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Originally published Sunday, October 25, 2009 at 12:12 AM

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Taste

French macarons are sweet, light and luscious

Nothing like the American macaroon, the French macaron is light, lovely in pastel colors and delicious — thanks to a buttercream filling slipped inside its meringue layers.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE one letter makes.

Take the macaroon cookie, a humble, agreeably moist lump of chewy coconut. Drop one o, though, and the word refers to an elaborate French delicacy made with ground almonds, as different from its American namesake as Julia was from Julie.

Why the similar names for such different treats? Explanations are labyrinthine and conflicting, dragging in everything from Italian root words to 18th-century nuns and Jews at Passover.

When I asked baking authority Dorie Greenspan, she replied that she's wondered the same thing but has no definitive answer. "My top-of-the-head guess is that they're not related at all."

Regardless, there's no confusing the two on sight. Modern French macarons are dainty, meringue-like shells sandwiching a layer of buttercream. With eye-catching colors and flavors to match, they're sure to catch your eye at places like Honore French Bakery in Ballard, where owner Franz Gilbertson features them in part because they're such a standout treat.

The pastel rainbow in his case includes ribbon-pink raspberry, mint-green pistachio, tawny salted caramel and sunny lemon.

"I like the flexibility of the flavors," Gilbertson says, noting that you can take them almost anywhere. Really, anywhere at all.

Jason Wilson at Crush took them to the outer limits at a pig-based celebration this year, showing up with a delicate, savory, smoked-sea-salt macaron incorporating "a bit of ground bacon." The filling? A 50-50 mix of whipped buttercream and lardo. It was shockingly good.

"I think that macarons are really a gift from God! And love featuring them in any way we can," Wilson says.

Easy for a chef to say. While foolproof macaroons can be tossed together in minutes; macarons are notoriously finicky, giving rise to multiple Internet forums devoted to troubleshooting their tricky nuances.

And while macaron ingredients are simple — ground almonds, egg whites and sugar — even Gilbertson grimaced when I asked for home baking tips. Use a Silpat mat, he suggested, to avoid sticking. Make sure your oven temperature is precise. Remember every recipe has to be approached differently; there is no universal foolproof guide.

"Making macarons is one of those things that is very difficult to learn from a book," agrees Neil Robertson, former pastry chef at Canlis. "It's hard to describe the consistency of the mixture at key points in the process — very much like tempering chocolate."

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It doesn't help that there's no consensus as to best practices. Some call for resting the batter before it enters the oven, some don't; some start baking at a high temperature and then drop it while others keep it level; some want egg whites whipped until stiff and shiny, others call for soft peaks. The sole point of agreement is that the egg whites should be at room temperature, to thicken them and help stabilize the meringue.

For our inaugural attempt, we tried a recipe by Paris-based pastry chef David Lebovitz, partly because he's led me to perfect versions of other impossible-sounding baked goods, partly because I so love his recipe for the other macaroon, the chocolate-dipped, coconut lump.

Technically, our experiment wouldn't have wound up in the case at Honore. Some of our tops were cracked, and the shells a bit chewy . . . But oh, they tasted delicious.

And, to us, they were lovely, so much so that my 7-year-old woke us at 6 a.m. to announce his discovery that "there are macarons in the kitchen! Like in the bakery, but better!" He did not, to our delight, say "macaroons."

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle-based food writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Chocolate Macarons

Makes about 15 cookies

1 cup powdered sugar

½ cup powdered almonds (about 2 ounces sliced almonds, pulverized)

3 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

2 large egg whites, at room temperature

5 tablespoons granulated sugar

Buttercream filling (use a favorite recipe, or search for Lebovitz's on www.davidlebovitz.com)

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and have a pastry bag with a plain tip (about 1/2 inch) ready.

2. Grind together the powdered sugar with almond powder and cocoa so there are no lumps (use a blender or food processor).

3. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, beat egg whites until they begin to rise and hold their shape. While whipping, beat in the granulated sugar until very stiff and firm.

4. Carefully fold the dry ingredients, in two batches, into the beaten egg whites with a flexible rubber spatula. When the mixture is just smooth and there are no streaks of egg white, stop folding and scrape the batter into the pastry bag.

5. Pipe the batter on the parchment-lined baking sheets in 1-inch circles (about 1 tablespoon each of batter), evenly spaced 1 inch apart.

6. Rap the baking sheet a few times firmly on the counter top to flatten the macarons, then bake 15 to 18 minutes. Let cool completely, then remove from baking sheet.

7. Spread a bit of buttercream filling on the inside of the macarons, then sandwich them together. Let them stand at least one day before serving, to meld the flavors.

—Adapted from www.davidlebovitz.com

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