Hope you all had a great Christmas! It took me several tries to finally finish this post, what with holiday orders, shopping and celebrations. So here it is , my experience as a stagiere at Atelier Pierre Hermé. Should I tell you all how nervous I was? I had a dream a couple of nights before my class that I burned the caramel and got booted out of the program. I really should not be afraid of caramel because I make this all the time at Petites Bouchées. Caramel fleur de sel is my best selling macaron but sometimes old fears remain in our subconscious always waiting to bite us in the ass.
To compound my anxiety for the class, I did not seem to be over my jet lag as I had hardly slept the previous night, and if my boot camp class at the CIA was any yardstick, this hardly bodes well in my favor.
Anyway, when I got to the classroom, there were a few students already there. I counted 12 seats. When everyone arrived, our instructor immediately launched into the philosophy of Pierre Hermé about his products. I started to zone out because I’ve already heard this before. After this short introduction, we headed out to the kitchen where we weren’t allowed to bring our personal belongings like handbags, which is why I did not take pictures of our first day.
Our instructor, Olivier (I know, I forgot his last name), proceeded to delve into the discussion of ganaches and different fillings. He would first explain in French and then he would translate in English. For some reason, the English version was always shorter. Maybe it does take more words to say things in French.
He divided us into 4 groups. I was assigned to the English-speaking group “so we could understand each other,” Chef Olivier says (duh, makes sense). He began to assign the fillings to each group. Our group, group #2 gets compote orange passion, caramel buerre sel (oh shit, "I am going to burn in hell" was my initial reaction), banana – avocado ganache (yum!), ganache chocolate lait passion (hey, I make this already). He then explained each of the recipes. For example, custards should not be overwhipped because the foam will prevent it from cooking properly, whip after custard had gelled. When working with yuzu juice, you need to respect the temperature, add the butter at 40 C/ 104 F or your ganache will be grainy. When making the olive oil ganache (this was one of my favorites), it is important to know at what temperature cocoa butter melts and solidifies -> 31 C/ 88 F, warm the oil to 35 C/ 95 F so as not to seize the cacao butter. He also discussed storage of the fillings. Some were stored at 4 C/ 39 F and some were stored at 12 C/ 54 F (hmmn…might need to sequester one of hubby’s wine coolers).
Chef said we needed to finish our fillings before lunch. I was getting hungry and I glanced at the clock it was 10:30 am, don’t we get a little break – what? all the fillings? what, no break? Everybody started to get busy (or look busy), I guess no break. My team was an interesting bunch, not using their real names, Stephan was from Slovenia and Diego was from Spain. We started with the passion-fruit ganache which I was very familiar with and then the avocat-banane ganache, which I was not. This was also my first encounter with a semi-dried banana. The fruit does not resemble a wrinkled piece of dehydrated fruit however all the moisture has been sucked out of it. It was kinda rubbery feeling and wasn’t oxidized at all. Chef was very adamant about adding the cream slowly. "like mayonnaise!" he would repeat over and over like a mantra. I was nervous at first about melting expensive chocolate in a microwave that I was not familiar with, but it looked like their microwave had very low wattage since after 2 minutes, the white chocolate hardly melted. Chef came by and told us to start the caramel. I ignored him hoping one of my team mates would be up to playing with sugar. No one budged. Hmmn, looks like I’m not the only one NOT looking forward to this. Chef came by again…so I sighed and went looking for a saucepan to make the caramel. Turned out, Chef was going to do it because he was going to take the caramel pass the normal caramel high point. He used a white bond paper to test the color of the caramel and it was a real dark amber before he deglazed it with the demi-sel butter (yes, half-salted where the heck can I find this in the U.S.?), then the cream. He then left us to cook the whole lot back up to 110 C/ 230 F. Whew that wasn’t too hard. After all the fillings were made, we headed back to the classroom for the technical part of the class. It was 12:30 and I was really starving. These French are hard core.
