I took two week off work for the holidays at the end of December and made lots of plans, of which I actually did none. What I ended up doing was lying in bed and binge-watching the Great British Bake Off. This is a fantastic show and I recommend that anybody who is into amateur baking should give it a try. It is literally just about baking, and the judges' comments are very helpful. One contestant made a quick comment while making macarons, which got me thinking about how all of my macarons came out perfectly in DC and failed miserably in SF. So I decided to fix the problem.
An important point to know is that macarons (mah-kah-rohns) and macaroons (mah-ka-roons) are not the same thing. They're derived from the same word which is why the names are similar, but the cookies are not:
|This picture is supposedly from I Do Believe I Came With A Hat but I got it from this Pintrest page.|
If you're Ashkenazi Jewish like me, you are mostly likely unfortunately aware of macaroons because they don't contain any flour and are commonly served as dessert during Passover, straight out of the Manischewitz tin. They are terrible.
Macarons, on the other hand, are small sugar bomb sandwiches that have a softer filling and a crunchy outer shell of meringue. It's these shells that have the reputation for being so difficult to get right.
This blog entry is a little bit different from the others. It only has one recipe and details all of the various things I did to get these suckers to come out right.
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 3/4 cup almond flour
- 2 large egg whites, room temperature
- pinch of cream of tartar
- 1/4 cup superfine sugar
- Pulse powdered sugar and almond flour in a food processor until combined. Sift mixture 2 times.
- Preheat over to 375 degrees F. Whisk whites with a mixer on medium speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar, and whisk until soft peaks form. Reduce speed to low, then add superfine sugar. Increase speed to high, and whisk until stiff peaks form, about 8 minutes. Sift flour mixture over whites, and fold until mixture is smooth and shiny.
- Transfer batter to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain round tip, and pipe 3/4-inch rounds 1 inch apart on parchment-lined baking sheets, dragging pastry tip to the side of rounds rather than forming peaks. Tap the bottom of each sheet on work surface to release trapped air. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees F. Bake 1 sheet at a time, rotating halfway through, until macarons are crisp and firm, about 10 minutes. After each batch, increase oven temperature to 375 degrees F, heat for 5 minutes, then reduce to 325 degrees F.
- Let macarons cool on sheets for 2 to 3 minutes, then transfer to a write rack. (If macarons stick, spray water underneath parchment on hot sheet. The steam will help release the macarons.)
- Sandwich 2 same-size macarons with 1 teaspoon filling. Serve immediately.
To add another level of confusion to making macarons, there are actually two schools of recipes for making the shells: French and Italian. In the French approach, you whip egg whites with cream of tartar and then slowly add in sugar to stabilize the egg whites, then fold in the dry ingredients. In the Italian approach, you whip egg whites then pour in a hot liquid sugar mixture and continue mixing until firm, and then fold in the dry ingredient. "Hot liquid sugar mixture" is a phrase that terrifies me. Leaving aside the fact that I don't own a thermometer to measure the heat of the mixture, I'm the type of person who will accidentally drop "hot liquid sugar mixture" all over myself. So I went with the French method. Maybe someday I will work up the courage to try the Italian method.
I also googled making macarons like crazy. There were several blogs that had lots of useful tips and step-by-step guides:
So I was watching an episode of the GBBO when one of the contestants casually mentioned that she was making macarons and that you know the egg whites are whipped enough when you can turn the bowl upside down over your head and nothing falls out. I had never heard this before, and that's what started the googling and determination to make a batch.
Now I'm not the only person to document my own personal adventures with making macarons. But I also found a couple of useful posts from a professional baker (bravetart.com):
So here is a big list of everything that I found out while trying to make macarons, including lots of pictures of what I tried and what the results were:
- weighing versus measuring ingredients: I don't own a kitchen scale. I should but the simple fact of the matter is that my kitchen has very little counter space so I've held off on buying anything that isn't completely necessary. Most bakers consider a scale to be completely necessary but I've made do with measuring my ingredients in measuring cups. If I do end up getting a scale, I'll check back to see if it makes a difference for macaron shells.
