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The Secret Life of Macarons

 

After making the gelato for The Crostata, and subsequently 12 Lavander Crème Brulées for Isabella’s French class,  I had to find a home for about 25 egg whites. I obviously believe in somehow using up the other part of the egg after separating it, but on a normal day that belief just inspires me to feel a little guilty while I pour the excess down the sink. Baking is time consuming, and egg whites are fussy, and it just never seemed worth the pain and suffering (because clearly my life lacks perspective). But sometimes extremes are the best medicine, and two things happened that made me change my ways. First I learned that you can freeze egg whites, which easily solved the I-have-no-time problem (rumor has it they last about a month, maybe longer). Second, I remembered that a few days before I acquired all these egg whites, a good friend of mine from Berkeley, who is an excellent baker, texted me a picture of 8 beautiful, perfect, homemade macarons. Even on my phone they looked good. Unfortunately, I live nowhere near Berkeley. I have no money for a plane ticket and I have no car to drive myself. The Google Maps walking directions take 39 days, 17 hours, which I certainly don’t have, and they involve tolls, ferries, and a treck across Canada. They don’t involve sleeping. I was not in the mood for any of that. If I was going to get macarons like hers I was going to have to make them myself.

 

And honstly... look how pretty...

 

The blogosphere is teeming with macarons. Macarons at their best are beautiful, charming and perfect. I hadn’t actually had one until very recently, but I was shocked to discover that they even taste good! They are, as a food, everything a blogger could ever want. I was hesitant to join in the trend so late in the game (and so soon after a red velvet cake…) but again, 25 egg whites. What could I do? But I quickly discovered that, behind the blogs, there is a secret side to the macaron. They can be crinkly, they can get burned, they can be runny and turn into blobs, they can forget to rise, they can stick to the pan, and they can migrate all over the place. Even with Francesca’s help, my first rounds turned out like this:

 

It's like watching the clouds...

 

(Clockwise from top right: The Sea Turtle, The Island of Manhattan, The Funny Crinkle Face, The Empty Shell, The Pancake, and The Duckbill Platypus)

You know you’re in a bad place when The Pancake and The Funny Crinkle Face kind of look like victories. I should warn you, Ladies and Gentlemen, your first few rounds may very well come out like one of these. A lot of websites will give you alternative uses for the macarons that don’t come out, but that’s silly. Fill them anyway. They will look terrible, but everyone in my family agreed that these ones tasted the best.

 

I'm serious. They're hideous, but they're amazing.

 

If you want to leave yours right there, that’s fine, skip to the last paragraph. If not, here are some tips to make perfect macarons of your own.

 

Macarons and Origami, a classic combination...

 

First of all, don’t overmix the batter – the protein in the eggs breaks down so the batter won’t hold together. That’s the difference between Crinkle Cuts and perfect domes, and also the difference between circles and blobs.  On a related note, you should sift the powdered sugar and almond flour together after you process them, so you can avoid creating lumps that may have to break up.

 

 

I don’t recommend using a convection oven. If you do, remember to lower the temperature by about 25°F, though this can vary by oven. Convection reportedly brings mild advantages with rising (though I didn’t notice a difference), but even on lower temperatures it can cook the top of the macaron too fast, leaving the bottom sticky (the inside may remain on the pan, leaving you with a paper-thin shell). When I made them on conventional, they came out perfectly without any adjustments.

 

 

Fourth, very few people or books note this trip, but baking on top of several preheated baking sheets can do wonders for ensuring a crisp bottom, that doesn’t stick too much to the baking sheet. Bread bakers do this all the time to ensure a crisp bottom crust on hearth breads. I used four preheated sheets, but for best results I’d actually recommend using as many as six. This too, however, can vary a lot by oven. You may find your macarons bake better without any sheets at all, and sometimes if my macarons are sticking to the parchment and browning too fast, I find it helps to lower the temperature to around 225°F and stick the parchment directly on the rack so they can crisp up without burning. (Thank you to Duncan, from Syrup and Tang, for clearing this one up. Check out his definitive Macaron guide for more information.)

 

 

The most important thing to do learn the rhythm of macarons based on your kitchen. If it’s humid, leave them out to dry longer, because the skin will take longer to form, if your oven tends a little hot, lower the temperature a little bit, because they may burn.

 

 

The gods of French Pastry will probably smite me for saying this, but these actually have a lot in common with chocolate chip cookies. Yes, they’re delicate and sensitive and pretty too, but when you get down to it, they’re really just a fancy comfort food – gooey, crispy and fun. And no matter where you are on your macaron journey, you can experiment and personalize them. I decided to make macarons in the style of the Poire Belle Helène – a classic flavor combination of pear, chocolate and almonds – because we had pear liqueur on hand, but you can add any liqueur or extract, and fill them accordingly. If you want to make a more authentic Poire Belle Helène, serve them with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or scrape some vanilla bean into the batter, but again, that part doesn’t matter. To be perfectly honest, none of this does really matter. These tips will help you make the perfect macaron, which is rewarding beyond belief. But even if they don’t come out, they will be less photogenic but just as (maybe more) yummy. And that’s the true secret behind macarons: if you don’t feel you can make them perfectly, you can and should make them anyway. Your taste buds will be none the wiser.

