Even as the cupcake craze continues to dominate bakery windows, a small confection threatens to usurp these towers of sugar. The Parisian macaron, in soft pastels and vibrant jewel tones, is to the cupcake what designer stilettos are to Uggs: an elegant if rare alternative.
Leave behind thoughts of coconut flakes–that's an American macaroon. The French macaron (pronounced "mac-ah-rohn") is a dainty sandwiched confection unrivaled in texture and flavor, as layered and complex as one of Marie Antoinette's outfits. Its paper-thin, satiny shell wraps around a bustled blend of chewy marzipan and airy meringue. These shells are pressed around a slithery ganache core that sends a fruity shock or finishes of smooth sweetness to your taste buds.
"There's so much happening in just one bite," says Annie Pampaguian, the pastry chef whose macarons grace several coffee shop menus in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. "As soon as you sink your teeth into the crust, everything that follows happens so fast. First you really think about how thin the crisp on the outside is. Then you sink, fall, into this really moist almond batter. It totally dissolves on your tongue, the most amazing thing. Then you hit the ganache and get the third layer of surprise. The word sandwich is horrifying to me. [Macarons] deserve something a little more sophisticated, because they are."
Macarons trace their history to the kitchens of the Italian Renaissance, the bakeries of French monks and Versailles parlor plates. Domestically, macarons recently popped up in California and New York bakeries modeled after the top Parisian ptisseries, Ladurée and Pierre Hermé. Fittingly, Carrboro—the so-called Paris of the Piedmont—offers our area's most outstanding versions.
A native of France, Pampaguian is a trained chef who began testing macaron recipes two years ago. She says she has now mastered the finicky pastry.
I discovered them last spring at Caffe Driade in Chapel Hill and Open Eye Café in Carrboro. Because Pampaguian is easily bored, she's been providing those shops, plus Looking Glass Caf and 3CUPS, with weekly surprise flavors. Pampaguian's fresh pistachio ganache hits the mark every time and provides fun eye candy when coupled with bright orange marzipan. Pampaguian tosses honey into the ganache, adding nuance to traditional dark chocolate. She also makes a rose-pink peppercorn flavor.
Last week, she delivered a new macaron, specked with candied pink grapefruit peel and a white chocolate honey ganache. These dainty bits of luxury were a welcome diversion from normal coffee shop fare, pairing well with French press coffee. (However, a true macaron, I am told, stands alone.) They cost $2 each. (For special orders, e-mail email@example.com.)
If you prefer to leave the laptop at home and opt for an experience that will transplant you to a world of Parisian boutique indulgence, then Miel Bon Bons is your ticket. Chef/ owner Bonnie Lau has transformed a small alcove in Carr Mill Mall into the most luxurious spot in Carrboro. Multiple chandeliers beam onto hand-crafted artisanal wedding cakes lining display shelves and towers, edible examples of all the deepest, most vivacious colors of the Pantone rainbow. Behind a glass partition separating customers from the confections, shiny chocolate truffles and bonbons grace the counter in rows. Macaron is one of Lau's many specialties.
A pastry chef and chocolatier, Lau learned the specific art of macaronage in Paris under modern master Pierre Hermé, who Lau says is "like a Picasso." The brilliantly colored, topsy-turvy macarons display Lau's craftsmanship and creativity. There are more than 30 flavors of Miel Bon Bons' macarons, including the perfectly executed simplicity of raspberry rose, hazelnut chocolate, pistachio and amaretto to exotic, inspired combinations like olive oil, saffron mango, salted caramel, kaffir lime and ginger peach.
"It's something very special you want to treat your palate to," Lau says.
Her vanilla white chocolate ganache led me to a change of heart about what I've considered to be fake chocolate; the memory of that soothing, perfectly sweetened cream will make me bite my tongue on any future criticism. The ganache filling in Miel Bon Bons macarons serve as the base for her truffles, too.
She smiles and says with a sigh, "If you want the French macaron, it has to be filled with this luxury, you know?"
Another popular surprise: yuzu. This Japanese citrus is almost electric, finishing a subtle almond note with a tangy bite.
Lau makes most of her macarons (they're $2 each) by request, since the process—whipping eggs, grinding almond flour, short baking times and meticulous construction—requires focus. She usually makes 500 at a time, and only keeps them for a maximum of three days. She also sells them in boxes of six for $12.95 and 15 for $29.95.
Studded macarons toppled into a martini glass are an example of what Lau prepares for wedding table décor. A handful-sized fuchsia piece—filled with fresh raspberries lined upright around the circumference and topped with a rose petal doused with lavender sugar sprinkles—gives party planners an option for a $6 mini-dessert.
Jill Leckey, pastry chef at Fearrington Village, will whip up a batch for afternoon teas and wedding receptions, sometimes swapping the almond flour for hazelnut or pistachio flour. Tiny and devoid of any bumps, her perfectly circled versions pair wonderfully with her fresh, slippery buttercream frosting.
Find imported macarons at Chapel Hill's A Southern Season and Raleigh's Hereghty's Patisserie, direct from France. Miel Bon Bons is still taking orders for special heart-shaped Valentine's Day macarons.