Think back to a few years ago, when cupcakes were introduced as glamorous desserts. You probably recall that cupcake shops such as Sprinkles, Magnolia Bakery and Georgetown Cupcake became household names. As the popularity of these personal cakes (sometimes filled) topped with colorful swirls of frosting, sprinkles, syrups and every other decoration under the sun grew, so did the number of shops, restaurants and stores specializing in the sugar-loaded treats.
While many of us grew up eating the simple chocolate cupcake with butter cream frosting or a golden-vanilla cupcake topped with classic chocolate frosting, those two flavors began to seem passé, overtaken by fancy bacon-topped versions.
But the cupcake craze is over, and the French macaron has taken its place.
Don't confuse the macaron with the macaroon (note the additional "o"), a sticky American cookie made with egg whites, sugar and coconut, sometimes topped with a drizzle of chocolate syrup. The French macaron is so much more difficult to make. It's practically an art.
Despite being a French dessert, the macaron cookie has Italian origins, supposedly invented by the chef of Catherine de' Medici, who was queen of France from 1547 until 1559; she was married to Henry II of France. It wasn't until the early 20th century that a filling was sandwiched between two macaron cookies. The grandson of Louis Ernest Ladurée (founder of the famous Parisian patisserie, Ladurée), Pierre Desfontaines, was the mastermind behind filling two macaron cookies with a ganache.
Bakers spend years perfecting the technique of making a macaron. Each cookie must have the perfectly crispy crust, or shell, but the interior must be soft and chewy; the "feet," or the ruffle on the edges, of each cookie must be symmetrical and slightly extended off the base; the filling (ganache, jam or buttercream) needs to be proportional to the size of the cookies and cannot overwhelm the two shells. Not only is it an art, it's a science.
There's a place to buy a cupcake in just about every neighborhood or district in the Houston area, but the number of macaron shops has increased over the past few years, especially, it seems, in recent months. Bite Macarons opened on Buffalo Speedway during the summer of 2013 and Oui Desserts opened to the public this month. Some other popular shops selling macarons include Maison Burdisso, The Pastry of Dreams, Fluff Bake Bar and Petite Sweets.
However, one of the first (and most popular) macaron shops in Houston was opened by Sukaina Rajani, co-owner of Macaron by Patisse.
Macaron by Patisse was Houston's original macaron shop. Located in the River Oaks Shopping Center, it has built a name for itself with its offerings of more than 20 flavors ranging from classic French options like vanilla, pistachio and chocolate to exotic, more Americanized options like salted caramel, blueberry vanilla bean, and fig and goat cheese (a flavor the shop can't seem to keep enough of). Rajani opened her storefront in January 2013, and says macarons are more than just a trend and that Houstonians are becoming more and more attracted to the classic French pastry desserts.
"Prior to opening, we put up a sign saying, 'Macaron by Patisse Coming Soon,' and we were overwhelmed with the number of emails and Facebook likes, and just everyone's reception to it was amazing," Rajani says. "I mean, granted, I was also private catering prior to opening, so I was already private catering macarons to the point where I was doing 800 to 1,000 macarons a week out of my apartment kitchen, so I already knew that there was a need for them, or at least a market for them."
Just as cupcake bakeries sell a variety of exotic flavors topped with colorful frosting and pretty decorations, patisseries in Houston also offer fun, interesting types of macarons.
"Our macaron flavors range from the classic to a little bit more adventurous, and of course adding on the little American twist," Rajani says. "So, for example, for Super Bowl we did a salted pretzel macaron with a white chocolate mustard ganache; for St. Paddy's Day we are going to do a Baileys Irish Cream again. We try and do things that are seasonal."
Vanessa O'Donnell, owner of Ooh La La Dessert Boutique, sells a variety of baked sweets and treats like cupcakes and cakes, but just recently added macarons to the store's lineup.
"We didn't introduce macarons until about eight months ago, and we had a lot of customers that would come in and ask for them, and we would say, 'No, we don't have them, but we have 80 other desserts,' and they would just walk away and leave," O'Donnell says.
She explains that customers came into Ooh La La Dessert Boutique seeking macarons for personal sweet treats, or for parties and baby showers.
"They'll ask to have them tied to whatever their theme is, and I think that might be something, too," O'Donnell says. "You know, it's something you can put out on a tray and they are just so pretty, or you can give them to people as a takeaway."
Ooh La La Dessert Boutique and Macaron by Patisse both sell the majority of their macarons to women. O'Donnell says her clientele ranges from women in college to those in their 40s. Rajani says 60 to 70 percent of her customers are women, but she is noticing an increase in male customers.
"They [men] don't know much about it, but once they try it, they definitely become regulars," Rajani says. "Our age demographic ranges. I mean, we have high school kids to the elderly who come in, so I think average age is probably in their 30s. We also have little kids, like right now [during the interview] we have a little two-year-old who comes in every week and asks for a cookie. So we have the toddlers, we have the elderly; it's a broad range."
O'Donnell and Rajani both credit the increase in the macaron's popularity over other treats (e.g. cupcakes) to consumers' lack of guilt when they eat one (or two) French cookies, compared to eating a whole cupcake.
"When you eat a cupcake, you feel guilty because they are heavy and calorically dense," Rajani says. "Macarons -- our macarons, at least, because I can only tell you the nutrition of ours -- are 50 calories each, plus or minus size. About seven of those would equal a cupcake, like an average cupcake. And so people don't feel as guilty. So when they come by for their couple of macarons, they are like, 'Oh, this is my little 100-calorie treat for the day.'"
Rajani explains that traditional macarons are made with almond meal, pistachio meal or hazelnut meal, making them excellent treats for the gluten-intolerant.
"Ours are 100 percent gluten-free, and so we do have a lot of clients who come here specifically to get their celiac friends/family gifts," she says. "And we get that question all the time, like on a daily basis -- 'Are these all 100 percent gluten free?' So those who are sensitive are definitely seeking them out."
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But just because macarons are lighter dessert options doesn't mean they don't taste good. That's one of the main reasons these two bakers love macarons.
"I like the flavor because you use almond meal in it. So, to me, I love the flavor combination," O'Donnell says. "Like we have a cherry one that I love. So I guess for me it would be the almond meal because of the flavor, and then it has the perfect bite; so it is crunchy on the shell and then on the inside it is chewy."
Rajani makes macarons every day, eats quite a few every day and still enjoys them.
"I just love them. I love everything about them. I love that they are -- at least ours are -- all made with natural ingredients -- it's almond meal; it's not heavy; it's not dense; the flavors are light," she says. "I've been working here for a while and making macarons for a while, and I probably still eat like ten a day, so I'm still not sick of them, which is kind of hard to say about things you are around so much."