Why macarons will always be in vogue

For more than a century, Laduree had one location on the Rue Royale in Paris that offered only four flavours of macarons. Now, the brand has more than 100 stories in 28 countries including Singapore.
For more than a century, Laduree had one location on the Rue Royale in Paris that offered only four flavours of macarons. Now, the brand has more than 100 stories in 28 countries including Singapore.PHOTO: LADUREE

UNITED STATES (THE WASHINGTON POST) - First there were cupcakes, frothy and pink with icing and suddenly everywhere, thanks to Carrie & Co.'s frequent trips to Magnolia Bakery on hit HBO series Sex And The City. Then came doughnuts - retro, cheery and perfectly rounded within the square frame of an Instagram. Next, the Cronut (and the endless lines to get it), as well as its many imitators. (Remember the doissant? No?)

Other desserts trended in its wake: Boozy adult milkshakes. Pie. Fro-yo. Cake pops. Whoopie pies. Rainbow cakes. But if there was ever a dessert that reached the cultural prominence of cupcakes, it may be macarons, the dainty cookies, made of almond flour and egg whites, that come in a rainbow of pastel colours.

In some ways, they were an unlikely candidate to become America's "it" dessert - too easily confused with coconut macaroons, always mispronounced (it's mac-a-ROHN, swallow the "r"), and relatively unknown in the United States even as recently as 20 years ago. According to the Atlantic, they peaked in 2014. If you go by Google search interest, the peak was earlier: 2012.

But you would hardly know it at Laduree, the French patisserie whose name has become synonymous with the delicate confections. The brand has more than 100 stores in 28 countries, and it is preparing to open two more, its first in the District of Columbia: a boutique and restaurant at 3060 M St. NW in Georgetown and a shop in Union Station, both arriving early April.

"It's timeless," said Elisabeth Holder Raberin, the owner and chief executive of Laduree US, sitting in the brand's SoHo tea salon before a quartet of the signature treats. "Hopefully, I think it will stay forever."

She may be right. The thing is, no newer, trendier dessert has really stepped in to take the crown from macarons. Eclairs made a go at it, but never really took off. Rolled ice cream looks beautiful on social media, but it is still too fussy to go mainstream. But macarons? They are still showing up on dresses, in weddings and especially on Instagram, where they have been hashtagged more than three million times. Even if their newness as an "it" dessert has worn off, their social cachet sure has not.

That is because macarons' popularity is not really about what they taste like. It is about what they represent: that effortless Parisian chic. "It's really about the French lifestyle," Holder Raberin said.

So many American women are Francophiles - look at how many books we have instructing us how to eat, dress and parent our children like the French. So getting tea or omelettes or pastries at a Laduree, the brand hopes, will make you feel as if you have just stepped off the Champs-Elysees. The boutiques are characterised by their Rococo-meets-modern interiors furnished from the family's antiques business, and their assortment of French pastries and dishes. Your menu will be in French, and your server might be French, too.

French-trained chefs will prepare classic dishes, such as vol-au-vent, and such pastries as tarte tatin. The atmosphere will feel soothing, and moneyed."There is this art de vivre that we keep," said Laduree US press officer Celine Kaplan. "No offense, I love America, but a restaurant can be very loud. . . . You're not here to listen to music." Still, the company had to make some adjustments for American palates.

Different flavours work better for different nationalities, too. Holder Raberin recalled introducing a cinnamon raisin flavour at the New York location as an homage to the city's bagels. But "The New Yorkers told us, 'We don't want to have a New York flavour, we want French macarons,'" she said. "It was very successful in Paris. But in the US, we stay more in the traditional flavours."

Laduree has tried some weird flavours, too, such as cola and bubble gum, but it avoids rainbows and the like, along with such childish stunt flavours as Harry Potter butterbeer and Fruity Pebbles.

"The danger of playing the 'it' dessert is that you only stay a hit for a certain amount of time," Kaplan said. "So I think newness drives the business, but to be a fad is dangerous." That is also why Laduree wants to be known for more than macarons.

The Georgetown restaurant will serve a French bistro-inspired menu of omelets, sandwiches and salads, all dainty enough to attract the ladies-who-lunch crowd. (Considering the restaurant closes at 7pm, lunch will be its busiest meal.) The menu will range from classic French (tartare de boeuf) to not very (tofu burgers, a Maine lobster roll), and a daily plat du jour could be anything from rack of lamb to poached cod with asparagus. In a first for the brand, the Union Station shop will have a takeaway option for travellers, including mix-and-match miniature sandwiches and salads in jars.

The brand might have a storied history - it has been around for more than 150 years - but its ascent is relatively recent, and not just when it comes to American culture. For more than a century, Laduree had one location on the Rue Royale in Paris that offered only four flavours of macarons. Holder Raberin's family bought the company in 1993 and decided to transform it."It was the very good idea of my brother to treat macarons like fashion," Holder Raberin said.

And that is the other reason that liking macarons isnot really about baked goods. They are a social signifier, like a Hermes bag or a Louboutin pump.

Laduree invites the connection by commissioning designers and celebrities to collaborate on the jewellery-like boxes, which people hang on to for years after their macarons are finished. The flavours work like fashion, too: Some are always-available classics, like pistachio and chocolate, and others are limited-edition designer flavours, like Sichuan pepper or cognac.

Washington's limited-edition flavour will be - naturally - cherry blossom, and there will be blossom-inspired boxes. A decorative box of six will cost US$21 (S$29.30), and macarons are US$2.80 (S$3.90) apiece.

But, lest you think the treats are lovingly handcrafted in the basement of each Laduree atelier, you should probably know that the macarons are made in Switzerland, frozen and shipped to the United States by sea. To be fair, many macaron brands freeze their product, which Holder Raberin says gives it "a good balance" between the crunchy exterior and the creamy, chewy centre.

Their rainbow of pastel, feminine colours is instant gold on social media. And that is why, even though they should have been over years ago, macarons are here to stay - like a pointy-toed pump or a silk scarf."It's the supermodel of food," Kaplan said. "People love to take photos of it. It's like jewels."