Imperfectibility Perfected–The Exactitude of Macarons
While the title may sound like a manifesto foraying into the metaphysical nature of almond-based confectionery and its resounding implications for the satisfaction they provide to our increasingly demanding taste buds (I have no idea what I’m saying at this point), this post is really about macarons. Simple and unassuming, notoriously difficult to make, macarons. My wonderful friend and talented baker (infinitely more meticulous than I in the kitchen, and with many more successes and far fewer failures under her belt–I think she should start a food blog, what do you think?), whom we affectionately call Mochi, has graciously provided the following tips and stories about her own macaronnage experiences.
Hello there! At the request of my dear friend Angela I am writing this post to teach you how to make macarons, the finicky little French confection.
I first discovered them while browsing a food site almost exactly a year ago, and I was immediately taken with these adorable little desserts of such a wide range of colors. Of course, I had no idea of their reputation of being rather tricky to handle. So without much thought, I went ahead and baked a batch (they were ridiculously flat and not very round) and filled them chocolate ganache. What was the fuss all about? They were all right, but nothing near as heavenly as I now know them to be.
I may have given up had a particular friend not brought some macarons from Trader Joe’s to a gathering. And they were incredible! (Not too expensive either, so if all else fails I would suggest getting them there.) That incident spurred me to do some more research this summer, and this time I read up on some tips and tricks that others suggested. I attempted it again for a birthday picnic, and alas, failed again. The shells tasted wonderful, but they came out even flatter than my first attempt, and most of them ended up hollow inside, with no feet (macaron terminology for the ruffled flat layer on the bottom that materializes after baking and gives them height). So my friends and I ate them as chips.
If I were less stubborn, I would have just resigned myself to failure at that point, but I was determined to give it one more try. And it was as if the macaron gods finally took pity on me, for this time, it worked! Concerned that it might have been a fluke, I made another, even larger batch, and they all came out exactly as I had hoped.
As a college student, my baking time is limited, and I like to take shortcuts where I can. I’ve seen tutorials online using another supposedly more fail-proof technique involving stove-top heating and adjusting a thermometer to exactly the right temperature. I have to admit I don’t have the patience or the equipment for that, and I wanted to be successful with as simple a technique as possible. Macarons sell for about $2-3 apiece in fancy stores, and while that sounds incredibly intimidating, the ingredients themselves are fairly cheap and few in number.
But I also have a warning: don’t underestimate them either. My failure with the birthday batch was due to the fact that I trying to get too much done at once. I was also baking a cake and organizing a picnic that day, and the macarons fell a bit to the wayside. Set aside a good chunk of the day if you are committing to macaron baking. There is a fair amount of waiting time where you can work on other tasks, but I would try not to set yourself a restriction in expecting to be done within a set amount of hours. Still, given you follow the important points that I stress and have a good time allowance, it’s not really as difficult as some people make them out to be. (And once you succeed once, it gets a lot easier!)
I also want to say that I definitely don’t regard myself as a macaron expert. I’m still learning myself, and figuring out how to troubleshoot. I just want to share what worked for me, and maybe they will work out as beautifully for you too!
The macarons I made are simple and unassuming: vanilla macarons with vanilla buttercream filling. The beauty of macarons is that they are so flexible; you can switch out the filling or the flavor of the shells to your heart’s content. I already have a list of new fillings I want to try when I get the chance. And you certainly can’t get the more exotic flavors from Trader Joes
For the shells, recipe adapted from here:
110 g almonds
200 g powdered sugar
100 g egg whites (about 3)
2 tsp vanilla extract
50 g granulated sugar
I would highly recommend using a scale to measure out the ingredients, since this is far more accurate than measuring by volume. But don’t worry about being overly precise; I use a lame non-digital scale, which results in measurements occasionally being off by a few grams, and I haven’t had any problems.
The almonds need to be ground to almond flour. I’ve heard that some specialty stores carry almond flour, but I’m sure it’s more expensive than making your own. I bought a bag of whole almonds at Costco and I also found some slivered almonds from my previous attempt last year (bought at my local supermarket), and both types worked well. The only noticeable difference was that with the whole almonds the batter was dotted with specks from the brown skins.
To make the flour you can use a food processor or a blender if you have a dry blade. I experimented with a coffee grinder and it worked beautifully. The flour will be very fluffy and soft to the touch; just make sure there are no stray large pieces, as this will make the piping very difficult.
Pulse the almonds/almond flour and powdered sugar in a food processor until finely blended. If you lack a food processor, just make sure they are very evenly mixed.
