Like the cupcake before it, the macaron, a French confection that resembles a pastel-colored sandwich cookie, is ready for its close-up.
It has been featured on film and television, in magazine articles and a new book called “I Love Macarons” by a Japanese pastry chef. Once the preserve of high-end French patisseries such as Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, macarons are showing up at retailers like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Starbucks. Even McDonald’s is selling a scaled-down version in its McCafés in France, backed by ads showing two hands holding the tiny treat like a hamburger.
Instead of celebrating, however, fans of the meringue-like pastry have been whipped into a frenzy.
“Macarons are not meant to be mainstream,” sniffs Laetitia Brock, a native of Paris who has been blogging about French culture from Washington for the past six years. When she got wind that Starbucks was offering macarons over the holidays, she ran out and purchased a boxed set. “Very mushy,” she concluded, after a few bites.
Her negative blog post about the trend elicited a tempest over the tea cake.
“I saw them at the McCafé on the Champs-Élysées—just down the street from Ladurée! What is the world coming to?!?” commented Allison Lightwine, using the screen name La Mom.
“It was so weird to see these delicate, very French pastries in something that’s so American. It’s kind of like if you showed up in a tuxedo to a baseball game, it was so out of place,” Ms. Lightwine, who writes a blog about being an American mom in Paris, said in an interview.
The word macaron comes from “the Italian maccherone and the Venetian macarone (meaning fine paste), from which macaroni is also derived,” says Larousse Gastronomique, the encyclopedia of French cooking. Various sources trace the roots of the pastry to an Italian recipe from the Renaissance or a group of French monks who modeled the dessert after the shape of their own belly buttons.
More recently, the macaron has been a hallmark of Ladurée, a small, 148-year-old chain of Parisian tea salons and pastry shops that packs its macarons in small pastel-colored boxes.
Macarons are made with egg whites, ground almonds and sugar. Their hard outer shells are sandwiched together with a soft creamy center that can consist of anything from fruit purée to chocolate ganache. Macarons, pronounced mack-ah-rohn, typically come in fruit flavors, pistachio, chocolate and sometimes more exotic varieties such as violet, foie gras and white truffle. The English spelling is “macaroon,” but the French confection is not to be confused with the dense chewy treat made with sweetened coconut
“People think of them like cookies, but they are much more delicate and exciting than a cookie—so crunchy on the outside and so soft in the center, like a little pastry,” says François Payard, a third-generation pastry chef from France who owns an eponymous patisserie in a loft-like space in Manhattan.
The perfect macaron takes time, but has a short shelf life, he says. After whipping, baking and stuffing the macarons, he pops them into the refrigerator for 24 hours to achieve the right consistency. He then lets them sit out for at least an hour, so the filling isn’t too cold. He tosses any that don’t sell in a few days.
“They’re sort of weightless, with an airy density. When you take a bite into a macaron, it should be like a meringue, with a soft ending,” says Susannah Chen, who writes about food trends for online magazine YumSugar.com and is a self-described macaron snob. “They’re meant to be eaten fresh, and I don’t see how that’s possible with large-scale chains or corporations where they have to go through so many channels before they hit shelves.”
Clémence Trancart, a press-relations manager in Paris, stopped by the original Ladurée on Rue Royale recently to pick up a box of rose, lemon and chocolate macarons for an afternoon snack with friends. The dessert “is very refined and elegant. That’s why I wouldn’t go to McDo for it,” she said, using the French nickname for McDonald’s. “It’s the little French treat.”
McDonald’s started selling macarons in its McCafés—the coffee and pastry bars located inside regular McDonald’s restaurants—in France in 2007. The burger chain’s macarons are shipped frozen to the restaurants from Château Blanc, a subsidiary of Groupe Holder, Ladurée’s parent company. Despite the common corporate parentage, the two versions use different recipes.
McDonald’s recently plastered the Paris metro with ads for its macarons. Some Parisians bit.
On a recent day, Olivier Cartier, a French salesman, ordered a pistachio macaron and a cappuccino at a Parisian McDonald’s. “It’s the trend,” he says, explaining that he’s tried macarons from mainstream supermarkets and bakeries and that McDonald’s version compares well.
High-end macarons leave him cold. “I’m not sure if there’s a big difference,” he says. “And then some of their flavors like foie gras are bizarre.”
McDonald’s says its macarons are selling well. At roughly $1.25 each, they are about half the price of the comparably sized upscale version and are aimed at a different audience, McDonald’s says. “Our McCafé offer is made for everyday small breaks,” says McDonald’s France spokeswoman Caroline Deleuze.
Pierre Hermé, France’s pre-eminent macaron chef, says he’s neither for nor against macarons’ newfound popularity but says he hasn’t tried the McDonald’s version. “There’s macaron, and then there’s macaron.”
In Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film “Marie Antoinette,” the young queen offered macarons to the Austrian ambassador. Macarons have since appeared in Oprah Winfrey’s “O” magazine, on cooking shows, in an episode of “Gossip Girl” and in wedding magazines. “I Love Macarons,” the new book written by Japanese pastry chef Hisako Ogita, provides detailed instructions on how to make the treat at home. Adour restaurants, located in the St. Regis hotels in New York and Washington, are offering macaron-making classes in March and recently began selling the treats.
“Macarons are gaining traction in the States because they possess all the attributes of a cupcake: They come in different colors and flavors, and they’re indulgent, but they won’t wreck your calorie count for the day,” YumSugar’s Ms. Chen says, explaining that she doesn’t want to see macarons proliferate unless they’re done right.
She sampled the boxed macarons Starbucks was selling in some stores in December and was unimpressed. They were dry, she said, and the pistachio-flavored kind tasted like Froot Loops.
“It’s hard to do something mass-produced because they’re so delicate,” Starbucks spokeswoman Lisa Passé said, adding that the company hasn’t yet decided whether to bring back the offering, which was supplied by Château Blanc.
Some macaron devotees see a silver lining to the popularization of the French delicacies. Joe Mallozzi, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based producer for a science-fiction television show, says he fell in love with macarons during a trip to Paris several years ago. His fondest hope: “Maybe people will stop calling them ‘macaroons.’ ”