Move Over, Cupcakes

Food Nation

Think back to a few years ago when cupcakes were introduced as glamorous desserts. You probably recall that cupcake shops such asSprinkles,Magnolia BakeryandGeorgetown Cupcakein Beverly Hills, NYC and DC, respectively, became household names. As the popularity of these (sometimes filled) personal cakes 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 them.

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 at some point 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 considered a French dessert now, the macaron cookie has Italian origins and was 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. Pierre Desfontaines, the grandson of Louis Ernest Ladurée (founder of the famous Parisian patisserie Ladurée), 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 a perfectly crisp crust, or shell, but the interior must be soft and chewy; the "feet," or the ruffle on the edge, of each cookie must be symmetrical and slightly extended off of the base; the filling (ganache, jam or butter cream) needs to be proportional to the size of the cookies and cannot overwhelm the two shells. Not only is the macaron 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, and 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 in February. Other popular shops selling macarons are Maison Burdisso, The Pastry of Dreams, Fluff Bake Bar and Petite Sweets.

However, one of the first (and most popular) macaron shops in Houston is Macaron by Patisse, which was opened by Sukaina Rajani, co-owner.

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. Houstonians are becoming more and more attracted to the classic French pastry desserts, she adds.

"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 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."

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Molly Dunn
Contact: Molly Dunn