#1 – 48 Recipes Challenge: Recipe 36 – Macarons
I’ll admit. I’m scared of macarons. I’ve been wanting to try them, thinking about making them, even reading about making them for ages. What’s been holding me back is that there is so much information out there about how to make them, what can go wrong, how to get it right, what works, what doesn’t – that frankly, it’s utterly bewildering. They have a reputation for being a really difficult bake to get right and every chef differs on how they should be made. There are French, Italian and Swiss methods – all involve creating a meringue and adding nuts (usually ground almonds) to the mix, but differing in whether they require heat or sugar syrup or not. If you’re interested to know more about the different methods, there’s a useful summary here: http://www.themacaronmaster.com/macarons/the-difference-between-french-italian-and-swiss-macarons-finally-explained
My other half and I (he also bakes) have been discussing macarons for a while as he didn’t think they could possibly be as difficult as they are reputed to be. He had a go and produced passable results so I decided the gauntlet had been thrown down and it was time for me to take the plunge and have a go at macarons!
As you’ll know by now, I prefer to keep my baking simple. I’ve never had any luck with sugar syrups and I don’t have a stand mixer so I went for the French method because it doesn’t involve syrups or heat and doesn’t need anything more complicated than a hand mixer. I’ve recently been gifted James Morton’s “How Baking Works” so that seemed the ideal place to start. The book not only gives you the recipes, but also fully explains the methods with step by step pictures, tells you not only what to do but also why you do particular things, and has a troubleshooting section so you can figure out what went wrong (if it did).
I chose to host an afternoon tea for the family on Mothering Sunday and thought macarons would be the perfect centre piece.
The French macaron method is deceptively simple. Whizz ground almonds and icing sugar together in a food processor, whisk egg whites to stiff peaks, fold in the almond/sugar mix and food colouring, pipe onto a baking tray, leave to rest, bake, leave to cool and then fill. Problems can arise if you overbeat the egg white, don’t get the quantities of ingredients absolutely correct, overmix the batter, don’t leave the macarons to dry properly before baking (this stage can also be affected by the weather if it’s too humid) or overbake. For what seems a simple recipe with only a few ingredients, that’s a lot of potential for things to go wrong!
Following James very closely, I tentatively made macarons. All seemed to go well and I piped them out onto a baking sheet then left them to rest. This stage helps the top to form a solid skin so that when the macaron rises in the oven, it lifts straight up creating the ‘feet’ (the little bubbly rim at the bottom of the macaron) and giving a smooth (rather than a cracked) top. If this skin doesn’t form properly, for example if the mix is too slack or the air is too humid for the surface to dry out, the macarons won’t rise correctly and therefore won’t be technically correct.
Finally it was time for my babies to go in the oven… I’ll admit, I did the ‘Bake Off’ thing; sitting on the floor, staring at them through the glass. 6 minutes… no feet. 7 minutes… no feet. 8 minutes… that looks like it might be starting to form some feet. 10 minutes… There’re feet!! They’ve got feet!!!
I was so excited. After the recommended 12 minutes, I took them out of the oven. I was so desperate to try them and see if they tasted good as well as looking good, I peeled one off the tray. Most of its middle stayed stuck on the tray. I tried another couple. They stuck too. Aargh.
Had I underbaked them? Did they need to go back in? It’s not like you can stick a skewer in them and see if they’re done… I reread the recipe. It’s quite clear: don’t overbake them, they shouldn’t colour. Leave them on the tray to cool fully… Ah, that’s it, I’ve been too impatient. I left them on the tray and once fully cooled, they lifted off perfectly intact.
Delighted, I made up James’ suggested blackberry and lime filling, piped it in and put them together. Quite simply they were magnificent!
Check out those feet! And those smooth tops! Beginners luck? Maybe. Regardless, they made a lovely addition to my Afternoon Tea.
We had a wonderful family afternoon, with lots of tasty sandwiches and cakes. I was really pleased with how the bake went, and so delighted that I had managed to make pretty much perfect macarons at the first attempt.
There’s a link to James’ recipe here: http://www.cutoutandkeep.net/projects/blackberry-tart-macaron but I would highly recommend getting a copy of the book itself because the method and troubleshooting sections are invaluable.
Although they were beautiful macarons, I did find James’ filling a little tart and slightly too runny. I really wanted something sweeter and firmer, so the remaining shells I filled with a strawberry mascarpone cream using this recipe: http://www.bhg.com/recipe/lemon-macarons-with-cranberry-mascarpone-filling-1/ (scroll down for the filling) and substituting freeze dried strawberries for the cranberries. This worked really well.
The macarons were so lovely, I thought I’d make some more for an afternoon with my girlfriends. And found out that, yes, my first set of macarons were indeed down to beginners luck. The second time around I knew as soon as I piped the mix out onto the baking sheet that it was wrong. The mix was running out of the piping bag by itself and the first batch hadn’t done that.
Sure enough, these ones cracked and didn’t develop any feet.
According to James, this is what happens if you overmix, i.e. you make them too runny. I’m fairly sure that my mistake was overbeating the egg whites and making them too stiff, which then meant I had to work a lot harder to incorporate in the almond sugar mix. Hence, I overmixed and they got runny. They still tasted great, they just didn’t look quite so pretty. Clearly macarons are something I need to continue to practise, but I did actually enjoy making these and would make them again. And the good bit is they’re better if you make them ahead of time so no last minute panics.
Scores for this one are:
Healthiness – 2/10 (Basically sugar and nuts… You know what I’m going to say; they’re a treat. But as they’re only small if you don’t eat many they’re not too bad for you I suppose!)
Ease of preparation – 5/10 (as we’ve seen, they are tricky to get right and a touch temperamental but some methods seem easier than others and you can prepare them well in advance. You do need patience for this recipe. Resting and cooling are both very important stages.)
Flavour/taste – 10/10 (macarons are really lovely, especially with the mascarpone filling)
I’ll keep trying and see if I can get the method right consistently, then perhaps start experimenting with different flavours. If you decide to give them a go, let me know how you get on.