- almond meal =/= almond flour. I don't know why there are so many recipes that say they're the same thing. Almond flour is more finely ground and has the skins removed. Almond meal will have visible bits of skin in it and be darker. If you're using almond meal, the skins will be visible in the macaron shells if you skip the sifting step. Some people like it that way and I saw several bloggers suggest to skip sifting. I bought a big bag of almond meal at Trader Joe's and sifted. If you can't get almond meal or flour, you can make it yourself.
- sifting the almond/sugar mixture: I sifted either two or three times before folding the dry ingredients into the egg whites. There was a lot of almond bits left over, especially after the first sifting (probably due to using almond meal instead of almond flour). I recommend sifting at least once.
- the true amount of dry ingredients: the recipe has you mix up 1 and 3/4 cups of almond/sugar mixture, but you will lose a lot of this to the sifting process. When I measured it, I had lost nearly 3/4 cup and the final, sifted dry mixture was a little over 1 cup. The amount you lose in sifting depends on how finely ground the almonds are and if the skins are left on. I have never seen this point mentioned in any blog posts or recipes: you may not end up with same amount of dry ingredients in each batch, no matter if you started with the same amount. Of course, the more you make macarons, the more consistent the results will be with sifting and the better you will get at eyeballing if you've got the right amount of dry ingredients. It did have a tendency to fluctuate slightly depending on how tired I was of sifting.
|Getting ready to mix the almond meal and powdered sugar together. Notice how brown the almond meal is - that's how you can tell that there are almond skins in the meal.|
|After mixing. This looks very white, but the mixture will continue to get lighter with each sift as the almond skins are removed.|
|After the first sift. Notice how much almond skins and particles are left.|
|After the second sift. There is a much smaller amount of waste at this point.|
|The mixture is much finer than after the original mixing but still has some brown specks due to the almond skins. Food coloring will cover up any light brown bits when mixed in the with egg whites.|
- separating egg whites: I wasn't going to waste a couple dozen egg whites on this, so I bought a carton of egg whites instead. Some blogs say to never use store-bought egg white and to always use egg whites you've separated at home. I did not notice anything different in the batches that used separated egg whites and bought egg whites.
- aging egg whites: every recipe I've seen suggests aging the egg whites, either at room temperature or in the fridge, for 2 to 3 days. I did not notice any difference between using egg whites on the day I bought them or when they'd been in the fridge for 2 weeks.
- temperature of egg whites: most recipes say to let the egg whites come to room temperature. Mostly I used cold egg whites from the fridge, and again I did not notice a large time difference in how long it took them to whip up.
- how much egg whites to use: the recipe gives the number of egg whites to use, but I bought a carton of egg whites instead. The conversion is 1 egg white = 2 tablespoons liquid egg whites. For this recipe, I used 2 egg whites = 4 tablespoons liquid egg whites.
- when to add the cream of tartar: "foamy" is a very good adjective. You want a consistency like the bubbles in a bath when you've added bath foam, definitely bubbly but still liquid-y and not stiff or dry. Note that BraveTart doesn't use cream of tartar at all and in fact has adding cream of tartar as a "myth" (that the egg whites will not whip up without it). Now this is true - you don't need cream of tartar to get the egg whites to whip. It does help them a bit and since macarons make me nervous, I always add it. But you should be able to skip it without a problem.
|The Great Pink Monster returns! 2 egg whites = 4 tablespoons of liquid egg whites, which will not seem like enough but this will whip up into a much larger volume.|
|This is what "foamy" looks like to me. I sprinkled in the cream of tartar and let it go to town.|
- whipping to "soft peaks": unfortunately I didn't get a good picture of this. As far as I can tell, "soft peaks" means that when you turn off the mixer, there are imprints of the whisk left in the whipped egg whites that have made short peaks and the egg whites have the consistency of soft whipped cream. Some recipes say to use speed 4 on a KitchenAid stand mixer. I changed the speed depending on how tired I was and how quickly I wanted to get it over with.