 

Macarons Belle Helène – Pear Macarons with Chocolate Ganache
Adapted from the French Culinary Institute

115 grams (4 ounces) almond flour
200 grams (7 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon pear liqueur
yellow food coloring
green food coloring

90 grams (3 1/4 ounces) egg whites, preferably old, at room temperature
8 grams (2 tablespoons) confectioners’ sugar

6 tablespoons heavy cream
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips (or chocolate chopped up in to smaller pieces) (you can use milk, dark, or semisweet too, whatever you like)

1. Preheat oven to 325°F, and place 3-6 baking sheets, stacked, on a rack in the middle of the oven {make sure you’ll be able to put the one with the macarons on top of that though ;) }
2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper
3. Combine the almond flour and 200 grams sugar in the bowl of a food processor and process for about a minute, until very fine. Sift through a fine sieve, and set aside.
4. Place egg whites and liqueur in the bowl of a stand mixer, with 2 drops of yellow food coloring and one drop of green. If you prefer a deeper color, use 4 drops of yellow and two drops of green. Beat on low speed (about 2 on a Kitchenaid) until aerated. Add 8 grams sugar and raise speed to high, and beat for about 3 minutes, until soft peaks form. Don’t overwhip the egg whites, or they’ll be harder to fold into the rest of the ingredients and you may end up overmixing.
5. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the almond mixture in 2-3 additions, to prevent clumping Add next addition when first one is mostly, but not entirely folded in.
6. Transfer batter to a pastry bag with a #2 tip.
7. Pipe fifty 1-inch rounds onto the parchment lined baking sheet and set aside for 20 minutes-1 hour, until a skin forms on the surface.
8. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until firm, and just slightly beginning to brown around the edges. If you nudge a macaroon, it shouldn’t shift off its foot. If it does, it’s not done. Watch them very carefully as they bake so they don’t burn.
9. Transfer macarons to cooling rack. If they don’t come off the sheet easily, transfer the whole sheet of parchment to the cooling rack and leave there for a few hours, then carefully peel off.
10. While they’re cooling, pour the chocolate for the ganache into a bowl, and bring cream to a boil in a saucepan over high heat.
11. Pour cream over chocolate and let sit for one minute, then stir.
12. Let ganache cool until spreadable. Then spread, or pipe, ganache in a circle just inside the edges of one of the macarons. Place another macaron on top, and there you go! You made it! Photograph extensively, text all your friends… or just eat and enjoy.

Written by Gabrielle

Gabrielle is a snap-happy college student with a small budget and a big appetite. Her column on the Fig Test Kitchen documents her adventures learning to cook for herself and reminds us all to take life with a Grain of Salt.

8 Responses to “The Secret Life of Macarons”

  • That was a fun commentary on making macarons, and the freedom to experiment too:) I have to contradict one thing though, I’m sorry: stacking baking sheets is a solution for some people, entirely depending on the heat distribution in their oven. Others will find they need the opposite – more heat, less metal. I wrote about the problems of oven heat here if you don’t mind me linking.

    • Whoops I’ll correct that immediately! It’s crazy how baking can vary based on your kitchen, especially with something like Macarons. Thank you SO much for visiting and for your feedback, and especially for making such a wonderful guide :)

  • E.T.:

    This is a useful post, but you should know that alcohol denatures the protein in egg whites, so anyone hand-whipping their egg whites (or really, anyone without a kitchenaid) will have a hell of a time getting anything but a granular mess out of their whites. (I have first-hand experience with this.) This problem may have been one of the reasons why some of your initial products didn’t rise. For any first-time macaron bakers out there, working with extracts might not be such a good idea, as extracts are made using an alcohol base.

    • Gabrielle:

      That’s a very good point, thanks for reminding me! The problems are, in fact, related, since over-mixing breaks down egg white protein just as alcohol can. And since that can take a little while, it makes sense that beating them by hand would cause the same kind of runny mess. The good news is, even if you don’t have a kitchenaid and can’t experiment with extracts and liqueurs, you can still have fun with fillings, no matter what :)

  • Hi Gabrielle. I don’t think the liqueur would be problematic if added to the almond meal in advance (permitting some evaporation), and especially in the Italian meringue method. However, I don’t think you are really getting any benefit from the *liqueur* aspect of it anyway: using pear syrup in the Italian meringue would be an interesting experiment, or just flavouring the ganache would be the more conventional (and easier) approach:)

    • Gabrielle:

      How far in advance would you add it to the almond meal? Would that really not cause clumping? In the future I’ll definitely experiment with putting some syrup in, using the Italian Meringue method… that would be lots of fun. But I think that the best method for E.T. would definitely be flavoring the ganache, because, as you said, that’s much easier, and it’s challenging enough to have to whip your egg whites by hand :P

  • Yes, the liquid would cause clumping initially, but you loosen the damp clumpy bit with some meringue and then it’ll (should) all mix together fine. Do you have an electric hand beater or electric whisk attachment for a wand? Either of those make it possible to use the Italian meringue method:)

    • Gabrielle:

      I have both, and after giving a few cooking demos at the farmers market I now have about 30 egg whites to play with, so I’ll definitely give it a try :) Thanks so much for your help!

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