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Macarons 101

March 8, 2018

 

 French macarons are sweet sandwich cookies made with a meringue, almond flour, sugar and colored with food dye with any number of fillings- ganache, buttercream, curd, etc. They’re prized for their unique texture, ruffled circumference referred to in french at “pied” or feet, and notoriously finicky and unreliable batter. Food Network has declared it “The World’s Most Impossible Cookie” and even the best specialty French macaron bakeries have to throw away as much as a third of them due to failure. They’re truly unique in flavor and texture, and if you’ve ever had one, you’ll likely remember it for the rest of your life. There’s simply no other pastry like it in the world.

 

French Macarons are undoubtably and without hesitation- MY ARCH NEMESIS. I’ve spent the better part of the last 8 years attempting them, studying them, researching them, swearing at them, and a lot of the times… waving to them as they slid ungracefully into the garbage can. Several times they worked, many times they did not. That’s when I’d go on binges and bake until I either got them perfect…or got myself perfectly pissed off. This intrigued me- why did they fail so much? How can one cookie be so hard to master? Which is why, for 10 straight days in February for this post, I made as many macarons as possible, changing only one single variable each time in an attempt to ascertain what really matters and what doesn’t.

 

I’ve tried weighing, not weighing. Pulverizing my own almonds, using pre-ground ones, I’ve made them in multiple ovens in multiple cities (even in the ohio Appalachian mountains 5 hours south of me- They are my crowning glory and what I refer to as my Appalachian Batch. Ahh I was so happy with those. Such fond memories.) I’ve made them in different meteorological conditions varying in both humidity and season. I tracked the phases of the moon and calculated when Mercury was in retrograde.

 

Just kidding. (Unless you think that would help?)

 

 

All in all, for this blog post, I ended up making more than 20 batches of macarons. Obviously above is only a small portion of the ones tested on day 1, no table in my house could hold them all! Each batch was different than the last totaling over 1800 individual macaron shells, which equates to over 900 macaron sandwich cookies. I wanted to make sure the information I brought you wasn’t just research from others or random tips that rumored to work. These are the honest results from all the testing I did, to the best of my ability. Also done to the best of my ability? My odds of getting carpal tunnel. Between working in dentistry full-time, blogging, cooking/baking and photography- I’m giving myself a 98% likelihood of this at some point in my life. But I have NO REGRETS-that’s how good french macarons are! Even the ones that didn’t work out perfectly were delicious, keep that in mind when making these!

 

 

First off, let’s get one thing out of the way- macaron or macaroon? Yes, they’re two different things-if you’re in America. Although both delicious, a macaroon is an American-made cookie made up of shredded coconut, egg whites, vanilla and sugar. It’s the dropped into circles and baked. Yummy? You bet. But is it the airy, time-consuming, all-encompassing almond meringue French macaron with an obsessive cult following? No, it is not. In Europe, however, it’s referred to by both spellings since they don’t have coconut macaroons in France, so no confusion there. Alas, this distinction isn’t widely known, except for maybe pastry chefs, francophiles, or extremely stubborn home-bakers with a love of correct spelling (Hi.) To me, knowing the difference between them is like knowing the difference between their, there and they’re- you just should. It’s a pet peeve of mine, maybe because I inwardly cringe when people leave the -h off my name and hand me a name tag for a “Sara”. Where I promptly sharpie in the -h in the bathroom because I can’t stand looking at it. (I know, suuuper professional.) Anybody else have these kinds of name problems? Let’s get together to start the support group I just realized I needed for this. Also, I’m sorry to any real-life Sara’s reading this- i’m sure you’re all kind and wonderful souls, who get equally upset when people add that -h onto your name. If we’re ever at the same event,  I’ll meet you in the bathroom and we can switch out name tags. So, in conclusion: French Macaron ≠ American Macaroon, Their ≠ Their ≠ They’re, Sarah ≠ Sara.

 

Thank you for your time.

