MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Now a bit of sweet advice heading into Valentine's Day. Desserts have come and gone over the years, from Jell-O molds to frozen yogurt and most recently the cupcake. Well, some foodies say another treat is poised to be this decade's defining sweet.
NPR's Neda Ulaby visited one bistro in Alexandria, Virginia, that's saying bonjour to the macaroon.
NEDA ULABY: In the kitchen of Restaurant Eve, the cooks are chilling chocolate, proofing bread and cleaning dill. And one of them is making macaroons.
(Soundbite of whipping machine)
Mr. ED JILOCA (Executive Pastry Chef, Restaurant Eve) Whipped it up quickly, but not too quickly.
ULABY: The executive pastry chef of Restaurant Eve is Ed Jiloca. He is blending egg whites and sugar on the surface of a dainty French cookie that looks like a fancy little moon pie made with almond flour and favoring.
Mr. JILOCA: It should be crispy on the outside, slightly chewy on the inside and then it should have just a nice, smooth filling.
ULABY: A filling cupped by shiny shells of airy meringue, maybe it's buttercream or jam. Jiloca's macaroons look like colorful round pixels of flavor.
Mr. JILOCA: Lavender and rosemary, sea salt and olive oil, blood-orange pistachio.
ULABY: Demand for macaroons has spiked in the past few months, says Jiloca, a trend noted also by Amanda McClements on her food blog Metrocurean.
Ms. AMANDA MCCLEMENTS (Blogger, Metrocurean): I've sort of noticed that the macaroon is popping up partout, as they say in France, everywhere.
ULABY: Everywhere meaning high-end restaurant dessert menus, Starbucks in limited editions, and on the rabidly followed television show "Gossip Girl."
(Soundbite of TV series, "Gossip Girl")
Mr. ED WESTWICK (Actor): (As Chuck Bass) I was in Paris but only to get your favorite macaroons from Pierre Herme.
Ms. MCCLEMENTS: "Gossip Girl" is kind of putting the macaroon in the spotlight.
ULABY: McClements says "Gossip Girl" just might do for the macaroon what "Sex and the City" did for cupcakes. It seems that every slightly risque New York style-obsessed show needs a signature treat.
Ms. MCCLEMENTS: I think, especially for young kind of trend watchers, this has certainly been put in the forefront of their minds that what's a macaroon and where can I get one.
(Soundbite of tapping a bowl)
ULABY: For some people, it's not cool enough just to eat macaroons. They have to make them.
Mr. FABRICE BENDANO (Executive Pastry Chef, St. Regis Hotel): All right.
ULABY: That's why one cute young couple have come to the industrial steel kitchen of Washington, D.C.'s St. Regis Hotel for lessons on making macaroons.
Mr. DONALD STEVENS(ph): Macaroons are the fashionable snack. We're trying to get ahead of the curve on that.
ULABY: Donald Stevens is a casual cook, like most of the students in the sold-out class. And they all need lots of coaching from executive pastry chef Fabrice Bendano.
Mr. BENDANO: You know how to hold a piping bag?
Ms. LINDSAY EINSTEIN(ph): No.
Mr. BENDANO: All right. So, you're going to use your right hand all the way on top.
Ms. EINSTEIN: Okay.
Mr. BENDANO: Small portions - small portion.
ULABY: The technique eludes 26-year-old Lindsay Einstein, who's been trying unsuccessfully to make macaroons at home.
Ms. EINSTEIN: Mine look like blobs of toothpaste. And his look like pink silver dollars.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ULABY: In fact, after getting schooled in macaroons' intimidating secrets, like drying the almond flour and sugar together in advance and tempering the egg whites, Donald Stevens says maybe the cupcake needn't feel too threatened by the macaroon.
Mr. STEVENS: It seems very complicated to prepare. So...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. STEVENS: ...I'm skeptical.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ULABY: Still, macaroons have hit enough of a tipping point for the French to start mocking our newfound obsession for them. Restaurant Eve's pastry chef, Ed Jiloca, says one of Paris's most famous macaroon makers thinks we like them because they look a little like hamburgers.
Mr. JILOCA: And he came up with this one macaroon, just to kind of make fun of Americans a little bit, which is actually a ketchup macaroon. And he does put a little bit of pickles on it. He did it kind of, I think, as a joke but it's become this really staple, popular macaroon.
ULABY: Leave it to the French. For Valentine's Day in this country, Jiloca suggests sticking to raspberry macaroons or maybe white chocolate.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
BLOCK: And if you're adventurous, you can find the St. Regis Hotel's recipe for Rose White Chocolate Macaroons at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Hate to break it to you, but cupcakes are so 2005. The latest "it" dessert is the macaroon ... or macaron, if you want to be all French about it. The colorful little almond-and-air cookies have taken off in the U.S. — they've made cameos in Gossip Girl and at Starbucks, and make-your-own macaroon classes are selling out.
In the 1970s, it was Jell-O molds. In the 1980s, it was frozen yogurt. And for the past decade? Cupcakes, cupcakes, cupcakes. Trendy desserts have come and gone, and some foodies predict another treat is poised to be this decade's defining sweet: Bonjour, macaron!
Her argument about the rise of the colorful little almond-and-air cookies included the following: that the show Gossip Girl has fetishized the macaroon in a manner reminiscent of the way Sex and the City launched a cupcake boom; that Starbucks recently carried a limited edition of macaroons; and that white-hot designer Jason Wu (who designed Michelle Obama's inauguration gown) recently baked them in an issue of Food & Wine magazine. Plus, McClements says, she's just seeing them everywhere.
"It seems the little French confections are partout," she wrote.
I contacted McClements and asked her to be my macaroon muse, my guide to the best macaroons in our city. She took me first to Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va., where the macaroons are made by Chef Ed Jiloca, who trained in California. His macaroons are fat with buttercream, and they come in American flavors like peanut butter and jelly, and birthday cake (complete with sprinkles).
More traditional macaroons were on the menu at Adour, the restaurant at Washington, D.C.'s St. Regis Hotel. Macaroons have become so popular there that the hotel sells them in boxes for guests to take home, and chef Fabrice Bendano has started offering macaroon-making classes in the restaurant kitchen. They regularly sell out.
"Macaroons are the new cupcake," said one young man in a Penn State sweatshirt at a recent class, as Bendano explained how to make rose-flavored white chocolate macaroons. "They're now the fashionable snack. We're trying to get ahead of the curve on that."
Another student in the class, 26-year-old Lindsay Einstein, wants to learn to make macaroons for a relative's wedding. But she's had terrible luck at home.
"Mine look like blobs of toothpaste," she sighed, gesturing to the shells she had just piped. "And his" — Chef Bendano's — "look like pink silver dollars."
(Note: After I filed this story, Einstein sent me a picture of a successful macaroon-making session at home. Congratulations for mastering the confection, Lindsay!)
Americans' newfound obsession with macaroons has led — perhaps inevitably — to some ridicule from proper French pastry chefs. Restaurant Eve's Ed Jiloca says one of Paris' best-known macaroon makers, Pierre Herme, invented a macaroon that makes gentle fun of Americans and invites comparison with the cookie's hamburger-like shape.
"A ketchup macaroon — and he puts a bit of pickle on it," Jiloca says. "He did it as a joke, but it's become this staple, popular macaroon."