oh my gosh. i can DO this. ::::
For months I have been contemplating the Everest of my cooking experience so far: macarons. I’ve perused numerous recipes, wanting to combine flavor ideas, fillings, whatever, but felt the whole process was too complicated to fiddle with in my macaron-making naivete. When I saw a local Sur La Table had a cooking class to show me, I signed up immediately. This, I thought, will be my saving grace from macaron failure.
And I got to make real macarons. Not macaroons. Forget the double “oo” — those suckers pale in comparison. French macarons are the ultimate cookie. They look cute, maybe even a little nonchalant. Maybe you think they look too girly. Or are devoid of flavor. But if you haven’t tasted them, prepare to have your mind blown when you do. The flavor combinations are also endless, making it one of the most permuted cookies. The traditional almond base is also very maleable. Try other nuts. Try sesame seeds. Pepitas. Cacao nibs, even. The fillings range from jams, buttercreams, ganaches, even spicy ketchup (thanks to the brilliant mind of David Lebovitz, of ice cream recipes and foodblogger fame). The class held at Sur La Table gave me the basics for success. It was up to me to follow that success fully with the tips that Chef Hillary Freeman gave us. I was brimming with excitement when I entered the kitchen classroom; I seriously wanted to hug the chef. Instead, I grabbed a glass of water, and nibbled daintily on the tarragon frittata and cheese while waiting for other class attenders to arrive.
We learned how to sift ad nauseum (very important — don’t skimp), mix (fold, don’t smash!), pipe, and thwack the pans of macarons waiting to be baked. We discussed the dainty pieds, those sweet feet of the macarons. We had a quickie lesson on buttercreams (see my last post on a brief buttercream primer), then got to filling our petit rounds ourselves. And then we were told we had to wait 48 hours for perfection. It’s like telling a kid in a candy store to buy anything you want, all the gummy bears, the pecan turtles, the parmaviolets, the milk gums, then WAIT for two DAYS until he/she can touch any of it. Allowing the filling to meld into the cookie and soften it creates the macaron. While we tasted a couple whilst filling them, I did wait for most of them. Well, a day. And they were still awesome.
As much as I wanted to make macarons that weekend at home after the great tips I learned in class, it was not to be. We had relatives visiting. It was Grub’s birthday weekend. And I had just made a huge batch of turbinado sugar cookies. Not that my foray into macaron-making that day would have been lost on full stomachs: there was at least three of us (me, my jet-setting sister-in-law back from Paris and some real French macaron sampling, and undoubtedly Peach) who would have scarfed up airplane- and car-shaped sugar cookies and moved right on to the airy, sweet perfection of the macaron. The class group work yielded just a few creations, a few to each participant, and it was certainly not enough to share with a crowd of birthday celebrators. Peach, sister-in-law, mother-in-law, and eventually Eat did taste them the next day, all agreeing that yes, macarons are awesome, and yes, we need to make them for Christmas, loads of them!, and store them in the freezer for special guests in the future. That is, if we don’t eat all of them first.
I did a little more
obsessing research since then also, deciding how to flavor the macarons I planned to make. These are the top choices: First, lemon macarons with elderflower french buttercream as my first trial. For Christmas, peppermint-vanilla macarons with peppermint buttercream seemed appropriate, with the little crunchy bits of candy canes to make mint lovers just go Gah! Heaven! Lastly, a Valentine’s Day surprise with heart-shaped macarons (gasp!) and some strawberry or raspberry filling. Maybe I’ll even try the coffee macaron with blackberry fruit filling recipe that I found in Gourmet magazine eons ago. My proverbial macaron plate was full soon after the petit creations from class were consumed, with nary a new macaron in sight yet. I once again overplanned my kitchen exploits.
It was a Tuesday morning, a day off from work, that I finally jumped in, pieds first. I had aged my egg whites. I had the right number of pans. I had almost the right powdered sugar. (It’s recommended that one uses powdered sugar without any cornstarch. I couldn’t find any without any cornstarch in it, so I got the best sugar I could with little cornstarch). While the original recipe recreated what I learned in class with my addition of lemon zest, I felt the macarons were too sweet. I’m weird.
