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Like the cupcake before it, the macaron, a French confection that resembles a pastel-colored sandwich cookie, is ready for its close-up.
It has been featured on film and television, in magazine articles and a new book called "I Love Macarons" by a Japanese pastry chef. Once the preserve of high-end French patisseries such as Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, macarons are showing up at retailers like Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Starbucks. Even McDonald's is selling a scaled-down version in its McCafés in France, backed by ads showing two hands holding the tiny treat like a hamburger.
Instead of celebrating, however, fans of the meringue-like pastry have been whipped into a frenzy.
"Macarons are not meant to be mainstream," sniffs Laetitia Brock, a native of Paris who has been blogging about French culture from Washington for the past six years. When she got wind that Starbucks was offering macarons over the holidays, she ran out and purchased a boxed set. "Very mushy," she concluded, after a few bites.
Her negative blog post about the trend elicited a tempest over the tea cake.
"I saw them at the McCafé on the Champs-Élysées—just down the street from Ladurée! What is the world coming to?!?" commented Allison Lightwine, using the screen name La Mom.
"It was so weird to see these delicate, very French pastries in something that's so American. It's kind of like if you showed up in a tuxedo to a baseball game, it was so out of place," Ms. Lightwine, who writes a blog about being an American mom in Paris, said in an interview.
Macarons are made with egg whites, ground almonds and sugar. Their hard outer shells are sandwiched together with a soft creamy center that can consist of anything from fruit purée to chocolate ganache. Macarons, pronounced mack-ah-rohn, typically come in fruit flavors, pistachio, chocolate and sometimes more exotic varieties such as violet, foie gras and white truffle. The English spelling is "macaroon," but the French confection is not to be confused with the dense chewy treat made with sweetened coconut.
"People think of them like cookies, but they are much more delicate and exciting than a cookie—so crunchy on the outside and so soft in the center, like a little pastry," says François Payard, a third-generation pastry chef from France who owns an eponymous patisserie in a loft-like space in Manhattan. The perfect macaron takes time, but has a short shelf life, he says. After whipping, baking and stuffing the macarons, he pops them into the refrigerator for 24 hours to achieve the right consistency. He then lets them sit out for at least an hour, so the filling isn't too cold. He tosses any that don't sell in a few days.
"They're sort of weightless, with an airy density. When you take a bite into a macaron, it should be like a meringue, with a soft ending," says Susannah Chen, who writes about food trends for online magazine YumSugar.com and is a self-described macaron snob. "They're meant to be eaten fresh, and I don't see how that's possible with large-scale chains or corporations where they have to go through so many channels before they hit shelves."
Clémence Trancart, a press-relations manager in Paris, stopped by the original Ladurée on Rue Royale recently to pick up a box of rose, lemon and chocolate macarons for an afternoon snack with friends. The dessert "is very refined and elegant. That's why I wouldn't go to McDo for it," she said, using the French nickname for McDonald's. "It's the little French treat." McDonald's started selling macarons in its McCafés—the coffee and pastry bars located inside regular McDonald's restaurants—in France in 2007. The burger chain's macarons are shipped frozen to the restaurants from Château Blanc, a subsidiary of Groupe Holder, Ladurée's parent company. Despite the common corporate parentage, the two versions use different recipes.
McDonald's recently plastered the Paris metro with ads for its macarons. Some Parisians bit. On a recent day, Olivier Cartier, a French salesman, ordered a pistachio macaron and a cappuccino at a Parisian McDonald's. "It's the trend," he says, explaining that he's tried macarons from mainstream supermarkets and bakeries and that McDonald's version compares well. High-end macarons leave him cold. "I'm not sure if there's a big difference," he says. "And then some of their flavors like foie gras are bizarre." McDonald's says its macarons are selling well. At roughly $1.25 each, they are about half the price of the comparably sized upscale version and are aimed at a different audience, McDonald's says. "Our McCafé offer is made for everyday small breaks," says McDonald's France spokeswoman Caroline Deleuze.