Sweet Sensation: The latest sugary craze trickles into town

Get ready sweet tooths, there’s a new dessert in town – well, sort of. Macarons, the signature cookie of Parisian bakery Ladurée, are popping up all over the place in the States – from blogs to bakeries to dessert menus, even Oprah is touting these delicious little treats. But here in St. Louis, this tasty trend from the heart of France is just beginning to trickle in.

Not to be confused with the more common – though entirely different – coconut macaroons, macarons (pronounced mak-uh-rōhn) are French sandwich cookies made of egg whites, granulated and powdered sugars and almond powder, as well as additives for flavor and color. When made right, they’re smooth and shiny on top, crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. Traditionally, ganache, jam or buttercream is sandwiched between two of these brightly colored cookies, adding a layer of gooey texture and generous depth of flavor.

Though macarons have been a staple in Paris for nearly 150 years, they began taking the coasts by storm just a few years ago. Today, you can hardly walk into a corner bakery in New York City, Chicago or California without encountering these adorable little wonders. However, due to their degree of difficulty, it’s taking a bit longer for them to make their way onto local menus.

What is it about these bite-sized pastries that makes them so difficult to pull off? First of all, they aren’t your typical last-minute dessert – macarons can require nearly as much planning as a black-tie wedding. “The advice of most cookbooks is to separate your eggs and then leave the egg whites to rest on the shelf for two or three days in order to reduce the acidity,” said Kakao’s Shannon Parker, who lets her egg whites sit for 48 hours in the fridge when she makes macarons for the local chocolatier. The process is less of an exact instruction than a result of personal trial and error. Katie Fitzgerald made macarons when she worked at The Raquet Club and is looking to add them to the lunch menu at Farmhaus, where she is currently the pastry chef. “I always, always, always use week-old egg whites, because they whip up better,” she noted. But Nathaniel Meads, pastry chef and owner of Fritz Pastry, a Chicago bakery known for its macarons, doesn’t let his egg whites sit out at all. Yet Parker said that anytime she has skipped this step, “it was a mess.” And so the confusion begins.

The next hoop to jump through is the ingredients. Though basic macaron batter calls for just four ingredients, this short list can work up quite a bill. Almond meal/flour sells for $12.99 per pound at Whole Foods (compared with $1.19 and $1.39 for organic whole-wheat pastry flour and white flour, respectively). This, along with the amount of work these cookies require, causes bakeries and restaurants to charge big prices for the bite-sized snack. The Bakery at The Ritz-Carlton in Clayton, for example, charges $2 per cookie, while Kakao sells its macarons for $1.50 apiece (Parker cuts down on the cost of ingredients by making her own almond flour). The price, Parker said, can be off-putting to customers. “You have to tell people what goes into them because they don’t look like much, so you have to give some education as to why they’re so expensive.”

Once all the ingredients for the recipe are in place, executing it is no piece of cake either. Intricate instructions can prove cumbersome at best – and downright maddening at worst. Since nearly all macaron recipes originated in France, the best ones include measurements in weight rather than volume. While you could pour over conversion tables, Parker advised against it due to what she calls macarons’ finicky nature. “If you’re going to do this with any kind of hope of making them work, you need to buy a scale,” she said.

Now let’s talk about that finicky nature. First, there is the folding of the almond powder into the meringue. Some recipes call for fancy methods like pressing the batter up onto the sides of a stainless steel bowl, scooping the batter from the bottom and turning it upside down several times, while others suggest seemingly simple tips and tricks for pulling off the complex task. All come with the same warning: Over-beat and they won’t set up, under-beat and your cookies will crack. “You really have to have an eye for it,” said Farmhaus’ Fitzgerald.

Once the almond powder is incorporated, hurdles still abound. Skill, good timing and a keen eye for baking are as essential to successfully executing these cookies as eggs are. Macarons won’t work if they’re too small or if they aren’t dried long enough before baking (even worse, drying times vary with the weather). Small tricks like tapping the baking sheet against the counter to help the cookie’s pied, or “little feet,” to form and doubling up on baking sheets to prevent the bottoms from burning are key, and uncontrollable factors such as a hot kitchen can send your perfect little cookies into a very mushy mess. Just in case that doesn’t scare you off, cooking times – and temperatures – can vary with each batch.

OK, we get it: You have to be some sort of pastry magician to pull off this Mount Kilimanjaro of desserts. But the innovative culinary minds here in town aren’t known for shying away from a challenge, and macarons are no exception. At The Ritz, executive pastry chef Simone Faure has each new cook at the French-style bakery go through macaron 101. The reason is simple: “When my plane lands in France, I run to Ladurée and grab macarons as fast as I can; they’re so simple and so good,” Faure said. “When guests taste them, maybe they won’t know the difference [between house-made and bought macarons], but I will.”