What about a less sugar macaron? I’m sure some of you are aghast. Although I do want to explore savory macarons (you wouldn’t believe how many permutations I’ve already imagined ….salmon and cream cheese, mushroom….), I wanted to create a less sugary version so the flavor is more pronounced. So I flip-flopped the amounts of powdered sugar and almonds. I came up with perfect little macarons shells, but with less of a foot on each. I made a wonderful coffee flavored shell. The coffee-blackberry macaron recipe recommended using blackberry jam, so I used a comparable blackberry fruit spread from the store. Not jam. Not jelly. The result was perfect for someone with immediate pleasing needs: the filling was a bit wetter, therefore soaking into the macaron shells more quickly and “ageing” them more quickly. Instead of the two day age in the fridge after assembly, they were ready to eat right away. There is a drawback. A huge one. They didn’t keep very well the second day (yes, we actually had some leftover), a bit too soft and moist to be presentable. And the ones in the freezer were mushy gobs after thawing. Even the kids thought they were gross. I almost cried, even though I still ate the ugly things. Most of them. Lesson learned: to fill, use ONLY buttercream, ganache, curds, and actual recipes that make fruit puree for macarons instead of wet jars of fruit spread. Don’t go all quickie unless you expect to eat every last mac the day you assemble them. The up-side is that you could turn out of macarons the day of an event and you wouldn’t have to go through the assembled mac ageing in the fridge.
In summary, the lemon macarons passed with flying colors from Eat and the kids, though a too sweet for me. I wanted more elderflower flavor in the buttercream. The decreased sugar content in the coffee macaron shells were more my style, despite the filling fiasco. Then the peppermint beauties I turned out for Christmas – top notch. I’ve included that recipe here with photos of the lemon and coffee flavors as well.
What I learned from this whole experience is that macarons are very easy to make once you have all the tools and confidence to do so. It takes effort. And time. And patience. But who can refuse a cookie like this? (Even the ugly ones get eaten.) I’ve included a lot of helpful hints I learned from the cooking class in the recipe text. Also take what you can from my errors above so that you don’t waste a perfect macaron photo op or chance to impress you friends with your ability to bake these little gems.
So are you not interested in baking these? Too daunting? Or not enough time? I felt the same way at first. For a baby shower I attended, I really wanted to bring macarons, but my work schedule did not allow me to take the time to make them. My friend Sary, pastry chef extraordinaire, rose to the occasion. She made me some WONDERFUL lemon macarons (so much better than mine), strawberry macarons (perfect tangy and sweet), and some chocolate macarons (recipe testing – and we got to eat the tests). If you live in the San Jose, California area and want some of your own macarons without the time or desire to make them yourself, Sary is the person to call. She is up for new flavor combos for macarons, and other sweets like cupcakes and cakes if you desire. Her webpage is through facebook at Sweet Saphie Rae.
My tips are included below. I also referred to the amazing pastry chef Stella at the Brave Tart blog for macaron-making tips. She is one of the smartest and nicest bloggers around. She has even more helpful hints than I do, so I suggest a look if you have some troubleshooting to do.
1. Use a digital scale to be consistent. Macarons are finicky and need a scale in order to get the ratios of ingredients right. I spent $16 on my scale — well worth it. Don’t trust a recipe without weights.
2. Use almond flour, NOT meal. A good place to purchase it is Amazon. Look for the Honeyville brand. Bob’s Red Mill is also good, and found in stores like Whole Foods. And when using, sift, sift, sift! Many times! Sift the dry ingredients at least 3 times before using. I’ll talk about that in the recipe also. If you look closely in my photos, you can see some of the larger pieces of almond meal that got through the sieve. It’s better to have a very fine sieve for a floury consistency. It didn’t bother me, as my sifting got rid of most of the larger pieces.
3. Your powdered sugar should be cornstarch free. The class recommended the Miss Roben’s brand, also found online. My powdered sugar had some cornstarch and worked fine. I used C&H brand.
4. Egg whites need to be aged. This means allowing them to sit in the fridge UNCOVERED for 2 days. This helps dry them out. Before using them, they work best in whipping when at room temperature. (So much planning! But it will be worth it.) Worried about overbeating them? No fear, friends, as sugar is here. Sugar added during the whipping stage coats the egg protein, making it hard to overbeat the whites. You want those whites to be stiff, very stiff.
5. If you are adding food colorings (gel colors by Wilton are preferred over the liquid food coloring) or wet flavorings, do so AFTER the egg whites are beaten. When adding dry flavorings (like cocoa, nut powders, teas), mix and sift with the almond meal. UPDATE: After reading more bloggers’ advice on macaron making, some report the Wilton colors don’t hold up color-wise with baking (there is some browning). The Americolor brand is recommended. In France, DecoRelief is a good one. Powdered food coloring is also an option.
6. Get a template of small circles to use for piping sizing. It’s much easier than trying to eyeball it. You can just cut and paste a bunch of circles on a piece of paper and use it underneath parchment to pipe, removing the templates before baking. There are also numerous internet sources for free pre-made templates.
7. Your most important image whilst making macarons is a slow volcano. Your batter should be like lava: slow-moving. Otherwise, you’ll have messy drippy batter coming out of the piping bag uncontrollably, like some sort of macaron diarrhea. It’s not pretty.
