Mastering the Elusive Macaron

by in Holidays, How-to, December 13th, 2016

There’s the coconut-based macaroon, wet and miserably dense. And then there’s the ambrosial French macaron — lighter, more ethereal and only a little harder to pronounce (mah-kah-ROHN).

The cupcake craze may have come and gone, but macarons will always have, for me, a timeless mysticism about them. Maybe it’s their aromatic chewiness or their richly scented history as descendants of the medieval Arab world (think pistachios, almond pastries and rose water).

One thing’s for certain: The perfect macaron can be impossible to find.

There are few things more disappointing than a lukewarm bath: a dropped ice cream cone, an undercooked baked potato and, for me, a crispy macaron. Too often store-bought macarons crumble into a thousand bland sugar crystals. A proper macaron, on the other hand, should melt in your mouth; it should be chewy and toothsome, yet soft and cakelike all at the same time. It should be fragrant. It should be, in other words, unfathomable.

It makes sense, then — if you’re a control freak like me — to just bake them yourself at home.

This might seem like a practice in masochism, as French macarons are notorious for being difficult to make, a feat of the gods. But with a little patience and a few basic tips, there’s no reason the home cook can’t churn out a batch or two on his or her own.

The macaron is, after all, just a meringue sandwich cookie. And when perfected, it catalyzes the kind of taste memory that’ll stay with you forever.

This is why I asked Kim Haines of Crème Macarons to give us the inside scoop on how she makes her perfect macarons — and even how to decorate them for the holidays.

What’s the first thing the home cook should know when attempting macarons?
Kim Haines: Stiff peaks. With the meringue, a lot of people don’t know how far to take it. You want to whip your egg whites to firm, stiff peaks. And that means when you dip the beater into the meringue and bring it up, it doesn’t flop over. The peak stands straight up. And when you stir the beater through it again, there should be a bit of resistance. That’s what you want for smooth, perfect macarons.

That’s such a good tip. I hate when recipes say “whip to stiff peaks” but don’t explain what that means.
KH:
Exactly. Also, with the batter, when you combine the egg whites with the almond flour and confectioners’ sugar (which you should always pass through a sieve), I know they say “60 folds” — and I used to say that too in the beginning — but having done it a hundred million times myself, now I just say, “Fold it to the point where everything dissolves into itself.” That is, fold a little, walk away for five minutes and come back; in the end there should be a smooth surface and no lumps. It should fall into itself like lava. But you want to be careful not to overmix your batter because if it’s too watery and you deflate the egg whites, then you’re not going to get feet.

Feet?
KH:
The feet are the ruffled edges on the bottoms of the shells. You get them when the heat of the oven hits the macarons and they rise. But in order for them to rise, first you have to let the meringues set, and you’ll know when they’re set because they’ll have a matte look to them; they’ll be slightly hard to the touch. If they don’t have enough time to set, then you’ll see cracks in your macarons when they bake, and that’s the air coming through because they’re not dry enough.

Good to know. What about the temperature?
KH: 300 degrees, always. Now this is important: You have to calibrate your oven. The best thing for the home cook to have is an oven thermometer, and that’s with everything you do, because sometimes “300” could mean more depending on your oven, and that 5 to 10 degrees more could ruin your macarons. Now I sound like a nerd.

Yes, you do; it’s perfect. One thing: Does the home cook need to buy one of those special macaron mats?
KH:
No. But I would recommend buying one of those silicone mats and a nice sheet pan. Thin sheet pans can cause macarons to brown. Also, I would recommend getting parchment paper, then drawing out your macarons with a pencil, whatever size you want — circles, obviously — and putting them 2 inches apart like you would normally with cookies. You should also get a small offset spatula to get those suckers off the pan. I wouldn’t even try with your hands.

Interesting. OK, let’s get to the fun part: The holidays are coming up. Any decorating tips? How do you make your royal icing? Your snowflake macarons are so gorgeous.
KH:
I use white food coloring for those, otherwise the royal icing will dry clear. And after piping each snowflake, I like to finish with some edible glitter while it’s still wet. As for the icing, the best is a combination of pasteurized egg whites — carton egg whites, basically (you can find that in any grocery store) — and just a touch of confectioners’ sugar. You don’t want it to be too runny. Also, gel food coloring is very important. You don’t want to use anything but gel food coloring when it comes to macarons.

Because the water will dilute …
KH: It dilutes everything. Everything. You should also use gel food coloring when painting macarons. Just thin it out with a drop of extract at a time; almond extract is probably best (almond is the universal flavor for macarons, obviously).

Speaking of extracts, how do you flavor your macarons? They’re so fragrant.
KH:
Well, my macarons are all-natural — at least with the buttercreams. With the shells you can only do so much (because you can’t add too much liquid or else it’ll mess up the texture). But as far as the flavorings with the buttercreams, I never use extracts. Unless it’s floral. I’m telling you: Make your own jams, masquerade your own strawberries …

Macerate?
KH:
Shut up; macerate your own strawberries, melt your own chocolate. Use the all-natural stuff. Vanilla beans … Even full-fruit jams and jellies are fine. Peanut butter, chocolate-hazelnut spread, all good.

Just curious, from start to finish, how long does a batch of macarons take you?
KH:
(Silence, then a smile.) If you want something quick for the holidays, you can make chocolate chip cookies. Those take 15 minutes or less.

(Chuckle.) Fair enough.
KH:
But here’s my final word: If you know how everything works scientifically, there’s no reason you should be scared.

So have confidence?
KH:
Have confidence.

Photography by Kim Haines, Crème Macarons.

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