At Mike Shannon’s Steaks and Seafood, pastry chef Philippe Aufret, a French native, has toyed with several versions of the Parisian pastry for the downtown restaurant’s dessert menu. Originally plating a single, traditional almond macaron, Aufret later sandwiched vanilla crème between two cookies and served them with a raspberry coulis and fresh raspberries. In November, he changed up the dish once again, creating a dessert sampler that features five thoughtful macaron flavors: pistachio with buttercream, chocolate with vanilla-chocolate ganache, caramel with house-made caramel, spiced bread with French buttercream and house-made orange marmalade, and lemon with a lemon cream. The dish has been a hit with guests.

Eric Kelly also tried his hand at macarons at Scape American Bistro, where he is executive chef. For the Valencia Macarons he had on the dessert menu last year, Kelley sandwiched blood orange gelato between two traditional house-made chocolate macarons. The tart blood orange with the rich chocolate cookie “makes you feel like you’re eating a Tootsie Roll,” Kelly said.

Meanwhile, over at Cielo at The Four Seasons Hotel, a Chocolate Amaretti Cookie Sandwich was one of the most popular choices on the restaurant’s dessert menu this summer. A play on the childhood favorite, the dish was a rich yet light sandwich of house-made vanilla ice cream smashed between two delicate but chewy jumbo hazelnut macarons. Though it’s no longer on the restaurant’s dessert menu, assistant pastry chef Peter Whitley will still make it upon request for large parties. He also often sends traditional, house-made macarons to diners after their meals as a compliment from the kitchen.

The question must be asked: If a group of local pastry chefs have the talent – not to mention the courage – to take on these pesky little pastries, why aren’t macarons on more dessert menus and in more bakery cases around town? An unfamiliarity with them is certainly a factor. Ask for macarons at most local bakeries and restaurants, and more often than not, they assume you’re talking about the coconut version – trust us, researching this story took a lot of explaining. Ask the average dessert-lover about them, and you’re likely to garner more than a few bewildered stares. Combine that with the hefty price tag, and it’s easy to see why macarons haven’t spread with quite the same force as the cupcake revolution.

The good news: It’s not impossible. At Chicago’s Fritz Pastry, two people churn out 250 macarons a day in anywhere from nine to 13 flavors, which are then sold for 75 cents per cookie. The staff has whittled the entire process down to just two hours, Meades said, “from piping to baking to filling to putting them away.” On slow days, he sells 125 to 150 of these brightly colored treats, proving that it is possible to make macarons work. But even he admitted that it’s not easy. “If you want to add [macarons] to your business, be prepared,” Meades said. “Have recipes tested and retested so that nothing can go wrong – and then expect something to go wrong.” As fans of these delectable little treats, we’re hoping more local chefs will give it a shot.

Where can you find macarons around town? These local bakeries and restaurants offer the tasty treat.

Bittersweet Bakery
2200 Gravois Ave., Soulard
House-made, available upon request with advance notice

999 N. Second St., St. Louis
House-made traditional macarons and Amaretti Cookie Sandwich dessert available by request for large parties with advance notice

Colleen’s Cookies
7337 Forsyth Blvd.,
University City
House-made; available by special order with 1 to 2 days notice

Cravings Gourmet Desserts
8149 Big Bend Blvd.,
Webster Groves
House-made, available daily

1535 S. Eighth St., St. Louis
House-made; available upon request with advance notice

2301 S. Jefferson Ave.,
St. Louis
7272 Manchester Road, Maplewood (opening soon)
House-made; available occasionally and by request with advance notice

La Bonne Bouchée
12344 Olive Blvd.,
Creve Coeur
Imported; available daily

Mike Shannon’s Steaks and Seafoods
620 Market St., St. Louis
House-made dessert sampler plate; available daily

Rue Lafayette
2026 Lafayette Ave., St. Louis
Imported; available daily

The Bakery at The Ritz-Carlton
100 Carondelet Plaza, Clayton
314.863.6300, x. 490
House-made; available daily

Mastering the Macaron
Even the most experienced bakers can get tripped up making macarons, but keep trying – the more you make them, the better you’ll get. Here, a few insider tips for tasteful execution.

Buying a kitchen scale is essential to executing macarons. They are available at any kitchen supply store and range from $15 to $65.

A pastry bag with a No. 807 tip is best for piping your macarons.

Avoid cornstarch in all your ingredients, from the almond meal/flour to the sugar and flavorings, as it can cause the pastry to crack.

Baking times vary greatly between ovens. Think of the baking time as more of a process than a rule – keep your oven light on and pay attention.

Store your almond flour/meal in the freezer, as it goes rancid quickly. Of course, you can always buy fresh almonds and grind them in a food processor instead.

Once you have mastered the technique, think of macarons as a blank canvas. You can create any flavor combination imaginable with these snazzy little sandwiches, from peanut butter and jelly to carrot cake and cream cheese to strawberries and cream.

Don’t feel like making ganache or buttercream? Chances are you already have the makings for a quick and delicious filling right in your kitchen. Sorbet, ice cream, jam, peanut butter, Nutella, cream cheese and lemon curd can all be used as easy go-to fillings.