I know that macarons had their renaissance a few years ago, but it's obvious that they are still popular among Americans looking for a small, sweet, colorful treat. Two of the most highly linked-to posts on my blog are a recipe for Vanilla Rosewater Macarons and an Interview with David Lebovitz. Can you guess what the topic of that internet is? You guessed it - macarons. Not a week goes by that I don't get an email from a reader who is attempting to make these little French pastries, asking for advice and guidance on wrangling a persnickety macaron recipe. I'm writing this post for all of you home cooks out there who are frustrated by the macaron making process.
Macarons have been a French mainstay for decades. In Paris, famous pâtisseries, such as Laduree and Pierre Hermé, are famous for their macarons. And what's not to love about them? These tender, dainty treats are the perfect snack while sipping un café at a Parisian bistro.
Over the past few years, macarons have made their way across the pond, quickly becoming an American obsession. You'll see them not only in specialty bake shops, but in major coffee and bakery chains as well. While mass-produced macarons may have their place in mass culinary culture, many would argue that you won't find the real thing outside of Paris. That is, of course, unless you try making them yourself.
Macaron or Macaroon?
First off, let's settle the matter once and for all: macarons and macaroons are two entirely different cookies. Besides the addition of an extra "O" in the name, macaroons are a far cry from the French sandwich cookies you'll find all over Paris. Well-known in the American South, macaroons consist of sugar, egg whites and coconut. You'll often see these haystack-like cookies half dipped in chocolate and reaching up to three inches tall.
While also containing only three simple ingredients, macarons, on the other hand, contain no coconut and instead gather their substance from a healthy helping of egg whites, powdered sugar and almond flour. Macarons have a fine meringue texture, and unlike the dense mountain of coconut that is the macaroon, they have a gently crispy outer shell that gives way to a light, tender center. Macaron cookies are always sandwiched together with a filling of either buttercream or ganache, though these days filling recipes can contain any combination of jams, caramels or other dreamy flavorings. (Note: I've been told by a few Parisians that macarons are not actually considered cookies in Paris, but pastries.)
Ideas for Gifting Macarons
If you're the type to give homemade presents, macarons are the perfect gift. Not only do they keep well for several days, but their colorful demeanor lends itself to festive gifting by way of simple packaging. In other words, let the cookies speak for themselves. These little beauties weren't meant to be locked away, hidden from view; rather, they benefit from packaging that, quite literally, allows their personality to shine. Think clear cellophane bags or transparent Chinese takeout containers, found at your local craft supply store. If you are giving modestly colored varieties like chocolate or vanilla, consider a simple wrapping job of bright tissue paper that will accent their fancy reputation.
There are a few different ways to make macarons, and both will result in tender cookies. The simpler French method -- which involves beating almond flour and powdered sugar into room-temperature egg whites -- bakes into a nice, light cookie that has a gentle crunch on the outside. The Italian method, which involves heating sugar water and adding that to beaten egg whites, results in denser, more tender cookies that are just as good, but not as airy. Oddly enough, many of the Parisian bakeries famous for their macarons use the Italian meringue method. This may be because the heated meringue is more stable and easier to produce en mass, though the finished product is different from the traditional French method.
Macaron Tips and Caveats
- When it comes to baking macarons, there are a few things you must keep in mind. First off, You will need a scale for these recipes, because meringue recipes are such that their measurements need to be exact. Using cups and tablespoons can cause problems in the finished product, so dig out that old kitchen scale you've got hiding under the counter and put it to good use.
- You will also need to bake your macarons on baking sheets that have been stacked one inside the other to allow for insulated, even heating. If you have insulated cookie sheets, these should will work fine. Line your baking sheet with parchment paper, because macarons do not like to come off of a metal baking surface; using parchment will go a long way to prevent sticking, as will not removing them before they are completely cool. If your macarons do indeed stick to the paper, try spraying cool water on the underside of the parchment and letting them sit for five minutes before attempting to remove them again.