- adding in the superfine sugar: I used C+H's Baker's Sugar for this step, but most recipes just call for normal granulated white sugar (caster sugar). If you're really worried about the consistency of your sugar (don't be), you can put it in a big Cuisinart with a blade attachment and chop it up more finely. To add the sugar slowly, use a spoon. I used a standard teaspoon from my silverware drawer, scooped about half a spoonful each time, and slowly poured it in the bowl of the mixer while it was going. I had to stop the mixer a couple of times to scrape sugar off the side of the bowl and put it back in the mixture. I increased the speed to 6 or 8 for this step. If you want to use any food coloring, add it in to the egg whites at the end of this step. Try to use gel coloring instead of liquid coloring if possible since liquid can cause the eggs to deflate somewhat. (Note that I disagree with BraveTart about adding the sugar - I don't dump it in for this or for Swiss meringue, but he does claim that you can just dump the sugar in with the egg whites and it will be fine.)
- length of time for whipping the egg whites: different recipes have given different lengths of time it should take to whip the egg whites. But it all depends on how many egg whites you've used, what the humidity is like in the air, what machine you're using (hand beater versus stand mixer), etc. I don't recommend an amount of time at all. Instead, you'll need to figure out what the correct consistency is and use that as a measurement for how long the egg whites should be whipped for. I ended up checking every couple of minutes because I left the stand mixer running on the counter and washed the dishes while it was going. I would estimate about 10 minutes total for this step using a KitchenAid stand mixer with the standard whip attachment at a speed of 8 with 2 egg whites.
- consistency of the egg whites at the end of whipping: they should be very firm and stiff, to the point where there is a big glob of them left in the whip when you take it out of the bowl. As previously stated, if you turn the bowl over your head, the egg whites should stay in and not fall out. They should also be shiny. I was really tired during one batch and got a little silly and came up with a very geeky way to remember that the egg whites need to be shiny: the Firefly Rule. If you want your macaron shells to be shiny (in the Firefly sense), then the egg whites must be shiny (in the English sense).
|There is a big glob of egg whites stuck in the middle of the whip (with orange food coloring).|
|The egg whites are very stiff (with green food coloring).|
|Holding the bowl upside down over my head. The egg whites did not fall out onto my head.|
|The egg whites should be very shiny and stiff. This picture was taken without a flash.|
- the macaronage: this is the technical term for the step of folding the dry ingredients into the egg whites. The reason that this part is so tricky is because you need to fold the dry ingredients instead of mixing them. You don't want to use a normal stirring method; this will deflate the egg whites and you'll lose the air that you just spent 10 minutes beating into them. Instead, take a spatula (I recommend a silicone spatula) and use it to run down the side of the bowl and scoop up the contents of the bottom. Lightly drop those onto the top of the contents. Rotate the bowl about a quarter and repeat. The dry ingredients will not fold easily into the egg whites for a while. Most recipes say that this step takes about 40 to 50 folds. But there will come a point where things suddenly start mixing together.
- some air deflation: I just said that you need to fold instead of mix because you don't want to lose the air from the egg whites. But you actually do want to lose a little bit of air because the egg whites are slightly too stiff if you've beaten them correctly. I know that sounds weird, but the idea is that you're going to lose some air to folding, no matter how gently you fold, so you make the egg whites a bit stiffer than they really need to be and then you can fold in the almond/sugar mixture without everything collapsing. You definitely need some practice to get the right consistency at this point.
