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SUGAR & SPICE

Hamburger Cookies

Almond or Coconut French Macaroons Are Light Chewy Meringue Sandwiches

By Marissa Cheng

staff writer

In one of my cookie cookbooks, there’s a photo of gorgeous cookies that look slightly like hamburgers -- perfectly domed cookies sandwiched with raspberry jam, chocolate ganache, or lemon curd. These cookies are French macaroons, not to be confused with Passover macaroons. French macaroons are light, chewy meringues sandwiched with some kind of filling, whereas Passover macaroons are denser drop cookies.

Macaroons were invented by the Italians in 1792, by Carmelite nuns. The nuns needed asylum during the French Revolution, and to pay for their housing, they made macaroons. Apparently, they were adhering to the principle “almonds are good for girls who do not eat meat.” In France, macaroons are a staple of the French bakery; in the US, they’re more restaurant fare.

Having been intimidated by the thought of making macaroons in the past, I was prodded into action by my sister’s gift of a jar of lemon curd. Besides, cookies that look that perfect are just begging to be made. Macaroons are notorious for sticking to every surface you might bake them on -- parchment paper, nonstick pans, foil, silpat, etc. Meringue can also be tricky: if your eggs aren’t fresh enough, they’re more likely to collapse; in an attempt not to overbeat the meringue, I often underbeat it.

There are two kinds of French macaroons -- those made with almonds and those made with coconut. Macaroons made of each kind have the same texture, but different tastes; almond macaroons are the more traditional cookie. I made my almond macaroons first, then the coconut macaroons.

Suffice it to say, the almond macaroons were a disaster. The basic method to making macaroons is to food process the almonds with powdered sugar, make a meringue, and fold the almond mixture into the meringue. I failed at the meringue, which I prematurely decided were done when they were somewhere between soft peaks and stiff peaks. Although my mistake wasn’t as fatal as it would have been had I overbeaten the meringue, it resulted in macaroons that you cannot pipe, and which spread quite alarmingly.

I baked the almond macaroons anyway, to see what they tasted like. While making the macaroons, I was encouraged by the short time it takes to make them -- about a half hour to 45 minutes -- but then was annoyed by the hour required to dry the macaroons in open air. Don’t follow my example; read through a recipe before you make it.

The almond macaroons tasted good -- I really like almonds in any form besides plain nuts -- but alas, were not quite fully cooked. I cooked them for about 12 minutes -- my book lied! The coconut macaroons that I made afterwards took 15-20 minutes to cook. The almond macaroons came off the silpat willingly, where they had cooked long enough, but let me warn you against using foil to line your baking pans -- the macaroons stick mercilessly. I fared much better with the coconut macaroons which, when dropped on baking sheets, actually held their shape. Though they weren’t snowy white when they came out of the oven -- they were more golden -- they lifted right off the parchment paper.

I suppose that I still haven’t quite succeeded with French macaroons, and accordingly, I will probably try a different recipe. They’re fun and fairly easy to make once you get the hang of them -- your biggest challenge will probably be getting them off whatever you bake them on. In retrospect, I also realize that I don’t particularly like French macaroons, but I can’t resist the challenge of making them.

If you want Marissa to make something and feature it in her column, e-mail your suggestions to ironchef@mit.edu.