A week ago Sunday, Tawn’s friend Pat came over to teach us how to make French macarons. The results were tasty but technically flawed, thanks to my inexperience. Wanting to master the secrets of this elusive, meringue-based confection, I did a week’s worth of research and then set out again this past Sunday for another attempt.
The first attempt had resulted in macaroons (right) that were too puffy and lacked both a smooth, even surface and a “foot” – the slightly cracked edge around the bottom.
They also suffered from problems with hollow interiors, caused when some of the insides would remain stuck to the parchment paper after baking, pulling away from the outside of the cookie.
My goal this week was to improve my technique and get to something that looked a lot closer to this ideal:
As promised in the last entry about macarons, I’ll provide you with more detail about the process, which isn’t exactly difficult but does require attention to detail. If you want to skip the whole “reading” thing, there’s a nifty video that I edited, recounting my adventures in macaron baking.
Macarons basically involve three steps: the first is to make a relatively dry dough combining almond flour, powdered sugar and egg whites (below, left). The second is to make a meringue: egg whites, caster sugar and water (below, right). Then you fold the two together to form the batter.
All the ingredients including the egg whites are measured by weight, in order to keep the chemistry of the recipe correct. This is my challenge with baking: I have to closely follow instructions.
The almond flour and powdered sugar have to be sifted. Because almond flour tends to clump, I sifted it first by itself and then again with the sugar, resulting in a fine powder.
Two egg whites are then added to the flour/sugar combination, then the mixture is stirred until no dry pockets remain. Since I was making orange-flavored macarons, I added some fresh orange zest.
The next step was to make the meringue. Most macaron recipes I found just make a traditional meringue: beaten egg whites with powdered sugar added. The recipe Pat gave me (as well as one or two other recipes I found online) use an Italian meringue.
Italian meringue is made by pouring a steady stream of boiling sugar syrup (soft ball stage – 116 C / 240 F) into partially-whipped egg whites, then continuing to whip them to the desired stiffness. Italian meringue is a bit more complicated than the traditional soft meringue, but it is also much more stable – a huge benefit when you don’t want your batter to deflate.
I learned a few things from the experience of making Italian meringue that will come in handy next time:
First, get the egg whites to soft peaks before you incorporate the sugar syrup. Second, when you pour the syrup into the mixing bowl, keep it away from the whisk itself. I ended up with little “sugar icicles” that stuck to the bottom of the whisk and were a pain to clean up afterwards.
The meringue is then folded into the almond flour mixture, a little bit at a time. It has to be incorporated fully but not overworked. This is a careful balancing act and I think I overworked it a bit as my macarons ended up just a little flatter than I would have hoped.
The next step is to fill a pastry bag with a number 10 tip and pipe the macaron batter onto parchment paper. Pastry bags and piping aren’t my forte so I used a nifty little technique: trace circles onto the back side of the paper so you have something to fill in.
Two lessons I learned here: keep plenty of room between the circles because they spread, and don’t overwork the batter next time, so the macarons don’t spread so much!
After piping (notice a few misshapen and inconsistent circles!), the macarons have to air dry until they form a skin and are no longer sticky to the touch. With the air conditioner on high (on a drizzly afternoon) it took the better part of two hours. This is a crucial step, though. The first time I made these we didn’t wait until we had a full skin on them, and the tops cracked and were not smooth.
I also tried baking them one sheet at a time instead of two, as I did the previous weekend. While I have a convection oven, so theoretically the heat is even throughout because of the fan, I have observed that there are some significant hotspots, so cooking one pan at a time will give me more control over even cooking.
One challenge I still encountered was the problem of the meringues sticking to the parchment. The ones in the upper-right of the picture were ultimately not usable because there wasn’t enough substance left. The recipe calls for 130 C oven and about 12-13 minutes of baking. That wasn’t enough.
While I risked overcooking, it seems like I got better results at 150 C for about 16-17 minutes per tray, turned once in baking. Various helpful techniques I read online, such as spraying some water under the parchment paper after taking them out of the oven, didn’t seem to help. Also, letting them cool on the pan versus moving the paper to a rack didn’t seem to make a difference.
If anyone has any thoughts or suggestions of how to tackle this problem, please let me know!
As the macarons were cooking, I cooked up an orange curd: eggs and egg yolks combined with sugar, thickened over a bain marie – a pot of boiling water – and then some orange juice is incorporated. This didn’t get quite as thick as I’d like; I need to experiment more to get the best texture, but it worked well enough.
The end results turned out much better than before: my macarons have “feet” and puffed up nicely – although a little less overworking would have made them even puffier. They have a nice smooth surface, although they don’t have the glossy sheen that some patisseries are able to achieve. I wonder if they brush the surface with egg whites before baking?
Of the eight dozen individual macarons, about two dozen were not usable because of the sticking problem. This resulted in about three dozen gerets – the macaron sandwiches.
I also learned that they store in the freezer (in an airtight container) for several days very nicely. Good to know.
So, I think I can call this weekend’s second attempt a success. I’ve created a macaron that is substantially similar to what I can buy in the hotel pastry shops. They aren’t nearly as good as the ones in Paris, but were pretty decent. Given that the entire process took the better part of five hours of my Sunday, I’m not sure they’re worth the effort, though!
But, still, a fun and tasty adventure.