Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A Truly Scrumptious Sweet Obsession: C'est le Macaron

What are your favorite sweets?

To the eternal chagrin of my waistline, blood sugar and primary care physician, my list is rather long.

Pecan pie, chocolate cake, many other varieties of cake and pie, cookies, cupcakes, donuts, muffins, candy bars, chocolate in general, ice cream, Hostess fruit pies, etc., etc., etc.

In fact, it would probably be quicker to list desserts I don't savor: basically anything with a coffee flavor or custard filling, so no tiramisu, eclairs or the like. Otherwise, if it's sweet and sugary, well, you are what you eat ;-)

Certainly, like most people I imagine, I prefer certain desserts on certain occasions, and of course try (real hard) to abide by the adage of "all things in moderation." But I can also become rather obsessive about a certain type of confection.

Like, a couple years ago, I became somewhat addicted to cupcakes, and wrote this article which still ranks as one of the best read on Seth Saith (guess I must not be the only gluttonous slob out there).

And last year I went through a fruit pie phase (not Hostess, but rather Bakers Square and assorted diners).

But lately, there is nothing I'm liking more than the macaron.

Not the coconut-based macaroon, which I also enjoy and which Jews often eat at Passover. A rather large version of one of these, from the Bent Fork Bakery in Highwood, IL, is shown at right.

According to Wikipedia, "The English word macaroon and French macaron come from the Italian maccarone or maccherone. This word is itself derived from ammaccare, meaning crush or beat, used here in reference to the almond paste which is the principal ingredient."

So although the macaroon and macaron (essentially "mac-a-roan" with a bit of French inflection) have related origins, they look and taste quite different.

I've enjoyed macaroons since childhood--though only more recently came to know of examples that didn't come in a can--but although Wikipedia dates the French macaron all the way back to the 16th century, I've only come to know and love it over the past few years.

Since I keep referencing Wikipedia, it's probably apt that I share their definition:
A macaron (French pronunciation:[makaˈʁɔ̃]) is a sweet meringue-based confectionery made with egg whites, icing sugar, granulated sugar, almond powder or ground almond, and food coloring. The macaron is commonly filled with ganache, buttercream or jam filling sandwiched between two cookies. 
It's possible that I had a macaron when I first went to Paris in 1993 or again in 2000, or perhaps at Paris Las Vegas. But anything representing an acute ancestry to what's lately become an obsession with the macaron begins with the Bouchon Bakery within the Shops at Columbus Circle in the Time Warner Center in New York City.

I've been to Manhattan many times since the Time Warner Center opened in 2003 and on several occasions have made a point of visiting the Bouchon Bakery, which was created by famed chef Thomas Keller of Napa, CA's The French Laundry, New York's Per Se and a restaurant called Bouchon with multiple locations.

The Bouchon Bakery is quite simply phenomenal and I've tried many of its pastries, including at some undefined point, the macaron.

I didn't instantly become ravenously smitten, in terms of seeking out the macaron near my suburban Chicago home, but being one of the best looking and tasting pastries I've ever consumed, it prompted some kind of gastronomic recall when I next encountered one.

Which I believe was at the Labriola Bakery Cafe in Oak Brook, IL. In 2009, Labriola--a longtime commercial baking outfit--got hailed in the Chicago Tribune for having the area's best cheeseburger at its restaurant location. So although I live relatively far from DuPage County these days, I had to check it out.

The cheeseburger is fantastic, as are the steak sliders and not surprisingly, their baked goods. Of these, my favorite is the raspberry macaron, which I most recently had just last week but initially served as my first known devouring beyond Bouchon. Labriola also has vanilla, chocolate and pistachio macarons, which are $1.25 each and tend to be of a larger circumference than I've gotten elsewhere in the Chicago area.

Now, while I can't recall whether I ingested any macarons on my first two visits to Paris, I know that on the morning of November 30, 2011, I had a raspberry (framboise) macaron--along with a jambon et fromage (ham and cheese) baguette and Coca-Cola Light--while sitting along the Champs-Élysées approaching the Arc de Triomphe.

This was from a patisserie called Paul, locations of which have existed since 1889. But other than being convenient at a time I was hungry, I chose Paul because that evening I would see Paul McCartney in concert and it seems apropos. (You can read my Paris recap here.)

The macaron from Paul, to eat on-site (they charge less for take-with items) was 3.70 euro, which today converts to about $4.86. Considering that I haven't had any macarons around Chicago for more than $2.00 each, that's pretty steep. But I do remember it being quite good.

According to Wikipedia, again, McDonald's in Paris serve macarons at their McCafes, but I don't remember having any there. There are probably hundreds of other places in Paris where you can get macarons and, if one looks, plenty in the U.S., but I'll note that there are some Paul franchises in the Miami and Washington, DC areas, as well as one I also ate at within the Louvre museum.

But what exactly is a macaron?

Diagram found on
I realize that I've told you where you can get macarons--and will list some more Chicago purveyors below--and provided the Wikipedia definition, but I haven't really explained why I like them so much.

