I’ve been meaning to make macarons for ages, but there were so many things that kept me from trying. First of all, their inglorious fame: so many people say that making macarons is incredibly difficult, with high rates of failure at several stages of the procedure. So I guess I was just not feeling brave enough (or careless enough to face the idea of wasting an expensive ingredient like almond meal for nothing). Second, I did not own a food thermometer, which you need in this recipe. Third, even after I got myself both the thermometer and the courage, I never really happened to have some spare egg whites. So I kept procrastinating.
There is also one other factor, here, that I must confess: I actually don’t like macarons. They’re awfully expensive and feel so disturbingly posh to me. I don’t really have problems with elaborate cupcakes and cocky cakes, but there has always been something about macarons that would make me suspicious. All that fake simplicity, their somehow uptown attitude, and their seemingly unjustified price. Not my thing, if I had to buy some. More like my thing, possibly, if I were to actually make them. So why not try, once and for all, and understand why they’re so darn expensive!
For the recipe I turned to a trusted source, my friend Sara, who is also a professional baker and has a long story in making macarons. I just couldn’t trust a random tutorial here, but had to hold on to something more reliable. This is what true friends are for! After gathering a trusted recipe, a food thermometer and a jar of unused egg whites I finally decided that the moment had come for me to try the macaron experience and see if the opinion I have of those little sweets would change.
- 200 g almond meal
- 200 g confectioner’s sugar
- food colouring
- 150 g egg whites (room temperature)
- 200 g granulated sugar
- 50 g water
First of all a little story about the egg whites: they need to be aged, that is to say sit in the fridge for 5 days. At first I was afraid that this would turn into a smelly nightmare (I am always cautious with raw eggs and tend to eat anything made with them within a couple of days) but my friend Sara assured me that nothing bad would happen. So I saved the egg whites I had set aside when making custard for a cake, kept them in a closed jar and 5 days later I was ready to make my first batch of macarons. Sara was right: no smelly nightmares, just egg whites in a jar. Since you’ll need your aged egg whites to be at room temperature, I took them out of the fridge a couple of hours before I started making the macarons.
Back to the recipe. Divide the egg whites in half: 75 grams will go into one bowl, and the other 75 in another. Combine confectioner’s sugar and almond meal and sift that into one of the two egg bowls; mix until you get a thick almond paste. This is when I also added my food colouring. In a saucepan, combine granulated sugar and water and bring that to a boil until the sugar dissolves and the mixture turns into a clear syrup. This is when you need a thermometer, because you will need to bring this syrup to 121°C. Have the second bowl of egg whites at hand and when the syrup reaches 110°C start mixing the egg whites with a hand mixer. I set my thermometer to 118°C to allow myself that bunch of seconds, after the thermometer would beep, to manage to grab the saucepan and remove it from the heat while I’m busy with my hand mixer in the other hand (no KitchenAid here, sigh). Better one degree below 121°C than one over, and anything between 118°C and 121°C was Sara-approved. Still beating the egg whites (that by then should have reached soft peaks), pour in the hot syrup as soon as it’s removed from the stove, in a steady and thin stream. Now the fun part: keep mixing until the bowl cools down. (No, it’s not fun when you’re using a hand mixer, I was joking. It’s a pain, it can take up to 20 minutes. Damned macarons.)
When the Italian meringue has cooled to room temperature, put away the exhausted mixer and grab the rubber spatula. Add the almond paste to the meringue bowl, in two batches. This is, apparently, the most difficult part, or the one at the root of the highest number of macaron failures. You need to incorporate the almond paste gently and firmly at the same time, making sure to knock out a great deal of the air in the meringue, but being careful not to overmix and make the final mixture too runny or bubbly. I know it sounds foggy, I still don’t really know how I did it, but I believe I went 90% close to the right way, judging from the outcome. Work the mixture with the spatula against the sides of the bowl, this rather aggressive way will help get rid of the excess air in the batter, but make sure not to get too violent and stop the moment you see that the mixture is even and there are no clumps of almond paste swimming around. Transfer this mixture to a pastry bag with a round tip and pipe even circles onto a sheet of parchment paper.
I said I nailed 90% of the right mixing business because my batter did come out a tad too runny. So runny it was dripping out of the piping bag even without pressing it. Unable to make even circles, with this continuous stream of stuff coming out of my piping bag, I found help in my small angled spatula, that I would use to cover the tip of the bag every time I had to lift it and move aside to pipe the next circle. Another thing I didn’t really take into consideration at first was that those circles would grow larger (stupid me), and piped the first ones too close to each other. Of course their edges ended up touching, thus creating some giant multiple-circle macarons. It took me a few attempts to understand how this thing behaves, but after this initial failure I managed to pipe evenly spaced circles.
Another rule is that macarons don’t go into the oven right away, but need some time to dry. Sara had told me at least 30 minutes, and you can test by touching them: they can go into the oven when they won’t stick to your finger. When ready, bake the macaron shells at 145°C for 18 minutes. Remove at once the sheet of parchment paper with the macaron shells from the pan as soon as you take it out of the oven and let the shells cool down.
The whole drying process has in fact some sense: it makes the top of the shell hard enough not to crack when the shells will naturally grow as they cook. Or rather, the crack happens, but on the outer edges, thus creating the characteristic “foot” of the macaron. The hardened dried top will, instead, move upward while it cooks, without breaking.
I made a white chocolate ganache to fill them, and blended it with some home-made blueberry jam I quickly prepared on the side and blended to have a smooth filling. I used the blueberry filling in half of them, and filled the other half with plain white ganache. I ended up using two thirds of the shells I had prepared – those that came out decent, that is to say after I learned to pipe the circles far enough from each other – and ate the unused shells alone, without any filling. They were very pleasant to eat also like that, they just had a poor look.
The final verdict? I think I still don’t really like macarons, although:
- I’m proud that 2/3 of my first ever macarons actually came out well
- home-made actually tasted better
- it was fun to use new equipment like the thermometer
- I had proof that raw eggs can stay 5 days in the fridge without going bad
Still, I might make them again for the sake of feeling so dedicated and proud, because, after all, as snob as macarons are, they look so damn good on pictures!
(In case you were wondering to what extent I failed, here’s proof that there was a solid percentage of macaron shells that did not pass the test:
The larger ones obviously needed more time to dry out than the smaller ones. So when I put them in the oven it was too early, and they cracked as they grew. So not only were they gigantic and some of them glued one to the other, but they were also cracked on the top. A total disaster. Thank you, angled spatula, for coming into play and helping me pipe even circles that took all the same amount of time to dry and bake. So, well, everyone fails at macarons!)