It looks to be another warm November here in the Colorado Rockies. Sure we have gotten some snow, but mostly we’re getting sun and warm – which are the nemeses of snow. I’ve resigned myself to riding my bike on the indoor trainer and getting my balance muscles back in shape on my skate skis in the living room. Even the local trails are slicked over with ice (thanks, sun and warm…). I suppose it’s just as well since my parents are in Colorado for a few weeks. Lack of snow made the logistics of prepping a belated birthday party for my dad much easier.
silly, happy neva
shopping with the parents at costco
dad’s birthday cake (one of three desserts)
toasting with friends and bubbles
Our dinner parties typically offer multiple desserts at the end of the meal, but it isn’t because I set out to make all of these desserts. On any given week, I’m always recipe testing or shooting some dessert, which means these gatherings are the perfect time to move the results of my research. We have had a string of dinners at our house lately (I am hoping we are done until next year) and most of them have involved some version of chocolate macarons. I’ve been recipe testing these suckers for over a month. My friend, Dan, held one in his hand and examined it asking, “What are they?” I said they were sandwich cookies, like Oreos. He took a bite and laughed, “These are nothing like Oreos!” He was right. I hadn’t ever been asked to describe a French macaron, I just gave them to people and figured they would eat them. French macs are almond meringue cookies that sandwich a filling – it could be ganache, fruit curd, buttercream frosting, jam, dulce de leche, or even foie gras in special savory instances.
so simple and yet not
When I have made French macarons in the past, I followed the method of whipping a French meringue and folding it into the almond-sugar base. They looked great, but the cookies were always hollow or as I coined it, had “attic space”. I chalk a lot of that up to baking at my altitude of 8,500 feet. Macs are finicky little guys, but at my elevation, they are a pain in the ass. I stepped away from baking macs for several years with the intention of getting back at it – except I didn’t return to it until now. And I think I’ve got it. What follows is a lengthy discussion of the technique that works for me. It’s more for my own reference, but hopefully it will help someone else out there, too. I’ve tried to detail what I can in the recipe itself and go into greater detail here in the post.
powdered sugar, egg whites and egg whites, almond flour, granulated sugar, cocoa powder, water
Even during my hiatus from baking macarons, they were always on my mind as they gained in popularity and have pretty much jumped the shark (you can now buy them in bulk from Whole Foods and Costco). I spoke with several professional bakers in high altitude mountain towns about issues and tricks regarding these treats. Everyone has their own tweaks and methods that they’ve worked out. I knew that I wanted to try the sucre cuit (cooked sugar) method, which makes an Italian meringue with hot sugar and is supposed to be more stable than the French method.
First things first.
I highly recommend using a kitchen scale to make the macarons. I know some people balk at that – some have even gone so far as to tell me that “Here in AMERICA, we use cups…”, but if you 1) want your macarons to work and 2) want to be able to produce consistent results, then you should use a kitchen scale to remove some of the variability. If you choose not to weigh your ingredients and your macarons flop and you complain to me, I’m going to reach through my computer and dope slap you.
You will need at least two baking sheets and some parchment paper or silpat mat to line the top sheet. The reason is that you will double stack the baking sheets (so make sure they are the nesting kind) for a more even bake and rise from the bottom. I bake one sheet of macarons at a time in my oven (because my oven sucks). If I had two trays of macarons in the oven, I know the bottom ones will rise too quickly and the top ones will rise lopsidedly. Also, I don’t know how the macs behave in a convection oven.
It helps that I have quarts of egg whites in my freezer – the result of making too much ice cream and homemade egg pasta. I saved those whites knowing that some day, SOME DAY, I would burn through them in a frenzy of recipe testing macarons. Make sure your egg whites are at room temperature before you start. Another push in the right direction was being able to get superfine almond flour in bulk from Costco. Sure, I can grind my own blanched almonds into almond flour, but I can never get mine to be this fine. Also, for some reason it’s much easier to go back to the drawing board after yet another failed batch of macarons when you simply spoon the almond flour out instead of grinding the almonds yourself. Hey, I’m just trying to reduce as many mental hangups in this process as possible. Because the almond flour I use is superfine, I don’t bother processing it together with the powdered sugar and cocoa powder. If you are starting with blanched almonds (whole, pieces, whatever), you will absolutely need to run those through the food processor with the powdered sugar and cocoa powder (the powdered ingredients help to keep the almonds from turning into almond butter, too).