 

 

Macarons have an impressive history, dating all the way back to 8th century Venetian monasteries, and later achieving french royalty status at the wedding of Italian-born Catherine di Medici to her husband King Henry II. Her Italian pastry chefs brought the recipe back to France, where it flourished during the renaissance and became a culinary classic. They were then sold by two Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution to pay for their housing in the city of Nancy, France-creating even more notoriety for the dessert, along with earning them the name “Les Soeurs Macaron” or The Macaron Sisters. The city of Nancy later honored the sisters by naming part of the famous street after them, where the city’s first macaron factory was later built. Rumor has it that Catherine Di Medici’s granddaughter generations later was saved from starvation by eating macarons in that same town of Nancy near Paris. Poetically and iconically saved by the very same dish that her own grandmother initially brought to the country years earlier? Only the french could make starvation sound so hopelessly chic.

 

So why DO mystery and intrigue surround the creation of the perfect French Macaron? Well for starters, the batter is VERY temperamental and undoubtedly requires several things to occur simultaneously in order to achieve perfection. And unfortunately, not all those things are going to be in your control at any given time-which is why macarons have the reputation they do. However, you can help prepare yourself for success by following certain procedures, giving yourself a little time to plan, along with the patience to practice. Then there’s the one rule you must follow – and this is important– factor in failure. It will more than likely take a few attempts before you figure out how to make this recipe work for your kitchen, in your oven, in your city, made by your hands. See? There’s a lot of factors, but they’re fairly easy to manage once you know what to look for. After EXHAUSTIVELY testing out macaron recipes for 10 days straight (well, years really, but that’s not the point) I’ve concluded that there are essentially four general concepts to consider when making your own at home, which I have dubbed The Four Factors of Macarons: Table, Tools, Temperature, and Technique.

 

 

THE FOUR FACTORS OF MACARONS:

 

TABLE:

By this I mean what ingredients are on your table and how are they prepared? In the case of macarons this is especially important in several ways. The components of a french macaron are simple and fairly straightforward, but as with most recipes with few ingredients- the quality of each one is critical.

 

You want finely ground blanched almond flour, I like King Arthur Flour or Bob’s Red Mill, but I’ve also found it at my local organic grocer in their bulk foods bins. Make sure you sift it well along with the powdered sugar and your batter will be nice and smooth. You don’t need to sift it three times- I promise. Oh, and avoid grinding your own almonds into flour form since if not done properly it can release the oils in the almonds and create this wet-sand consistency that, unless I’m on an actual beach and referring to my toes, I don’t want to see. I tried grinding my own and it looked oily and awful and messed up the macaron batter consistency. And since almonds and almond flour are both on the more expensive side, don’t waste it like I did and just leave it to the pros on this one.

 

If you’re planning to use food coloring, I strongly advise using soft gel food color – the fragile batter can’t handle the increase in water that a liquid food color would require to achieve any noticeable shade difference. I like Americolor brand a lot, they are so concentrated you only need a few drops to get gorgeous colors. You can buy individual colors at most cake decorating or craft stores, and of course like 99% of everything ever, here on Amazon.

 

And lastly- The Great Egg Debate. Ideally you want egg whites that are left out to age for a while before beating into a meringue. The process of aging egg whites is done with macarons for an important reason- egg whites that are at room temperature whip up faster and better because leaving them out dehydrates them. This allows for less moisture and more air because you’re essentially breaking down or “denaturing” the proteins that would otherwise coil up in a cold egg white. Bottom line: a relaxed egg makes for a happy meringue. But how long do you leave the egg whites out for? I laughed when doing the research for this post because old french recipes call for separating the eggs in advance, covering them with plastic wrap, poking holes in it and then letting it sit out at room temperature for an entire week. Umm…no. Eww and just…no. But I had to know: where did this concept of aging your egg whites come from? Why? Does it even work? Well as it turns out, it’s origins aren’t so crazy after all. In Europe at that time all eggs were fresh from local chickens and never refrigerated to begin with, therefore they remained viable for a whole week. Even nowadays in Europe it’s actually still recommended eggs are NOT refrigerated because their hens are treated before they lay eggs with a vaccine that prevents salmonella transmission and they apply a naturally occurring coat to the shells to prevent outside contamination.

