I’m delighted to welcome a very special guest blogger today! Anna Marie lives in Cambridge, MA and works in finance by day but bakes by night. While she is challenging herself to make more “real” food (aka food your mom would approve of you eating for dinner), her favorite cooking adventures still revolve around flour, butter, and sugar. Today Anna Marie is sharing her secrets for crafting the perfect French macaron.
French macarons are the hottest cookie on the market right now with shops like Ladurée popping up in posh cities around the world with lines down the block to buy cookies for $3 or more a pop. What makes these cookies so delightful is not just their splendid texture – when you take a bite you first hit a crisp exterior shell then a perfectly moist and light cookie and finally a sinfully rich filling – it is also the infinite varieties that can be made using the same basic principles. A macaron is comprised of two basic components: the cookie (or “shell”) and a filling. The cookie is nothing more than a meringue (whipped egg whites, sugar, and almond flour) but the options for fillings are endless: sweet jams, savory custards, sinful buttercreams, and spicy relishes. For me, perfecting the macaron shell gave me a blank canvas to create little bite-sized morsels of happiness filled with raspberry jam, “cheesecake”, or peppermint chocolate. It also provided a challenge, and I love challenges…
To understand why macarons are such a challenge, we’ll start with the history behind the cookies. While there’s some debate over the who, when, why, and how of their invention, I once heard the following story, which I quite like. Though variations in macarons popped up around the globe (Italy, Spain, France, etc.), rumor has it that several hundred years ago in France, a master baker left the creation of meringue cookies to his apprentice. Meringue cookies are simple – you whip egg whites with sugar and carefully fold in some almond flour and powdered sugar. This young apprentice did as he was told but when he mixed in the dry ingredients, the result was a dreadfully stiff and sticky mess that couldn’t possibly be what his boss wanted. So he kept mixing. And mixing. And mixing some more. Aha! He saw progress, the batter started getting a little more flowy, liquidy, and smooth! He mixed a little while longer until he had a smooth batter that could easily be piped into little rounds on a cookie sheet.
Just as he was sitting pretty with his perfectly round little drops of batter, the head baker walked in to survey the progress and berated him for ruining the batter – he had overmixed it! It must all be thrown out and started from scratch, what a waste of valuable ingredients! Disappointed, the young apprentice was on the verge of doing just that when curiosity got the best of him and he decided to bake them anyway and see what became of his cookies. His boss was right, they did not look like meringue cookies were supposed to, but they did look rather appetizing, glossy on the top with a ruffled little base beneath. When he took them out of the oven, he tried one – it was crunchy and generally unremarkable, but certainly not bad. He thought perhaps he could spruce them up a bit by adding a touch of jam to each cookie. Overnight, they transformed – the crunchy centers turned into a soft sponge while the exteriors retained their crispness. Needless to say, they were a huge hit and the modern macaron was born. The modern macaron – two cookies stuffed with a filling in the middle – was supposedly founded by the creators of Ladurée.
Signs of a Good Macaron
1. A smooth, glossy shell on the top
2. Nice vertical “feet” or “les pieds”, the ruffled bottom of each cookie.
3. No large air bubbles between the shell and the center of the cookie.
4. Good color, not browned!
5. When “matured” with filling, a soft, smooth center of cookie and filling that is neither chewy nor cake-y.
6. It makes you say, “yum!!”
So if some young baker was able to stumble upon macarons, why on earth are they so hard to make for experienced home bakers today? Why are we warned against making them in humid summer days or calibrating your oven to +/-5 degrees (yeah, right!)? Well, it’s true that macaron shells are terribly finicky – even someone like me who took months to perfect a recipe and technique still faces a botched batch now and then when variables are changed (a new oven, a different brand of almond flour, etc.). But like all baking, it’s really just science and if you follow the instructions and mitigate negative variables (e.g. by turning up your A/C when the humidity is high), impressing your friends with homemade macarons in their favorite flavors should be a relatively easy feat (get it?).