- the consistency: I have seen way too many recipes refer to the correct consistency of the macaronage as "like magma". Are you kidding me? I have actually seen magma but that was because I was too effing close to an active volcano. Unless you grew up in a place with volcanos (like Hawaii), I think it's safe to assume that most people don't actually know what the consistency of freaking magma is like. My best description of the (approximately) correct consistency is like the inside of a marshmallow after you've bitten it in half, with slightly more moisture. Soft, springy, damp, with some air bubbles, and shiny like whoa. A good way to tell if the folding got you to the correct consistency is to scoop up some of the batter with the spatula and drop it back into the bowl. It should make a blob that then slowly sinks into the rest of the batter, leaving a slight bump after a minute. Basically, you want the macaronage to be firm enough to only spread slightly when you pipe it onto the cookie sheet and soft enough that the peak you will leave with the piping tip will eventually collapse back down and make a flat top. The bad news is that getting to this correct consistency takes practice and you'll only know it when you see it.
- underfolding and overfolding: this step is pretty much where most macaron batches go bad. The folding itself is not difficult, but figuring out when to stop is. Underfolding means that you've managed to work the dry ingredients into the egg whites but you haven't folded enough and the egg whites are still too stiff. If you dropped some of the batter back into the bowl, it would not slowly sink back into the rest of the batter but would just sit on top as a blob. Overfolding means that you've worked too much of the air out of the egg whites. Unfortunately, there's no way to fix this. Everything will still taste right but you won't get the right shape when you bake the shells. If you pick up the spatula and the batter runs right off of it like pancake batter, you've overfolded it. One of my main mistakes was to underfold during the macaronage because I was paranoid about overfolding. You can also get the same runny consistency as overfolding if you haven't whipped the egg whites enough. I also did this but that was because the recipes all say to whip them until they're "stiff", which is a very generic term and I didn't realize how stiff they needed to be until I watched that episode of the GBBO.
|The almond/sugar mix was sifted one last time directly over the egg whites.|
|The batter after folding. Notice how clean the sides of the bowl are - you want to make sure that you've folded all of the dry ingredients in. This mixture is underfolded, and is a bit too stiff and not shiny enough.|
|This batch was folded better and is quite a bit shinier. I didn't use a flash in this picture so that's how shiny the batter was in real life.|
|The batter drops from the spatula but is not runny and does not make a stream of batter as it falls. When it lands, it makes a visible blob of batter that will sink back into the rest of the batter in a minute or two.|
|This batch had the best consistency out of all of my experiments. Notice how shiny it is (no flash), how there are visible blobs, and that the batter slowly spreads out across the bottom of the bowl after being scooped off the sides by the spatula.|
- Another way to tell if you've got the consistency right is to see if any of the batter is seeping out of the tip at the end of the piping bag.
|This batter is too stiff. It sat in the piping bag in the glass for several minutes while I got the baking sheets ready, and none of the batter leaked out of the piping tip during that time.|
|This consistency is must better. A small amount of batter has leaked out of the piping tip during the time it took me to get the baking sheets set up, but the batter is not runny enough that lots of it has leaked out.|
- piping the shells: you need to use a piping bag for this. I suppose you could use two spoons if you're really good with them but I'm certainly not good enough to make perfect circles that way. Use a large circular tip without any patterns, and pipe circles that are about 1 to 1.5 inches across. I experimented with making different sizes, and for the French recipes the smaller sizes really do make feet better. I don't know how size affects the Italian approach.
- piping pattern: some recipes suggest making a pattern to sit under the parchment paper or silpat and to follow it while piping. I haven't tried that but I'm seriously considering it. My inability to pipe a circle is matched only by my inability to go across a baking sheet in a straight line.
- silpat versus parchment paper: I only used silpats so I can't comment on this. Every recipe I've seen says that either of them work fine, and some mention that the shells comes off the silpat more easily than parchment paper.
- how to pipe the circles: before I figured out that I was underfolding the batter, I thought that I wasn't piping the macarons correctly. This video does a good job of showing you how to pipe them.