And if you aren’t interested in making your macaron cookies chocolate, omit the cocoa powder, but replace the omitted weight of cocoa powder with the equivalent weight in powdered sugar. So if you left out 20 grams of cocoa powder, add 20 grams of powdered sugar.
mix the powdered sugar, cocoa powder, and almond flour together (or process in a food processor)
sift the dry mixture to remove any large pieces
When the dry ingredients are sifted (yes, please do this step), pour in 75 grams of egg whites and mix it until combined. Egg whites don’t incorporate the way most liquids do. They take a little time for the dry ingredients to absorb. It will look like there isn’t enough liquid for everything to come together, but keep working at it – it will eventually become a thick, uniform, wet paste. It’s a mini workout for your wrist and arm.
add half of the egg whites to the dry mix
a uniform wet paste
The next step is a little bit of a timing issue, except it isn’t really. The goal is to produce a hot sugar syrup (see discussion in next paragraph) and have the remaining egg whites beaten to stiff peaks at about the same time. In reality (because I have done this about a dozen times, now), you can whip the egg whites to stiff peaks and turn off the mixer, letting the egg whites wait until the sugar syrup reaches temperature. I give it a quick whip to perk it up again before reducing the speed to the lowest setting and slowly pouring the sugar syrup in a steady stream down the side of the bowl into the egg whites. You pour the HOT sugar syrup down the side of the bowl rather than on the whisk because you want the sugar to go into the egg whites and to avoid splattering hot sugar all over the whisk and bowl and possibly yourself (ouch). If a good bit of your sugar syrup gets on the sides of the bowl, I have found that stopping the mixer and scraping the sides down as best as you can helps to incorporate it into the meringue while it is still hot. Keep whipping the meringue until it feels cool to the touch and is glossy and firm. This takes several minutes. If you encounter any hard sugary pieces, just pick those out.
Regarding the sugar syrup temperature, the target is 245°F at sea level, which is considered the firm ball stage (if you dropped it into cold water, the syrup should harden into a firm ball). You have a couple of degrees of wiggle room on either side of the target. I recommend using a candy thermometer or an instant read thermometer to observe the temperature of your sugar syrup. It just takes the guesswork out of it and makes for more reliable results. For folks at high altitude, water boils at a lower temperature the higher you go in the atmosphere (it has to do with reduced atmospheric pressure). The general rule for adjusting the temperature is to reduce the target temperature of the sugar syrup by 1°F for every 500 feet above sea level. At my elevation of 8,500 feet, I reduce my target temperature by 17°F (8500/500 = 17) and have an adjusted target temperature of 228°F. Easy peasy. This is why math is good.
mix the granulated sugar and water so that all of the sugar is wet, then boil into a syrup
meanwhile, whip the remaining egg whites to stiff peaks
pouring the hot sugar syrup into the egg whites
whip meringue until firm and glossy
Now we arrive at the stage referred to as “macaronage” where the meringue is folded into the almond mixture to produce the macaron batter. But before we do that, let’s prep the pastry bag that we will use to pipe the batter. I find it helpful to use an 18-inch pastry bag as it will hold an entire batch of batter. The 12-inch bags can only take a little over half a batch of batter, and reopening and refilling is a messy, messy business. I use an Ateco 1/2-inch plain piping tip with the pastry bag. Once the piping tip is in place, I twist the bag right above the larger end of the tip and stuff the twisted part of the bag into the tip. This serves as a temporary plug so the batter doesn’t flow out of the bag as you fill it. Then I fold the top of the bag down to form a 2-inch cuff and set the bag, piping tip down, in a tall glass. Okay, on to the macaronage.