 

 

So I ask again- is it safe? Well the short answer is…no. Not if you live in the U.S. anyway. In the United States producers rely on preventing salmonella from the outside ONLY per the USDA, so most companies thoroughly clean the eggs and then spray with a chlorine mist.  The best bet for an American home cook is to separate your egg whites into a glass bowl, cover them and refrigerate for 24 hours. Then about 30-60 minutes before you’re ready to begin, take them out and let then come to room temperature. Personally I leave the egg whites out the night before I plan to make them, so they’re ready in the morning when I whip them up. I’ve never ever had a problem this way, but of course this is my own preference! Just know that keeping them refrigerated and only taking them out to use them in less than 2 hours is what’s recommended by the government and major egg distributors.

 

I’m also going to add in one more unconventional thing to the required item list, and that’s time. I believe that in many forms of baking, time should be considered an ingredient and not a by-product of the process. With a lot of traditional European pastries like croissants and macarons this holds especially true. The time needed for or in-between some of these steps is non-negotiable and you should try to consider time as a critical ingredient and not something that can be left out. Egg white aging takes time, as does the meringue, the formation of the skins on the shells, refrigeration after piping the filling in. Most of this time is not hands-on though, which makes it easy to work it into a Sunday project while you’re hanging out around the house, or on a Saturday in-between plans for serving at a Sunday brunch. I promise it will be worth it!

 

 

TOOLS:

A scale is crucial because this temperamental batter calls for a certain ratio of ingredients to work. Weighing your ingredients is the only way to reliably know how much of any given thing you have- measuring volumetrically doesn’t yield consistent results. Don’t believe me? Try scooping a dry good like flour manually with a measuring cup like you otherwise would do. Then place that same scoop onto a scale and see if it weighs a perfect 120 grams. See? A scale is the best way to measure out ingredients, especially in baked goods that rely so much on precise ratios to work. There’s no other way to know for sure- and this is FRENCH MACARONS, PEOPLE. It’s the olympics of pastry! Do you think the Olympic athletes didn’t do everything possible in their power to guarantee their odds of winning? Of course they did. Did I just compare olympic sports to french pastry-making? Yes. Yes, I did. And if there were judges here they’d all vote unanimously in my favor on this one. You are here to WIN!

 

I’d also recommend a stand mixer or hand-mixer here- the meringue aspect of the recipe is NOT a task for your biceps and a whisk alone. Trust me. Also, always whip your egg whites in a clean, dry metal bowl with a metal whisk. The egg whites won’t whip up in a plastic bowl because the plastic-y ions get in the way of the fluffy poofy ions to creating a swirling vortex of fail sauce.

 

#Science.

 

Okay, in all seriousness, the short version of this is that fat particles LOVE to stick to plastic and remain in microscopic amounts, in the scratches and dents of a plastic bowl. Fat is the enemy of a meringue as it deflates any volume you hope to achieve from the egg whites. Ergo: a deflated meringue = swirling vortex of fail sauce. My way sounded better. Just sayin’.

 

A food processor or a small, clean coffee grinder is helpful for pulsing the granulated sugar into a superfine texture, but it’s not absolutely crucial. If you have it and it’s there, I’d do it, it helps to integrate into the egg whites and whip up a smoother meringue. I always do it now that I have the equipment, as my own little insurance. In the past  i’ve used just granulated sugar and they’ve turned out fine, just a little less smooth and rounded at the top. An oven thermometer is also a good idea, as we will discuss below.

 

TEMPERATURE:

Temperature relates to macarons in several different capacities. First off it’s something you need to think about before even starting this recipe (or any macaron recipe) and that’s humidity. Humidity refers to the amount of moisture in the air and nothing pisses off a macaron quite like moisture. It’s the reason (one of them) that we age the egg whites, it’s why we let them rest to form skins, and it’s why we avoid too much humidity. The humidity level varies state-to-state, country-to-country, and day-to-day. Obviously your macaron procedure will look different if you live in the Arizona desert, the Scottish Highlands, or the often-unpredictable meteorological smorgasbord that is the Northeastern United States (Guess which one of those exotic destinations I live in 😒) The higher the humidity the longer you need to: age your egg whites, rest your piped macarons to form dry skins, and potentially the longer you might need to bake them for so they dry out without becoming hollow.