- what to look for: there are several things that you should see when you're piping the circles. The first thing to look for is that the batter isn't spreading out too much. It will spread a little bit, but if it looks seriously liquid and is spreading then the batter has been overfolded and the shells won't bake right. You should also look for the opposite reaction, if the batter is not collapsing down on itself to make smooth circles but instead is holding onto the shapes and peaks made during piping. Generally, the peaks should smooth out by the time you have moved onto piping the next row on the sheet. In this case, the batter has been underfolded, and you may be able to rescue it by scooping it back into the bowl and folding it a bit more. The second thing to look for is that the piped circles should be very, very shiny.
|This batter is too stiff: the shapes and peaks made during the piping have not collapsed back down into the rest of the batter to make one smooth circle.|
|The batter has collapsed and flattened a bit more and the only visible peaks are in the last row that was piped (the nearest). They are also very shiny like they should be (no flash in this picture).|
|This batch was the best: the circles held their shapes and the peaks deflated back into the circles. The batter was very shiny. I also managed to made decently straight lines while piping.|
- tapping the sheets after piping: at this point, recipes will tell you to "tap the sheet to release any trapped air bubbles". I have no idea why everybody refers to this step as "tapping": it's banging. Pick the cookie sheet up about 6 to 10 inches above the counter and drop it flat. It should make a nice banging noise. Alternatively, pick the sheet up in both hands and smack with with force against the counter top. Do this 5-6 times. It will release the larger air bubbles that were trapped in the batter.
- resting the macarons: most recipes also call for the macarons to sit and dry out before baking. This will cause a skin to dry across the top of the macaron, so that when it is baking and the air starts to expand, the top of the macaron will be held in place by the skin but the sides won't and they will go upwards, resulting in the "foot" that should be on each macaron shell. I don't know how long the resting period should be for the Italian recipes, but I've found that for the French recipes you really need to let the skin form. I try to let them rest for 1 hour but absolutely no less than 30 minutes. You can touch the top of a macaron shell gently to see if it's getting dry or if it's still sticky and wet. Don't bake them until the tops feel distinctly drier than when they were piped.
- baking time and temperature: each recipe is different, and each oven is different. You'll need to experiment with your oven to see what works best. I definitely recommend rotating the cookie sheets halfway through the baking time since conventional ovens can have very unbalanced areas of heat in them. Convection ovens should be better about this. I also like Martha's suggestion of heating the oven up to a higher temperature for 5 minutes before putting the cookie sheets in. Dropping the temperature right as the sheet go in will result in the top of the macaron shells getting a bit more heat then the interior of the shells, and will help in the creation of the foot.
- what to look for when the shells are baking: it should take about 5 minutes for the feet to start forming. If you don't see the shells rising up and making feet in the first few minutes, don't worry about it. Usually the feet have just begun to form when I rotate the cookie sheets about halfway through baking. Note that if there are problems, you may not be able to see them at the halfway point. You'll generally need to wait until you take the shells out to see if anything went wrong.
- when to remove the shells from the baking sheets: you should let the shells sit for a couple of minutes after taking them out of the oven. They should peel up when you lift them gently. If they're all sticking, even after a couple of minutes, then they're underbaked and you should put them back in the oven for a couple of minutes. I had a problem with heat distribution in my oven, and the last row of shells on each cookie sheet were not done even though the rest of them were, so I had to remove all of the shells but the last row and then put those back in.
|First batch (without food coloring): this batch made feet correctly but was underfolded so the peaks have clearly risen up through the dry skin of the shells because they never collapsed all of the way down to make a smooth top before baking.|
|This batch was far too stiff and underfolded, so all of the peaks and piping shapes are clear (along with the feet). They tasted fine but looked like somebody drunk had made them.|
|A different orange batch and a pink batch: the feet were better on the pink batch than the orange batch because the orange batch was slightly overfolded. But they are all shiny like they should be.|
|A good way to tell if you've overbaked the shells is to bite one in half and see if it's hollow and not chewy. If so, it's been overbaked.|
|This is what you want: a crisp outer shell with a chewy inside. There will be a good amount of air in a macaron shell (i.e. they won't be solid) but the inside should not be completely crispy.|
- macaron fillings: you can use whatever fillings you like. The majority of the taste of the macaron will come from the filling. The shells mostly just taste like sugar. I tried several experiments to increase the taste of the shells (see below). The fillings should be solid enough and sticky enough to hold the two shells in place and keep in place. If the fillings are not solid enough, the two shells will slide apart when the macarons are moved. Most people use buttercreams or whipped ganaches for fillings. I would guess that curds are not solid enough. Stabilized whipped cream might be solid enough as well, but I haven't tried it (yet).
