There was a point, sometime in the early 2000s, when cupcakes made the transition from a dessert to the dessert. No one is quite sure how it happened, or when, exactly—these things are difficult to track with accuracy—but it had something to do with the slowing of the economy and the rising of Magnolia Bakery, with the continued ascendance of gendered foods and the sudden influence of Sex and the City and Americans' collective devotion to reality television and their collective frustration with the Atkins diet. The simple, decorative treat—a highly adaptable combination of cake and frosting, presented in a single-serving if not a bite-sized form—was, suddenly, everywhere. And then it followed the trajectory that all trends will, in the end: innovation to ubiquity to cliche.
The descent was quick. Crumbs, the cupcake-only chain, closed. The obituaries for the cupcake-as-the-dessert camerollingin. And, in short order—food trends, like nature itself, abhorring a vacuum—a successor was sought. Would America's next Default Dessert be the pie? Would it be the whoopie pie? Would it be the donut? Would it be—oh, but please let it not be—the cronut?
We now have our answer. And it is an answer that has been with us, as answers so often are, the whole time. The new cupcake is a cookie—one that, as of mid-July 2014, had been dubbed "the new cupcake" more than 70 times, thus beating out, among many other contenders, the pie, the popsicle, the donut, the marshmallow, and, fortunately, the cronut. The new cupcake is the macaron.
Macarons—the cousins of macaroons, the lumpy, coconut-based affairs—are airy where cupcakes are dense, dainty where cupcakes are messy, fancy where cupcakes are homey. They are beautiful and haughty and ethereal. They are high-maintenance, and have managed to make that part of their appeal. They are the Gwyneth Paltrow of desserts, basically.
If you buy them, you will be in good company. Whole Foods, Catherine Trujillo, part of the chain's global bakery team, told me, has seen a 40-percent growth in their sales of macarons over the past year alone.
"They are the perfect little indulgence," Trujillo explains. They are also one of the few desserts that are, in their original form, gluten-free. The classic macaron recipe involves almond flour, egg, sugar, air…and, save for (optional) additional flavorings, very little else. ("Macaron," "macaroon," and "macaroni" all come from the same root,the Italian maccherone, or "fine paste"; the macaron is named for the nut flour that gives the cookie what little heft it has.) "I believe it to be the perfect treat," Thomas Vaccaro, the dean of baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America, told me. "It offers opportunities to add a lot of flavor combinations that are unusual." On top of which, he adds, "it offers great texture when you eat it; it's crunchy and chewy at the same time."
* * *
Macarons, like the croissants and eclairs that took "trendy pastry" honors before them, are distinctly European—distinctly French, really—in their affect. The cookies were born in Italy, but made their way to France in the 1530s—by way of, some scholars believe, Catherine di Medici. They wouldn't become widespread outside of court, however, until 1792, when two Benedictine nuns, seeking asylum during the French Revolution,supported themselves by baking and selling treats made of ground almonds, egg whites, and sugar.The ad hoc pastry chefs came to be known as "the macaron sisters."
Their recipe was passed down in secret until, in the early 1900s, Ladurée, a Parisian bakery and tea salon, adapted a meringue-based version as a sweet accompaniment to its tea service. In the 1980s, Fauchon, the upscale Parisian patisserie, began offering inventive spins on the classic flavors of vanilla, chocolate, coffee, and raspberry—including rose and olive oil. It also initiated a "macaron of the month" program. In the 1990s, Ladurée followed suit, releasing flavors seasonally, in the manner of clothing collections. (Ladurée's spring 2009 flavor was Lily-of-the-Valley.) The bakery, having opened its flagship location on the Champs-Élysées, also began advertising in the French versions of Vogue and Elle, alongside makeup and jewelry and handbags.
You can also buy the cookies online. Ladurée's air-mailed offerings come arranged in delicate decorative boxes designed specifically for the delicate cookies. You could be forgiven if you were to open one of these boxes expecting to find jewelry.
* * *
Every nation gets the dessert it deserves. On the one hand, you can attribute the American ascendance of the macaron to prettiness (an added bonus, in the age of Instagram) and portability (CIA's Thomas Vaccaro compares them to the French gateaux de voyage, or little cakes that are meant for traveling) and chewy sweetness. You can attribute it to how difficult macarons are to make (being meringue-based, they are sensitive to things like changes in the air's humidity). You can attribute it to the chemical reaction that transforms flour, eggs, and sugar into air-puffed aspiration.
You can also attribute it to culinary versatility. The base of nut flour, egg, and sugar—much like the base of wheat flour, egg, and sugar in other cookies—offers bakers and chefs a kind of canvas on which they can paint their own unique flavor combinations. Some chefs present savory versions—foie gras, bacon—at their restaurants as dainty amuse bouches. Others use sweet macarons as meal-ending mignardises. Either way, the model of the macaron—egg, flour, filling—leaves a lot to the imagination. As Kathryn Gordon, a pastry and baking arts instructor at New York City's Institute of Culinary Education and the author of a macaron cookbook, puts it: "It's like a blank slate."
Macarons are the ultimate fusion of fashion and food. In this way, they are the logical extension of fashion's reinvention of itself as "Lifestyle." Anthropologie wants to become a department store. Urban Outfitters sells furniture. Forever 21 sells candy along with its clothes and jewelry and makeup. Macy's displays Godiva chocolate bars at its checkout counters. The rise of "foodie culture" has made foods even more susceptible than they used to be to the vagaries of the hype cycle. If food trends reflect their times, macarons are the perfect treat for an age that prefers its indulgences sweet, slight, and Instagram-friendly.
That is largely why, last year, an entrepreneur named Ana Claudia Lopez decided it would make sense to do what, in this age of Amazons and Walmarts and McEverything, it would seem to make very little sense to do: open a shop dedicated to a single food. She opened a store in Georgetown—the tony neighborhood that straddles the Potomac in Washington, D.C.—in a space nestled between a J. Crew and a Dean and Deluca.
With the shop, Olivia Macaron, she put all her egg whites in one basket. "It was a leap of faith," Lopez told me of the venture. But it was also a savvy business decision. Having just celebrated its one-year birthday, Olivia Macaron has seen a steady stream of customers, Lopez told me, and is currently making plans for expansion. That success has something to do with the pitch Lopez made to the pastry chef Michel Giaon, whom she would eventually bring on as Olivia's co-owner: "I think macarons," she assured him, "are the next cupcake."