#1: Sugar Fixe Pâtisserie #2: Pierrot Gourmet #3: Bennison's
Most peoples' favorite bakery items are just well-made versions of treats they could likely make at home: brownies, cookies, even cupcakes. Then there is the macaron. This petite delicacy is so fickle, so perfectly French, as to be even a great baker's white whale. Macarons require a relative lack of humidity in one's kitchen, since damp air can result in less-than-crisp shells, as well as tremendous forethought, because the egg whites one uses for the shells should be "aged" one to four days before baking. Throw in an insistence on aesthetic perfection, and it's no wonder most home cooks throw their floured hands up in resignation. These demanding pastries, then, are about as excellent a baking accomplishment as a chef can claim.
What Makes a Great Macaron?
We set out to find the most perfect macarons in Chicago, based on a comprehensive, standardized rubric that took into account shell texture, filling texture, flavor, aesthetics, and value. At each bakery or restaurant, we ordered a representative sample of flavors, including standards like chocolate and vanilla as well as any notable "wild card" flavors. In cases when one bakery's macarons had noticeable inconsistencies from flavor to flavor, we averaged our impressions of the cookies.
Here are the attributes we looked for:
- A shell texture that is crisp but not dry, smooth and not at all gritty, and ringed by that perfect crumble near the center (called the "foot").
- Filling texture should be consistent and not too hard.
- Flavor includes how sugary or artificial the cookie tastes, as well as how distinct each flavor is.
- Aesthetics takes into account color, texture, how well-assembled they are, whether the cookies are cracked, and whether the filling is evenly distributed.
- Lastly, value weighs the macarons' quality against their price tag.
Here, in alphabetical order, are the places that we decided to try:
- Al's Deli
- Alliance Bakery
- La Boulangerie
- Pierrot Gourmet
- Sarah's Pastries
- Slurping Turtle
- Sugar Fixe Pâtisserie
- Toni Patisserie and Cafe
And the winner is...
We walked into Sugar Fixé Pâtisserie without any specific expectations and were completely caught off guard by the exceptional quality of their macarons. Not only was the texture ideal—a delicate eggshell crisp that gave way to an airy, but substantial interior—but each of the classic flavors was uniquely nuanced and fresh. The lemon in particular was so well flavored that biting into it was more akin to catching a whiff of a freshly zested lemon than eating. This was the last place we visited, and they made us excited about macarons again.
Of course, though we did our due diligence to seek out as many versions as possible, there may be other excellent macarons that we neglected. As always, feel free to set us straight in the comments, and share any tips you have for baking these persnickety pastries.