Macaroon eaters fervently divide into different camps. Purists know that all macaroons were originally, by definition, almond-paste-based. But modernists think coconut is more fun. And the truly liberated eat them encased in chocolate (think Mounds bar) or studded with chocolate chips. Then there are issues of texture and consistency. Macaroons meander from the cookie territory almost into candy land. They can be light and airy, or sticky and dense, rough and crumbly, (especially with shredded coconut) or smooth and mealy.
In place of almond paste, coconut macaroons get their heft from condensed milk. In both versions, the only other ingredients likely to get involved are egg whites, sugar, salt, almond or vanilla extract. Flour and baking soda are never found in a proper macaroon recipe, so they’re a natural Passover tradition. Since some of my best friends are Jews, I took myself on a macaroon walking tour of the Lower East Side in order to research the best “Kosher For Passover” varieties to bring to Seders next week.
Gertel’s Bake Shoppe
53 Hester Street
At Gertel’s, everything is Kosher for Passover, so if those rum balls strike your fancy, go for it. But the macaroons, available in coconut or almond, are not to be missed. They come pre-packaged (about 20 for $9 each), but have no fear—they are freshly baked on the premises. In fact, they were the freshest and, in my opinion, the all-around best macaroons I encountered on my tour. They’re large, airy and dry outside, and chewy just in the center. The real standout feature is the toasty, crunchy brown exterior. Of course, many people like their macaroons sticky and wet, and if that’s you, keep moving. Plus Gertel’s’ have a pinch of salt and are not overly sweet—another pitfall of the genre.
The Sweet Life
63 Hester Street
Just a few doors down from Gertel’s, but about a half century younger, The Sweet Life has been keeping candy nostalgia alive for 23 years. It’s not strictly a Jewish shop, but the neighborhood memories are upheld in the form of jelly rings, halvah, and, for Passover, macaroons made in Brooklyn. These are smaller, wetter, denser, and sweeter than Gertel’s. (They’re proudly labeled “Soft ‘n’ Chewy!” on the website.) Almond, coconut, and coconut chocolate chip are $5.99 per pound, and dark chocolate-covered coconut macaroons are $6.99.
108 Rivington Street
Though people ask about them all year-round, Economy Candy, the famous source for old school sweets, got in about 600 pounds of macaroons—also from Brooklyn—about two weeks ago. And the store staff says they’ll be gone by Wednesday, the first night of Passover. Like the cookies at The Sweet Life, these are small and soft—easily squashed between a thumb and forefinger. But the almond variety is surprisingly lemony, and chocolate-covered coconut macaroons taste like they have almond paste in them as well. Maybe all the sugar is going to my head, but I swear there’s a hint of nutmeg in the chocolate chip variety.
Russ & Daughters
179 East Houston Street
On the counter at Russ and Daughters, over the wonderfully stinky fish displays, sit to-go containers of macaroons—coconut and almond—for $5.99 per pound, and chocolate-covered for $7.49 per pound. These are on the wet side but firm and well-textured inside. The taste is pure coconut and not overly sweet (let’s be clear, though—they’re all very sugary). If you really want to impress your host, or auntie, or whoever, splurge on some of the big, half chocolate-dipped macaroons, which reside in a tall glass jar and go for $7.49 per half pound. These are clearly made with care (and good chocolate) and retain the grainy quality of shredded coconut throughout.
52 Avenue A
The bad version of anything can still hold a special place in someone’s heart, especially when it evokes childhood memories. Because I know more than one person with a guilty fondness for store-bought macaroons, I swung by Key Foods to round out my tour. Simcha Delite’s coconut macaroons (12 ounces, $3.99) are quite pale and lemony (could it be the potassium sorbate—or the “natural flavors”?), with a disturbingly smooth texture inside. Sketchier are the Messing brand macaroons, which come in an airtight cardboard canister with a pull-tab (10 ounces, $2.39), are available in some inventive flavors, like “Brownie Nut N’ Chip,” and are heavily flavored with cocoa powder. The plain coconut variety are severely sweet and the chewiest of all. As a friend put it, despite her own attachment to these cookies, “You wouldn’t ever bring those to someone’s house.”