Note that the almond mixture is a thick paste and the meringue is light and fluffy. It’s easiest to fold the meringue into the paste in thirds, thereby reducing the density of the paste in stages and minimizing the amount of deflation of the meringue. Fold each third in until the mixture is uniform. By the end, the batter should be viscous, yet still flow. I have read countless recipes that describe macaron batter’s viscosity as that of magma when I think they mean LAVA and even then I think they specifically mean basaltic pahoehoe flows. It’s not magma because magma exists beneath the Earth’s surface. When it breaches the surface, it is lava. I don’t know who originally coined the term, but I would like to… hand them a middle school geology textbook. Pour the batter into the prepared piping bag and twist the top of the bag to seal in the batter, pushing any air pockets out.
introducing the first third of the meringue
folding in the second third
spoon the batter into a piping bag
I pipe a 1-inch diameter mound of batter onto the parchment to eventually get a 1 1/2-inch diameter macaron. The batter should spread and flatten over the course of a minute or more. Be sure to leave enough space between each cookie so they don’t touch after they flatten out. I have found 2 inches to be sufficient, but if you are new to the game or skeptical, give them more room. Piping straight up rather than at an angle helps to produce more consistently round cookies that rise evenly. After all of the cookies have been piped on your double stacked baking sheets, rap the bottom of the ensemble on the counter top a few times. Go straight down so the base of the sheet contacts the surface of the counter or table – this disrupts air bubbles in the batter. Try to avoid whacking the baking sheets at an angle as you want to preserve the roundness of the cookies and not introduce any shearing that might deform the circles. Due to the nature of piping, there is usually a little peak or nipple in the center of the cookie. They often sink and blend with the rest of the cookie, but if they don’t or if you don’t want nippled macarons, then it’s easy enough to dip the tip of your finger in water (shake off any dripping water droplets) and smooth the nipple over.
Let the macarons rest for 20 minutes. This gives the outer shell of the cookie time to dry and form a cap. When the cookies bake, they will rise, lifting the dried cap and forming a “foot” at the base of the macaron. If you live in a humid climate, this drying step may require more time. In arid climates like mine, it could take less than 10 minutes, but I still give it the full 20 minutes. When the cookies are ready, you should be able to lightly touch the top of a cookie without it sticking to your finger. That’s when they are ready for the oven. 320°F seems to work well for me and my crappy oven. I do think it is a good idea to have an oven thermometer that gives you an independent reading of your oven temperature, so that you know if 320°F is truly 320°F or if it’s really more like 300°F.
The baking step was my biggest hangup. So if all of the factors are working, you can set your macarons to bake for 15 minutes, turning the baking sheets 180° halfway through the baking, and expect lovely macarons out of the oven with nice feet and even tops. I spent the better part of a month wiggling the baking temperature, trying different baking times, using different sized baking sheets.
The temperature matters. If I went higher than 320°F, the cookies rose too quickly and deflated upon cooling, obliterating the feet or collapsing. They also had a greater tendency to be hollow inside (attic space). Lower temperatures yielded more consistent results, had a chalkier texture on the tops of the cookies and less chewiness in the cookie itself. Longer baking times helped to alleviate most of these issues.
Baking sheets matter. Because I can only bake one baking sheet at a time in my oven, I got a couple of 2/3 baking sheets (15.5 x 21.75 inches), the largest that will fit my oven. It reduces three bakes per batch into two. I use my half sheets (13 x 18 inches) for the second bake. The largest baking sheets required more baking time, I suspect because it disrupts the heat flow in the oven. The macs baked evenly with the exception of most of the ones along the edge of the baking sheet – they baked a little lopsided which is likely due to uneven heat flow. I added a couple of minutes to the 2/3 baking sheets or else they would underbake and not achieve a nice chewy texture. The half sheet macs formed their feet much earlier and puffier, although they deflated a little during cooling. These resulted in the best texture at 15 minutes, but the ones on the edges of the pan were a little more enthusiastic in their rise and were more lopsided. I think they were too hot and heated unevenly.
