April 25, 2011
I first learned what macarons were last summer, when my friend Anne mailed me a box of them.
“Whaaat?” She had said. “You’ve never had one?”
I had maybe had the distinction between them and regular two-o macaroons explained to me once. Macaroons, with two os, are dense and squishy and made with coconut and almond extract. Macarons, with one o, are light, tender meringue-and-almond-flour cookies filled with a buttercream, chocolate ganache, or fruit filling.
The French macaron is a marvelous cookie. So is the not-French macaroon. That’s why I made both of them. A lot of food writers get really breathless over macarons, and I can see why. They’re expensive! They’re cookies with status: pedigreed pastry. They’re aloof, ethereal, and delicate, kind of like elves, or the idle rich. They’re also a pain in the ass to make.
I’d never made either style of macaro/on before writing this entry, and I must say, despite having my ten minutes of frustration with the double-os, they were nothing compared to the befuddling difficulty of the single-o macaron. The learning curve of the macaron is the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride.
I didn’t innovate anything you’ll see here; I don’t want it to seem like I wrote any of these recipes. The best I can do is gather together the hard-won experience of having made 70-plus macarons. I hope only to mitigate the frustration inherent in this kind of difficult artisan baking.
I am, at heart, a do-it-yourselfer. I tend to sniff at the notion that any and all difficult tasks are best left to professionals. I don’t mean to imply that I could perform open-heart surgery, or build a modern car. But I can disassemble a chicken carcass, and bake bread, which are two fairly simple tasks that most people outsource to entities outside the home. I nibbled the macarons Anne sent me and thought, “Hell. I could make those!”
I was right. I could make those. You can, too. But be warned, reader. Macarons are hard. They, like all pastry, are delicious because they’re made of labor. And you’re unlikely to catch me making them again, unless someone is paying me.
I made chocolate ones with Anne, several months after she first sent me that little box of deliciousness. Bakers use macarons to show off; they’ll work in all sorts of magical, floral flavors like rose hip and lavender. Anne and I filled half of our chocolate macarons with a straight chocolate ganache, and the others with a chocolate-blackberry buttercream. No photographic evidence of these exist, as we ate them all.
About a month later, my friend Kevin and I decided to attempt to recreate the magic, this time with lime and blueberry curd-filled shells, and using this recipe, except replacing ‘meyer lemon’ with ‘lime’, natch.
Here’s a step-by-step elucidation of the process.
Overall, when you make macarons, you want to be as hands-off as possible. Let them do their own thing. Leave them alone. Don’t fuss over them, but merely execute your duties to the macarons in a professional way, and they’ll probably come out right. Use a light, even hand.
Making the meringue: some recipes seem to call for cream of tartar, some don’t. I used an eighth of a teaspoon, though this recipe didn’t call for it. When you’re beating egg whites by hand, I say go for it; it’ll keep your eggy peaks nice and firm.
An important note about egg whites: when the recipe says to age the egg whites at room temperature for a day or so, do it. That’s not silly talk. The macarons I made with Kevin using aged egg whites, and the macarons he and I made using last-minute oops-we-screwed-up-the-second-batch fresh-from-the-fridge egg whites were significantly different; the former were much more well-behaved. I just put them in a little covered container on the counter a few days before. Why do it? I think it’s because egg whites whip higher when they’re at room temperature, just like they whip a little higher with the introduction of an acid (like potassium bitartrate/cream of tartar). It has something to do with enhanced protein coagulation; don’t ask me, I’m not a chemist. (But if I were, I’d just chuckle wryly and say it’s just a fact of human denature. Okay sorry moving on.)
Having never made a meringue before, Anne and I, that first attempt, were unsure of what ‘stiff peaks’ might entail. I know this sounds snotty, but you’ll know when you hit stiff peaks. You don’t want to overwhip your whites, but an excellent indication that you’ve gotten the whites to the desired consistency is that you can hold the bowl full of meringue above your head, upside-down, and nothing will move. Feel free to try less extreme versions of this test, although I hear egg protein is excellent for rejuvenating the follicles.
Mixing the macaron batter: just as when you might make an angel food cake, it seems to be the general consensus to use as few strokes as possible when incorporating the dry ingredients into the wet ones. This would be the point where you’d add your food coloring, if applicable.
