Dec 07 2011

Fun with Macarons

Starting to make macarons was a lot like when I started to bake bread. I knew there was a huge wealth of knowledge out there, but how far did I have to bother learning before jumping in?

One positive point (or at least, I consider it positive) that macarons have going for them: in bread baking, there are elements that we consider “perfection” – crunchy crust, open crumb, for example. But those “perfect elements” change depending on what type of bread you’re baking. I love that about bread baking, but it’s intimidating as a newbie….how do you know if your soft, chewy crust is “perfect” for the recipe you’re using?

By contrast, there is a true definition of a perfect French macaron. Macarons do have to have filling, and there is “traditional” filling, but there isn’t so much right and wrong as there is with the macarons themselves. According to a multitude of sources, a perfect macaron should be:

- Light in color, not browned on the top or edges.

- Not cracked in any way.

- Sandwiched with some type of filling, buttercream is traditional, I personally prefer ganache.

- When bitten into, the outside shell should crack, but not shatter, giving way to a slightly chewy meringue-y center.

- It should not be very thick, and most of its height should be composed of the foot. This is the place where I most often see bakeries diverging from what thins are “supposed to be.” EVERYTHING I read says macarons should be thin. Everything I see is thick, including the “best of NY” Ladueree macarons my father brought me to sample over Thanksgiving.

A big thing to keep in mind is that macarons are classic French pastries. French pastry will drive people crazy. A lot of what they do is dictated by law, the rules behind the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France are wonderfully insane, and even THEY consider macarons to be the pinnacle of what they do.

That doesn’t mean that it’s hard to make a macaron. It really isn’t. Even the cracked ones with air bubbles, cracks, and no feet are still macarons, and as long as you can get them off the pan, they’re probably still just as yummy and edible. But they are not French pastry perfection. And that’s where the crazy-making comes in.

So instead of giving an actual recipe, I’ll link to some of my favorites below, and just give some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. Learn from my mistakes!

  • YouTube is your friend. I cannot imagine trying to learn how to do this without having watched as many videos as I did of people making macarons. The best way to understand what the meringue should look like, what the almond/sugar mix should look like, and when to stop mixing the batter is to watch. Articles online help as well, I’ll link some of the most helpful at the end of this post.
  • If baking with the oven door open, as you should be, GET OUT OF THE KITCHEN WHILE BAKING. It isn’t entirely ridiculous when you think about it – your oven door is open, therefore susceptible to drafts. Swooshing around the kitchen, possibly opening and closing a microwave door directly over the oven, or opening a refrigerator door, is causing air to move around the kitchen and into the open oven. A strong enough draft can cause enough of a temperature shift to crack the macarons. It took me 3 batches to figure this out.
  • No matter what method you use, you are essentially making a meringue and collapsing it around very dry ingredients (powdered sugar and almond meal). You cannot have a very dry, ‘can be held over your head forever and ever without moving’ meringue and expect it to have enough liquid left to properly incorporate the dry ingredients. The meringue needs to be a little beyond soft peaks, but not solid stiff, it should still bend a bit.
  • Mixing. Well, folding. This is the most important part of making macarons, and the difference between perfect and broken macarons can be as few as 10 extra folds. People say you should mix it no more than 50 times, no more than 80, 28…numbers are all over, since I suspect the choices made elsewhere in the process (what type of meringue, are any dry ingredients incorporated already, etc.) will change this number, as will your own arm strength and technique for folding. For me, at least, I see the batter change around turn 20. From there I’m watching it very carefully as I fold, basically just thinning it out a little bit more, and I generally end up around 30. I have been going by the advice that it should take 10 seconds for a drop of the batter to lose its peak….this advice differs greatly depending on who you talk to – I’ve seen recipes that advise pushing down the peaks after piping the cookies. I never, ever have peaks.
  • You don’t need to be delicate with the mixing either, one pastry chef I saw said to “beat the shit out of it.” Beat it, while carefully folding everything together.
  • Oven temperature is crucial. I don’t really believe an oven thermometer is necessary so much as paying attention to exactly what the right setting on your own oven is. For me, it’s just a smidge above 300. If I go as high as 325 I end up with cracked shells.

And last but not least, here are some great links where you can learn all you ever wanted to and more about macarons!

Serious Eats: Macarons – This is my macaron recipe of choice right now, and has the easiest meringue preparation. I will definitely play with other types in the future, but for now – this works great.

David Lebovitz’s French Chocolate Macarons David Lebovitz is a fantastic resource for all things French, and macarons are no exception. While I don’t use his method, I did use his proportions when I made chocolate macarons (but ultimately decided I prefer using food coloring, cocoa powder makes things too chewy).

Syrup & Tang, La Macaronicite This is a series of blog posts that go over all of the different methods for making macarons in great detail. I read this multiple times before deciding on my own strategy.

Tartelette Yet another macaron recipe. I love this blog in general, so of course I went reading up on macarons there.

Almost Foolproof Macarons Another recipe that’s good reading, this time with pics and geeky details.

Happy baking!!


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