Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Baking: Macarons at Home

Last year macarons became a bit of an obsession from me. My first introduction to the desert was in a French cafe (unfortunately not in France) and ever since that first crispy yet chewy mouthful they became hard to resist. What made them a real obsession was when I learned about how difficult they were to make. That cannot be true, I told myself, fooled by the deceptive simplicity of my new found favourite treat. I tried a packet macaron mix and that worked just fine. Really they couldn't be that difficult to make if the packet ones were so simple. Confident I forged ahead with my first batch of macarons... and as I'm sure you guessed, they were an utter failure. I hadn't done the slightest bit of research and was completely unprepared for the lumpy, cracked meringue-like things I ended up with. I was much too ashamed to take pictures. I wallowed in my disappointment for a while, munching on my failures for comfort. Then I got Googling. 

Despite all the cautionary tales online, I found enough encouragement to try again. One of the most helpful websites I found was Food Nouveau, which has a very detailed troubleshooting page. This helped me understand that I made crunchy meringues instead of macarons due to under mixing the batter. Armed with wisdom from the internet, I tried again. My second batch was some what of a success as they actually resembled macarons, even though they were over cooked, hollow and cracked on top.

So began my obsession of trying to bake perfect macarons at home. After every batch I'd carefully analyse the imperfections and try to work out what I had done wrong.

To spare first time macaron makers the troubles I faced, I'd like to share some of the things I've found useful in my quest to make macarons at home. 

The first and most important thing I have learned is that home baked macarons will not be as perfect as the macarons from a French patisserie (unless you have a lot of time on your hands and a lot of good equipment - which I don't!). Expect to make something cute and tasty, with a few imperfections. Something like this:

When making macarons it pays to do a little research first. There are lots of different recipes and a few different techniques out there. The recipe I have had the most success with was also from Food Nouveau. The blog includes a video and lots of pictures which are very helpful. I recommend watching a few videos before starting, it really helped me.

Almond Meal
I have always used ground almond meal for macarons, but you can buy whole almonds and process them yourself. I have a friend who tried this a few times with success. Grinding your own almonds will result in a much wetter batter as the almonds become oily when processed and it would mean you have to be careful not to over mix when incorporating the meringue. Although I buy ground almond I still process it together with the icing sugar to make it easier to sift. I find sifting to be the most time consuming part of making macarons! Processing the almond meal is worth the time and effort saved.

Egg Whites
A lot of recipes will insist that the egg whites used for making macarons should be aged before use. The idea is to separate the yoke and the white and leave the white in the fridge over night to allow some of the moisture to evaporate. I've used fresh egg whites, I have also aged them for 24 hours, and tried putting the egg white in the microwave for a few seconds before using and none of these methods seemed to be any better than the other. Aging the egg white may be important if adding a lot of liquid colouring to the shells or when using freshly ground almonds as you need to be careful about the batter becoming too runny. I've always had the opposite problem with the batter so aging the egg white doesn't seem to be an important step in the recipes I've used.

Before I started making macarons I had no idea that there were two ways of making meringue. For those who are in the same boat, there's the French Method and the Italian Method (and also the Swiss Method which I just discovered on Wikipedia!) I use the French method because it's easier and faster. Italian Meringue is theoretically meant to be stabler than other methods however. My macaron making friend uses the Italian method and her macarons seem to turn out a lot shiner than mine. I don't think the extra shine is worth the extra effort, but it would be fun to try Italian Meringue as an experiment sometime.

One of the scariest steps of macaron making is mixing the batter. So many recipes will caution against over mixing or under mixing, threatening that only a few turns more than necessary can result in disaster! In my experience, macaron batter isn't a delicate as some recipes make it out to be. I've never over mixed the batter before, but I have under mixed it on a few occasions. The easiest way to avoid this problem is to watch a lot of videos to get an idea of what the batter should look like once it's properly mixed. I mix the batter until it starts to ooze off the spoon, then I let it rest for a minute to see how much it spreads in the mixing bowl. This gives an idea of how much the piped macarons will spread. You want them to spread enough so that the lumps made during the piping process will smooth out. The batter should also be shiny when allowed to rest for a moment. Here's a comparison between two batters I've made; the chocolate one ended up being over mixed and the purple one was fine. The picture shows that the purple mix has spread a lot more when rested, while the chocolate one still has a lot of lumps that haven't smoothed over.

I have to admit that I'm not particularly skilled at piping. My trays of macarons always end up looking disordered, but I have definitely improved over time. The best advice I can give is to pipe straight downwards. There's no need to pipe a circle or a swirl (like I did the first time), simply pipe downwards until a disk of the required size is piped. I've also learned to leave plenty of room between macarons - they do spread a bit! This is one of the more successful trays I've piped. They're not perfect circles, but they're close enough.

One of the easiest and tastiest fillings I've used is chocolate ganache. It's so simple; heat cream until just before boiling, pour the cream over chopped dark chocolate, mix until well combined, then leave in the fridge to chill for several hours.

My Next Batch of Macarons
While I have been happy with my last few batches of macarons, there are still a few things I would like to improve. The main problem I have is that my macarons develop an air pocket under the shell when cooked. My theory is that I am cooking the macarons at too high a temperature. Next time I'll try to keep this under control and cook them at a lower heat over a longer period of time. If you know of any other solutions, please let me know!

Don't Be Discouraged!
I'd like to offer a final word of encouragement. Macaron making can seem very daunting to amateur bakers at home, but they are definitely doable. For me, keeping the process as simple as possible is the key to making macarons at home. I'm sure I could make a much more authentic macaron if I used Italian meringue,  ground my own almonds and used a template for piping, but I know I probably woundn't make macarons if it took me half a day to do. This may in fact be a bit of a lazy girl's guide to baking macarons. Still, it works for me. Hopefully some of this will be useful to you as well. Good luck!

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