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Cookbook review

Mastering the art of the macaroon

By Tse Wei Lim
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2009

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Assuming you want to make macaroons at home - some may say that these little meringue cookies, like blutwurst or head cheese or Neapolitan-style pizza, are an undertaking best left to professionals - Hisako Ogita’s “I Love Macarons’’ is the place to start. (Ogita, a Japanese pastry chef who has written three books on French pastry, uses the French spelling of the pastries in her new volume.) While most home cooks should be able to make a proper batter, piping macaroons correctly requires a daunting amount of practice. This would matter much less if cuteness were not the macaroon’s raison d’etre.

For those up for the challenge, Ogita’s book is the best possible preparation. Directions are detailed, proportions work, step-by-step photos bring clarity that words alone cannot. Ogita begins with the three main ingredients (ground almonds, confectioners’ sugar, egg whites), introduces readers to essential equipment (baking mats, pastry bag and tip, mixer), and offers a riot of common and unusual flavors (chocolate, coconut, caramel, hazelnut, coffee, sesame, green tea, pistachio, purple yam). You learn how to make buttercream, pastry cream, ganache, and more.

That said, there are problems. Her baking directions of 375 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes proved decidedly aggressive, at least in this baker’s gas oven (350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes will probably serve you better), and her recipes for fillings are generally less reliable than the two master recipes for macaroons. There is some temptation to quibble with Ogita, but the fact remains that carefully following her instructions will bring most home cooks proximate success after a couple of batches.

Getting the shape right will require great facility with a pastry bag, but your macaroons will probably have the key features of a pied (literally “foot’’ in French, pied is the term for the distinctive band of craquelure around the base), and the unique crisp-chewy texture it should.

There is a simple and irreducible perfection to the macaroon’s form, which Ogita’s editors acknowledge by seeding the book profusely with spare images of single rounds. There is the lone rose macaroon facing the contents page. The two-page spreads showing single biscuits, inscrutably titled “Stylish Gifts’’ and “Crispy Crust!’’ And an entire 12-page section consists of nothing but the plainest portraits of macaroons with different fillings. There are no plates in these photos, no backdrops or tricks of light, no extreme close-ups or abstract-art plating - just macaroon after macaroon, symmetrical and tantalizing.

Which returns us to the question of whether you really want to make your own macaroons, since the middle ground between perfection and pointlessness, narrow already for most pastries, is reduced to a sliver here. A many-layered cake, if the layers are slightly off kilter, or the filling bulges a little, still has majestic height and complex strata. A macaroon that is not perfectly round is an ugly little thing, the pied becoming a warty testament to its insufficiencies rather than a counterweight to the smoothness of its dome.

Though “I Love Macarons,’’ with its macaroon portraits, little exclamations, and six pages of macaroon-specific gift wrapping ideas, seems more an obsessive document of every aspect of the macaroon than a mere manual for their production, the basic macaroon recipes are sound, and provide greater technical clarity on their subject than even some professional baking texts.

A multitude of details suggest an earnest hope that the reader actually puts the recipes to use, from the way filling recipes are perfectly scaled for the little confections to the thoughtful section on how to use leftover egg yolks, since macaroons require whites only. Ogita’s love of macaroons comes across as magnificently sincere, as does her belief that perfection is within the reach of anyone with a mixer and a pastry bag.

I LOVE MACARONS By Hisako Ogita

Chronicle Books, 80 pp., $14.95