 

One of the things that really improved my macaron odds is something that was so simple I was annoyed with myself for not doing it sooner- doubling up your sheet pans when baking. Nestling two baking sheets under each macaron batch gives you great thermal insulation to protect against the heat of the oven-especially if that oven temp is slightly off. I’ve found this is particularly helpful if you find your macaron tops are cracked and hollow, or burnt around the edges. I also have much better results with a sheet of parchment paper as opposed to the silicone liners, which is unfortunate since I purchased a set with the circular stencils on it so I could pipe perfect sizes so all my cookies matched up when sandwiching them. I really liked that aspect of them, but now I just use them to trace the circles on the back of a piece of parchment paper and flip the paper over to pipe the batter on. I found that the silicone mats stick to the macarons way too much since it makes the batter grab onto the mat and  spread out too far side-to-side instead of rising upwards, causing underdeveloped feet and hollow shells.

 

If you try this a couple times without luck, or you notice some of your macarons are cracked while others are perfect, then I’d recommend getting an oven thermometer to ensure your oven is at the temperature it says it is. You simply hang it from any of the wire racks to read the exact temperature at that level. Oven thermometers are inexpensive (this is the one I have) and it’s helpful for oven use in general when you have an older oven or one that’s prone to hot spots.

 

 

TECHNIQUE:

The hardest thing about making macarons is also probably the shortest to explain, and it’s called macaronage. This is the part that everybody screws it up at least once, usually several times. Macaronage is the term for the folding and mixing of the meringue into the almond flour mixture in a way that creates the perfect consistency for the macarons to bake. You want to combine the two evenly while avoiding deflating out all the air you just whipped into the meringue. To achieve this you almost make a slicing motion down the center of the bowl and then scooping the batter from underneath and back up again. Then turn the bowl a little and do the exact same thing, gently incorporating the flour into the meringue until all the flour is absorbed. Then you want to press some of the batter against the side of the bowl to break up any clumps, and then fold a few more times. You want the batter to have some body to it still without becoming liquid- it’s a happy medium that takes practice. When the batter falls off the spatula in allllmost a continuous ribbon- you’re about ready. Many, many recipes I found said to mix the batter until it resembles, and you can’t make this up, MAGMA.

 

Umm… heh. I’m sorry–magma? You’re referring to the molten lava that erupts from volcanoes from the earth’s crust? The same magma that has destroyed entire cities and reaches upwards of 1600 degrees. Sure, sure. Yeah. I mean, obviously…that. Let me just search through all my most popular “molten hot earth juice” recipes to remind myself of it’s proper consistency. OH WAIT, no one has 😳🤯.

 

Who started this analogy? And why has no one thought to replace it with, oh I don’t know, literally anything else? You could tell me to fold this to the exact consistency of, for example, “fluffy poofy ions in a swirling vortex of fail sauce”– and although arguably genius and poetic 🤓, it still doesn’t help me grasp the concept of macaronage. And macaronage is really the most important skill to learn about making macarons. After about 20 batches of batter. I have an almost foolproof method of testing if the batter is ready for piping. Take a small spoon or tablespoon and plop a small amount onto the baking sheet, and watch it. It should slowly ribbon down on top and spread out just slightly, without being lumpy and forming a puddle. After about 20-25 seconds the top peak should have sunken in on itself and be completely smooth but still have some height on it on the sides. If it does- you’re good to go. If not, scoop it back in  and fold/smush a few more times and try it again. Err on the side of caution though- you can always mix it a little bit more but once it’s overmixed it cant be saved. Overmixing can be spotted when the batter is too liquid and flows out into a big puddle that cant be piped with a bag without flowing out and spreading quickly. If this happens, I’m afraid it can’t be saved. I tried it myself by adding in a whipped egg white to an overmixed batter and it still failed.

 

Oh, and all these pictures you see throughout this article were some of my favorite flavor combinations I made, and they’re each their own separate blog post for whoever wanted to go straight to it for the recipes. Listed in order of appearance in the first four pictures in this post, there’s the: Flat White Espresso Macarons, Baci di Dama Macarons, St Patricks Day Macarons, and Mint Chocolate Mocha Macarons.

