Skip the garishly bright sugar-bombs and try macarons made right.
SARA NAFTALY had her first macaron in Paris when she was 4 years old. She grew up there and in London, and while she has a distinct memory of that day at the pâtisserie, she doesn’t have an attachment to that macaron like Proust did to his madeleine. Her philosophy of the beloved French cookie is an inclusive one — as long as they’re good. She’s both an idealist and an experimenter, and making macarons at her new Capitol Hill spot, Amandine Bakeshop, isn’t just an occupation: “It’s a crusade,” she says. She’s not entirely joking.
As macarons got trendy in the United States in recent years, “It’d become so de rigueur that they were kind of gross sugar-bombs,” Naftaly declares. She calls her mission “a reaction to the sort of lazy idea that it doesn’t matter what it tastes like … so long as it’s cute, and it has some absurd color.” She abhors food coloring for its chemical taste and worries about its health effects. “If I see another blue macaron,” she says, “I’m going to kill myself.”
A macaron is an almond, sugar and egg-white cookie. “And that’s it,” she says. “This idea that macarons parisien that people have here, that they are the ‘it’ and the final say — it’s completely wrong.” Originally, she points out, macarons didn’t even have anything in the middle. A scholar of the form, she says, “The middle to late 1800s onwards is when you start seeing them getting sandwiched.”
Make your own macarons
Macarons are notoriously difficult to make, but if you’d like to try, find Sara Naftaly’s recipe for Chocolate Macarons with Chocolate Praline Cream in “Edible Seattle: The Cookbook.”
Naftaly’s macarons are labors of love, but they were born of anger. “I viscerally remember trying somebody’s macarons that I hugely esteem — and it was a beautiful piece, something I would never be able to re-create looks-wise — I could barely finish the little bite that I had,” she recalls, tactfully withholding the macaron-ruiner’s name. “I wanted to spit the thing out and throw it across the room. It tasted awful. And it made me mad.”
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Doing it right turned out to be more difficult than doing it wrong. The natural sugar Naftaly uses absorbs more moisture from the air than the refined kind, making the batter softer and more unruly. She also used natural colorings — made from beets and such — for the cookies, but it made them still less solid, so she couldn’t go overboard. Then she decided to imbue “vibrant inherent natural color into the fillings, rather than the shell,” adding pretty, flavor-appropriate garnishes on top. Her nuanced, unusual fillings — such as black currant, yuzu, sour marmalade with Indonesian cinnamon, tamarind lime, chocolate ganache with smoked chipotle — are all-natural, too.
Another thorn in her side: the American obsession with petit-four macarons. “There is no such thing as standard-sized macarons,” she says, despite magazine articles to the contrary. She decided to make hers bigger, about 2½ inches across. “I just thought, ‘OK, sod it … I can do small. But I can also do big.’ ”
Naftaly can also do really big. The macaron cakes found in France, filled “with fruit and cream and all sorts of other things,” might eventually be on offer at Amandine (fingers crossed). “They’re really, really pretty,” she says, “and you can do all sorts of interesting things with them and decorate them in very showy ways.”
But first up: macarons glacés, which are, thrillingly, macarons filled with ice cream. “I have maybe even more passion about those,” Naftaly muses. “I really love really good macarons glacés.” She calls them a “fascinating medium” — they’re altered by freezing. “The shell gets really, really shiny, and it gets both more crisp on the outside, and then much more dense and chewy on the inside. And it just makes a totally great whole with whatever ice cream you’ve got in there … They’re just scrumptious.” She will, of course, be making her own ice cream.
Savory macarons won’t be in the case at Amandine, though Naftaly has made them in the past at the marvelous Le Gourmand, which she ran for years with her husband, Bruce. But then she talks about “moving the sweet into the savory,” trying lemon-candied, oil-cured Thassos black olives as a macaron filling. “If it works out, great — if it doesn’t, I’ll start again and come up with something else.”