Objective: Review and identify the best-tasting coconut macaroon in the Fairfield/Westport area.
Reasons: The coconut macaroon is one of the most popular, traditional foods at Passover. What qualities do people look for in a good macaroon?
Design: The subjects, two men, two women and two children, tasted four different macaroons from bakeries in Westport and Fairfield. The samples were randomly labeled, and the subjects did not know the origins of the macaroons.
Conclusion: One macaroon in particular rated higher than the others. However, all macaroons were consumed and all were deemed delicious.
Okay, that's as scientific as we're going to get in our investigation into the best coconut macaroon. In the meantime, I turned to Ronnie Fein, author of "Hip Kosher" and the blog "Vignettes" (www.ronniefein.com), for her expert opinion on the traditional Passover cookie.
There is "so much to say about macaroons," she said.
"They were invented by an Italian baker, made famous by French nuns. But Jews in central Europe began to eat them at Passover because they contain no flour or other chametz." Chametz refers to any food made with grain and water that's been allowed to ferment and rise.
"The name macaroon comes from a word that suggests the original cookies were made with ground almonds, much as French macaroons are to this day," said Fein. "But like so many other foods, people began to adapt and experiment. So some people substituted hazelnuts or pecans." Eventually, someone decided to add coconut and voila! The macaroon as we know it was born.
"Macaroons are basically made of nuts or flaked coconut plus sugar and egg whites," explained Fein. "Amazingly, these simple ingredients can offer tremendous variety in flavor and texture depending on how much of each ingredient is used. French macaroons are slightly moist and a bit chewy. Italian macaroons are crispy and on the dry side. When you add coconut to the formula (or use it instead of other nuts) you wind up with a macaroon that's fabulously dense and moist."
Unfortunately, many people have their first macaroon experience out of the can. About a month or two before Passover, you'll start seeing the cylindrical cardboard cans of coconut macaroons start to line supermarket shelves. They come in many flavors -- almond, coconut, chocolate chip -- but they tend to be a bit on the greasy side. Real, homemade macaroons usually have a more subtle taste and aren't quite as dense. (Although you will miss out on a potential craft opportunity if you don't have the empty can to contend with afterward. But it's a small price to pay, I suppose.)
And so, with macaroon knowledge at hand, we set about tasting our samples.
The first one, the one that everyone was immediately drawn to, was a chocolate macaroon from The Pantry in Fairfield. Each cookie was about the size of a fist and was 75 cents. "That's a good chocolate macaroon," said one tester.
"It has the elements of a macaroon and a brownie in one delicious package," said another.
The youngest tester simply said, "Yum."
The next macaroon, also from The Pantry, was a traditional plain coconut variety. It was smaller than the chocolate, about the size of a pingpong ball, and was much crisper. Each was 35 cents. Cutting one into bite-sized pieces was difficult without crumbling. One taster thought it was delicious and subtle. "It's like a good doughnut mixed up with coconut," he said. Another thought it simply had less flavor. I found it less enchanting than the chocolate, but I still ate it.
Next was a macaroon drizzled in chocolate from Billy's Bakery in Fairfield. "I like this one better than the plain one," said one tester. "It's a little too rich, too moist," said another. This wasn't a top favorite, but again, only crumbs remained on the plate.
The last sample, a plain coconut macaroon heavily drizzled (almost dipped) with dark chocolate ($1.25), came from Garelick & Herbs in Westport. "Ooh, this is so soft," said one tester, admiring the texture.
"This is less dense and less rich than the previous one," said another tester. "But it has more flavor."
What can I say? It had chocolate. I liked it.
In the end, all of the macaroons disappeared quickly and each had unique qualities, but the clear stand-out was the all-chocolate variety from The Pantry. It had all the elements of a good macaroon: crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and was neither too rich nor too bland.
As we get closer to Passover, there will be a plethora of bakeries and delicatessens offering macaroons for sale, but you could always try making your own.
Fein graciously shared her recipe with us for the "Easiest Homemade Coconut Macaroons in the World." With a name like that, you've got to try them.
Email Patti Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Easiest Homemade Coconut Macaroons in the World
2 cups packaged shredded coconut
pinch of salt
3 large egg whites
garnish: chopped dried fruit, candied cherry, chocolate chips, crystallized ginger slice or whole almonds, optional
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. In a bowl, toss the coconut, sugar and salt together. Add the egg whites and work them in with a wooden spoon to form a "dough." Take heaping teaspoons of dough and shape them into balls. Place on a lightly greased cookie sheet. If desired, place a piece of garnish on top of each ball. Bake for about 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cool for 5 minutes, then remove to a cake rack to cool completely. Makes about 20.
Variations: 1/4-cup matzo cake meal for firmer macaroons, or 1-1/2 teaspoons grated fresh lemon peel, or 2 teaspoons grated fresh orange peel.
Chocolate dipped: melt 6 ounces chocolate with 1 tablespoon shortening; dip macaroon tops.