In the end, I learned what works to give me consistent results. Think of these as guidelines and expect to do a little tweaking as you get dialed in with your technique, equipment, climate, and elevation. I know this is the last thing a baker (especially an impatient baker) wants to hear, but this is the sacrifice you make for the ultimate cookie.
piped and resting
baked (slightly underdone on the 2/3 sheet)
better results on the half sheet
pair up to make sandwiches
Once the macarons are out of the oven, leave them on the baking sheet to cool completely. You can and probably will remove one before it is done to check the texture. They are extremely fragile when hot, so don’t be surprised or upset if the cookie falls apart. When it is cooled, a cookie should easily peel off the parchment or silpat and remain intact. If there is an imperfect cookie (I always have a few), bite into it to test the texture. It should yield under your teeth and not shatter, but be chewy – neither chalky nor brittle. At this point, I sort the cookies according to size and pair them up. Then I make the ganache filling.
chocolate, heavy cream, butter, almond extract
pour heated cream over chocolate
stir until smooth and blended
stir in the butter
cool until thickened, but still pipeable
You can fill your macarons with whatever you like (mostly). I’m using ganache here, but buttercream frosting is another standard filling. I am also a fan of fruit curds. The filling is where the flavor comes in. The cookies themselves are mostly just sweet and nutty. Coloring helps to visually trigger the flavor association, but the filling is the true workhorse in terms of flavor delivery. Wet fillings like whipped cream or fresh fruit will sog out your cookies in no time, so I avoid those unless I’m embedding a raspberry in the middle of some chocolate ganache. Even then, the shelf life of the macaron is reduced when you use liquid or wet ingredients for the filling.
Once the macarons are filled and sandwiched, let them cool (if needed) until the ganache is set. Carefully pack the macs into an airtight container and refrigerate them for several hours or overnight. This is like a “curing” step, which fuses the ensemble into a more cohesive package of deliciousness and evens the texture throughout. I’ve done this with a few batches that seemed subpar at first and came out of the curing much improved in texture. From here, let the macs come to room temperature before serving. I find the texture holds well for 2-3 days, after which the cookie becomes brittle and the chewiness is gone.
pipe some filling into the center of a cookie
allow the macarons to set then refrigerate to cure
bring to room temperature before serving
I went into this recipe hoping beyond hope that the first try would work and I would be off to the races. Instead, I fell down the rabbit hole and tanked my first few batches before I began to see results that were good enough to work with and improve upon, but still not good enough to give away. It’s been a bit of a process and I think everyone I know now runs in the other direction when they see me walking toward them with a bag of macarons. That’s okay. The sucre cuit method which uses Italian meringue instead of French meringue is definitely more stable and gives me more consistent results. The attic space is gone from my cookies and the texture is much improved. I’m happy with it. Even though it feels as if the fad of French macs has come and gone, I just love these little guys and I know my homemade macs are better than most of the store-bought macs out there. The challenge is real, the reward even more so. These are going on my holiday cookie list this year without fear.
the best gifts are from the hands and heart (and sweat and tears)
Chocolate Almond Macarons (Sucre Cuit Method)
based on this recipe from Dessert First
200g almond flour or blanched almonds
180g confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar)
20g cocoa powder (I used Dutch-process)*
200g granulated sugar
150g egg whites, room temperature and divided into two 75 gram halves
chocolate almond ganache
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3 oz. cup heavy cream
1/2 oz. (1 tbsp) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 tsp almond extract
NOTE: If you don’t want to make chocolate macarons, use 200g of confectioner’s sugar and omit the cocoa powder.