A note: The recipe below is for a traditional “French” macaron. These, in my humble (and slightly snobby) opinion are more authentic and have a better taste and texture than their alternatives, the “Italian” macaron. They have the same ingredients with the only real difference being that in Italian macarons, a substantial part of the sugar is added in the form of a boiled syrup, rather than as plain old granulated sugar. The advantage of the Italian method is that it produces a somewhat more stable, harder-to-screw-up cookie with smooth glossy shells and therefore is what is used at mass-production shops (even the French ones, like Ladurée!). The disadvantage is that because of this durability, it simply doesn’t have the delicacy of the French method.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Note that all these are measured in grams. That is because these ingredients, especially the powdered sugar and the egg whites can vary greatly in quantity depending on the product bought and how it is measured. Egg whites can vary between 25 and 40 grams a pop and so three egg whites (a standard approximation for one batch of French macarons) could weigh anywhere from 75 to 120 grams! That’s a HUGE difference! Similarly, a really packed cup of powdered sugar could weigh substantially more than a loosely packed cup. Investing in a cheap food scale that can measure to the gram will greatly simplify your life and improve the accuracy (and outcomes) of your baking! The other beautiful thing about this method of measuring is that you can very easily adjust quantities. So you have only 2 egg whites and together they weigh 54 grams? No problem. Multiply all the amounts here by 54/100 (or 0.54) and you’ll get a new number in grams, just as easy to measure out as the original number! No fumbling for that 3/8 cup measure anymore!
- 100g aged room temperature egg whites (approx. three)
- A pinch of cream of tartar (optional)
- 28g granuated sugar
- 5g egg white powder (NOT meringue powder)
- A dash of food coloring / flavoring extract (optional)
- 225g powdered sugar
- 125g almond flour
Do ahead: Separate egg whites (making sure to get NO egg yolk in them) into a metal or glass cup or bowl (NOT plastic). Cover with a sheet of paper towel and leave on your counter to age for at least a day. You can do 2 or even 3 days at room temperature; any longer than that and I’d put them in the fridge until the day before you’re ready to use them. Yes, at room temperature. No, you do not want to eat the raw batter of macaron shells. Yes, anything that might be harmful from using aged egg whites will be cooked completely away.
Making the batter:
1. In a medium to large metal (or glass) bowl, add your aged, room temperature egg whites and a pinch of cream of tartar and set aside.
2. In a small bowl, mix together the granulated sugar and powdered egg whites and set aside.
3. Measure out the almond flour and powdered sugar, and pulse together in a food processor. Sift together into a medium bowl and set aside. If you have any clumps of almond flour, try processing them some more and then sifting again. If you’ve only got a little bit (a tablespoon or so) left, just toss it out.
4. Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar with a mixer on low-to-medium speed until foamy.
5. While mixing, slowly add the sugar/powdered egg white mixture. I do so one spoonful at a time and wait until each spoonful is fully mixed in before adding the next.
6. Continue mixing until you get somewhat stiff, glossy peaks. They do not need to be super stiff. Tall peaks can flop over slightly, but small peaks should stand at attention. DO NOT overbeat the egg whites, this cannot be reversed and you’ll have to start over. You’ll know you’ve overbeaten if it gets less glossy or starts looking clumpy or foamy again.
7. At this point add any food coloring or flavoring extracts you want, but BEWARE OF LIQUIDS – you spent all this time getting liquid out of your egg whites, don’t go adding a bunch back in. I use gel or powdered food colorings and just a small dash of extract if I really want it. Mix on low just to mostly incorporate.
8. With a large rubber spatula, gently fold in some of the almond flour/powdered sugar mixture (about 1/5 of it). When it’s barely incorporated (should take 10 strokes or less), add another bit of the flour mixture and fold that in. Repeat until it’s all barely mixed in.
9. At this point, you should have a reasonably ugly, clumpy batter that hasn’t been mixed more than about 50 times in the folding process. Now you can be a bit more aggressive and mix the batter, smushing it against the side of the bowl a few times to get out the big air bubbles until it softens slightly and looks like molten lava. When you lift your spatula, it should flow and stretch off (rather than break off roughly). When it’s at that stage, you’re ready to pipe them into rounds!
