Wandering the streets of Lille, you begin to wonder how this small French city sustains a patisserie on virtually every corner. Are the locals required to eat in a patisserie as least once daily? Or is it because the window displays look so good that it is impossible to resist the treats within?? Or is it that Lille is the home of Paul, the famous French pastry shop? Or is it the colorful and ubiquitous macaron that weakens ones resolve??
I’m not sure why patisseries are so abundant in Lille, but I do know that these calorie-clogged shops are reason enough to visit there. And if you do travel to Lille, you will discover that this French city has plenty of other gastronomic delights – street markets, trendy restaurants and grocers that offer sumptuous French cheeses, local produce, seafoods, meats and pates.
When you simply cannot eat another macaron, madeleine or mille-feuille, burn your food calories by exploring the history of this French city — a city that was not always French. Originally under the control of the Count of Flanders and then various others European powers (who squabbled over it for centuries), Lille finally settled into French control in the late 1600s. The architecture, culture and, of course, the food reflect this eclectic early history.
My favorite French pastry, the macaron, like the city of Lille, is not completely French, but the product of many cultures. The macaron had its very early roots in the sweet almond foods of Northern Africa. Once these almond sweets were introduced into Italy, they spread quickly throughout Europe. But it was the French who turned these almond and sugar confections into macarons, the little meringue sandwich cookie so wildly popular today. According to Dan Jurafsky (Slate, 2011), macaron recipes were first codified by the French and then commercialized in Nancy, France (just a few hours drive from Lille).
For those of you who haven’t caught on to the macaron craze, let me clarify. I am not discussing macaroons with a double “o”. While macarons (the last syllable pronounced with an “o” as in “row”) and macaroons (the last syllable pronounced as in “noon”) both have a meringue base, they are definitely not the same. Macarons are airy and delicate sandwiches, while macaroons are heavy, sticky and coconutty. This post is about macarons – with a single “o”.
To understand how two meringue-based cookies, macarons and macaroons, can be so different, it is helpful to understand a bit more about meringue.
- COOKING FUNDAMENTALS: MERINGUE
Meringue, beaten egg whites stabilized with sugar, comes in three basic varieties.
- French meringue is made by beating egg whites with sugar at room temperature. It can be baked until crisp (e.g. dacquoise or macaron) or used as a soft topping (e.g, lemon meringue pie).
- Swiss meringue is made by beating egg whites and sugar over a hot water bath until the mixture reaches about 120 deg F and then continuing to beat at room temperature. This heat gives this meringue better stability.
- Italian meringue is made by beating very hot sugar syrup into whipped egg whites, also adding to stability. Boiled icing is a type of Italian meringue.
Keys to successful meringues.
- Do not include fat in the mix, and, since yolks contain fat, this means you must remove the yolks completely from the egg whites.
- Be careful not to overbeat the egg whites.
- A bit of acid, such as lemon juice or cream of tartar, will increase volume and stability.
- Begin with eggs at room temperature.
Macarons are made with a French meringue and then baked dry and crisp. The added almond is dry and powdery and roughly a 1:1 (wt/wt) ratio with the egg white – allowing the whipped meringue to retain its volume and texture. Macaroons, also made with a French meringue, lose their lightness with the addition heavy pieces of fat-laden coconut. The coconut is a higher ratio to the egg whites, roughly 2:1, further reducing the ability of the beaten egg to sustain volume. So, macaroons, delicious as they are, end up being anything but light.
Now, back to those colorful and enticing cookies in the patisseries of Lille – the ones with a single “o”.
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC – adapted from my sister Nanci, a macaron addict
75 g almond meal
115 g sugar, confectioners
70 g egg whites, about 2 large egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
2-4 drops food coloring
50 g sugar, fine
1 cup buttercream, colored, flavored
1. Prepare two sheet pans with a Silpat, ideally a “macaroon” Silpat. If you do not have a Silpat, use parchment paper.
Note that ingredients are in weight, which is more accurate than volume. Weight is always used in professional baking for recipes where quantities are critical, as is the case here.
2. Spread almond meal on a sheet pan (jelly roll pan). Dry in 200 degree F oven about 20 minutes. Let it cool.
Once cool, put the almond meal in processor and pulse a couple of times. Add confectioner’s sugar. Process for 20 seconds or until very fine.
Sift the mixture through a strainer into a bowl.
3. In another bowl, mix the cream of tartar into the egg whites. Whip egg whites until stiff peaks form.
Add a few drops of food coloring. Add the fine sugar gradually and whip the egg whites to stiff peaks again. The stiff peaks should stand on their own – like firm shaving cream.
With a rubber spatula, fold one third of the almond/sugar mixture into the whipped egg whites. Once mixed, and the second third. When that is mixed, add the final third. The mixture should be glossy.
4. Fill a pastry bag with the meringue mix. Using about a 1/2 inch tip, pipe circles to about 1 to 1 1/2 inch circles by holding the tip in the center of the circle and letting the mix spread.
When you are finishing piping, tap the sheet pan carefully but firmly on the counter to remove excess bubbles. Let the meringue set for about 20-30 minutes.
While setting, preheat the oven to 300 deg F convection.
5. Bake meringues about 15 minutes until they are crisp and firm. Do not brown.
Let meringue cookies cool for about 15 minutes on the Silpat (or parchment) before removing.
Note that the color of the meringue will change during baking so you’ll need to experiment a bit to get the final color to your liking.
6. When completely cooled, fill meringues with flavored buttercream, ganache or jam.
DO-AHEAD DIRECTIONS: These sweet little delicacies can be prepared ahead and frozen. If you use a fat-based filling (like ganache or buttercream), it works to freeze them assembled. If you use a water-based filling (jam), it is best to freeze the cookies and assemble after freezing. In either case, be sure to layer macarons in between parchment and store in an air-tight container.