A decade ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find macarons in the Bay Area, let alone in the 650. If you mentioned macarons to most people, they’d think you meant a macaroon — the coconut cookie popular at Passover — or that you were trying to be fancy when what you should have said was “French macaroon.”
Fortunately, in the past couple of years, this luscious treat with a crispy outside and soft, almost-bonbon-like inside has found its way out of San Francisco and down the Peninsula. Once available only in a few shops in the city or as a mignardise in fine-dining restaurants, macarons have (finally!) gone mainstream. You can find them in bakeries along the Peninsula, from Pamplemousse in Redwood City to Whole Foods in Los Altos. Macarons have even earned their own food holiday: yes, today is Macaron Day!
Macarons are the marriage — or perhaps, more appropriately, menage à trois — of two almond-meringue “cookies” and buttercream, ganache, caramel, or jam filling. I’m reluctant to use the word “cookie” here, because les macarons are nothing like cookies to me. They’re more like a small dessert that layers both flavors and textures: a crispy exterior that cracks as you bite it, exposes a soft almond meringue, leading you into a creamy or jammy filling, and then back through the meringue soft/crispy combination again. And all of this is achieved in a two-bite (three, if you’re dainty) experience.
Flavor combinations, when executed well, incorporate both sweet and bitter or savory. For example, Chantal Guillon’s Strawberry Balsamic macaron brings together the flavor of almond in the meringue, with the sweet-tart flavor of a fresh strawberry-balsmaic vinegar buttercream. Macarons are a sensual experience, so as with a well-made chocolate bonbon, take your time. Linger a moment and savor the experience before taking that next bite.
My first experience of macarons was during a business trip to Paris, but I didn’t truly appreciate them until I took a professional class in the art of making macarons at L’École Lenôtre in 2004. During the three-day class, our small group learned the recipes for 25 flavors of macarons — from the basic vanilla to the herbal lemon verbena to the earthy chestnut. Here’s an excerpt from my old blog that summarized what I learned during that class:
“So what’s the secret to good macaroons? No secret, but as with most things in pastry it’s about practice, experience, and paying attention to the details. You can’t mix the batter too much or too little; it should be smooth and shiny. You have to pipe the batter to the right size and do so consistently so that the baking is even. You have to have the oven temperature just right and vent the oven at the right time. Plus, your fillings should be flavorful and fresh.”
The advice remains the same for home cooks. You can make macarons at home, and they aren’t difficult! In my experience, knowing your oven — temperature and timing — is essential to making a good meringue. Fillings are limited only by your imagination. Looking for a place to start? How about chocolate macarons with chocolate or caramel fillings? This home-recipe version from French master patissier Pierre Herme is one of my favorites; it appeared in Bon Appetit Magazine in 2001. (Interesting side note: it took me awhile to find the link to this article because Bon Appetit titled the recipe “Chocolate Macaroons.”)
If you’re not ready to attempt making macarons on your own, but still want to indulge in Macaron Day, visit Chantal Guillon in Palo Alto for some of the most authentic and delicious macarons on the Peninsula. Their macarons are made in the Hayes Valley location and delivered to the Palo Alto shop daily. The counter staff are happy to help you choose an assortment from the dozen or so classic and seaonsal flavors available. Right now I’m loving the Chocolate-Coconut and the Passion Fruit.
What about you? Have you made macarons at home or found a favorite place to buy macarons? Give a shoutout for your favorite macaron bakers or recipes in the comments.