Piping and baking the cookies:
1. Move an oven rack into the bottom half or third of your oven. Preheat your oven to 290-300 degrees Fahrenheit. If your oven is like mine and is off by 25-50 degrees, invest in a reliable oven thermometer and put that on the rack you will be baking the cookies. Note: if you have a fancy oven with lots of settings, try finding the one with the best heat distribution and least water retention, like “Roast”.
Warning: Do not use a convection oven! The air flowing will smush your poor little macarons and they will not rise properly.
2. Prepare cookie sheets with silicone mats or parchment paper. You can even get special mats that have round divots to help ensure the macarons are all the same size and shape!
3. Transfer the batter into a pastry bag with a medium round tip (like a Wilton #12).
4. Carefully pipe the batter into little circles of the same size (a bit smaller than you imagine the finished product as they will spread) about 1.5-2 inches apart. Be careful not to add any big air bubbles when you do this by keeping the tip IN the batter when you pipe and then finish off with a little “swoosh” on top to help prevent forming any raised dots on your shells.
5. When you’ve piped out a tray, set aside the pastry bag and smack the tray on a FLAT surface a few times to help the cookies spread and any air bubbles rise to the surface and pop. You can smack/drop the tray hard, but you must be careful to do so evenly so your circles don’t turn into ovals!
6. Set the tray of piped shells aside in a dry room (if it’s humid, put it somewhere with A/C or fans) and let them sit until they’ve formed a nice dry shell on the top (you should be able to confidently rub your fingers over them without any hint of sticking or sagging when you do so). Usually this takes 30 minutes to an hour (during which you can go about your other business, no need to watch them) but if could be 10 minutes if you live in the desert or 2 hours if you’re cooking in a Houston summer and your A/C is on the fritz again. If in doubt, give them more time! There’s no harm in letting them rest too long and consequences can be serious if they aren’t dry enough when they go into the oven.
7. Stick your rested/dried macarons in the oven and bake for 16-20 minutes, carefully rotating the pan after about 8 minutes. You do not want them to brown but in general it is much better to overcook macarons than undercook them. It’s hard to tell when they’re done but I usually sacrifice an ugly one (there’s always one!) and try to lift it off the sheet a bit (while still in the oven!). Take a peek at how much of the cookies “insides” are left and what they look like. If it sticks a lot and the insides look moist, they need more time. Note: once you take them out of the oven, you can’t stick them back in. If they’re not totally done, the top shell will start to shrivel up and collapse onto the center of the cookie soon after you take them out. They’ll still be yummy, but the texture and appearance that make these cookies so delightful will be lost. If you overcook them and they’re really crunchy or even browned, have no fear – that’s nothing that a good filling can’t rectify overnight!
Filling and Finishing:
This is the fun part! Make a filling of your choice and spoon or pipe about a half teaspoonful into each cookie (or whatever looks right). The filling should be reasonably stiff so it doesn’t all dribble out of the cookie but still moist. You may add more or less depending on how big you made the cookies. The rule of thumb is the amount of filling, when smushed between two cookies should be about the size (or height) of one of the cookies.
I’ve included a few of my favorite, easy recipes below but you can use anything from your favorite preserves (if they’re thick enough) to buttercream. You can paint any decorations you like on the shell by mixing edible shimmers or glitters with a bit of liqueur or sugar water. Or, try sticking sprinkles along the filling.
This is the most important part… DO NOT eat freshly filled macarons, they will be crunchy or chewy and generally hard to eat and unpleasant. They will improve greatly after sitting filled in the fridge overnight and then brought to room temperature the next day. I find 1 to 2 days to be the ideal maturation time for macarons, although you can wait longer as long as the fillings won’t go bad. Also, some fillings have more moisture than others and so therefore the cookies “mature” faster than others. For example, buttercream and cheesecake fillings mature quite quickly whereas chocolate ganache typically takes a while longer. For those slow-moving fillings, you can consider helping the process along by brushing the inside of the cookie lightly with a tasty liquid (like amaretto or Grand Marnier) before filling them. As an experiment for yourself, take two macarons from the same batch with the same filings and eat one right after it’s filled and the other after a day or two (and brought back to room temperature)… do you see the difference?
