Friday, March 18, 2011

French Macaroons

Why am I, the self-proclaimed and post-evident non-baker of the two of us, hell bent on making macarons (we're talking French macaroons, not to be confused with these)? A cookie with firm but delicate shell that makes what's an actually chewy cookie so deceptive, a wide range of flavors and fills, bite size... I could go on about these but I think we all know why they are so great. I think, for me, it's also about the challenge. These suckers take time to get right and how you complete each step matters. Much has been written on the science -- and a science it is -- of making macarons yourself so I'll share the sites I've found to be most helpful and the experiences, flops and all, I have had. I'm still quite the novice with just about 5 batches under my belt, but maybe you'll try or have tips to share?

Jump!



THE SET UP

You'll need a mixer with a whisk attachment, hand or stand, and a food processor - or at least be very good at sifting. You'll also need one large pastry piping bag and pastry tip (I have an Ateco 809. If you're in Boston, you can pick up one at the Eastern Baker's Supply store in the North End). I would also recommend a kitchen scale, which I discuss further later in the post.

HELP

For my first batch I followed Martha Stewart's recipe for Earl Grey and Lemon Curd macarons (the specific recipe is on the iPad app but other flavors are here). I felt like they were pretty successful for a first batch (two photos below). But it seemed less precise (read: scientific, or difficult) than other recipes I'd found which included more detail about the egg whites, folding, tapping and so forth. So I eventually stepped it up, did more research and made a batch according to Tartelette's recipe for coffee and chicory macarons (the first photographs). She's very prolific and detailed in her macaron making and has a great, detailed article on making them here. I also read through David Lebowitz and Cannelle e Vanille's (who makes them like it ain't no thang) posts, too.


ALMOND FLOUR

So far I've bought mine, but they say you can make your own in your food processor (though this still seems impossible to me). I've made them with Trader Joe's almond flour which still contains the almond skins, which you'll see in the final macron. Bob's Red Mill almond flour is skinless and will give you a speck-free macaron.  I think it comes down to personal preference: speck or no speck, and cost: Trader Joe's is much cheaper than Red Mill. The first photos are made with skinless, the ones directly above are made with skins.

POWDERED SUGAR

The most economical bags contain cornstarch; expensive, small bags at Whole Foods do not. There seems to be some disagreement about whether this matters or not; some say yes, some say no. For me, it comes down to cost and at this point in my practice I'm in no place to know the difference.

EGG WHITES, THE MERINGUE & THE FOLD

I've seen it suggested in a few places, and adamantly encouraged by Tartelette, that you separate your egg whites days (as in 5!) in advance. After my first batch I took this up, and I can't say for certain-certain, but I do feel that it makes a difference. I usually end up separating them 2 or 3 days before and leaving them out on the counter the morning of the day I'll make them. You definitely need them to be room temperature. One of the sites suggested microwaving them for 10-20 seconds if you're in a pinch for aging and room temping - I did this on my last batch and things turned out fine.

For me the meringue is the deal-breaker. It is not hard for me to get it wrong. I use to over-meringue. In the way I'd over cook eggs or chicken because it just seemed like more was better, more was the safe side. Whipping more is not better for meringue. I now err on the side of caution and probably under whip it or get it spot on - I'm not sure. But the instant the peak stands up I stop whipping. If your meringue is getting really thick and starts to group instead of still being a unified, spreadable bowl-full - then you've gone too far. You're going to have to nuke 2 more eggs and start over.  My second batch was well over-whipped and I ended up not even using them at all. I saved them in my fridge for 3 weeks thinking there had to be a way to use them, but I never thought of one.

This is the bad, over-whipped meringue. Don't let yours become this!


Some recipes suggest cream of tartar, some don't. Seems like you'd either need it or you don't. I think perhaps the aging negates the need for the tartar, so I haven't used it since my first batch.

The second most tricky part for me is the folding. I still get this wrong 50% of the time. You can under fold and you can over fold - perfect folding is what you're looking for. Perfect. So just do it perfectly... I'm inclined to under-fold because I'm so afraid of the over-fold, but really, you've got to do some folding to get a smooth mixture. I like Tartlette's advice to give it some quick, tough folds at the start and then gentle folds after, and aim for around 50 strokes. You want it to be smooth and shiny. The last 2 batches I made back-to-back and there was a huge difference between them. The first batch: a major under-fold. The second batch, a darn good fold: everything was well incorporated, smooth. When you pipe after a good fold you'll find the cookies spread just a little and the peaks disappear easily. If you've under-folded you'll get very thick shells, they'll be lumpy and you'll have more peaks.

Back to back batches (they were lemon, inspired from this recipe):



PIPING

My world changed when I got the 809 pastry tip. The one I used before, that seemed to be about the size Martha recommended, was much smaller. Using a larger tip made a huge difference. I pipe from the direct center of what will be the shell, with my bag nearly, but not quite, perpendicular, and about 1/2" from the parchment paper. I apply pressure to the top (non-tip end) of the bag and let the dough spread out in a circle. When the dough is about 1 1/2" or so in diameter I let go of the pressure on the bag, pull the tip down and slightly curve it along the surface of the dough to keep from creating a peak. This is incredibly hard to explain and will mostly come with practice.

TAPPING & RESTING

Most everyone seems to agree to tap your sheets after you've piped them, so I do it, if anything it seems like a frivolous, superstitious type of ritual and I like it for that, too. Resting time suggestions vary, but resting should happen - at least 30-45 minutes. I try to give them an hour if I can. If you have more time, give them a little more. The shells should be hard to the touch. But don't touch hard! Ha.

BAKING

Some suggest baking at one temp, some suggest baking at two. This means heating the oven to one degree then lowering it as soon as you put the sheet in. I'm not sure at this point which is the best, but I've done both. Definitely rotate them half way through and keep an eye on them, you don't want them to brown and a minute can make a difference.

EVERYTHING ELSE

Let them cool. I always bake on parchment paper and I've never had a problem getting them off after they have cooled. Find pairs close in size and you can pipe on the filling or dollop it on with an offset spatula.

I CAN'T BELIEVE I WROTE THIS MUCH ABOUT IT

But I have, here it is, I can see it. Overall, my most successful batch was the batch in the first and below photos where I followed Tartelette's recipe exactly. I boxed them up in an old Proactive box (I actually have stopped using it but the boxes have come in handy and I'll miss that when I run out) with a little bubble wrap on the top and bottom and mailed them to Baltimore. They arrived in tact, I'm happy to say! I also borrowed a scale when I made her recipe. Since then I've made two more batches with my own sort of hybrid recipe and using measuring cups. I much prefer using a scale - I have one in my Amazon cart now. But for some reason, it really takes a push for me to make online purchases (Elizabeth is suppose to help me with this affliction). But it's going to happen soon because I'm going to want to make a new batch soon, I know it.



5 comments:

  1. Macarons have been around in the blogosphere for a while now but I never tire of looking at them! Thank you for your review. I just purchased a scale that way I could be very precise in my baking of macarons too. I ♥ Macarons :)

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  2. I just moved to Boston and was wondering if you could tell me of some bakeries where i might be able to purchase some of these beautiful confections? im simply not talented enough at baking to try them myself!

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  3. I have really wanted to make these as they are so expensive. I Judy saw a recipe for a trifle that used a layer of these and thought lovely but too pricey. Now maybe I will attempt it.

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  4. I have a hard time making these lovely cookies, too. My husband bought me a cookbook all about them for Christmas, and I was *just* thinking about making some this weekend, when I StumbledUpon your site. I'm going to use these tips when I make them. Thanks!

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