I grew up in the Midwest. There are some wonderful things about growing up in the Midwest: friendly neighbors, sense of community, Big 10 football. Quality food experiences, however, does not make the list. As I started to explore the world and its food, I made some amazing discoveries. Near the top of that list was the macaron.
A little “o” can make a big difference. As a kid I was drawn to these spongy lumps that glued my tongue to the roof of my mouth and left coconut in my teeth for days called macaroons. Then, I discovered a true macaron, with a delicate, crisp outer layer that gives way to a soft, slightly chewy inside sandwiched around smooth, sweet, creamy buttercream. It was an epiphany. I am not saying that macarons are better than macaroons1. I am simply saying that they are not the same.
Macaroon: chunks of hastily prepared stickiness to adorn a middle school pot-luck table.
Macaron: colorful bites of Parisian decadence that can make women swoon, bring men to their knees, and cause unicorns to weep.
I think back on my grandmother’s beef stroganoff, prepared according to the recipe on the back of a Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup can2, with occasionally cravings. After trying true beef stroganoff for the first time, I was struck by what the dish could be with tender, braised meat swimming in a saucy swirl of creamy, tart, zesty, and herbaceous flavors. Yet, I can’t say I preferred it. I think of them as two separate dishes, enjoyable for their own reasons – one for memories, one for flavors. The same can be true for the macaron/macaroon. The macaroon holds a special place in my heart. The macaron is a different, more sensual animal. Now, let’s leave the sentimental attachment behind and focus on the science of sexy food.
The first step in making sexy macarons is preparing our dry ingredients – powdered sugar and ground nuts. Some macaron recipes ask for cornstarch-free powdered sugar. The theoretical concern is that the clumping of gluten proteins in the starch will lend a cakey, gummy texture to the macarons. The theory may be sound, enough starch will throw off the texture, but I have never found this to be a problem in real life macaron making. While most commercial powdered sugars contain cornstarch to prevent clumping due to moisture, the amount is so small that the effects aren’t noticeable.
The dose makes the poison, even in baking.
We should, however, stay away from granulated sugars (even very fine bakers sugar). The grains do not have time to dissolve and will cause grainy macarons. Grainy macarons are not sexy macarons.
We are using almonds, the typically nut of choice for macarons, for several reasons:
- Almonds do not have a strong flavor. Almonds won’t overpower our other flavorings. Nuts with stronger flavors, like walnuts or pistachios, would dominate the flavor of the cookie.
- Almonds have low fat content for a nut. This is important when we add the ground nuts to the meringue. Fats help break down structures. In baking, we call them tenderizers. They do this by greasing-up the structural molecules. Instead of bonding to each other, the structural molecules, egg proteins, in the meringue slip past each other destroying the structure of our macarons.
- Almonds are cheap. Every good chef knows to watch food costs. There will be times to add other nuts to the macarons, most notably, if we are trying to make a nut flavored macaron. The best solution is to use two-thirds almond and one-third of the other nut. The almond’s mild flavor will let the other nut’s flavor come through, while keeping fat content and costs down.
For the nuts, the biggest trick is grinding them to a fine powder, known as nut flour. Almond flour is a commonly ingredient in pastries that can be bought in most stores. Pre-ground almond flour, however, tends to be a little too coarse for us. So how do we get superfine, powdery nut flour?
The food processor is time-honored for its ability to quickly chop things up. It will happily chop our nuts down to grains for us. The friction of the blades along with the chopping of the nuts will also happily start to pull the nut oils out and make nut butter, instead of nut flour. Nut butter is delicious, but not in the ingredient list for our macarons. If we add some of the powdered sugar in with the nuts though, the sugar will suck up the oils as they come out. There is enough volume of sugar to prevent any clumping from the oils. This will allow us to process down to a fine powder whether we start with whole nuts or store-bought nut flour.
We will sift the nut flour and powdered sugar four times. This removes any large chunks of nuts or clumps of sugar. It also aerates the dry ingredients making them lighter when they go into the meringue. It’s easy to test how much air sifting incorporates at home. Simply measure the volume of your dry ingredients in a measuring cup before and after sifting . The change in volume is the incorporated air.
Now that we’ve got our nuts and sugar sorted, lets talk meringue.
A well made meringue is a macaron’s heart and soul. Fortunately, it is also simple to make. Meringue is whipped up egg whites. We will add sugar. The sugar helps stabilize the meringue. Dissolved sugar forms crystalline structures around the meringue’s air bubbles.
It is crucial when we separate the eggs for our meringue that we have “clean” egg whites. There cannot be a single drop of yolk in the whites. If the whites aren’t clean, they will not whip up properly. One ingredient that we are not going to add is cream of tartar. Cream of tartar is a single purpose ingredient. Its traditional role in a meringue is to provide acid, which helps coagulate protein strands. But, any acid will do the same thing that the cream of tartar will. So, we’re going to wipe out the bowl we are using with a towel doused in vinegar instead.
The vinegar will add a little acid to the whites as we whip them. We will also be sure our bowl is thoroughly clean. The vinegar will remove any residual fats from the bowl surface left behind when your roommate slacked a little on dish duty.