Although a macaron is undoubtedly rather caloric--I prefer not to know specifics--there is something weightless about a great one. There is no sweet treat I can readily recall that provides such melt-in-your-mouth bliss.

Shaped somewhat akin to a hamburger on a bun, I've seen macarons referenced as crunchy on the outside and soft in the center, but for me, on a first-rate macaron the bun part isn't so much crunchy as flaky. And while I'm not big on things that are overtly gooey--such as s'mores--the texture is surprisingly firm, while feeling airy at the same time.

But the best way for you to know what I'm talking about is to have one. Which brings me back to citing some places around Chicagoland where you can get macarons.

At some point a few months ago, after a visit to Labriola Bakery Cafe, where I brought some macarons back to Skokie for my mom and sister, I decided to see if I could find these delectable treats closer to home.

Thanks to a great new invention called Google, I discovered that in 2010 Chicago magazine hailed Bennison's Bakery in Evanston (1000 Davis St.) as having "the best we've found around so far."

Years ago I worked around the corner from Bennison's and they're only about 15 minutes from where I live, so I was happy to pay them a visit to see if their macarons were très magnifique.

I've now done so on multiple occasions.

I don't mean for this article to be a ranking of the best macarons, a la my cupcake piece, but I haven't had any clearly better than Bennison's. Even their fruit flavors, such as strawberry and lemon, have a melt-in-your-mouth creaminess that is truly truly scrumptious. Bennison's macarons cost $1.17 each and are available in many flavors, including chocolate, salted caramel, rose, mocha, passion fruit and more.

But while Bennison's should suffice to feed my macaron fix, in order to write this article, I felt a little additional research was in order. Not just Google research, but the arduous task of actually driving to some other bakeries where macarons are sold and then eating a few (not that I recommend over-binging on macarons).

While this was not an exhaustive nor comparative survey of places in and around Chicago where you can get macarons--besides Labriola and Bennison's--hopefully some will appreciate my dedication to public service in citing the following: 

Delightful Pastries - 3 Chicago locations including within the French Market at the Oglivie Transportation Center. When I visited their location at 1710 N. Wells they had six flavors: Raspberry Almond, Chocolate, Marzipan Almond, Caramel, Pistachio and Passion Fruit. Rather than a set per unit price, the macarons here are sold by weight. Four cost only $3.42 including tax, and they were not noticeably smaller or thinner than at Bennison's, if not quite as creamy or savory.

Vanille Pastisserie - 2229 N. Clybourn, Chicago and also within the French Market. They easily have the most unique array of flavors I've encountered, including Strawberry Lemongrass, White Chocolate Leche, Chocolate Banana, Sesame, Green Tea, Earl Grey and more common ones like Raspberry, Caramel, Lemon and Pistachio. Macarons here are $1.50 each.

Fritz Pastry - 1408 W. Diversey, Chicago - Just $1.00 each, macaron flavors include Blood Orange, Pineapple, Blueberry, Raspberry, Passion Fruit, Hazel Nut, Chocolate and Vanilla. (They also had some interesting looking donuts, including a Trix Cereal donut and Pineapple Coconut.) I was told by the clerk that macarons have become increasingly popular to serve at events; being compact and colorful, they present well.

Bittersweet - 1114 W. Belmont, Chicago - They seem to have just three standard flavors--Salted Caramel, Strawberry Rhubarb and Passion Fruit--for $1.75 each, but I was told that others such as Green Tea, Raspberry and Pistachio sometimes rotate in. 

Besides the above, all of which I've personally visited and whose macarons I've tasted, some additional area venues I found online include:

Pierrot Gourmet - within the Peninsula Hotel, 108 E. Superior, Chicago

Alliance Bakery - 1736 W. Division, Chicago

La Boulangerie - 2569 N. Milwaukee, Chicago

Bonjour Cafe Bakery - 1550 E 55th, Chicago

Even these listings are not comprehensive and not intended to be comparative in their selection. For even more macaron purveyors--and I read that there's also a macaron food truck--you may want to see the Yelp page for macarons in Chicago. And if you sell or come across wonderful macarons elsewhere, by all means, leave a comment.

I'm also curious how macarons are made. Not so much the actual recipe, though I imagine others may be interested, but the trick to getting the consistency right. I asked at a couple places I visited and even put in some phone calls, but understandably the baker's hands were full. So if someone wishes to comment on that as well, please do.

Finally, for readers not in Chicagoland and even some who are, I have found a number of bakeries that will ship macarons across the U.S.

One of these is the Manhattan based:

Macaron Cafe - They sure seem to have some interesting flavors--including Apricot, Creme Brulee, Honey Lavender, Peanut Butter, Chocolate Passion Fruit and Dulce de Leche--so Bouchon might have some competition next time I'm in New York. But you can get boxes shipped in various quantities starting at $16.00 plus shipping. Ordering a box of 12 macarons for $31.00 plus shipping might seem rather opulent, but remember, they were about $5.00 apiece in Paris and this would save you an international airfare.

Yes indeed, I'm always happy to provide an important public service.

Viva le macaron!

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