Use aged egg whites (12-24 hours) if you have them, but if not, you can achieve the same effect by microwaving them on high for 10 seconds. In a bowl whisk the egg whites on medium-high speed until foamy, and add the vanilla extract. It may help to have the granulated sugar ready at this point. One blog that I read suggested adding the sugar within a minute or two of foaming the egg whites, which supposedly traps the air bubbles and results in taller macaron shells. Personally, when I tried it both ways, there doesn’t seem to be a really noticeable difference, but it doesn’t hurt and may even help. I would just suggest not leaving the foamy egg mixture sitting too long.
Gradually add the sugar while whisking on high until stiff peaks form. This is perhaps the most important step in making macarons, as under-mixing while result in flat macarons. Make sure that the peaks you have are stiff, not soft. When you raise the whisk, the peaks should not fall back on themselves; they should stay perky and pointy. If you turn the mixing bowl upside down, the mixture should not move at all. (Be aware that the whisking process should not take longer than 10 minutes; if it takes longer than that, you may have accidentally introduced yolk into the mixture.)
Add the almond mixture to the bowl of egg whites. Carefully fold the almond mixture into the egg whites. A spatula is ideal for folding, but I discovered my spatula was broken the morning before my first successful batch (figures). I used a large wooden spoon instead and it was fine. Be careful not to overfold and undo all that intense whisking work you just did. Some people actually count the number of strokes they make, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Just be gentle and fold only until it’s mixed evenly (make sure there are no stray pockets of flour and sugar). Many people describe the endpoint as having the consistency of lava, which means that it should be very thick, and it should fall down slowly from the spatula/other mixing tool (I would describe it as being in between cake batter and brownie batter, if you’ve ever made those).
And that’s it! Well, that’s it for using all the ingredients. Not too bad, huh? Now comes the really fun part, or the really agonizing part, depending on how much you like making circles. Transfer the batter to a piping bag with a round tip. I would recommend investing in a pastry bag if you don’t have one (they’re not terribly expensive; I got mine for $10 along with a bunch of fancy tips). But if you would prefer not to, I would just use a Ziploc bag with a small hole cut in the corner, though it may be a bit messier.
Prepare a baking tray lined with parchment paper. I’ve heard that some people swear by silicon mats, but I had no problems with parchment paper (also found at the supermarket). The macaron circles should be about an inch and a half or so in diameter, and spaced about an inch apart (after you’ve done it a few times, you can squeeze them closer together, but at the beginning I would be careful about putting them too close). Draw circles on the underside of the parchment paper if you’re really worried about piping circles, but I got lazy after a while and just started free-handing it. You get the hang of it after a while, and here’s a tip: while you’re piping, use less than what you think you need. They spread out rather quickly and if you didn’t use enough, just add on a bit. Taking batter away is infinitely harder, so be wary of piping too much.
Let the macarons sit at room temperature for one hour. Do not skip the waiting step; this is also extremely important. Once the hour is up, press lightly on the shells. The outer surfaces should be hard and should not stick to your finger. If they’re still runny you’ve probably done something wrong or haven’t waited long enough.
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees F. One of my failed batches was badly cracked and hollow, possibly due to too much heat too quickly. To combat this, I placed my baking sheet on the middle rack and stacked another sheet underneath. Bake for 16-18 minutes. They should develop “feet,” and they are ready once you can easily take them off the parchment paper. If they are still too sticky or break when you attempt to remove them, place them back in the oven for a few minutes. Once you can easily remove one, allow them to cool on a wire rack and remove the rest once they are completely cool.
In the meantime, prepare the vanilla buttercream.
For the buttercream, adapted from here:
2 ½ egg whites
½ cup plus 2 tbsp sugar
small pinch of salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
Combine the egg whites, sugar, and salt in a heatproof bowl and set over a pot of simmering water. Whisk until the sugar has completely dissolved and the mixture is smooth.
Whisk on medium-high speed until the mixture is completely cool, about 10 minutes. The mixture should have stiff peaks.
Make sure the butter is room temperature before adding. With the mixer on medium-low speed, add the butter a few tablespoons at a time, mixing after each addition. Add in vanilla and continue mixing until the buttercream is completely smooth. Refrigerate a few hours or freeze for about 10 minutes, and then mix again. The texture of the buttercream should be very thick.
Fill a pastry bag with the buttercream and pipe onto the macaron shells. Choose shells that are roughly even in size, and press down on the top shell so that the buttercream peeks out. For best results, refrigerate overnight before consuming.
Macarons are one of the few things that get better with age, and I can attest to that. If you can keep away from them for a few days, I guarantee you it’s worth the wait. For my second successful batch, after 3-4 days I couldn’t stop eating them. I keep sneaking them out of the fridge, and even my brother, who always finds things to criticize with my baking, admitted to me how much he liked them. (We’re now using them as a form of currency: I pay him macarons in return for physics help.)
(Subscribe at the bottom!)