The platter began to fill with colourful little macarons. A fellow graduate student walked up to me and looked on.
“You didn’t bake for us today?” she asked. “I thought for sure you would make us one of those specialties of yours.”
“I did.” I replied with a grin. “I made these.”
“… Wait, you made these?!”
I’ve baked for Laurent. I’ve baked for my parents, my in-laws, and their friends. I’ve baked for my own friends. But I’ve rarely baked for my university colleagues, and never for events. But last week, the university reading group I’m part of was organizing a conference, and I had been asked to bake something sweet for the lunch and coffee breaks. Given how often I talk about food, word had gotten around that I like to cook and bake.
The consensus on macarons is that they are unstable, unpredictable, and capricious. In other word, they are total prima donnas. Until recently, I’ve had two kinds of outcomes with these cookies: batches where every single shell was misshapen and cracked, and batches where about half the shells looked smooth and round, while the other half was an irregular bust. In light of this, offering to make macarons for a public event seemed like a terrible idea.
But just before this, something had happened that made me think I could pull this off. This “something” was a perfect batch. A 100% perfect batch.
A couple of weeks ago, still fresh from last month’s Daring Baker’s challenge, I had decided to tackle the green tea macarons again. You’ll recall that my attempt at these for the challenge hadn’t turned out well at all as far as texture and looks went, but I had really liked the flavour. So I got to work.
However, a friend of mine popped by while I was whisking and folding. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time, and had a lot to talk about. As a result, I lost track of time and ended up leaving my macarons out to dry for much longer than usual. A thick crust had formed on the surface, much thicker than I was used to.
Feeling somewhat worried, I popped the first baking sheet into the oven. Nine minutes later, I was looking at rows of perfectly smooth, pale green shells, with lovely little feet. My negligence had led to a discovery: all this time, I simply hadn’t been letting my macarons dry for long enough.
Unfortunately, I had forgotten that chocolate macarons have a reputation for being the absolute most difficult of all macarons. This has to do with the inclusion of cocoa in the batter: not only does cocoa have to be very carefully sifted, but it can also release oil during the baking process, which results in loss of crispiness. One way to prevent this is to roast the cocoa in the oven. I was aware of all this, but laziness got the best of me (I get lazy at the worst possible times): I didn’t roast the cocoa, and I did a half-assed job of sifting it. The result: lumpy, overly chewy macarons that I didn’t even bother photographing.
Luckily, my confidence wasn’t so high that I hadn’t given myself room for failure: I still had a couple of days before the conference. This gave me time to make two other batches, this time without any flavouring. I made a plain white batch, and a rose-coloured one (which was initially supposed to be brown, but I went a little overboard with the red colouring). Then I sandwiched them with a simple dark chocolate ganache, and packed them for the conference.
I was one of the speakers at the conference, and gave a presentation related to my PhD research. But to be honest, I got way more comments on my macarons than on my presentation! Most people thought they were storebought. One of our colleagues from France even compared them to the macarons in French pâtisseries – a hell of a compliment, from one who hails from the Land of Macarons!
Barely a week later, I had to make another batch: a friend of Laurent’s was defending his thesis, and they wanted to celebrate afterwards. Being short on both time and chocolate, I opted for an apricot filling. Fruity fillings are always a convenient solution for me, mostly because I rarely (if ever) make my own jam. I’ve done it before, so I know how simple it is – I just don’t enjoy doing it. Whenever I have fresh fruit, I’d rather just eat them as they are, or incorporate them in a dessert, than stew them in sugar. This time, to add a personal touch, I added some cardamom and powdered ginger to the apricot jam, which added a nice kick.
I’ll probably have to make another batch next week, for a meeting with my thesis advisor (my boss, basically): he has recently discovered that I bake, and I fear he will be quite angry if I don’t bring him something very soon… Oh well, any excuse to make macarons is fine by me!
So, it looks like macaron production has shifted into high gear. Having made so many batches in a row, I am much less nervous about making them than I used to be: I no longer stare through the oven glass while they’re baking, anxiously watching for the dreaded cracks or holes. And I know all the measurements for the basic recipe by heart.
However, don’t think my ego will be getting out of hand any time soon. In fact, Laurent has made sure of that, by buying me Pierre Hermé’s wonderful book Macaron. This beauty was recently reprinted. We saw stacks of it in Belgium, last month, but since it’s a heavy hardcover and we were already bringing home kilos of chocolate, I reluctantly put it back on the bookshelf. However, it’s finally made its way here! I have to say, just flipping through this book makes me feel like a total beginner – as I should. Every recipe is a work of art: such creative flavours, fillings and concepts! And I can’t wait to try as many as possible!
Below is the standard recipe I’ve been using for macarons. I’ve posted it before, but it’s a little more precise this time. However, I have always used weights, so my measured quantities may not be as reliable. Also, I am aware that it is recommended to age your egg whites by separating them at least a day ahead, but so far I have always omitted this step, without too dire consequences.
Basic Macaron Recipe
Yields about 50 small macarons (100 individual shells)
110g (3.8 oz, 3/4 cup) almond meal
225g (7.9 oz, 1 5/8 cup) icing sugar
4 egg whites, room temperature
50g (2.75 oz, 1/4 cup) granulated sugar
Food colouring (preferably powdered or gel) (optional)
Line four baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, combine the almond meal and icing sugar, then sift them together.
In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites into soft peaks. Gradually add the granulated sugar (about one third at a time), and continue whisking until stiff peaks form. 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 sifted 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. Remember to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl from time to time. When the dry ingredients are more or less incorporated (but not completely), add another third of the almond-sugar mixture. Continue until all the dry ingredients have 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 pipe 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 eventually settle down and vanish.
If you are using food colouring: If using powdered colouring, add it towards the end of the folding process. If you are using gel (or liquid), 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 small 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, 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, and remember to leave enough space for spreading.
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 45 minutes, or as long as it takes for a solid 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 the macarons with it), and let cool completely.
If you want to sandwich your macarons with a filling, you may do so as soon as they are cool. You can pipe your filling onto the macaron base, or gently spread it (depending on the consistence of your filling). It is recommended to wait until the next day to serve the macarons, as they will be chewier the next day, having absorbed moisture from the filling. Store in the refrigerator, in an airtight container.
Basic Chocolate Ganache
Yields enough to generously garnish 50 macarons
300g (10.5 oz) dark chocolate, chopped
200ml (4/5 cup) heavy cream
Melt the chocolate in a double boiler. Bring the cream to a boil, remove chocolate from heat and pour the cream over the chocolate. Whisk until the mixture is smooth and uniform. Let cool at room temperature, then refrigerate until the ganache is the right consistency (in this case, easily spreadable, but not too liquid).
Garnishing the macarons:
When ready, pipe or gently spread the ganache over the center of a macaron shell, allowing room for spreading, then top with another shell and press gently.
NOTE: If you are using very dark chocolate (chocolate that has a high percentage of cocoa), you may find that your ganache appears a little gritty, and that oil has separated and formed a layer on top of the mixture. You can fix this by whisking in some extra cream (preferably heated, although I’ve made this work with cold cream), one spoonful at a time, until the ganache pulls together again.
Spicy Apricot Filling (Lazy Version)
Yields enough to garnish 50 macarons
125ml (1/2 cup) smooth apricot jam
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp powdered ginger
Combine all the ingredients.
Garnishing the macarons:
Spread or spoon the mixture across the center of a macaron shell, allowing room for spreading, then top with another shell and press gently.