Paulette macarons. Photo: chiarezza.dolce, Flickr.
If New York has given it up for whoopie pies, San Francisco is a city that has sold its soul for a box of macaroons. And I don't mean the coconut kind that get stuck in your teeth – I mean French-style macaroons (often called macarons); little, round, pastel-colored puffs of perfection. If you've ever fantasized going to San Francisco with some flowers in your hair long after the Summer of Love turned to fall, I'm here to tell you: This is where the magic went. Tune in; turn on; add ten pounds.
Like the whoopie pie in NYC, French macaroons have been dubbed "the next cupcake" here, though I don't think the fair cupcake has to pack her bag quite yet. Macaroons are cookie sandwiches made with almond meal (or flour), powdered sugar, egg whites and food coloring, surrounding a filling of buttercream, ganache or jelly. Compared to the humble cupcake, the macaroon is rarefied – and at $1.60 each, they still go faster than Oreos, and are not the kind of snack you'll be buying for your ten-year-old's birthday party.
But forget the children for a moment, and get over your French-bashing and savor the flavor of these macaroons from Paulette San Francisco. First, dig the pretty colors, man. Caribbean chocolate, lemon, Sicilian pistachio, violet cassis – each box is like a rainbow, and lasts about as long. I brought six of them to the movies with me (The Blind Side) and had to stop myself from eating the whole sample set before the film was over. (And yes, I could discern the flavors in the dark.)
Then enjoy the warm afterglow. As they used to say of a certain controlled substance, macaroons melt in your mind, not in your hand. The experience is a little more ephemeral than what a crisp cookie offers – according to a SF Chronicle article on the phenomenon, "A good macaroon should be smooth with no cracks in the pastry. And each cookie round should contain a 'foot,' a crackly, puffed second layer that measures about 1/16-inch high." All of this makes for a cookie that seems perfect when you're eating it, but fades away like the morning dew.
Like Paulette, Miette is another mecca for macaroon lovers here (though asking locals for their preference can lead to arguments of the Shiite-Sunni sort). Miette even has an outpost in the Ferry Building, the one-stop shopping destination for everything gastronomical in SF, and will soon offer online ordering. Looking almost like tiny hamburgers, their macaroons are less delicate than Paulette's version, but the effect of eating one is equally transcendental.
San Francisco has an eclectic, colorful culinary history. Maybe it's all that fog, those gray Pacific Coast days that make people here crave all the colors in the spectrum – even the Victorian houses are still painted to look like candy or flowers. I was reminded of those colors buying macaroons at Paulette – sunlight in a box! And with competitors like Boulangerie Bay Bread and Patisserie Phillipe to handle a hungry city's cravings, there will continue to be enough sunshine for everybody. Just don't expect it to last! As an instructor at the San Francisco Baking Institute said, "It's an indulgence and should always leave you wanting more."