Growing up, Catherine Cooper enjoyed eating her grandma's lemon bars and potato chip cookies. The Barrington native even recalls sharing those coveted home-baked goods with friends when they arrived in college care packages.
But sometime into her adult years, her taste for treats evolved.
Baking boot campLearn how to master macarons from pastry chef Catherine Cooper, founder of Bon Macaron Chicago.
The two-day, intensive class geared for intermediate home cooks, culinary students and professionals will be held 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May 17 and 18, at Kendall College, 900 N. North Branch St., Chicago.
The class costs $325. Register at (312) 228-4325 or taste.kendall.edu.
"I had just arrived to live in Paris for (culinary) school and remember the first time I waited in line for an hour at a Pierre Hermé (pastry) shop. Speaking in French, I selected my first assortment box, sat down on the nearest curb and indulged on the best chocolate macaron in the entire world," Cooper says of that day in 2005.
That cookie changed her life and set her on the path to create the best macaron this side of the Atlantic. Today, at 44, Cooper celebrates one year of Bon Macaron, a specialty company that hand-crafts macarons exclusively. She sells the delightful pastries at a handful of Chicago shops and makes special orders for individuals and events.
"I did not invent the wheel, but I specialize in macarons and my goal is to put Bon Macarons on the map," she says.
Indeed macarons (pronounced mah-kah-ROHN) -- as opposed to coconut macaroons -- have been around for centuries, says pastry chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, the French-born founder of Chicago's French Pastry School.
"The making of them goes back as far as the Middle Ages," he says. "The first concrete mention of people making and enjoying them can be traced to the 1500s."
These light, delicate pastries are traditionally made with just a handful of ingredients: almond flour, confectioners' sugar, egg white, sugar, water and corn syrup. Modern recipes, like the one in the March issue of Martha Stewart Living, skip the water and corn syrup in the meringue. Once baked, they are filled with any number of options and sandwiched together.
"The reason why almonds, is that they have a strong flavor, but it doesn't take over," Pfeiffer explains. "It's a subtle flavor and can retain the moisture.
"Macaron fillings can be jam or ganache or butter cream. There's always a surprise in there," he says. "You could call it a cookie; it's two shells encasing a filling, a little bit like a cookie, but I don't want to compare it to an Oreo. In France they would skin me alive."
While it seems every well-dressed pastry shop and dessert tray is sporting colorful macarons this season, they've been popular in France for decades and hot on the coasts for a few years now.
"Macarons have been trending in NYC, Miami, L.A. and San Francisco for over three years," Cooper says. "Macarons are gluten-free made of almond flour. You are going to see them everywhere in Chicago soon from TV to restaurant menus! They are elegant, rich and decadent, colorful and très chic!"
And très time consuming. Cooper took a 50-hour course over five days in Paris to learn how to make them.
"Producing macarons is like a sport to me. It's technical and takes skill," Cooper says.
So can the weekend baker master macarons?
"Attention is key; it takes commitment and a lot of patience to succeed at making macarons," she says. "The challenging key elements are the technical steps such as making the meringue, the 'macaronage' process of folding the meringue into the almond flour mixture and piping the delicate shells. Practice makes perfect."
Pfeiffer agrees. "It might take a few tries, but you will get it. It's definitely doable at home."
In Pfeiffer's book "The Art of French Pastry," he takes four pages to outline ingredient and equipment preparation and to painstakingly describe the techniques that ensure sweet success.
"Read the recipe twice, there's a lot there," Pfeiffer advises.
He says working with dry, room-temperature ingredients is key. Leave the almond powder/flour and powdered sugar out for a day or two (or more in humid summer conditions); ditto for the egg whites.
"Egg whites are 89 percent water; let fresh eggs sit overnight and some of that (water) will evaporate and it will hold more meringue."
Don't freak out about leaving egg whites at room temperature, he adds: "Egg whites don't have nutrients to allow for bacteria to feed on it."
The meringue itself is not flavored (that would throw off the texture); it's piped into small discs and baked. The shells should be hard to the touch, but not brown in the oven.
Once cooled and filled, they are refrigerated for 48 hours or until they become moist in the center.
"The shell should have a thin skin, like a crust. Then you get the moist sponge and the further you bite into it you get the ganache and the jam," Pfeiffer says.
Once you've perfected the technique, it's time to experiment with fillings. Earl Grey ganache paired with orange jam and vanilla ganache and raspberry jam are two of Pfeiffer's favorites. Cooper's "playful" line includes peanut butter and jelly, pumpkin pie and mojito.
"Good food should be memorable and take you away for a moment," Cooper says. "I strive to meet these standards for my Bon Macarons flavors."