No small feat
If you know anything about macarons (macaroons?) you know that the title to this post is something of a red herring. Or a pun. Or something in between.
A macaron is a delicacy that comes about from whipping egg whites until firm and folding that into ground almonds and confectioners sugar. Akin to a meringue, I suppose. Sounds simple enough, or so I thought when confronted with this month’s Daring Bakers challenge. (The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S of Baking Without Fear. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.)
Having spent a fair amount of time on the internet scouring blogs and food photography, it is hard not to notice the omnipresence of the macaron and the collective trepidation over making these treats. Apparently it all has to do with the feet. You see, correctly made, macarons bubble up along their bottoms (where they come in contact with the sheet pan) in a darling fashion that is called “having feet.”
However, my first foray into making macarons was woefully inept. You can see in this photo that they never grew feet and never puffed up. I couldn’t have told you why until I did a little digging.
And here is the product of my second attempt, which was a rousing success. The bubbly parts in the middle are the feet of two macarons which have been sandwiched together.
What was the difference? While I can’t pretend to know which one factor might have turned the culinary tides in my favor, I can tell you what I did differently from first attempt to second, and hopefully these tips will help you.
A) The first time I tried macarons, my parents were in town, and I was planning for the Malvern Fall Festival, where I was to have a cookie booth. I can’t imagine my thought process when I tried to make these on a Friday afternoon, as a lark, thinking “how hard can it be?” I ground my own almonds and pecans (a ratio of about 5 to 4, in favor of almonds), because I don’t love the flavor of almonds as much as pecans. Plus, I am drawn to the idea of making any recipe from absolute scratch. That’s just how kitchen witch rolls.
However, when you grind your own nuts, there are lots of pieces that aren’t ground into a powdery-fine texture. These largers bits (a little larger than sand, I’d say) were a puzzle to me. Should I throw them out? How would that affect the final product? Not knowing, I left them in.
Difference: In my second attempt, I purchased ground almonds from Trader Joe’s ($3.99 for a pound, I believe). I did not use any pecans this time. Following the recipe at Life’s a Feast (see link below), I sifted the weighed almond meal with the weighed confectioners sugar. When I couldn’t press anymore almond meal through my sieve (and I worked on it), I weighed the little bits that were left and replaced them with the same weight in new almond meal. I did not bother to sift this, as it was only about a teaspoon.
B) Another ingredient mishap came by way of my eggs. The recipe provided by the Daring Bakers site lists all of the ingredients by both volume and weight except for the egg whites, which are only listed by quantity and size of egg. Now, I can’t say why this is. I understand from my research that the ratio of wet to dry ingredients is crucial, so to leave that part of it to chance doesn’t make sense to me. However, what I also realized after the fact is that I used the egg whites obtained from extra-large eggs, whereas the recipe calls for large eggs. This would absolutely make a difference and alone would ruin the outcome.
Difference: For my second attempt, the recipe I found at Life’s a Feast included the weight of the egg whites as well. I went so far as to weigh mine and scoop out a little egg white with the shell when I had surplus, ending up with 91 grams to the recipe’s suggested 90 grams. I measured them cold, as I ended up breaking a room-temprature egg while trying to separate it. (Quick tip: to quickly bring egg whites up to room temperature, place them in a metal–not glass–bowl and place that bowl in a larger bowl of warm to hot water. Replace water as it cools until eggs reach the temperature you desire. I do this all the time when whipping egg whites because I usually forget to leave them out. It seems to have worked fine this time.)
A) In my first attempt, I was feeling very smug to have my stick blender, with its extra fancy whip attachment. Why, whipping egg whites is a breeze with this thing. It’s handy and portable and doesn’t require the heavy stand mixer to come out from hiding. Plus, testing the eggs for firmness is as easy as lifting the blender out and seeing what peaks form.
Difference: What I learned about whipping egg whites for macarons is that the speed of the whipping matters. First you should start the whip on a low speed for about 30 seconds, at which point you increase to a high speed. When your eggs reach soft peak stage you add some granulated sugar (in my case, mixed with some maple sugar) and continue to beat until firm peaks form. One suggestion for testing the firmness of the whites was to turn the mixing bowl upside down. If the whites stay put, you’ve got the right firmness. Granted, this is a pain with a KitchenAid stand mixer, but it yields correctly whipped whites. The stick blender may have been easy, but it created air bubbles in the whipped whites that were simply too large (due to lack of slow mixing at the outset).
B) Folding was another area were my technique faltered. Following the Daring Bakers recommendations, I was very gentle when folding my egg whites into my dry mix. I didn’t pay attention to how many strokes it took, but I did make sure to handle with care.
Difference: Turns out that for the first 6 strokes of the folding phase, I needed to be a little rougher with the ingredients. That causes the air bubbles to break down a bit, which helps the macarons down the road. After six strokes I eased up into the gentle fold mentioned above. And I counted. Somewhere between 30 and 60 strokes the mixture should come together. It did for me, and had the appearance of “lava” or a thick ribbon of batter when I let it drop from the spatula.
A) Here is where my eagerness (or my laziness…or my rushing to get this done) also did me in. I did not take the time to draw circles to guide my piping efforts on my nonstick liners. I just winged it. Granted, I was probably pretty close, but because my batter was too wet, the circles spread and ran into each other while baking. I also only used one baking sheet under my nonstick liner, believing my oven to be even enough in its heating to suffice.
Difference: In my second attempt, I used parchment paper, with traced circles underneath to guide my piping. I found in the end that smaller was probably better, as when I free-formed it and made larger macarons, they just didn’t have the height that the smaller ones did. I also doubled up the trays underneath, which helped tremendously. Plus, the recipe I followed the second time directed me to cook them at a lower temperature (280 degrees F) which I believe aids in allowing them to rise and puff without the feet spreading and getting overcooked.
I also made the executive decision to dry my macarons on the counter for an hour before baking them, rather than using the oven at a low temperature to do this for me. This was fun to witness, as my macarons gained the thick skin that was predicted in the recipe. Then the baking on a double thickness of trays, at a consistent low temperature, turning the trays to compensate for an inconsistent oven helped create beautiful macarons. I undercooked the first successful batch as I was so excited that they actually grew feet. I have learned that a nice golden color for these is preferable to a lighter color…helps later for getting them off the pan.
And when my first tray of successes stuck to the parchment paper, I just popped them back in the oven for 5-10 minutes to dry them out. This did the trick, but when cooked correctly the sticking issue disappeared completely.
I hope some of my mistakes can inspire you to try these wonderful treats. I know I will be making them again and soon, as I noticed that they taste even better and improve with texture as the days go by. It was all I could do to stop myself from eating them before I had a chance to take some photographs! Thanks Daring Bakers. This was a great learning experience for me.
In the end, it was this recipe and post from Jamie at Life’s a Feast that saved me. It is essentially the same recipe as the Daring Bakers, but halved, and with some all important pointers along the way. Most importantly, all ingredients are listed by weight. This is so very important in all of baking, but perhaps never more so than when making macarons. After all, these are an item which can be affected by the humidity on the day you are making them (rain, rain, go away!). Always go by weight to make macarons, and you’re on the right track.