Pipe the batter into freezer bags, because who needs pastry bags? (Not I! But then, I have never had the need for any of those specialized pastry-bag tips, because if I make you a cake, it’ll be frosted simply and you’ll like it, damn it, even if there aren’t any frosting rosettes on it.) Pipe out the macarons, which should be about an inch in diameter, as the food52 recipe says; leave at least two inches between each round, and then leave them alone. Don’t put them straight in the oven – just… let them sit. Let them melt and flatten and sit and dry out a bit for at least half an hour. This is part of that macarons-are-weird thing. Don’t pay them any attention; just start piping out the next batch on another cookie sheet, on more parchment paper. I happened to be dog-sitting at my parents’ house when I was making these with Kevin, so we had about a half-dozen cookie sheets to play with; by the time I’d finished piping out on the last available cookie sheet, the first set was ready to go into the oven.
You’re looking for what’s called a pied. This is not a pied.
This, however, is:
The bluish ones were made with unaged egg whites; the green ones were made with aged ones.
Another important thing: you’re in no hurry to get those macarons off the parchment paper. Kevin can attest to how much wallpaper-scorching profanity shot forth from my mouth when I pulled at a whole tray of macarons and not a one of them budged – a few of them tearing in the process. Not fun. Wait for the macarons to harden and cool; let the mountain come to Muhammad, as it were.
I must have spent six hours making macarons with Kevin, and eventually it started to feel cruel. I sent him home and threw the pastry bags in the fridge, resolved to return to the darned things the next day.
And found it to be a little bit easier, honestly! Maybe I was just working on autopilot, by then, but everything seemed to go very smoothly that morning – it might have been because I wasn’t trying to work on two macaron fillings with Kevin while simultaneously trying to diagnose a host of batter-based problems. You know, that probably was it.
Pretty soon, I had a handy pile of the damned things built up, and I set about filling them with their various curds (don’t ask me how to make blueberry curd. It wasn’t worth it. Just make or purchase some jam. Once I get me some blueberry juice this summer, come back and ask me again about blueberry juice, and maybe I’ll have a different answer for you.).
At long last, I probably ended up w ith about 40 or 50 of the accursed things, a princely and absurd amount of macarons to have. Fortunately, my girlfriend likes them. So does Kevin. Now, at about $2.50 a pop for your smaller, patisserie-made macarons, that’d run you about $150. Making these at home cost probably under $15. So I can see the appeal. But having an enormous pile of macarons like that is sort of a devil’s bargain, because they’re so delicious, but they’re pretty much made of sugar and cholesterol. Needless to say, they were gone within the week.
Anyway, to recap:
1. Age the egg whites.
2. Use cream of tartar.
3. Let the piped macarons sit for at least half an hour before baking.
4. Let the baked macarons sit for at least half an hour after baking.
5. It’s perfectly okay to do the setup, fill your pastry bags, and then chuck everything in the fridge to do the next day.
Macaroons you can be rougher with. Macaroons, I discovered, you can squish. I made these with my girlfriend Carolyn, and we used SassyRadish’s recipe, which had pleasant results once I doctored it, but I found it a bit too fiddly to my liking.
Sassyradish’s recipe calls for you to coagulate the mixture over simmering water before you form the macaroons; I’m not sure if this is necessary.
I loved the flavors in her macaroons – mixing the vanilla and almond extracts is a heavenly aroma! – but after cooking the coconut/egg/sugar/extract mixture as directed over the stove (as though it were a lemon curd or a hollandaise sauce), I found that the macaroons were not terribly moist. Every other macaroon recipe Carolyn and I inspected afterwards (Lynn Rosetto-Kasper’s, Irma Rombauer’s, Martha Stewart’s) didn’t ask any pre-cooking of me; Martha Stewart’s suggests that you moisten your hands before forming each one. This is an excellent idea.
I had little luck with the gentle approach with these macaroons; they came out best when I compressed them well in my hands and popped them in a no-nonsense fashion onto the baking sheet.
Following the advice of Samantha at the marvelous Gene’s Sausage Shop on Lincoln, I grated some white chocolate with a microplane. Then I pressed a dimple into each macaroon, filled said dimple with the grated chocolate, and topped it with a few hulled pistachios.
After I engaged in the somewhat fiddly dance of the rotating sheet pans as Sassyradish suggests, the macaroons came out light, pleasant, delicate, cirsp, and tasty.
Now. Single-o macarons took a helluva lot more effort to express than double-o macaroons, and you can be sure that I spent about an hour making the double-os, rather than eight to ten making the single-os.
Also, being rather a messier cookie, macaroons are kinda hard to make ugly. Check it out! Look at how well they hold up to scrutiny:
So, of course, coconut macaroons are easier, and I gladly endorse their home construction, but meringue macarons are much, much harder, and if you want to go in after them, I advise you to set aside a whole weekend. Hell, throw a macaron party; invite three or four friends over to make them with you. Just be prepared to spend an entire day with them.
Good luck! Stay hungry, America.