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.
I really enjoyed reading this post, as I have now lived in Lille two years, and have a completely different perception of the city. I guess visiting a place and living there explain it. I live in a neighborhood (ten minutes on foot from the historic center) where it is virtually impossible to get decent bread, and there is not one pâtisserie 🙂 But I agree with you about the numerous trendy restaurants and out-door markets, which I love and visit weekly, if not more often. Your macarons look perfect. Have you visited the Meert pastry shop and tried their vanilla waffles? Or a Merveilleux, this meringue and cream ball sprinkled with chocolate flakes? 🙂
Oh, how interesting to hear your thoughts as a local. I think that Lille would be such a nice place to live – a nice sized city.
But, yes, experiences are always somewhat different as a visitor. Since I only visited for a weekend, I spent my time in the town center, and I suspect there are many patisseries there just for the visitors (like me) to enjoy.
And I should have included Merveilleux in my list of “m” pastries 🙂
I do love your blog Darya! Fabulous recipes and photos.
Hello, I just read this article, and thought it would be fun to share: http://www.40before30.com/2014/05/20/sweet-treats-in-lille/
Seems you were not the only one to notice that Lille is a Macaron Mecca! I disagree with the author about the stuffed waffles though; they are one of the best treats I have ever tasted, and quite unique.
The café she mentions (Coffee Makers) is indeed a great place to go; but I wouldn’t have expected it to attract British tourists who are likely to have similar places where they live. But then their coffee is definitely worthwhile.
In any case, it is always fun to read how others perceive the place where you live!
Darya – Yes, 40before30 certainly found plenty of macarons as well 🙂 Thanks very much for sharing this.
I think the differences in our perceptions of a place reflect the sum or our life experiences, tastes and expectations. Where I live now, the town is hosting a national event for the second time. The last time, when I chatted with visitors, views on our community ranged from “what a fabulous place to live!” to “why would you want to live here?” (fortunately, much more of the former). I can’t wait to hear the comments this time 🙂
Love how you decorated them for a birthday gift…very clever.
Thanks Karen. Although I must admit my sister, the artist, did the decorating. You can see her creative touch. She loves making macarons so we made these together.
I think that’s what makes people in Europe so fit…all the fresh air and long walks while exploring the cities are a great way to burn off the macarons and croissants:) What a delightful read on meringues,filled with handy tips…
Yes, walking is my favorite exercise and Europe, in general, is so much more walker-friendly. England had public foot-paths through the whole country. Fabulous.
After all, the more you exercise, the more you can eat, right? 🙂
And thank you for your comment.
Enjoyed your impressions of Lille and, though a “local’s” view differed a bit, you both regard the city highly. It’s easy to see why. As for the macarons, they are so far outside of my realm of abilities that I’ll just sit back in awe of your prowess in the kitchen. They looked beautiful and your Sister’s decorations were wonderful.
Thanks John. Your recipes often give me the same impression. I’m still not brave enough to try some of your cheeses 🙂
And, yes, I thought it was odd – the different view. My friend and I were laughing every time we saw another pastry shop – wondering why the French weren’t all obese.
You make it look so easy. I made macarons once and it was a disaster (I did learn not to fill a pastry bag all the way to the top before squeezing). I love Paul!! I stopped in at least twice a day when I was in Paris.
These are something I’ve never had, as I really don’t do sweet stuff that well. But I’m so curious as to why they are all the rage. Although, if they take over from cupcakes I’ll be very happy! I’ll hopefully be baking these next week as I burst my one and only piping bag making choux pastry last week for the first time. And I need to trek to the wretched superstore to replace it. Looking forward to these as I love almonds.
Good question. I have no idea why they are all the rage. Perhaps because, like cupcakes, they are fun, colorful and playful?
Let me know if you survive the Superstore, find your piping bag and make these 🙂
I’ve always enjoyed eating macarons, but have never tried to make them. Your recipe – and helpful cooking tips – might just be the inspiration that I need! Lovely photographs of Lille, too.
Thanks so much for dropping by my post on Lille so that I could read this and understand the difference between macaron and macaroon – I always thought it was the difference in English and French spelling not that they well different products altogether. Thanks for enlightening me!
I shall have to muster the courage to try baking them one day.
You’re very welcome. Enjoyed your travel posts.
And no courage needed for the macarons. They are easier than they look…
I’m macaroon addicted! 😀 I do love them! Have to try your recipe
Yes, that’s the only problem with them. They are so light and petite that it is easy to keep eating them, and eating them, and eating them….
Your macarons look absolutely perfect! I’m yet to attempt these esteemed biscuits, I’ve got an automatic assumption that I am going to fail but… well, that’s not a winner’s attitude, is it? 😉 I love the snaps of Lille in this post. I have a friend who lives in the region and I’ve always wanted to visit her and walk those lovely pastry-laden streets! Thanks for sharing your experience with us. Gorgeous post xx
Thanks Laura, for your nice thoughts. And you absolutely could make these – no worries! The mixing is surprisingly easy (not many ingredients). It is just the piping that takes some time….
I have hardly tasted a real macaron, and think they are too difficult for me to make. But I sure would love to taste those and a lot of the rest in the patisserie.
Oh, you must try them. They are light, airy, crisp and sweet. Surely one of those great Scandinavian bakeries will make them for you 🙂
What a lovely post! I never made it to Lille upon visiting France (such a disappointment as I actually have another friend who lives there) but it’s nice to have a ‘virtual visit’ via your blog! I’ve seen many PAUL shopfronts around the world (the first of which was in Brunei airport, quite weird!) but I didn’t realise that Lille was the official ‘home’. Very cool 🙂
As for these macarons? Yum. I’m yet to try the process myself but I’m always in awe of the skill involved with these pillowy soft, perfectly footed little treats! Yours look delicious. Thanks for the tips! x
Thank you for the very sweet comment (no pun intended!). So nice to hear from you. I don’t get much blogging done in the summer, so it is nice to hear from my fellow bloggers haven’t forgotten about me completely!
I took a macaron class this year and loved it – learning the differences and the skills to make them. They are such delightful desserts!
Thanks. While a macaron class sounds like fun, I suspect I’d have a stomach ache by the time it was done – from too much taste testing 🙂
And I love your 30 list. I’ve now lived double your years, but approach life the same way. At 60+, I can honestly look back and say life has been very full. More important, I still have a long list and hope to for a long time.
P.S. I’d probably skip the tattoo:-)
I see this is your most recent post. Hope all is well with you and yours.
Yes, thank you for the thought. I don’t get much time to blog in the summer, but hoping to get something out this week!