Friday, September 9, 2011

OMG, Macarons!

Known as one of the hardest things for a pastry chef to master, the French treat known as a macaron is truly a myriad of challenges. I've attempted macarons many times, and have had an endless number of problems: flat macaron, cracked macaron, macaron with no "feet," macaron that were too light, too dark and macaron that stuck to the paper. But today, things finally fell into place! I've never blogged my macaron adventures before, but I'm ready to show some pictures today. I can't wait to create other combinations and flavors!!

Many sources attribute the origin of the macaron to Pierre Desfontaines of the famous Paris pastry shop Laduree. Now, macaron are being sold all over France, in some major cities in the US (I know there are a few shops in NYC that sell macaron), but this is not a treat that's available in most local groceries or bake shops.

Macaron should not be confused with another similarly-spelled cookie, the macaroon. Macaroons are a much heavier almond cookie, often made with coconut. The macaron is something different entirely. It's made from only 4 basic ingredients: almond flour (ground up almonds), powdered sugar, egg whites and regular sugar. The basic concept is to mix the dry ingredients into a meringue, but there are MANY different theories as to the best way to do that. The first recipe I attempted yesterday came from Today's Nest. Unfortunately, the macaron never did raise up off the baking sheet, so it didn't get the characteristic "feet" that a macaron is supposed to have. I went in search of more information and made another several batches, adjusting the ingredient ratios and the oven temperature. I even threw some cocoa powder into a batch and made chocolate macaron, with feet and all. So, there really isn't a specific "recipe" that I followed, but I ended up using a ratio of 1.35-1.5: 1 for each ingredient relative to the amount of egg whites I used. For the chocolate macaron, I removed an ounce or two of the other dry ingredients and replaced them with cocoa.

A few things that I learned (and this may NOT apply to your home, your oven):
- 310 F is too low of a temperature in my oven. 325 F was much better.
- Baking on double baking sheets is helpful.
- It did not make a difference whether I left the piped macaron to sit out before baking, I did it both ways and didn't see a noticeable difference.
- I did not find it necessary to prop the oven door open with a spoon to let heat out while baking.
- I sifted the powdered sugar and almond flour together, then processed in a food processor, then blended with a whisk to make sure there were no clumps.
- The egg whites I used were aged 24 hours at room temperature. I'm not sure if this made a difference, because I only used those whites.

The basic steps:
Blend your powdered sugar with the almond flour and set aside. Make a meringue with the egg whites and sugar. This can be a simple meringue, made by whipping egg whites to firm peaks, adding in the sugar and then blending into the dry ingredients. However, I found it easier to make an Italian meringue by cooking a sugar syrup (to about 244 F) and then pouring over whipping egg whites.

This mixture is then folded carefully into the dry ingredients. Once the mixture is smooth (DO NOT overmix), it can be piped into circles on parchment-lined baking sheets.

Macaron can be fickle and VERY frustrating, but they are also really beautiful, unique, extraordinarily delicious and one of the most versatile treats. If you can dream it up, you can put it in a macaron. Today's flavors are vanilla plum, chocolate/chocolate and chocolate chai.

Plum Buttercream

I wanted to make plum macaron because I'd never had them before and because plums are in season. I bought about 2 pounds of plums, pitted and chopped them and put them in a saucepan with some sugar and cooked the mixture down until it was thick and syrupy. I had hoped to strain out the solids, but to be honest, I couldn't get anything through my strainer, so I put it all back in the saucepan and cooked it a little more. I pureed the mixture using an immersion blender and added it to a classic Italian buttercream.

The finished product

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