The French Macaron
I still remember the first time I saw a macaron. Tucked into a side street in a small Ecuadorian town was an authentic French bakery that locals raved about to me. Accordion music played as a backing track to the indistinguishable French conversations that wafted out from the kitchen. In between the familiar fluffy croissants, bear claws and fine cheeses, there it sat. A multi-colored menagerie of these delicacies sat with a section of their own.
“The French just put food dye on two Oreos and call it fancy?” I said to my brother.
A minute or two later, I took my first bite of a macaron (green, of course), and much to my server’s delight quickly became bewildered. The soft but crunchy shell with its creamy filling was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. I was hooked and had to know more.
Likely brought to France from Italy around the 17th century, the macaron has been around since at least the eighth century. Notoriously difficult to make, these tiny, unassuming sweets quickly became a delicacy only the upper-class could afford. Hardly “filling” or nutritious, macarons could frequently cost as much as a full-fledged meal—hardly feasible for the working class in the 1700s. The high-cost macrons come from the long-involved process of making them. The typical first step is to make “aged egg whites.” These aged egg whites have less moisture and make it easier to maintain the perfect level of humidity.
Painstakingly crafted out of meringue (whipped egg whites), these airy yet crispy snacks can dissolve into mush with the slightest bit of too much moisture. The difficulty of managing humidity led to two different main methods of production. The typical French technique is to whisk the egg whites into a firm meringue, then slowly fold in the finely ground sugar and almonds. The slow folding in of the ingredients is performed meticulously to rid it of as much air as needed.
Baked precisely under intense watch, the macarons must be perfectly level and cooked to ensure a proper “ruffled ridge” along the inner circle of the snack. Many artisan bakers won’t even make macarons if the weather is too humid! Only the most affluent of people could afford this light, cute cookie that is known as a problematic challenge to bakers.
Fast forward to today, and these delicate works of culinary art are a worldwide phenomenon. From the streets of Ecuador to downtown Fort Collins, I see these little colored delights everywhere I travel. To this day, I still feel the same bewilderment of these tiny marvels every time I bite into one.