March 23, 2010

Strawberry Macarons


Strawberry Macarons
Strawberry Macarons

Macarons are photographed like precious jewels, and there are trendy shops that sell nothing else. Are they actually hard to make or is it all hype?



It's reasonable to assume that any cookie with stores dedicated to it and books written about it must be at least as special as the chocolate chip cookie, so I decided I would take the macarons plunge. From what I had read it seemed there were arcane mysteries to be unraveled, mystical rites to be mastered, and magical ingredients to be conjured, so I spent a couple of weeks doing research.

Virtually every recipe I encountered says the egg whites must be aged. Length of aging varies. Reasons for aging vary. My conclusion: just as athletes follow some ritual because they happened to do that before winning an event, makers of macarons age their egg whites because they aged their egg whites the first time they succeeded or because they followed the recipe of someone who aged the whites. I used an Italian meringue. Aging doesn't make a bit of difference to an Italian meringue. If you think aging the whites will help you make excellent macarons go ahead and age them by letting them sit out at room temperature, covered, for at least 24 hours, or up to 72 hours.

All recipes say that the macarons need to rest 15 minutes or more before baking. Various reasons are given. My conclusion: I couldn't tell any difference between the macarons that rested 20 minutes, the ones that rested 15 minutes, and the ones that didn't rest at all. What did seem to make a difference is letting the batter rest before piping rather than after, because the shape and texture of the later cookies was better than the earlier ones. Or maybe I just quit caring about all the rules and made some cookies, and they turned out better.

Baking. Oh boy, are there ever a lot of variations in how to bake them. My own silly ritual is explained in the recipe below. I sacrificed four sheets of macarons to the kitchen god until I found a method that worked. For validation of my ritual, I point to the pictures above and below, and specifically to the legs that are the sign of success. I suggest you use a small baking sheet--a quarter sheet pan is a good choice--and plan to waste some batter finding out how best to bake them in your oven on your baking day with the understanding that ovens and ambient humidity vary from hour to hour, and you may fail tomorrow after succeeding today.

Curing is mentioned in some recipes and not in others. Just after baking my macarons had a nice crust and chewy interior, but not much flavor. After curing in the refrigerator for 24 hours they didn't have as much crunch in the crust, but were chewier and much more flavorful. After freezing and defrosting, the flavor was even better. I say cure them. Unless you want a nice bit of crustiness, that is.

So, without further ado, here is the no-fail recipe I pulled together from the tomes of the masters of the dark art of macarons. Note that this makes a really large batch, 4-5 dozen, maybe more if yours are smaller than mine, maybe less if yours are larger.

Strawberry Macarons
450g confectioner's sugar
400g blanched almonds
30g freeze-dried strawberries (or strawberry powder)
9 egg whites at room temperature (4 in one bowl, 5 in another)
400g granulated sugar
125g water
2-3 drops red food coloring gel (optional)

Start by making some flour. Put the almonds into the work bowl of a food processor and chop them finely. Then add some of the confectioner's sugar and process some more. If they start to clump even a little, add more confectioner's sugar. Sift into a bowl, then return the parts not fine enough to the food processor, add the freeze-dried strawberries and more confectioner's sugar, and process some more. Repeat until you've achieved perfection or boredom. I got bored, so my macarons had little bits of strawberry and almond. No one seemed to care. I sure didn't. Mix the four egg whites into the flour. It won't actually be enough liquid to get the entire mass wet, but do the best you can and don't worry about it.

Here's the no-fail part: make an Italian meringue. Put the five egg whites into the bowl of your stand mixer with the whisk attachment. I suppose you can do this with a hand mixer if you're really careful or you don't mind third-degree burns. Mixing by hand with a whisk is out of the question.

Mix the granulated sugar and water in a small pan and put it on the stove over medium-high to high heat. Insert a candy thermometer. When the sugar reaches 230°F/110°C start whipping the egg whites on the highest speed setting. When the sugar reaches 250°F/121°C slowly drizzle it into the egg whites without pouring any onto the whisk unless you want significant pain. Continue whipping the whites until the bowl feels room temperature or cooler and the whites are stiff and glossy. Add food coloring gel while whipping the whites if you're using any.

Add about a quarter of the whites to the flour mixture. You can try to fold, but the flour is really stiff and dry, so it's more beating than folding. Repeat twice more. Now you should have about a quarter of the whites left, and the rest of the batter should have loosened up enough that you can actually fold in the remaining whites. Once you've folded in the whites you should have a batter that has lava-like consistency. It will flow, but very slowly.

It can be difficult to pipe the batter at this stage, so I suggest a break at this point. Letting the batter sit for awhile will hydrate everything nicely and the batter will loosen up some more, making it easier to pipe. Now would be a good time to turn the oven on (400°F/200°C) and to cut some parchment sheets to fit your pan(s).

What to bake them on? You need insulation. An insulated cookie sheet should work, but I haven't tried one. I used two sheet pans, one inside the other. I lined the one holding the cookies with parchment paper, but a silpat would have worked just fine.

Fill a pastry bag with batter and pipe nice little rounds onto the lined pan, leaving about enough space between the cookies for another of the same size. Make them all the same size, as nearly as possible. Let them rest if you wish. It won't do any harm. It might do good.

To bake--I'll just admit right here that this is a bunch of hooey, but it works--put the insulated pan into the oven, close the door, turn the oven off, wait exactly five (5) minutes, then set the oven temperature to 380°F/190°C and wait exactly seven (7) minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan on a rack. I warned you it was a silly ritual, but you do whatever the kitchen god requires on baking day. Remember to reset the oven to 400°F/200°C so you can bake the next batch.

