One Letter Does Make a Difference

Nov 27, 2017

Recently the leader of the choir in a small church learned firsthand how much difference one letter in a word can make when he spotted in the church bulletin this notice: "The choir director invites any members of the congregation who enjoy sinning to join the choir."

In the culinary world one letter can also make a big difference. Take, for example, the distinction between macaroon and macaron. Though identical words except for one extra letter "o," the confections they refer to couldn't be more dissimilar.

The word "macaroon," with the double "o," denotes a humble, rustic cookie consisting of a chewy mass of sweetened coconut held together with egg whites, or sometimes condensed milk, and lightly browned in the oven.

A macaron, with just one "o," on the other hand, is at the opposite end of the culinary continuum. It consists of two dainty, feather-light discs of baked meringue, made with ground almonds, not coconut, and stuck together with ganache or jam and, some maintain, a touch of magic. It is the quintessential French cookie.

The double-decker macaron was invented in Paris where it is all the rage but its precursor can be traced to Italy. Some say the cookies originated in an Italian monastery and were modeled after the monks' belly buttons.

Macarons probably came to France with Catherine de Medici, whose pastry chefs brought along the recipe with them. But they were not Parisian macarons, just simple almond/meringue cookies with no special flavors or filling. It wasn't until the early 20th century that a chef at Paris' famed Laduree pastry shop had the bright idea to take two of the cookies and sandwich them together with ganache.

Today Laduree sells upwards of 15,000 macarons a day. As one who has happily stood in line to get one, I can tell you they are worth the wait.

+++++ Parisian Macarons +++++
Macarons are not easy to make, but this recipe, adapted from one by Francois Payard in Food & Wine magazine, helps ensure success by using an Italian meringue, which is more stable than other versions.

1 cup powdered sugar
1 cup finely ground almonds
3 egg whites
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons water

Mix powdered sugar, almonds and 1 egg white until moistened. Beat remaining 2 egg whites at medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Combine granulated sugar and water, bring to a boil, and cook to 240 degrees on a candy thermometer. With mixer at high speed, carefully drizzle hot sugar syrup over beaten egg whites and beat until firm and glossy. Stir one-fourth of meringue into almond mixture. Fold in remaining meringue. Pipe small mounds of meringue onto parchment paper lined baking sheets, 1 inch apart. Tap sheets on counter a few times and let dry for 15 minutes. Transfer to preheated 400-degree oven and immediately turn off heat. Bake 5 minutes and turn oven back on to 400 degrees. Bake 8 minutes longer until meringues are puffed and the tops are firm and glossy. Cool completely. Peel meringues from parchment paper and sandwich together with filling of your choice, such as jam, ganache or Nutella.