In class, we talked about the macaron components from the egg whites and almonds, to confectioner’s sugar etc. Did you know when chicken eats grass in the spring there is more water in their albumen? Egg whites are left out to evaporate the water and concentrate the albumen. Absolutely make sure that there is no flour in your almond flour (if bought ground) and your confectioner’s sugar as this will make your macaron shell crack. It is also important to have a hygrometer to measure humidity. You can use powdered sugar with no cornstarch if humidity is less than 50%.
So, are you ready for this?
The best tasting macarons are made with the French Meringue method.
So why do most pastry shops use Italian Meringue (IM)? Because it lasts longer, conservation-wise. Swiss meringue makes the worst tasting macarons and is used only for decorations because they last the longest.
It’s interesting that two years ago when I was wondering what the big deal was about macarons, I sampled so many from different pastry shops as well as mail-order and was grossed out at the confections that had hard shells, chewy cookies and extremely sweet fillings. I gave up on them for a while until Miette in San Francisco surprised me with their take on the macaron. That’s when I had a resurgence of interest and the rest they say is history.
Pierre Hermé and Ladurée use the same recipe for macarons, but PH adds his IM warm to the TPT because ganache has more moisture and Ladurée cools its IM because its fillings are mostly buttercream. Wish I could draw all the charts and diagrams, it’s really hard to put into words. Buttercream generally takes longer to mature the macaron shell because it has less water content than ganache. Our instructor said when their fillings were mostly buttercream they used to spray the bottom of the shells with water (or was it syrup?) to hasten its maturation. We also talked about ph balance of the ingredients but I’m not sure if I should go into this otherwise this would soon look like a thesis paper on macarons.
So moisture must be controlled. For those who prefer to just buy almond flour, here is one way to test if it is good. Make a ball of the almond flour, if it remains a ball there is too much water and you need to air-dry it a little or find one that falls apart. You can tell if whole blanched almonds are stale if they are greyish in color.
Did you know that when it rains outside this is also a problem. The atmospheric pressure drops and pushes the steam down. You will notice that the shells at the edge of trays start to crack. I have always wondered why this happens and just blamed it on humidity, but now I know! It is important, more than ever, to let your shells dry properly before you bake them.
It was interesting how my hunger subsided in the background as I absorbed all this macaron information. Nonetheless when we did break for lunch I polished off my roast chicken meal.
We headed back to the pastry kitchen afterwards to tackle the macaron shells. Each group was to make three macaron shells. The breakdown of tasks were: one prepares the tant pour tant (TPT meaning equal parts ground almonds and confectioner’s sugar), then another does the Italian Meringue and the third person prepares the baking sheets with the stencil and parchment paper. Then on the next macaron shell, the tasks shifts and so forth so each person gets to do everything.
One item of great interest to me was how fine the almond was ground in their huge food processor. Our instructor let us feel the coarseness of the powdered almonds. I was surprised on how far the almonds were ground for they felt warm to the touch by the time Chef told us to add the confectioner’s sugar. Chef said that they used Valencia almonds from Spain because these have less oil content unlike the almonds from California (hrmph!).
Our first IM was too runny but Chef did manage to whip it up to good “macaronage”. He did a drawing in class about what stage the sugar syrup must be added – you shouldn’t be able to see the bottom of the whisk. You mix one-third of your IM to the TPT to lighten it with a top to bottom motion. When you add the rest of your IM, you move from 3 o’ clock to 9 o’clock, all the while turning your bowl. A bowl scraper is best as you need to move quickly and with force. You do a final big “wave” to test “macaronage” where you move the scraper from bottom to top to form the wave. The mixture must be shiny and sinks back slow but when you tap the bowl it levels out. I know, I know we need pictures of this, maybe when I attempt the IM again.
So we piped and baked the shells, this was straightforward for me. I learned a new technique for removing the shells though, really neat! It’s by flipping the shells over and using the cooling rack to guide the paper off instead of picking each shell out one by one. When I explained this to the hubby, he didn’t understand so I think this should go to another post about macarons.
Chef told us to do the other shells the next day, so all we had to do was fill the ones we already made. A pair of macaron shells were weighed. If the weight was 11 grams then 11 grams of filling was needed. If there are garnishes, estimate and subtract the weight of the garnish.
I was excited to do my macarons the next day as the IM task was my turn.