My Favorite Fillings
Jams/Preserves: My favorite preserves are by Stonewall Kitchen (I’m partial to their Sour Cherry, Peach Amaretto, and Raspberry), which is a New England favorite, and Bonne Maman (again Raspberry and Cherry, I find their Strawberry to be too runny), which you can get almost anywhere these days.
Cheesecake: Mix some room temperature cream cheese with a tablespoon or two of softened butter and powdered sugar to taste. If it gets grainy, mix a little longer and add a bit of milk or cream (just a spoon at a time to help the sugar dissolve). You can then color this any color you want and add any flavorings you like, I’m partial to adding vanilla, almond, or peppermint extracts.
Chocolate Ganache: Bring a cup of cream to a boil. While that’s heating, finely chop some high-quality chocolate and put in a bowl. Pour the cream into the bowl and let sit for a few minutes. Eventually, stir it until it becomes a smooth rich chocolate. Pour into a Ziploc bag and stick in the fridge to help it firm up a bit before you pipe it. Again, you can add flavoring extracts to this as well – I usually do mint for the holidays but almond is a favorite of mine too.
Lastly… don’t be afraid to mix fillings! When feeling particularly creative, I like to mix my fillings that go well together. For example, I make a ring of chocolate ganache around the outside of my cookies and then drop a blob of raspberry preserves in the middle and voila – chocolate raspberry, a perennial crowd pleaser!
Q. Why can’t I use plastic?
A. Plastics are made of oils and are also relatively porous vs. glass and metal. Any trace of oil (whether from the plastic itself or from some oil that got trapped in the plastic from a prior culinary adventure) will prevent the egg whites from whipping properly and will ruin your macarons.
Q. What’s cream of tartar and why is it helpful?
A. Cream of tartar is a powdered form of tartaric acid (not tartar sauce). Acids help the egg whites whip well because the combat any traces of fat that might be present.
Q. I don’t have time to let my egg whites get to room temperature, much less “age” – can I still make macarons?
A. Absolutely, but it will be a bit more challenging! Aging helps the egg whites dry out a bit (basically making them more concentrated) and also helps the proteins unravel a bit so they whip better. If you’re truly rushed and need to make macarons right now, then measure your egg whites into a metal bowl and swirl the bowl over a pot of simmering water (or even directly over a flame if you have a gas stove). You do NOT wanted to cook the egg whites at all, so keeping them off high heat and constantly moving is important. This will warm the egg whites up to room temperature pretty quickly. Then be sure to add the dried egg whites (maybe toss in a touch extra for good luck) and you should be good to go.
Q. My shells cracked, what went wrong?
A. Could be a bunch of things but verify the following: no streaks of egg whites in your batter, ensure the surfaces have gotten really dry before you put them in the oven, ensure you don’t add too much liquid to the batter (through food colorings, flavor extracts, etc.), and ensure you don’t have any big air bubbles in the batter before you bake them by pounding the shells hard on the table just after piping (using a toothpick if necessary).
Q. I didn’t get “feet” – what went wrong?
A. Again, could be lots of causes but ensure that the temperature of your oven is appropriate, make sure that you did not overmix your batter (such that the egg whites have been totally flattened), make sure you let the shells dry out well before baking, and make sure you’re baking on an appropriate surface (CLEAN silicone or parchment paper).
Q. My shells won’t dry out – what can I do?
A. Humidity may be a problem or you may have added too much liquid to the batter. If it’s just natural humidity, you should be able to solve the issue by cranking up the A/C, adding some fans (just not blowing hard on the shells), or just waiting it out for a looooooong time. It can be helpful under these circumstances to help reduce the moisture content in the batter itself. You can do this by drying out the almond flour a bit in the oven before using it (just let it cool first). Heat an oven to a low temp (<200 degrees F) and spread your almond flour onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and “bake” for 30min or so. Just remember to weigh the almond flour after you have done this, not before.
Now that you’re ready to start baking, what flavor combo will you make?