Do you care who invented the macaroon? Or who makes the best macaroons in the world? Frankly, I wouldn’t blame you if you said you didn’t give a damn. But you should know that as macaroon-mania has devoured the world, these are the subjects of heated global controversy.
First, what exactly is a macaroon? For people of my generation, a macaroon is a kind of hard cookie made from almonds with a coconut flavour. In much of south India, the most famous macaroon is the cashew version that Tuticorin is renowned for.
But those are not the macaroons that cause all the fuss. The modern macaroon is a light cookie made from almond paste, egg white and sugar. The most famous macaroons are the double-deckers which are really two separate macaroons turned into a sandwich with a creamy filling. Macaroons can come in many different colours (yellow, purple, indigo, red, brown, etc.). And the filling uses such traditional ingredients as chocolate, vanilla and fruits as well as more avant-garde ones: foie gras, crushed rose petals, etc.
The battle over the origin of the macaroon is the usual France v/s Italy conflict. The Italians have always claimed that the French stole their cuisine. They say that when Catherine de’ Medici of Florence married Henri II of France in 1533 she took Italian cooks with her. Apparently, these Italian cooks taught the French how to cook. (Presumably, they also took all of Italy’s cuisine secrets with them because Italian food, as delicious as it is, now has little of the sophistication of French haute cuisine.)
As the macaroon has become a global cult, the Italians have added it to the list of dishes that they say Catherine’s cooks took along with them. There might be something to this claim. The original macaroon, the hard meringue-based cookie, owes a little to the Italian amaretti, an almond biscuit.
But the modern macaroon is a vast improvement on the amaretti. The French, who discount the Catherine de’ Medici theory, give the credit for its invention to two nuns in the city of Nancy, who created a macaroon-like pastry in 1792 to get around dietary rules prohibiting the consumption of meat. (Why they needed to invent a new vegetarian dessert is not entirely clear. If the intention was only to avoid meat, there were already hundreds of vegetarian pastries.)
The modern macaroon, however, owes its popularity to a single Paris restaurant: Ladurée. The original Ladurée opened on the Rue Royale in Paris in 1862. It was, and is, a great Paris institution but its reputation for macaroons dates only to the 1930s. That was when Ladurée started selling the double-deckers that we know as the modern macaroon. Did it invent them? Ladurée says it did. But there are counter claims.
Even then, the macaroon would not have become an international phenomenon if Ladurée had not been taken over in 1993 by Groupe Holder, which also owns the Paul bakery chain. Recognising the power of the Ladurée brand, the new owners turned to Pierre Hermé, France’s greatest pastry chef and asked him to lighten the macaroon recipe. Once Hermé had perfected the modern macaroon, the dish was ready to take over the world. In the course of the last decade, Ladurée has gone from its Paris presence to 50 shops in 40 different cities (New York, Milan, Dubai, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sydney etc). As Ladurée has grown so has the craze for macaroons.
Now, they crop up everywhere as the ultimate romantic gift. (On American TV shows, for instance.) They were the central design motif of Sofia Coppola’s movie, Marie Antoinette, even though they did not reach Paris till after the historical queen was executed. Such designers as Alber Elbaz collaborate with Ladurée and macaroons are always served at fashion parties. (But fashion people never actually eat them – or much else, for that matter.) They turn up again and again on the various Masterchefs, and pastry chefs all over the world are obsessed with macaroons. They will usually include them at afternoon teas and on plates of petit fours. (When the
Four Seasons opened in Mumbai, in 2008, the French pastry chef put macaroons on every menu and every tray to the extent that I finally took to calling him Capitaine Macaroon.)
In no time at all, the double-decker macaroon, a dish that was unknown till the 1930s, has become the symbol of French patisserie. And though food writers keep proclaiming that new desserts have replaced the macaroon – the cupcake, the éclair, or the gourmet doughnut – the pretenders fade away while macaroons continue to rule.
I have two theories about the popularity of macaroons. The first is obvious. Not only do they seem more sophisticated than ordinary biscuits or cakes, they are much less messy than cakes or pastries. (Try eating a Black Forest or an opera pastry with your fingers!) My second theory is more speculative. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the macaroon craze began in an era when dieticians were telling us to avoid wheat (“no carbs”) and gluten. Unlike most pâtisserie products, macaroons have no wheat and, therefore, seemed
healthier and ‘carb-free’.
I am not convinced by the health argument. All that sugar can’t be good for you. But my bigger concern is with quality. A perfect
macaroon should have a firm outer shell that you can bite into. It should then melt in your mouth. If the meringue and almond paste stick to your teeth or the cream lingers unpleasantly on your palate or the sugar overwhelms the other flavours, then the macaroon is a failure. The ultimate test of a macaroon is its lightness.
Macaroon devotees still swear by Ladurée but food snobs insist that Pierre Hermé makes the best macaroons in the world. After parting ways with Ladurée, Hermé has opened his own shops that sell gourmet macaroons at higher prices.
Last week in Paris, I went a little macaroon-crazy. I tried six different Ladurée macaroons and thought they were as good as I remembered. But I preferred Hermé’s macaroons. Gourmets praise Hermé for his innovative flavours but I thought his macaroons also had a much firmer texture than Ladurée’s and worked better on every level. Of the other macaroons I tried, two stood out: at the Jules Verne restaurant, run by Alain Ducasse, and surprisingly enough in the tea tray at my hotel, the Park Hyatt. But Hermé was far ahead of the rest.
When I returned to Delhi, I checked out the local versions. I had high hopes of L’Opera but their macaroons clung to my teeth like plaque. The Oberoi macaroons lacked texture and firmness. At Cha Shi (at Emporio), the high quality of the cuisine was let down by dismal macaroons. At the Khan Market Choko la, a surly guy at the counter told me they had no macaroons. I pointed to the macaroons displayed in the window. “Woh toh dummy hai,” he said dismissively. Service was far superior at the Promenade branch of Choko la, but the macaroons were disappointing, with a thin top layer that was overwhelmed by the filling.
The Indian failures were surprising because good macaroons are not that difficult to make. Both Hermé and Ladurée churn them out in factories. My guess is that the chefs are just not trying. Though, in their defence, they may be handicapped by the non-availability of first-rate ingredients.
I spoke to India’s best pastry chef, Rohit Sangwan, who is now at the Taj Mahal in Bombay. Rohit says that Indian chefs rarely have access to the super-fine almond flour that makes the best macaroons. He also blamed the butter. He said that Indian butter was made in a different manner from the best French butter. So, even if a recipe calls for a certain amount of butter and the chef loyally follows the procedure, the dessert may not turn out right because our butter is of a different kind. Rohit now uses French butter for his macaroons but many chefs do not because French butter is far more expensive.
And some of it is just technique. Pierre Hermé learnt his craft from Gaston Lenôtre, a legendary French chef. But Hermé has made improvements to many of the old recipes. For instance, he has reduced the sugar content. He has also changed the meringue used in the dish. I am not sure I fully understand the technical nuances, but Hermé insists on an Italian meringue that ensures a firmer texture. An Italian meringue is more time-consuming to make and many Indian chefs do not bother with it. Another time-related problem is the freezing. Many French chefs freeze their macaroons overnight to achieve the desired texture. Indian chefs freeze them for only six hours or so.
According to Rohit, Indian chefs can easily make great macaroons if their employers are willing to spend money on high quality ingredients and give them the time they need to freeze their macaroons.
Then why don’t Indian hotels and pâtisseries make the effort? My guess is that the absence of quality competition ensures a certain level of mediocrity. But when Ladurée and the other French chains do get to India, that will have to change.
From HT Brunch, August 25
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