First, a question. Is it macaron or macaroon? We need to tweak that old Shakespearean saying here: confectionary by any other spelling just does not taste the same. But more on that later.
Macarons have been around for a while but when cupcakes began their run on fame, the former retired to the background sans fuss. The cupcake mania, like Topsy, growed and growed, and soon all other pastry was just so much castor sugar dust.
However, the cognoscenti, the set who prefer the classic to the trendy, went about ordering, having and eating their cake, or macaron, in this case, calmly, discreetly, happily. And in this Age of Wannabes, it was just a matter of time before the rest of us sat up and took notice. My personal 'of course' moment came at a recent bake fest in Bangalore where a number of exceptional bakers set up stalls in the cramped confines of a small hall;within the half-hour, all the macarons in the hall were sold out.
Amande is one of Bangalore's premium patisseries and they do a great line in macaron. What's more, they have noticed a definite tendresse for the queen of cookies;Venkatesh Raghu, one of the partners, says in a tone entirely innocent of innuendo: "The cupcake is an American concept, the macaron a French delicacy. " It's as if, willy-nilly, the taste of the hoi polloi pudding brigade has been pitched against that of the bonbon gourmands.
Venkatesh is equally succinct about the macaroner (term coined by this writer). "They comprise mostly expats, fine food lovers, people who have travelled and lived abroad and who understand the sophistication of classic French pastry. " Truly a pleasing thought, a pastry that confers such distinction on the eater.
The bouquets keep coming. Pooja Dhingra of Le 15 Patisserie, which has three outlets in Mumbai, says macaroners have always had a cult following. This kind of confectionery, Pooja avers, is for a more elevated palate. And I immediately visualise the rush for the new It Sweet.
Pierre Nicollier of the Delhi-based L'Opera India patisserie, sounds just a tad sniffy when he says that there is no comparing cupcakes and macarons, since the latter just cannot be produced in an "industrial manner". This highend quality product, according to Pierre, is enjoyed by a certain set of people. I'm guessing he means confit connoisseurs. As with all things ambrosial, the macaron is not the easiest of pastry to make. Basically whipped up from egg, sugar and almond, the confections can all too easily meet a bad end. M Nicollier says, "There are mainly two challenges: sourcing the highest quality ingredients and overcoming the hot and humid weather. Simply put, good quality comes from good quality raw material. For us, it means that our butter and cream comes from Normandie. The second challenge is to ensure the recipe is adapted to local constraints, mainly in terms of humidity and heat, to bring in the flavour you will find in Paris."
Pooja Dhingra seconds that statement. "It is one of the trickiest things to make. The technique and temperature are very important. A bit of humidity can destroy the shell. "
The L word needs must hang over all macaron makers. L for Laduree, purveyors of the world's most famous macarons. Way back in 1862, someone in the Laduree family hit upon improving an already splendid idea: taking two meringue shells and putting some ganache filling in between them. Voila, the Laduree macaron was born.
Of course, the macaron existed before the Ladurees happened to them. They were basic cookies popular in the court of Henry II of France and his queen Catherine of Medici. The word 'macaron' is believed to be a derivation of the Venetian macarone, meaning 'fine paste'. Interestingly, the Japanese version uses peanut flour instead of almond flour;the South Korean 'makarong' actually uses green tea powder or tea leaves!
Any talk of the many flavours will include words like chocolate, raspberry, pistachio, praline, citron, lemon, caramel, strawberry, coffee, menthe, vanilla, passion fruit, mango, rhubarb, orange, even foie gras and pumpkin.
And yes, the perfect macaron exists. In the words of M Nicollier, "The perfect macaron has a crisp shell and a soft, moist interior. It should be light in the mouth and the subtle aroma should allow you to recognise the taste of the different ingredients. This complex taste should then stay in the mouth. "
Amande's bid for the perfect macaron? "We have perfected the French macaron by using the highest quality ingredients free of chemicals and preservatives, sourced from the best producers in the world. Our chocolates are sourced from Belgium, cream from France, almonds from United States, and nuts from Italy. "
So. Is it macaroon or macaron? Well, the former is a piece of confection with a coconut filling. Macaron is the item under scrutiny here;macaron, pronounced with just the right inflection to set people's mouths watering. And, macaron or cupcake? Actually, the latter can sit pretty. While the macaron has long been a cult cookie in parts of Europe, it has not quite made a splash on the other side of the pond. This seems to be all about the People's Choice and Cognoscenti's Choice, make what you will of it.
TIP: Macarons, once made, are usually kept aside for a couple of days for the flavours to settle. They need to be stored in the fridge and taken out 15-20 minutes before you eat them. And oh yes, do eat them in two to three days.