Macarons, My Chocolate Nemesis
But sometimes, the only way to deal with a phobia is to grab it by its horns. Or in a macaron's case, by its frilly feet. Call me stubborn, but since that ridiculously painful 48 hour ordeal, I've fought the urge to look back and prudently steer clear. Taking the bottom-up approach, I've been practising on the paler-skinned specimens, my favourite being the vanilla bean-flavoured ones, adapted from a recipe in Thomas Keller's Bouchon cookbook.
Earlier this week, I decided it was time to cross over to the dark side. It was time to tackle the recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé which had proved so totally traumatic the first time round (am I a sucker or am I a sucker?), this time armed with the humbling hindsight paid for in failed and otherwise foiled attempts. The results, while certainly still in need of refinement, were a damn sight nearer to what a chocolate macaron should look and taste like - crisp yet chewy, damply moist without being dense, smoothly domed on top but "footed" with a craggy circlet, and above all, intensely chocolatey. A few handy hints below which, while by no means complete, I found helpful in turning out consistent batches (for more complete details on the hows and the whys, see this thread and this thread on eGullet), whether chocolate or otherwise. Some will seem awfully obvious, but I've listed them nonetheless seeing as they helped goof-proof the process for me.
1.Sift everything. Twice Sift the confectioner's sugar. Sift the cocoa if making chocolate macarons. Sift the almond flour (and ruthlessly discard the larger bits caught in your fine-meshed sieve however much this may go against the thrifty core of your being - they will inevitably ruin the otherwise pebble-smooth domes of the end result). Having carefully measured out the required weight of each sifted ingredient, mix the three ingredients and sift the blend once more.
2.Weigh everything This includes the egg whites. Going by volume rather than weight is a dicey proposition - my 1 cup of slightly packed almond flour is most likely not equal to the cookbook's 1 cup of slightly packed almond flour, given as the definition of "slightly packed" is subjective to one's heavy-handedness. Accurate digital scales, on the other hand, don't lie.
3.The egg whites should be scrupulously separated from the yolks, placed in a scrupulously clean bowl, and ultimately whipped with a scrupulously clean whisk - the slightest taint of yolk or fat will prevent the whites from whipping to the correct consistency (just-firm and still glossy). The whites also benefit from an overnight "ageing" at room temperature before whipping - if the idea freaks you out, then simply ensure the whites are at room temperature before whipping.
4.Fold the batter carefully Easier said than done. That having been said, a little practice helps in gauging the right consistency. The idea is to judiciously deflate, knocking some (but not all) air out of the whipped whites whilst folding in the almond flour, confectioner's sugar and cocoa (if making chocolate macarons) mixture - this is what ensures you won't wind up with poufy peaky meringues as opposed to smooth-topped macarons. One fold of the spatula too many, however, and the batter will not only be a nightmare to pipe (it will spread too much) but will bake up rather heavy. A good test of whether the batter has been mixed to the right consistency is to pick up a little with your finger - it should form a gentle peak that quickly dissolves back into the batter. The importance of getting the consistency right will become apparent when piping (see 5).
5.Pipe consistently Again, gets easier with a little practice. Some find using a penciled template (circles drawn on parchment, parchment flipped over with circles acting as a guide) helpful. It takes a pair to form a macaron, typically a sandwich cookie. Uniformity of size and shape counts, and requires piping with even pressure and a steady hand. Size-wise, if you're after the gerbet-type as seen in those fancy Parisian outfits, aim for rounds 1-inch in diameter using a pastry bag fitted with a plain 0.5-inch tip. Pipe in staggered rows (this makes for more even baking) with at least an inch of space between rounds to allow for the natural spreading that occurs - each round, of its own accord and under its own weight, will spread to 1.5-inch diameter circles. Pipe holding the pastry bag upright and perpendicular to the parchment (or even better, Silpat-type baking mat; more on this in 8) lined heavy baking sheet, holding the tip 0.5 inch above (less, and the dome will be compromised, more, and the flow becomes less controlled - the idea is to hold the tip slightly higher than where the top of the dome should be) the centre of the traced or imagined circle, and let the batter flow out (which it will do without much prompting or squeezing) into a circle. Hold the tip steadily in place without spiralling. If the batter has been mixed correctly, you will have no problems with any peaks or points when finishing each round, which should naturally "melt" unto itself, much the way the little peak of batter did when you were testing the batch with your finger earlier. At any rate, finish each round by sealing off to the side so there's no unruly bump of batter to ruin the dome.
