Your first look at a French macaron might make you giddy! French macarons are so pretty with their near-perfect, smooth exterior, ruffled feet and a contrasting-colored filling. Aha, biting into one is a different story. That perfect little morsel may or may not be so perfect after all.
French macarons are quite different from coconut macaroons as they are made up of two almond cookies, or shells, that are sandwiched together with a filling. The almond cookies should have a smooth and flat or slightly rounded exterior; the bottom of each almond cookie should have a very noticeable ruffle. French macarons are also known to be more difficult to make than coconut macaroons. Many home bakers tend to have problems with developing a stable meringue that cooks properly in a non-convection oven. If the meringue does not set correctly, you end up with macaron shells that look perfect on the outside, but are hollow or empty on the inside.
French macarons at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, NC, are a hit-and-miss. Sometimes the macs are soft and chewy or soft and creamy with just the right amount of filling for the cookies to be sweet enough; sometimes the macs are too soft and much too sweet. A Southern Season orders French macarons from an international purveyor. If you have a craving for these wonderful cookies, call the store ahead of time to be sure they have the macarons in stock.
On one trip, all the cookies were perfection in small packages -- slight crackle to the shell with soft and chewy dough. The pistachio macaron was to-die-for. The filling was made up of real pistachio paste. Nut pastes, such as pistachio and almond paste, are primarily ground up nuts mixed with sugar. Pistachio paste has a very strong flavor so just enough of it is added to a base filling -- like almond paste, butter, and liquor or simple syrup. The raspberry macaron was delish as well with real raspberry jam. The coffee macaron was good too, but the flavor was not as intense as the pistachio and raspberry macs.
The second trip for macarons at A Southern Season didn't yield great results. The macarons were very sweet and too soft.
The differences in the macarons could be due to a handful of reasons including the type of meringue used to make the almond shells. Most commercial macarons are made using Italian meringue because it is supposedly the most stable type of meringue; a hot sugar syrup is added to the whipping egg whites. Italian meringue also uses quite a bit of sugar. Some individuals may use French meringue in which dry sugar and egg whites are beaten together. This is the common type of meringue used to top pies and can be quite stable if a starch is used. Finally, a few make French macarons using Swiss Meringue. Swiss meringue entails heating the egg whites before whipping them.
If you are within driving distance, check out the classes offered at A Southern Season. Occasionally the cooking school offers a macaron class by Chef Martin Brunner of The Bakehouse in Aberdeen, NC. Chef Brunner brings in a batch of his delicious macs -- and then you get to eat some of the macs he makes in class.