So I thought I’d show up for class early the next morning, except I was one of the last ones to arrive. Geez, does this mean everyone else was more excited than I was?
We immediately went to the pastry kitchen where the Chef assigned us the two macaron shells: a Chocolate macaron shell where you mix melted pure cocoa mass into the TPT of the shell and a Red-colored, regular macaron shell. Our group also got a non-macaron recipe to do. A fruit cake.
I hate fruit cakes.
And I hated them more after this. You know why? Because in all the confusion with doubling the recipe (and because I already hated fruit cakes) I got yelled at (okay yell was an exaggeration but it certain felt like it) for throwing out the rum marinade. Let me ask you. What would you do when the recipe says:
“Drain the golden raisins…”
I know, I should have asked Chef for clarification. But when a class is taught in two languages and your head is already buzzing with hearing this foreign language in the background and you are tasked with a recipe you didn’t want to do, sometimes you just want to get it over with. Besides who cares about a damn fruit cake.
Apparently Chef does, and he told me you never throw rum away as it will make your product very expensive. (Hah! Isn’t Pierre Hermé upscale anyway)
I was so, so tempted to point out that the recipe should have said:
“Drain the golden raisins and reserve the rum…”
I held my tongue, because I did not get to do the IM yet and I did not want to get kicked out of class for smart-assing the teacher. Hee.
But I did learn some good techniques from making fruitcakes. If you want to control where the crack would be, pipe a line of softened butter. The piping needs to be half in the batter. Also, to prevent the dried fruit from sinking to the bottom it is important to chill all your ingredients well before mixing the batter. Oh yeah, never throw out the rum, right Jack Sparrow?
Anyway, when it was time to make more macaron shells, Chef showed us how to do the IM properly at our station, carefully pointing out the “cave” and the “peak” in the whipped egg whites which was a whole lot better than the explanation in the diagram. He also showed us how to mix the IM with the TPT. Beating the IM is an issue, you really need a good strong arm. The chocolate shell had a caveat too. You needed to add the melted cocoa mass only after you’ve made your IM. If you incorporate it into your TPT too early it is going to seize when you add your IM.
I’m beginning to realize how, in Pierre Hermé’s world, that extra attention to detail such as proper temperature enables them to develop flavors and textures that are far from ordinary and nothing short of sublime.
After the shells were done, all that was left was to fill them and let them chill.
We headed back to the classroom for the technical phase of the class. Chef reiterated the importance of having a hygrometer in your kitchen. You need to know the humidity before you start. I think this is more important if you are using the Italian Meringue method. If humidity is high, you need to raise the temperature of your sugar syrup or dry your almond powder in the oven 60-70 C / 140-158 F or air your egg whites or you can add more egg white powder or all of the above.
He also talked about how to mature the macarons. White chocolate ganaches take 24 hours, dark chocolate 36 hours while buttercream fillings need 48 hours to be ready.
Chef is fond of diagrams and he drew another one detailing the sizes of the nozzle vs. size of the macarons and how many macarons per sheet maximum should be on the tray. When macarons cook they produce moisture so you might want to limit how many macarons should bake in the oven at the time especially when the weather is humid.
At the end of the class we sampled all the macarons and we got to pick out two boxes of macarons for ourselves! We were sent home with a sample of everything we made in class – yes including the fruitcake which, surprisingly enough, was quite delicious!
I was surprised how generous the school was with the materials provided. We were given the macaron template and samples of the thermoform packaging they use for storing macarons. We were also given an exhaustive list of suppliers that Pierre Hermé uses.
I went into the class thinking : "how much more is there to learn about macarons?" I emerged thinking I’ve only scraped the tip of the iceberg. Macarons cannot be thought of as the shell alone, equal importance must be given to the fillings that go in between them. And that in itself is an endless quest.
About this post
There are some details that I had to leave out because this post has gotten so long. If you have any questions just email me, kitchenmusings AT gmail dot com or send me a DM in twitter or leave your question in the comment section. Do continue to check back as I continue to refine this post. I realized that if I wait till this post has everything I wanted to say it will never get done.