- Perhaps the most crucial part of the macaron-making process is where you add the almond flour and powdered sugar to the beaten egg whites. There's a trick to this, because over-beating will cause all sorts of problems, from cracked cookies to improper rising. The key is to use no more than 50 folds to combine the almond, sugar and egg whites. When you first mix them together, you will have a chunky, funky-looking mess, but within a few seconds of folding, things should begin to look shiny throughout. Once you've achieved a shiny texture, stop folding. Over mixing will cause your meringue to flatten, which will result in unhappy macarons. It's far better to under-mix than over-mix.
- If you want to ensure your macarons rise correctly and keep a smooth surface, you will want to leave them out on the counter for about half an hour before baking, allowing the surface of your cookie batter to dry a bit. You should be able to gently touch the top of your cookies without the batter sticking to your finger; this means that they are ready for the oven.
- Why should you leave macarons out before baking them? The drying of the outside allows for "footing," which is how you get the little ruffly border around the base of your cookies that are characteristic of macarons. By drying the outside, this ensures that the outer shell will stay in tact as the meringue inside the cookie expands up and out. This pushes the outer shell up, allowing a small amount of the cookie's inner content spill out the sides and bake in the open air, creating the foot.
- A note on humidity: Do not make macarons when it is incredibly humid or raining outside. Macarons are notoriously sensitive to moisture in the air. As well, you will find your success rate increasing if you use old egg whites, especially if you have left them out overnight at room temperature. This allows the whites to give up some of their moisture to the evaporation process, ensuring that you'll have a nice, crispy shell that won't fall apart when the meringue underneath expands in the oven. Also, many recipes will tell you that you must -- and I mean must -- stuff the end of a wooden spoon in the oven door of your oven to allow moisture to escape. In my experience this isn't true, though it will not hurt the process, as long as your oven is hot enough.
Macarons may seem like finicky cookies at first, but with a little time and care you'll be enjoying these delicate treats in your own kitchen. Once you've mastered macarons, the flavor possibilities are endless: try matching cookie flavors with interesting fruity fillings, or consider adding powdered food coloring to your meringue for a dramatic presentation. You'll be transported back to a Parisian sidewalk café, sipping your coffee while taking in the French atmosphere. Bon apetit!
Simply Delicious Strawberries and Cream Macarons
The sweetness of almond is balanced nicely with a tart strawberry filling. These cookies are perfect for tea time, or just as a well-deserved afternoon treat.
Makes 20 macarons
110 grams almond powder
200 grams powdered sugar
3 egg whites (should be about 90-100 grams)
40 grams granulated sugar
For strawberry filling:
1 cup mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup strawberry jam
To make shells:
Select two baking sheets of the same size and stack them one inside the other, lining the top sheet with parchment paper. Place a round piping tip into a pastry bag -- I use an Ateco 809 -- and tuck the bag down into the tip to block batter from running out.
Pour the almond flour into a food processor and grind for 30 seconds. Add powdered sugar and grind for another minute. Sift the almond-sugar mixture, removing all large pieces.
Beat the egg whites in a large bowl until they are fluffy, then add the granulated sugar and continue beating until the eggs form stiff peaks. Using a wide spatula, gently fold the ground almond and sugar powder into the egg whites. Stop folding as soon as your meringue reaches a glossy consistency. This should not take more then 50 beats or you will flatten your batter.
Pour the batter into the pastry bag and pipe the macarons onto the parchment covered baking sheet, making them about 1 1/2 inches across. Make sure to leave at least an inch between the cookies to allow them to heat evenly. Once your cookies are all laid out, drop the baking sheet on the counter a few times to release any bubbles hiding inside.
Set your macarons aside to dry for 30 minutes. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 350F. Place your oven rack in the middle of the oven.
After 30 minutes has passed and your cookies are a somewhat dry to the touch, slip them in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes. Watch them carefully and make sure to remove them before they begin to brown.
Once the macarons are done, cool them completely before removing from parchment paper. Sandwich cookies together with strawberry-mascarpone filling, then store them in the refrigerator overnight, which will help settle the meringue inside the cookies. Serve at room temperature.
To make strawberry mascarpone filling:
Combine mascarpone and jam in a food processor and blend until smooth. If you like a less tart filling, feel free to add more cheese, again blending until smooth.
All photos by Stephanie J. Stiavetti