Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Daring Bakers' October Challenge: French Macarons

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

For once, this month’s Daring Baker’s challenge was something I was familiar with. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a challenge.

It sounds odd that macarons are among the first things I ever baked, once I graduated from Betty Crocker cake mixes. Macarons have a reputation for being extremely difficult, and many people refuse to even consider making them. But I didn’t know that at the time. And, thanks to beginner’s luck, my very first batch of macarons, more than two years ago, was a relative success.

Since then, I have made many batches, following several different recipes. But I still haven’t mastered macarons completely: some batches have come out great, others have been disastrous. I am still fumbling around, tweaking things, trying to find a foolproof recipe.

Macarons are basically just meringue, folded with icing sugar and almond meal. You can make them in pretty much any flavour, with any filling: ganache, jam, buttercream, caramel… There are even a lot of recipes for savoury macaron fillings, though I haven’t tried them yet. It’s actually not hard to make a tasty macaron; the difficulties lie in the details.

Macarons are all about looks. They can’t be flat little domes, they have to have a “foot,” or collerette in French: that’s the crackly little ring surrounding the base of each cookie. Macarons must also have a smooth, shiny surface. In order to obtain both these results, you have to dry the cookies before you bake them, so that a crust forms.

As far as I know, there are no official criteria for texture. The latter depends on your meringue-to-dry-ingredients ratio, and also on how you handle the batter when you combine them. Some macarons are light and crispy, others are thick and chewy, while some practically melt in your mouth. I tend to prefer the chewy ones, but I’ve found that the crispy ones are more likely to look better coming out of the oven, with fewer cracks and imperfections. Furthermore, the shells tend to absorb moisture from the filling and become chewier after a day.

For my first batch, I followed the recipe Ami gave us to a T. The main difference with what I usually do, apart from the proportions, was that this version suggested drying the cookies in the oven at low heat for a few minutes, rather than leaving them out at room temperature for 30 minutes. However, I was disappointed by my result.

As you can see, my first attempt led to overcooked macarons (notice that the bottoms are so browned it shows through the green colouring), which didn’t develop a “foot,” and were full of little craters to boot. The craters were from air bubbles which had risen to the surface; usually, banging the baking sheet on the counter will get rid of most of the bubbles, and help the batter settle. But this time, the batter texture was just all wrong.

Now, Ami told us that this was the best macaron recipes she has tried, and I believe her. But I think that, when it comes to macarons, there isn’t necessarily one perfect recipe. It’s all about finding the recipe that’s perfect for you, and the conditions you work in. And this recipe just wasn’t a good fit for me.

So, for my second batch, I returned to the method I’ve been using recently. My favourite macaron recipe has a lower ratio of dry ingredients, requires drying the shells at room temperature, and baking them for longer at a lower temperature. It’s still not quite perfect: only about half of my shells came out crack-free and smooth. However, I noticed that the last baking sheets (I always bake them one by one) had a lot more nice-looking macarons than the first one. So it seems that letting the macarons out to dry for long enough is key. At any rate, my second attempt was clearly much more successful.

Now, about the filling. For the first attempt, I did a white chocolate ganache, flavoured with green tea (I’ve always wanted to try this). I also put some green tea in the shells themselves, as well as food colouring.

It is recommended to use powdered colouring for macarons, as too much liquid can kill your batter. However, having never found powdered colouring, I’ve always used this paste-like coloured gel. It’s very powerful, and so far using 1/4 tsp per batch doesn’t seem to have ruined my macarons. I admit I may have put a little too much “bergamot green” in this batch.

I didn’t put any colouring in my second batch, because I couldn’t find a colour that would fit the flavour I was using: speculoos. “Specu-what?” I’ve used this word on this blog before. Speculoos are typical Belgian cookies, made with brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and ground cloves. You can find them fairly easily in Montreal, in fancy grocery stores. However, when I went to Belgium last month, I found that they now make speculoos-flavoured spread.

Obviously, I brought home a huge jar. It looks like peanut butter, but it tastes just like the cookies. I actually have a recipe specifically for “Speculoos Macarons,” which was where I got the idea for this in the first place. As indicated, I added some spices (cinnamon, cloves and ginger) directly in the batter. The texture of macarons + the taste of speculoos = Pure Deliciousness.

Please head on to the Daring Kitchen to see the recipe we were given – and do yourself a favour and check out the Daring Bakers’ Blogroll to see what everyone else came up with. Below is the recipe I used for green tea ganache, as well as the standard macaron recipe I used the second time around. Even though I ended up with an initial failure, I’m still really glad this challenge forced me to try a new macaron method, and further hone my technique.

Standard Macaron Recipe
(Mostly based on Sébastien Serveau’s Macarons Faciles)

Yields about 70 individual shells, or 35 garnished macarons (small)

110g (3.8 oz, 3/4 cup) almond meal
225g (8 oz, 1 5/8 cup) icing sugar
4 egg whites, room temperature
50g (1.75 oz, ¼ cup) granulated sugar
Food colouring (powder or gel) (optional)

Line four baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, sift together the almond meal and icing sugar.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites into soft peaks. Gradually add the granulated sugar, and continue whisking into stiff peaks. At the end of the process, you should be able to turn your bowl upside down, without having the meringue fall out.

