The mention of macaroons in the U.S. usually brings to mind a dense, coconut packed, knob shaped cookie. This isn't the case in France, however. Their version of the macaroon (or macaron, as they spell it) is a delicate, crispy-chewy sandwich cookie that nestles a thin layer of creamy filling, usually made from ganache, buttercream or jam.
The origin of the macaroon, in any form, is a bit sketchy, but the most common story describes a cookie made from whipped egg whites, sugar and bitter almonds that was invented by Italian monks in the 16th century. This cookie made its way to France, so the stories goes, via Catherine de Medici's chefs and was transformed into what is today recognized as the French macaron. Somewhere along this timeline, it is also believed, Italian Jews developed their own version of this cookie using coconut, instead of almonds. The coconut version is still popular in the Jewish culture today and is, as mentioned, what most Americans envision when discussing macaroons.
Most macaroon lovers care less about its origin, however, and more about how it tastes. Coconut diehards argue in favor of that version, lavishing in the simplicity of its flavor which is sometimes enhanced by a dip in rich chocolate. French macarons have perhaps an even larger following, though, and in Paris there is stiff competition among the top pastry chefs to create the most delicious, perfectly formed and uniquely flavored versions. French macaron flavors run the gamut from basic chocolate with chocolate filling to the more inventive rose-raspberry-litchi or caramel with salted butter. The most creative flavor I've ever heard of is one with a black truffle cookie and a foie gras mousse filling. Although it strays sharply from traditional combinations, this version sounds worthy of a sample to me.
While I am a professed lover of all macaroons, and coconut is at the top of my short list of all time favorite ingredients, I have to admit that my preference is for the French version. I love the flaky-pillowy exterior, the creamy, smooth filling and the contrasting and complementary flavors. Not surprisingly, my recent trip to Paris offered me a flurry of tasting opportunities, and I excitedly bounced between legendary pastry shops such as Pierre Herme, Laduree and Lenotre trying to decide whose I liked best. Lenotre won hands down, but that’s just me. For those of you interested in making them yourself, here are recipes that I've made with success for both coconut macaroons and French macarons. For added inspiration, check out this amazing blog post that shows a macaron making class in Paris taught by a Lenotre pastry chef, with step by step photos included. I’ll be booking one of these classes on my next trip for sure.