 

Ahh, here we are- the part at the end where I tell you that all the explanations in the world, all the instructional videos on YouTube and all the food articles in existence cannot substitute the art of doing. You and only you can know when your batter is perfectly folded, when your meringue is perfectly peaked, and when they’re done. And that’s by making them over. And over. And over again. Paying attention during the process to learn what to look for and when, learning your oven, and honestly–screwing up. Make no mistake: taking on a recipe like this is not for the faint of heart. There are reasons entire books are published on it, bakeries specialize in it exclusively, and they’re one of the most expensive pastries sold. But once you master it and taste what a truly homemade macaron is like... it’s the best feeling of self-pride in the world. You can do it- and feel free to comment on the Instagram photos with any questions or tips on what’s worked for you in the past! And don’t forget to tag your photos with @aswedetooth so I can see and share what delicious macaron creations YOU are making!

 

 

Traditional French Macarons

Makes Approx 30 macarons, depending on size

 

200g Confectioners Sugar,  sifted

100g  Almond Flour, finely milled

120 g. (approx 4 large egg whites), at room temperature

¼ tsp cream of tartar

¼ tsp kosher salt

¼ C. Superfine Sugar (or granulated sugar pulverized in food processor)

½ tsp flavored extract, like vanilla, almond, etc.

2-4 drops of gel food color, optional (I like Americolor of CK brands)

Filling of your choice (Buttercream, ganache, jam, curd, etc)

 

Tools/Supplies:

Mixer, either handheld or stand mixer

4 half-sheet pans, two stacked on top

Silicone baking mats, or parchment paper

Sieve or sifter for powdered sugar and almond flour

Piping Bag with a round tip

Food Processor

 

Instructions:

  1. Trace equal sized circles with sharpie or pencil on the back of two pieces of parchment paper, then flip them right side up and place onto two half-sheet pans, both fitted with another pan underneath them. Snip 3-4mm off the end of a piping bag, or insert a round tip and set aside.

  2. In a large, wide bowl place your pre-measured almond flour, and sift in your powdered sugar on top of that. Gently whisk to combine well, set aside.

  3. In mixer with whisk attachment (or hand mixer) beat the egg whites and salt on medium speed until foamy, about 1-2 minutes. Then add in the cream of tartar, mixing again on medium for an additional 20 seconds. With the mixer on medium/high speed slowly add in the superfine sugar, extract and soft gel food color, if using, continue mixing for an additional 3–4 minutes until egg whites form a thick and shiny meringue that has stiff peaks (but be careful not to overwhip the meringue!)

  4. Transfer egg whites into bowl with flour/almond mixture and with a spatula, macaronage by folding in the egg whites, careful to not deflate the mixture too much. Once incorporated add in the extracts and gel food color drops, if using.

  5. Keep folding and turning the batter, occasionally until it falls down from the spatula in a thin even ribbon when lifted up. Avoid overmixing and undermixing! You should be able to hold up the spatula and be able to form a figure 8 shape with the batter, falling down in a thick ribbon but after 20 seconds the batter should sink into itself and become smooth on top. If the ribbons of batter fall on top and then don’t sink in, keep folding a few more times until they do. Then put batter in a piping bag fitted with a large round tip.

  6. Pipe equal-sized circles onto the baking sheets, holding the piping bag up at a 45 degree angle, keeping the tip in the center of your circle and gently squeezing and gently pulling up. Then firmly tap the baking sheet on the counter several times to release air bubbles.

  7. Place tray on the oven rack moved to the lower third of the oven, typically the slot above the bottom one. Preheat the oven to 275°. Then let the cookies sit out at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour until a “skin” forms on top and they are dry to the gentle touch. If you gently touch the tops and you get batter on your finger or it sticks at all, wait another 15 minutes and try again!

  8. Bake for 10 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 10 minutes. They should rise slightly and the sides of the cookies should puff up, giving them their tell-tale feet. To test if they’re done, gently grab one of the macarons by the top part above the feet, and gently move it side-to-side a bit. If it slides around, give the macarons 2 additional minutes to cook, and test again. When they no longer slide, they are ready to come out of the oven to cool!

  9. Allow to cool completely before trying to remove from baking tray, I find they stick too easily if they’re still warm. Then sandwich two cookies between your desired filling (Buttercream, jam, ganache, curd, etc.) and although they’re ready to be enjoyed then, traditionally they’re even better when refrigerated overnight to allow the filling and macaron shell to meld together.

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