6.Let piped rounds form skins After piping, let the batter sit out at room temperature until skins form, about 2 hours. This makes for a nice, glossy, and smooth appearance. It also helps in the development of feet.
7.Watch the oven like a hawk Bake one tray of macarons at a time (unless, of course, you happen to have access to an industrial oven). Quite a few recipes start at a high temperature then turn the temperature down as soon as the baking sheet is in, with the oven door held slightly ajar. The temperature that's worked best for me is 160˚C (from start to finish, with a closed oven door). For macarons less than 2 inches in diameter, this takes anywhere from 7 to 13 minutes, depending on the flavour and/or recipe. In other words, from the 7-minute mark onwards, watch the goings-on closely - just a half-minute too many, and the macarons will overbake into rusks to choke a small brown dog. Also, I must confess to finding the evolution from batter to macaron riveting stuff to witness - if correctly mixed and rested, the batter will rise ever so slightly, with the smooth-skinned domed tops lifting just a little up and away from the gently bubbling bottoms, the beginnings of the formation of feet.
8.The removal There are scores of nifty tricks out there for removing baked macarons (from freezing the macarons with attached parchment in tow for a couple of minutes to "steaming" the lot with a little hot water). I find that using a silicon-coated baking mat such as a Silpat does away with the issue entirely. Using a baking mat also has the added bonus of giving you perfectly flat-bottomed cookies; parchment tends to pucker a little from the moisture in the batter - if this sounds irrational (and it probably is, given as once sandwiched any crease or crinkle is well-hidden from view), then by all means use parchment. In which case, it's a far better idea to peel the parchment away from the macaron rather than prying the macaron away from the parchment - the latter manoeuvre almost always results in crisp (and very fragile) dome in one hand, chewy bottom still stuck to parchment, and tears of frustration.W, while as into his food as the best of them, is not into cooking. There are only a few things he will deign to step into the kitchen to cook. However, as select a handful as it may be, it's a handful that he does exceedingly well - I can't honestly think of anyone who grills a steak to such a precise degree of medium-rare succulence, or flips a more sublimely simple and utterly perfect omelette. For dinner on Friday, it was fondue - I won't go into the intricacies (which frankly merit several separate posts) except to say he makes a very very fine example, worthy of any trad old school alpine Swiss chalet. Given the richness and communal spirit of the main event, I thought it might be fun to end with some Swiss-inspired konfekt, in a mignardise-like assortment served on an étagère from which everyone could help themselves to whatever they fancied. Interestingly, while all were chocolate-flavoured and meringue-based, each had a very distinct character.
The chocolate macarons were made in lieu of the famous Luxemburgerli from Confiserie Sprungli (although the latter, while much like macarons in appearance, are much lighter in texture than their French cousins), for which unsurprisingly I couldn't find a recipe. As for the others:
The recipe I used for this Basel speciality comes from Carole Walter's Great Cookies (Nick Malgieri also has a recipe in How to Bake). Almond flour, ground chocolate and cocoa are folded into a sugary meringue to form a stiff dough that's a dream to handle. Given the festive notes of cinnamon, cloves and Kirsch used to flavour the cookie, and the possibilities where shapes are concerned (limited only by one's imagination and cookie cutter collection), it's definitely a recipe I'm planning to revisit come Christmas baking.
From Nick Malgieri's Chocolate, in which he credits Stephan Schiesser of Basel's legendary Confiserie Schiesser for the recipe. A real breeze to make, in which a simplified Italian meringue is flavoured with melted chocolate. The batter pipes beautifully, and bakes into the most featherlight and airy of cookies.
A pair of crumbly nut meringue rings sandwiched with luscious buttercream, the recipe can be found in Nick Malgieri's latest book, A Baker's Tour, a discriminating tour of the world's greatest baking traditions and finest bakeries via a collection of fabulous recipes.