ColumnThe deceptively low-maintenance French treat: coming to a shop near you?
I (almost) hate to go on another anti-cupcake rant.
“What’s wrong with cupcakes?” a friend recently asked me.
I raised my eyebrows. “Did you miss my whole I-hate-cupcakes ‘thing’?”
A third friend standing with us nodded in agreement; every time someone mentions the word cupcake around me I see her eyes roll as they glaze over with the “here she goes again” look.
“I know you hate the cupcake trend, but do you really not like actual cupcakes?”
I was caught eating a cupcake at a wedding once. Never again; the photographic evidence is too much to bear. Well, not exactly: On another occasion I was sent a full dozen, the frosting so purple I expected a unicorn to jump out of the box. I ate half of one. But, other than that, I am a 100% cupcake abstainer.
Sure, they’re good. It’s hard to find something with sugar that isn’t. But this does not mean we should be building shrines to cupcakes, serving them with grilled cheese or launching (multiple) reality television series about them. As insult to injury, I am often asked, “What’s the next cupcake?” I have learned the hard way that if you complain about one thing enough people expect you to offer up an alternative.
There are a lot of answers to that question. If the blogosphere is to be trusted, whoopie pies and cake pops are both strongly in the running for dessert du jour.
And then, there is the macaron.
The truth is, the macaron is often deemed the “next cupcake.” Maybe it’s the size, maybe it’s the color. A French delicacy, a macaron is the darling just-right blend of almond flour meringue and creamy filling. Add in a pop of color and inventive flavors like cassis and caramel and you have genius with a sweet tooth.
Yes despite its wantful status, and I hate to be the bearer of less-than-sweet news, the macaron is not the next cupcake. Why? First of all, it’s French. This is inherently problematic. Freedomaron just doesn’t have a good ring.
Second, macarons are too difficult to make go mainstream. Anyone can add some water to a mix and turn out a set of reasonably decent cupcakes; macarons take effort.
And so, these also-ran treats are everything that cupcakes are not. Cupcakes are for crying into one’s pillow on a Saturday night after raiding the fridge yet again. Macarons are for those who revel in their freedom and cheer to it with bubbly. Cupcakes are the minivan. Macarons are the Tesla. If a cupcake were a travel partner, they would be the one that wants to eat at Red Robin because it’s familiar. I’m sorry, cupcakes, but it’s true.
Fearing mutiny amongst my foodie friends over this unending dessert drama, I decided I had better be proactive and bake up some macarons myself. Naturally, I enlisted a first mate to help.
First item of business: find a recipe. Macarons seem like the kind of thing that doesn’t respond well to a whole lot of fussing, so we went with a basic, straight-forward recipe from the domestic goddess herself, Martha Stewart.
First Mate Sarah and I set off on our baking voyage, impressed and surprised at how much easier macarons are to make than you would expect – baking can be hard work, and macarons are a wonderful culinary self-esteem boost. You just can’t spend a few hours making macarons and not feel like you’re the best thing to ever hit the kitchen. (I am pretty sure that could be used in a pick up line.)
This being Foodie Underground inspired, there were some improvisations. Who needs a pastry bag when there’s Ziploc? (Not eco, I know; you find me an alternative and I will send you a batch of macarons.) Egg whites that have rested overnight, what? (Yes, that is a recommended element of most macaron recipes). We’re trying to make a working woman batch of macarons here, I barely made it to the store to buy almond flour. I would have ground my own, but knew the finely ground option would be just a little better.
And soon, there we were, dozens of round, fragile almond disks cooling on the rack.
“Ganache time?” I say to Sarah. “I’m thinking we should put in some salt – because what’s not love about dark chocolate and salt?”
“I actually have this really good black salt we can use!”
We give each other the look only foodies can give, and moved on. When a person maintains four varieties of artisan salt in their pantry it’s the only appropriate response.
When it comes to macarons, it’s all about the filling. Our basic recipe for ganache (the name for a blend of dark chocolate and cream) promptly developed into three different versions: classic, vanilla and sea salt. Spread onto one macaron cookie and top with another. Put on a pretty plate, serve…and impress your friends. Or ship them to your mother for her birthday.
Homemade macarons are surprisingly painless and so rewardingly elegant. And, as it turns out, the fact that the macaron will never be the next cupcake is cause for celebration.
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.
Image: Julien Haler, cocinzenl, Anna Brones