- I strongly recommend that you pipe the filling. You can mess about with spoons but it's a total pain. It's worth it to use a piping bag so that you can get the filling exactly where you want it.
- putting the macarons together: I paired up the shells by size so that the sandwiches would match, but several of them had different sized shells because my piping was a bit irregular. If you use a pattern, then you'll probably get most of them to be the same size. I turned over half of the shells to pipe the fillings onto and left half of them face down so that I wouldn't accidentally pipe onto too many shells. Don't push too hard when putting the two shells together or you'll squish one or both. I grasped the shells by the side and used a twisting-pushing motion to put them together.
|Orange zest experiment: I melted some semi-sweet chocolate and used my finger to paint a thin layer of chocolate on the inside of all of the shells before piping on the filling.|
|Piping on the raspberry buttercream filling.|
|Finished batch of macarons.|
|Piping on the pomegranate buttercream filling.|
|Different orange experiment: piping on the whipped chocolate ganache filling.|
|Finished macarons for this batch.|
|Cardamom-pomegranate and orange-chocolate batches.|
- aging the macarons: most recipes suggest leaving the finished macarons in the fridge for a day or two, to let the flavors age and the filling to sink into the shells slightly. I have honestly never noticed a change in texture or flavor from leaving them in the fridge, but most recipes swear by this, so who knows?
Most of the experiments that I tried had to do with the macaron shells. The one thing I experimented on with the filling was making whipped ganache. I had made ganache many times before but had never whipped it. It took a long time to whip to a good, solid consistency (about 15 to 20 minutes with a hand mixer) but the result was very nice.
I find that macaron shells taste like sugar and air. I wanted to make some shells that had a strong, distinct flavor to go with the flavor of the filling, so I tried two experiments with orange zest and one with cardamom.
The cardamom experiment (pink shells) worked perfectly fine and didn't cause any problems. I simply added some cardamom to the almond/sugar mix after I finished sifting it. How much? I don't actually know because I literally just took my jar of cardamom and sprinkled a bunch of it over the dry ingredients. It was probably a couple of teaspoons worth, for sure (I like cardamom). Any dry powder should work very well with this type of addition (cocoa powder, matcha powder, etc.). Martha has several recommendations on her webpage for this recipe.
You can also substitute a different type of nut for almonds, or make a mixture. For example, you could grind up pistachios with powdered sugar instead of almonds. I've tried this with a different recipe and it worked very well.
The two experiments with orange were a bit different. I wanted to get the orange taste into the shells but orange zest is very wet. I am also not a huge fan of orange extract because I think it tastes a bit weird and it also doesn't have a very strong orange flavor, so it doesn't leave much orange behind when it evaporates during cooking. For the first experiment, I made the shells with a bit of orange extract and added orange food coloring, then dropped small bits of orange zest onto the piped shells before baking. This didn't work because the zest was to heavy and the shells just rose around the zest, making islands. I would either zest the orange the night before and let it dry out before sprinkling, or add the zest to the egg whites.
For the second experiment, I added the orange zest to the dry ingredients and then sifted it out later. This let the smaller pieces of zest stay in the almond/flour mixture without weighing down the final batter. It worked, but I wasn't satisfied with the strength of the orange flavor.
|Orange zest is very wet.|
|Using a 3-cup Cuisinart mixer to add the orange zest to the almonds and sugar.|
|Compared to a plain batch of dry ingredients, after sifting.|