8. Bake with two layers of baking sheets. This means two high quality baking sheets stacked on stop of each other to accommodate one pan of macarons. Otherwise, the cookies will bake too quickly on the bottoms. You do NOT want brown macarons. An oven thermometer is very helpful. It can help determine if your oven runs hot, and you can fiddle with the temperature to match 300 degrees F closely.
*Whew!* That was a lot of work. Have a great holiday — I’ll be taking a little break for Christmas. Next blog post in about a week!
- 4 ounces cornstarch-free powdered sugar
- 7 ounces almond flour
- 4 ounces egg whites, aged and at room temperature
- pinch of cream of tartar (optional - it helps the egg whites whip, but not necessary)
- 3½ ounces granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon peppermint extract
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- crushed candy canes (powdery to sandy consistency - I went with a large grain consistency)
- filling of your choice (I used my Swiss buttercream recipe with ½ teaspoon peppermint extract added.)
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees F, racks positioned in the middle. Prepare your parchment paper macaron templates and line baking sheet. (You may draw circles on the parchment paper, or use a paper with circles drawn on it underneath the diaphanous parchment, removing the template before baking.)
- Pulse about ⅓ of the powdered sugar and all the almond flour in a food processor to form a fine powder. In a medium mixing bowl, combine remaining powdered sugar and almond flour and sift 4 times. Yes, FOUR. Set aside.
- In a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a wire-whip attachment, whisk egg whites and cream of tartar (if using) on medium speed until foamy. Gradually add granulated sugar. once all sugar is incorporated, scrape down sides of bowl, and increase speed to high, whisking until stiff, firm, glossy peaks form. To check this, take your whisk attachment off and flip it over. Are the whites holding up? Or do they bend a little? Bending means the egg whites are not stiff enough. Scrape the bottom of the bowl also, as those egg whites may need more beating.
- When egg whites are stiff. REALLY stiff, add the peppermint and vanilla extracts.
- Sift the almond flour mixture ⅓ at a time over the egg-white mixture, and fold using a large silicon spatula until mixture is smooth and shiny. The first addition is usually the hardest. Fold the mixture carefully: don't smash it. Lift!
- Once the almond flour mixture is incorporated, check to see the batter is nicely firm and drips slowly from the spatula (Remember my notes? Like lava, slow, controlled, you get the idea.)
- Transfer batter to pastry bag fitting with a ½-inch plain, round tip (#12), and pipe rounds on parchment-lined baking sheets (your templates may be ¾-inch rounds, 1-1/3-inch rounds, even an 8-inch pan for a crazy macaron cake!). Don't put the macarons too close together because they will stick together when baking. Need some lessons on piping? You Tube has scads of them. The trick is to be gentle and consistent, without twirling the piping tip around like you are decorating a cake - NO! Don't drink caffeine beforehand; you don't want to be jittery. Think of it like the archers in the Olympics. Aim, focus, gentle, and release! (Videos really are better than my description). If you have some minor peaks, you can gently rub them down with a lightly damp fingertip.
- When piping is completed for one sheet, rap it hard on the counter to release trapped air. This is also important to help form the pied, or the foot, of the macaron.
- Sprinkle crushed candy cane bits on top of drying macarons.
- Let stand at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes. Macarons are ready to bake when they no longer stick to a finger when lightly touched.
- Remember to stack your baking sheet on an empty baking sheet and remove the templates from underneath the parchment (if using). Bake one sheet at time (may do two sheets if they fit in the oven), rotating pan halfway through, until macarons are crisp and firm. This is the trick: check at 7 minutes and rotate pan. If there is browning (Ahhhh! Nooooo!), then turn down the oven to 275 degrees F. Check the macarons at 12 minutes: touching them gently with a fingertip should give no wiggle and they're done. If a wiggle, put them back in the oven for 2 minutes and check again.
- Let macarons cool on baking sheets for 2 to 3 minutes, and transfer to wire rack to cool completely before filling.
- Filling ideas are endless. See my buttercream post or choose your favorite ganache, curd, or similar.
- Decorating with fruit powders can also add a special pizazz, if you don't want to use crushed candy. Chef Hilary recommended trying grating freeze dried fruit over the tops of drying macarons before baking for a hint of fruitiness. Using edible glitter and a little vodka as a "water" to paint (like I did for my butterfly ombre cake) on top of the baked, but unfilled macarons, is glamorous.
- The hardest part: waiting to eat these lovelies. After baking and filling, Chef Hilary said the macarons needed to age for 48 hours. Ahhhhh! It's like giving a kid a lollipop and saying "Now hold onto that for 2 days, smell it, feel it, but DON'T eat it." The ageing process in the fridge actually helps deepen the flavors and soften the cookie. It is perfection!