Everyone is looking for the new cupcake. Ever since the cupcake craze seems to have calmed down (after populating nearly every corner of the country with dedicated cupcakeries), food experts, trend analysts and next-it-thing-seeking foodies have been anxiously anticipating what will be the heir apparent to the throne of exalted confections.
It may still be a little too early to tell, but the macaron—a French sandwich cookie/biscuit that is as eye-catching as it is palate-pleasing—seems to be a strong contender.
The macaron (not to be confused with the macaroon, a baked coconut cookie) is a predominantly French confection consisting of two layers of light meringue-based cookie filled with ganache, buttercream or jam.
Traditional flavors include chocolate, vanilla, raspberry and pistachio, though as the dainty treat has crossed the pond and gained footing in trend- driven cosmopolitan North American cities like New York and Toronto, funky flavors like green matcha, passionfruit and maple bacon are also available (because Americans just HAVE to put bacon on everything).
Where cupcakes are dense and hearty and pretty much anyone willing to pick up a spatula can make them, macarons are a bit more finicky. (Hey, they’re French, what else would you expect?)
“Macarons are certainly a rising trend—but the trick is, they're hard to make perfectly,” says Maggie Hoffman, founding editor of Serious Eats: Drinks and co-editor of Serious Eats: Sweets. “They're not all that forgiving—no one wants a macaron with huge bubbles, or not enough filling, or too much sugar.”
This delicate dessert is difficult to make and easy to ruin, meaning that only an elite breed of patissier will be able to appropriately pull them off. And it will be exactly that limited elite appeal that could drive this quarter-sized cookie to cupcake-sized proportions.
After all, cupcakes are more approachable (who can forget bringing them to school for birthdays?) --and its popularity came, in part, from dressing up a comfort food with fancy icings and unusual filings.
“Macarons are faddish and stupid. So were cupcakes, but they were just the right amount of faddish and stupid. Do we really need something even MORE faddish and stupid?” asks Sarah Cox, editor of Curbed Detroit (of the Curbed Network, which also produces Eater). “…any idiot can make a cupcake,” she continues. “But macarons... now that is not the people's dessert.”
Deputy editor of Eater National Paula Forbes echoes that sentiment about the colorful cookie (though a little less, er, colorfully): “Do we really want another cupcake? If anything can get there, it's the macaron: it's small, colorful, and delicious. But is that kind of ubiquity beneficial to a treat or will it merely dilute it, make it less special? Me, I'm sticking with solid, reliable pie.”
Right now, macaron bakeries (macaroniers…because “macaroneries” just doesn’t have the same ring to it) are taking off in New York, Toronto, L.A., and perhaps a bit less predictably, Minneapolis. Nationally-visible media outlets Serious Eats and the New York Times have each recently conducted Manhattan-based macaron tastings, collectively sampling hundreds of different bite-sized (and at upwards of $3 a pop, EXPENSIVE) macarons from roughly 30 different shops.
Both concur that Parisian import Maison Ladurée makes the best macarons, shipping them in straight from the source --in Paris. American-made macarons from Vendôme (sold at Saks Fifth Avenue) and Francois Payard Bakery also fared well in their taste tests.
Over in the foodies-who-know-know savvy city of Minneapolis, sweets blogger and dessert table designer Shauna Younge analyzes the growing popularity of the macaron in her hometown, from the unconventional flavors at Sweets Bakeshop (which include salted caramel and mint chocolate, as well as seasonal flavors like the recent cranberry cheesecake), to Cocoa & Fig located conveniently in the Minneapolis Skyway.
“French macarons, not be confused with macaroons, have all the appeal of cupcakes along with an air of sophistication and novelty to catapult them into ‘Next Big Thing’ territory,” Younge says. “With fillings like salted caramel, cranberry cheesecake, and white chocolate ganache, they're nearly impossible to resist.”
In early 2011, as yet another sure sign of the apotheosis of the macaron, Minneapolis-based retailer Target debuted their own version of the candy-colored French sandwich cookie under their affordable gourmet “Archer Farms” product line. And, like cupcakes, the multi-billion-dollar bridal industry is helping to popularize this pastry. “As a dessert table designer, my clients love how easily cookie shells can be customized to match the palette of their weddings, parties, and events. With more bakeries across the country specializing in macarons and mega-retailer Target adding them to their bakery shelves, it's only a matter of time before they become truly mainstream,” said Younge.
Another advantage that the macaron has in this competitive designer dessert climate is that it is naturally gluten-free, as there is no flour used in these almond paste-based treats. While Celiac sufferers are indeed rare, trends towards gluten-free diets are certainly not. Customizable in a cavalcade of colors and flavors, and infused with that quintessential French jeu d’esprit, the macaron is poised as the newest “it” pastry.
But don’t sound the death knell for cupcakes just yet; this is Jell-O meets crème brulee, which means you can have your cupcake and each your macaron too.