Many recipes swear that you have to let the cookies cool in the pan. Some tell you to lift a corner of the parchment paper and pour in a bit of water to steam the cookies free. Meh. I got bored waiting, and just slipped the parchment out of the pan onto a cooling rack. When the cookies were cool, I peeled them off the paper carefully. Worked just fine. I lost exactly two cookies because I got impatient. But it gave me a chance to taste them, so it was probably my subconcious baker making me check my work.

I broke all the remaining rules at this point, being completely fed up with the whole process. I put all the cookies into the refrigerator, covered but not airtight, and left filling them for the next day. To fill them I made a strawberry-white chocolate ganache. I put some freeze-dried strawberries into a small pan with some cream, brought it to a boil, took it off the heat and let the cream infuse for about 30 minutes, then I strained it into a bowl that had Guittard White Chocolate wafers in it, stirred until nicely melted, then added a couple of drops of pink food coloring gel to make it pretty. I used the ganache to fill the cookies, which I put back into the refrigerator for another day. Then I froze some to make sure that would work.
Strawberry Macarons from a different angle


So there ends my visit to the mad, mad world of macarons. They cost me about forty cents each, and let us not forget the significant amount of labor involved. They were tasty enough, I suppose, and pretty enough, I guess (okay, they don't look as nice as the ones on sale at Pierre Hermé and those are flatter as well). If you love macarons but have trouble making them, try my method or even pay for a workshop. As for me,  I really don't understand what all the fuss is about. If I happen to be near a Pierre Hermé shop for Jour du Macaron I'll give them a taste and see if I feel differently. But until that day, I think Rhett Butler got it exactly right.

18 comments:

  1. Like you, I've seen blog post after blog post about the wonders of the mysterious macaron - or the agony, whichever, and wondered myself what all the fuss was about.

    And, like you, I will probably eventually have to find out for myself. Thanks for the great information!

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  2. These sounds too complicated for me!! Haha!! Maybe one day :-)

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  3. This was THE one single post I needed to read! ROFL Thanks for enduring the whole process and posting it. I've been vacillating all month - do it, NO don't do it, do it, NO...you get the picture. Such apprehension over two airy discs and a smear of ganache. THANK YOU!

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  4. That was the BEST post. I too have been very curious and vacillating but since my future husband lived in France for several years and loves them I'll give them a whirl. I'm always up for a challenge. Thank You!

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  5. Just a quick note to let you know I am passing on the Sunshine Blog award to you. For more information please visit Detroit Eats.
    Congrats!

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  6. Dear Gareth - I am so impressed with your mad cooking skills :) I have not yet advanced to macarons. Have just now awarded myself an award for Pate brisee & Pate sucree!

    Now that I am done with this self-adulation, I must say I enjoy your posts & reading your background very much.

    Your 'checkered' past shows in your food and is richer for it!

    Please visit me and say hello sometime.

    Ciao, Devaki @ weavethousandflavors

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  7. I appreciate a scientific approach to cooking which examines whether steps have any real benefit, and so your post on macs is appreciated.

    I've tried to make them (I like the taste, and I think they are pretty, but mostly they seemed like a challenge) and failed. I'd pretty much decided to take the Italian approach next time, and you've firmed up that decision.

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  8. Wow those look great! I've always wanted to try macs. Maybe in the coming weeks i'll finally give it a try!

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  9. Hi, Gareth. Excellent post - I would add that the best macarons in Paris are worth trying when there (I lived in Paris 25 years ago and developed a taste for them then, before the food trend of late...).

    Also, stronger flavours, e.g., chocolate, coffee, mocha, caramel/fleur de sel, lemon even, are better than more delicate ones, as far as I am concerned. Thanks for the research and detail.

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  10. I'm sure macarons are much better when made by someone else. They have a certain decadent aura for me, so one can't really be slaving away in the kitchen to properly enjoy them. If I'm going to have a macaron, I'll have it lounging on a canape Kristne Dunst as Marie Antoinette style.

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  11. Hmm, I imagine you're right.

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  12. I'm sure they're much better at Pierre Hermé, although he might have gone a bit too far making a Ketchup Macaron.

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  13. You might want to hold back some small portion of the dry ingredients to adjust the thickness of the batter. I think they were a bit too lava-like, so never settled as much as the ones from Pierre Hermé and other gods of macaron.

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  14. Mine were glopping out of the bag so that I had to keep holding the tip up. I didn't have to squeeze at all. I suspected they were too wet, but they didn't end up overspreading as I would have suspected. They ended up tasting fine (I made cardamom and rosewater flavours) but not developing feet.

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  15. Interesting that you have this post now. I recently saw this article http://www.slashfood.com/2010/02/09/macaroon-daydream/ where they have very similar looking ones.

    I was intending to try a recipe from Cooks Illustrated where they look like little pyramids but was unable to find all the coconut I needed.

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  16. love these....love macarons....will try these after my 7-day challenge is over....

    thepenandthepear

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  17. I didn't think much about macarons until I had one at SE Pix Patisserie on Division, Portland, Oregon. They have many varieties of macaron. Yours look darling. The color is nice.

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  18. I think I know which Cook's Illustrated you are talking about. Those are macrOOns, which are made with coconut. Macarons are a whole different animal...and one that scares me (to make). But, I might try them now.

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