila, macarons.
But it’s not so simple.
“There were so many variables: how to deal with the egg whites; temperature; weather; how long to rest the dough; what kind of oven you’re baking in. I ruined whole batches again and again," says Nagree, and she knew what she was doing. She credits her chemical engineering background with giving her “a way to think about making them, to go step-by-step and analyze what went wrong.”
If it’s too humid, macarons lose their “feet,” explains Nagree. “A footless macaron, well, it’s just not the same thing.” If the meringue is too thick the cookies are lumpy. If it’s too thin the tops crack and you also lose the feet. “We’d do the exact same thing and one week they’d be fine and the next, not.”
Nagree tweaked and combined recipes. After eighteen months of failures and experiments, she finally got it right. The Texas native now supplies macarons to Austin cafes and coffee shops, and sells them on-line at “luxesweets.com.”
“What’s best about them is the endless flavor combinations,” she says. And what adds to their allure is that flavors vary by store and season. In the 90s, Ladurée hired pastry legend Pierre Hermé to create new flavors, spurring a macaron resurgence. (That’s like getting Derek Jeter to play in your summer softball league.) Hermé introduced flavors like lime-basil, violet-cassis, licorice, jasmine mango, bergamot and anise, which were sold alongside the classics like chocolate, pistachio, raspberry, coffee and vanilla.
Inspired by Ladurée, Nagree creates custom macarons for weddings. Bergamot and Vanilla for a green and ivory wedding, Rose with rose-infused butter cream filling for a pink one, Passion Fruit and Vanilla for a purple and ivory one and Cardamom Honey Orange and Chocolate for a green and brown themed one.
“I want them to look more than amazing. I want my macarons to make you feel as if you’re walking down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. I want them to be that perfect,” she says. If you can’t get to Paris, Austin’s a lot closer. And it sure is friendly.