We’ve got clean egg whites in a bowl that’s been wiped down with vinegar. Time to start whipping. We could do this by hand, but why torture ourselves? Time to crank up the standmixer and let it do the work. When our egg whites are foamy, we will start adding the granulated sugar in a slow stream. You can see what I mean by a slow stream to the right.
This allows the granulated sugar to dissolve without filling the bowl with too many of sharp sugar crystals, which can pop the air bubble we’ve been carefully whipping into our meringue. Once all the sugar is added, we’ll let the mixer running until the meringue has stiff peaks. When our meringue has stiff peaks, it is done. When our meringue is done, it is time to bring everything together.
We are going to incorporate our nut/sugar mixture into the meringue using a technique called folding. Folding is intended to mix the ingredients together while keeping as much air in the mixture as possible. It is inevitable that we will lose some of our meringue’s fluffiness, but we want to minimize the deflation…for now.
I’ll be honest. We chefs do a lousy job of explaining the technique of folding, which is why I am going to show you.
Notice that I cut through the middle of the mixture with the edge of the spatula to break up the chunks of meringue without deflating it too much. I then use the flat of the spatula to turn the mixture over on itself.
We will add a quarter of the nut flour/sugar mixture at a time. This helps distribute it evenly and prevent the weight of the ingredients from deflating our meringue. As we mix and add dry ingredients, the mixture will get softer and flatter. The mixture needs firm enough at the end of the folding process that it is not flowing at all. If it is too loose, about the only thing to do is start over. We can always reduce the thickness with more folding to get rid of more air. We know we are at the desired thickness when we can drop some of the batter into the bowl and the dollop makes a pile, but smooths out on top. Kind of hard to visualize, isn’t it? Not if you can look at it happening.
This consistency means our macarons will form rounded piles with a smooth top when we pipe them out. If the batter is too thick, our macarons will have a little point like a Hershey kiss. If the batter is too thin, our macarons will run everywhere and we won’t have cute, round cookies. But, our batter is right at the Goldilocks standard. Let’s get them in the oven.
The baking process starts with transferring the batter into a piping bag with a round tip. No, you can’t use a Ziploc bag with the corner cut off. We are making the sexiest of all cookies. That kind of makeshift equipment might work for macaroons, but not macarons. I generally use a coupler3 as my tip. A coupler is perfectly round and just the right size. Make sure the end of the piping bag is closed off as you start to fill it. The batter is fluid enough to start drip out the end of the bag. You can twist it, pinch it, or (my favorite) clamp with a binder clip.
We are going to pipe the macarons directly onto a parchment paper lined sheet pan. If you don’t do much piping, you can draw 1-1/3 inch circles on the back (sheet pan side) of the paper to guide size and placement of the macarons. We are going to put about 1½ inches of space between each macron to allow for rise and spread. There are a few important tricks to good piping:
- Squeeze the bag with your dominate hand. Guide the tip with your other hand.
- Pipe straight up and down. At 90-degrees you pipe a circle. At an angle, you pipe a teardrop.
- Move fast. As with many things in cooking, hesitating leads to disaster. Quick, intentional movements work best.
- When in trouble, the tip goes up. The easiest way to stop the flow from the bag is to flip the tip of the bag upwards. Gravity will work in your favor, not instead against you.
You can watch me demonstrate the piping technique and some of the above tricks.
Once we have a full sheet of macarons, we are going to lift the tray three inches off the table and drop it. This will make the macarons settle ensuring that any large bubbles of air will escape before baking. We will let the macarons sit at room temperature for 20 minutes. A slight skin will form over the surface, which will translate into a thin, crisp shell when baked. After those 20 minutes, we slide them into a 325F oven and bake for about 20 minutes.
A note on equipment and troubleshooting your macarons. Macarons are finicky with heat, so it is important that your oven temperature is correct. I suggest measuring its temperature with an oven thermometer before baking your macarons. If the macarons do not develop a “foot” like these, the oven maybe too cold. If they develop cracks in their tops, the oven is too hot and they are cooking too fast.
We know our macarons are done when we can lift gently on the edge of the macaron and the bottom edge peels away from the paper. If we lift and the domed top starts separating from the bottom of the macaron, they need more time.
When the macarons are ready, pull them from the oven and let them cool completely on the pans. They should then peel away from the paper quite easily.
Macarons can be (and have been) filled with just about anything. Favorite fillings include buttercreams, ganaches, and jams. We are filling ours with lemon curd because those are The Fiance’s favorite and I like making her smile. We are simply going to spread or pipe the filling onto the flat side of one macaron and sandwich it with another. Here comes the hard part. We are then going to let them sit for a day before eating them. Yes, you can eat some right now, but they won’t be as good. The balance of textures in fresh macarons is just off. The outside tends to be thick and brittle, the inside gummy. Letting them sit for a day, allows the moisture content to distribute evenly, giving the shells a delicate crispness and the inside a perfect chew. Just wrap well and put in the fridge. Last step, enjoy a perfect bite of sexy. Happy cooking.
1. While pronounced almost identically by my unsophisticated, hillbilly tongue, hearing “macaron” said in proper French is an immediate indication that you’re about to taste something delicious.
2. Midwesterns will undoubtedly have a variety of fairly similar dishes that they grew-up on.
3. The plastic pieces designed to hold the tip on a pastry bag.