Make the macarons: Double stack two baking sheets and line the top one with parchment paper or a silpat mat. Set aside. Prepare a piping bag (18-inch is easier as you only have to fill it once) fitting with a 1/2-inch wide plain tip. Roll the top collar of the bag down, twist the bottom of the bag above the piping tip and jam it into the tip (to keep stuff from oozing through as you fill the bag later). Place the bag tip side down in a tall glass and set aside.
Process the almond flour or blanched almonds, the confectioner’s sugar, and the cocoa powder in the bowl of a food processor until finely ground. Sift the mixture through a sieve to remove any large pieces. Add 75 grams of the egg whites to the sifted mixture and fold in until combined. It will seem too dry at first, but keep working it as the dry ingredients will eventually absorb the egg whites and be uniformly thick and wet. Set aside.
Place the granulated sugar and water in a small saucepan. Mix so that all of the sugar is wet. Set the sugar over medium heat. When the sugar has dissolved (not all of mine did, but it’s okay), attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan or use an instant read thermometer. Allow the sugar syrup to boil without stirring. Your target temperature is 245°F if you are at sea level. If you live at 8500 feet above sea level like me, it’s 228°F. If you want to get technical, the math is to reduce by 1°F for every 500 feet above sea level.
While the sugar is approaching target temperature, pour the remaining 75 grams of egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or use beaters on whip) and whip the whites to stiff peaks. Once at stiff peaks, turn the mixer off. When the sugar syrup is ready, remove it from the heat, turn the mixer to its lowest speed, and slowly pour the HOT sugar syrup in a stream down the side of the mixing bowl (if you pour it onto the whisk attachment, you will get spun sugar at best and a burn at worst). When all of the sugar has been poured into the bowl, turn the mixer on high and whip until the meringue is glossy, firm, and cool to the touch. I stop the mixer when the meringue is warmish and scrape the sides down to incorporate some of the sugar that coats the side of the bowl.
Fold a third of the meringue into the wet almond-sugar-egg white mixture. It will require a little muscle as the mixture is quite thick. Fold in the second third of the meringue until completely incorporated, then the last third of the meringue. The resulting batter should be viscous, yet still flow. Pour the batter into your prepared piping bag.
Pipe 1 1/2-inch discs of batter onto your baking sheet, leaving at least 1 1/2 inches or more between discs (they do spread). I find I get the best results when I pipe straight down and centered. There is usually a little peak at the center – that typically settles down as the batter rests. If it is too pronounced, you can dip your finger in water (shake off the excess) and tap it down. Once all of the macarons have been piped, rap the baking sheets on the counter a couple of times to disrupts any air bubbles. Execute the motion straight down and not at an angle or else you might shear the cookies while they are wet and deform them. Allow the cookies to sit for about 20 minutes until the tops of the cookies have formed a dry shell.
Preheat the oven to 320°F. Bake the cookies for 15 minutes, rotating the pan 180° halfway through the baking. [My own notes: For the 2/3 sheets, bake 9-10 minutes, rotate, then finish 9-10 minutes. For 1/2 sheets, follow regular instructions.] Remove the pan from the oven and allow the cookies to cool completely before removing from the sheet. Pair the cookies by size.
Make the ganache: Place the chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl. Heat the cream in a small saucepan until the edges begin to bubble. Remove from heat and pour over the chocolate. Let sit for a couple of minutes. Stir until smooth, then stir in the butter. When the butter is fully mixed in, stir in the almond extract. Allow to cool, stirring occasionally to keep it smooth (it will look like it is breaking, that’s okay, give it a good stir). When the ganache consistency is thickened, but still fluid, pour it into a piping bag fitted with a 1/4-inch plain tip.
Pipe a little ganache in the center of the bottom of a cookie. Sandwich the ganache with a second cookie. Repeat for the remaining cookies. When the ganache has set, place the macarons in an airtight container and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight to “cure”. Bring to room temperature before serving. Eat within 2-3 days. Makes 2-3 dozen (depends largely on how many rejects and flops there are).
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November 14th, 2017: 12:43 pm