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Cookie maestros
Move over cupcakes, macarons are in the house

They've been all the rage in Paris for a couple of centuries, but America is just catching on to the magic of the macaron.

The meringue-based sandwich cookies have been popping up on food blogs and highbrow events as of late, and with the 2011 opening of famed Parisian patisserie Ladurée in Manhattan, it appears that macarons may be readying to topple cupcakes as the confection of the moment.

Fortunately for Savannah, Laura Hale and Amy Shippy are out in front of the trend.

The best friends founded Maison de Macarons barely a year ago and found an instantaneous and ever-increasing demand for their multicolored goodies. Not to be confused with the coconut-based macaroons found in many American bakeries and ubiquitous this time of year during Passover, macarons are made from almond flour and are definitively French.

The two share a common ancestor in the Italian "maccarone," a term for most anything made from egg whites and nuts. With an endless repertoire of flavors that include chocolate, raspberry and salted caramel, the French version has found enthusiastic acceptance with the American palate. Though some, especially Southerners, still trip up on the pronunciation.

"Try it like 'macaroni' without the 'i'," suggests Shippy.

Made of almond flour, sugar and egg whites and filled with buttercream, macarons may appear simple but require high maintenance: It takes an intimate relationship with each oven's idiosyncrasies to perfect the distinctive ruffled "feet" on the bottoms. The cookies have the persnickety tendency to crack when baked even a few second too long or squish up if not settled properly. Even how many times the batter is stirred can upset the delicate marriage of crunch and chewiness. Measurements must be exact.

"It's deceptive because there are just a few ingredients. But any time you're dealing with meringue, it gets complicated," sighs Hale, who adds that every time the weather changes, they have to adjust their recipes.

"We have been humbled by the gods of macarons," laughs Shippy.

The two avowed soccer moms weren't planning to open a business, let alone forge a new food fad. But after their contributions to a neighborhood Christmas cookie swap were a runaway hit, they began filling orders out of Hale's kitchen. They quickly had to move to a commercial space off Skidaway to keep up and relocated eight months later to a storefront next to the movie theater at Waters and Eisenhower.

"We needed a little more showroom and a lot more kitchen," says Hale.

Charmingly decorated with Parisian flourishes and a mural of the Champs-Elysees painted by Shippy's mother-in-law, Maison de Macarons is large enough to accommodate the 800 cookies a day coming through and cozy enough to stay for a cup of tea. A Dylan Wilson photograph of the Bird Girl brandishing trays of its wares overlooks a large glass case.

Inside, a kaleidoscope of rounds are arranged as carefully as a precious jewels, dusky pinks nestled next to robin's egg blues and pistachio greens.

"The aesthetics are important. As much as taste matters, it's also eye candy," affirms Shippy.

But what goes into their macarons is the foremost concern. Everything — and these ladies mean everything — is made from scratch, from the whole almonds milled every morning to the caramel to the Irish cream being whipped up for St. Patrick's Day. (Also on the Maison shelves for Savannah's favorite holiday is a black-and-tan macaron flavored with Guinness.)

"Maybe it's obsessive, but we feel that using the best ingredients makes all the difference, and we're very committed to that," says Shippy. "If it has fruit in it, it came in here as a fruit."

Though the partners are both quick to say they are not trained chefs, their macaron efforts have been praised by professionals, including Savannah Tech's culinary guru, Chef Jean Vandeville, a Frenchman and avowed macaron expert.

"We're not French, and we get a little nervous when a French person tries our macarons," admits Hale. "But so far, we've had a lot of validation."

The Maison's macarons have been making visually stunning appearances at local bridal shows and other events. They're available to ship nationwide for $1.89 each or $20 a dozen.

Naturally gluten-free and a delight to the eye as well as the palate, it's easy to assess why macarons are the dessert world's Next Big Thing.

However, not everyone has heard the news.

"There's an educational curve," smiles Hale.

"We still have people come in who ask 'where's the coconut?'"