Sprinkle about a third of the almond-sugar mixture over the meringue. Using a flexible spatula, carefully fold the dry ingredients into the meringue, making vertical circular motions. Avoid crushing the egg whites. When the dry ingredients are more or less incorporated (but not completely), add another third of the almond-sugar mixture. Continue until all the mixture has been folded in.

Keep folding until you end up with a smooth, shiny batter, that ribbons off your spatula, but is not too liquid. You want to be able to make shells that will not spread too much on your baking sheet. On the other hand, you want the batter to be just liquid enough that any imperfections you wind up with while piping your shells will settle down and vanish. (It’s a question of habit and experimenting.

If you are using food colouring: If using powdered colouring, add it towards the end of the folding process. If you are using gel, wait until you have folded in all the dry ingredients, but your batter is still rather gritty, and transfer a couple of spoonfuls of batter into a small bowl. Add the colouring to the bowl and mix. Return the coloured batter to the large bowl and continue folding. By the time you are finished, the colour should be uniform.

Spoon the batter in a pastry bag fitted with a 1 cm (1/2 inch) round tip, and pipe domes of around 3 cm (1 1/2 inch) in diameter on the prepared baking sheets. Alternately (if, like me, you suck at piping), you can simply use a small spoon: the batter should be liquid enough to slowly drop from the spoon onto the sheet (you can also use a second spoon to gently scrape it off). Try to pipe the domes in staggered rows.

When you have filled a baking sheet, bang it firmly on the counter a few times, so as to remove any air bubbles. However, don’t overdo it, or your batter will spread too much, and your shells will be too thin, which increases the risk of crackling.

Let the domes rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or as long as it takes for a crust to form on the surface (this depends on how humid your kitchen is). You need to be able to touch the domes without having them stick to your finger. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 150°C (300°F).

Bake your macarons, one sheet at a time, for 9-11 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway. Do not let them brown too much on the bottom. When done, immediately remove the parchment paper from the baking sheet and let cool completely.

If you want to sandwich your macarons with a filling, you may do so as soon as they are cool. The macarons will be chewier the next day, having absorbed moisture from the filling. Store in an airtight container, and refrigerate if your filling requires it (for example, if it contains cream or butter).

Green Tea White Chocolate Ganache
(From Myriam Darmoni’s Macarons)

Fills about 20 macarons (40 individual shells)

100g (3.5 oz) white chocolate chips
50 ml (1/4 cup) heavy cream
20g (3/4 oz, 1 tbsp) butter
1 tbsp green tea powder

In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in white chocolate, butter, and green tea powder. Whisk until smooth, returning to heat if necessary, if your chocolate has trouble melting properly. Transfer to a bowl, let cool, and refrigerate if necessary to obtain a spreadable mixture.

When ready, pipe or spread the filling over the bottom of a macaron shell, and sandwich with another shell.


  1. Definitely! The results vary by location, temperature, everything!

    Your macs look fantastic & I love the different colours & flavours - very cute!

  2. What an informative post! I had the same problems with the challenge recipe. Your second batch looks great! And delicious! :)

  3. Ahhh... speculoos macarons... now there's an idea! I also failed quite miserably with the challenge recipe and didn't have time to make another batch, but I am soooo gonna make those speculoos macarons! What a fantastic idea. I think we have a similar spread in the stores, although probably called speculaas, but I have seen it here somewhere. Your second batch looks wonderful and that first batch... well, hmmm, what did you say on the greenness...? They look a bit toxic! Lol... I am sure quite tasty though!

  4. These look wonderful! I had to skip this month challenge cuz i failed twice, grrr. Your description of speculoos makes me hungry, i've never heard of them before but will definiately get some if i see it anywhere. Your little feets came out perfect, great job!

  5. wow these look fantastic! well done!

  6. Val, you didnot fail, you rockd this! Your macs look gorgeous (even the Fleming recipe ones..love the vibrant green color), which didn't work for me AT ALL. At least yours look good! Your Speculoos macs look fantastic..and I 'Speculoos' that I MUST try Speculoos cookies and spread! Looks and sounds nummy! Beautifully done all around as always!

  7. These look just great! Well done! Cant believe that Macs are one of the first things you ever made - thats pretty awesome!

  8. My local Macaron expert! I will have to try your recipe next time I have the courage to try them again!

    They look marvelous

  9. I love the green one what a green so strong and I'm sure that they tasted great. You are right you have to find a recipe that suits your oven and baking style very profound. Cheers from Audax in Australia.

  10. Waw!! Your macarons look delectable!! the next tiem, you are coming to Belgium, we should meet, I think!!

    What do you say???

    You can always email me at sboven@belgacom.net !!! I just love speculaas pasta!!