Musings of a macaron-maker

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Rose.lychee.raspberry

I think I’ve made it no secret which creation of Pierre Hermé happens to be my favorite. I think his Ispahan fetish remains to be his most popular too. He originally developed the recipe at Ladurée with just raspberries and a rose cream. I believe he added the lychees when he already had his own pastry boutique. Ispahan is the name of a rose also known as Rose d’Isfahan. Isfahan is a province in Iran although I am not sure there is any correlation except in the name alone.

Macarons are growing in popularity in the United States. I’ve seen a definite uptick in interest here in Richmond, Va. These French confections as wedding favors appear to be a hot item nowadays and who doesn’t like delicious edible parting goodies. Though still getting confused 95% of the time with the less glamourous homonymous macaroon, I think it is slowly creeping into the consciousness of the masses, okay maybe, in the trend-conscious crowd.

Not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. I somehow want to keep its “exclusivity” but how are we going to make money at Petites Bouchées if we don’t spread the macaron love, right?

Anyway, with its surging popularity there have been several articles of how macarons are becoming the next cupcake. There’s also been several social media quips about how making macarons are easy or how macarons aren’t all that or some elitist lambasting 95% of the blogsphere for giving macarons a bad name by making them too popular.

When I first made macarons successfully, I remember them tasting a tad too sweet. I started with Stéphane Glacier recipe and then I also looked at Gerard Mulot’s. I wanted mine to taste less of a meringue, so I lessened the confectioner’s sugar and added more almonds. Most people who has had my macarons (and are not familiar with what they are made of) couldn’t believe that they have no flour in them. But because my macarons have more almonds , they get bumpy sometimes which annoys me but taste to me is more important and so I learned to live with it.

Being in business selling macarons can be very stressful. If your customer is a big fan of this petite sweet you are constantly being compared to the greatest patisseries of Paris. I’ve had great feedback of how my macarons taste better than Ladurée’s or are comparable. But I’ve also had to deal with negative comments. It’s all part of the business, you can’t please everyone. Macarons are prone to being mishandled once they leave your hands. For example, leave them out in 90F weather in your car & your buttercream might morph into something else. But you never tell a customer they have not stored it right, just make sure that you give them proper information when they take their macarons home.

I’m the first to admit that my macarons can never be better or comparable to Pierre Hermé’s simply because the man is one-of-a-kind, effing brilliant. But even he has had problems with customer satisfaction. He said he was frustrated about customers complaining about the buttercream fillings because they eat them straight out of the refrigerator so he had slowly gotten away from buttercream and had been developing rich, luxurious ganaches that never crystallize too much when refrigerated. His macarons are built with a science of their own.
But the biggest reason why my macarons can never achieve the exalted stature of Herme’s is in the almonds. Valencia almonds to be exact. I have made them both with my regular blanched variety and with the Valencia almonds I brought back from France. Big difference. The shells are fuller and are so perfectly round with the latter. Valencia almonds can be ground very fine without being greasy. Phooey for me, right?

So instead of crying about it, it’s best to work with what you have and make your macaron your own. My standard chocolate macaron does not taste like a macaron at all because the shell never gets too crisp with cocoa powder. I have adjusted it so it’ll have the crisp shell but when I got a new batch of cocoa powder – same brand – it all changed again. How do I fight that? I don’t, I continue to make it and it may get a tip or get too thick but it still remains to be my second most popular flavor.

For me, it is better to get a tip from undermixing because you can flatten it with a wet finger but if you overmix it, there is no coming back from that and your batter will spread unevenly when piped and be very flat.

Macarons are finicky. Unless you work in a climate-controlled room and have control of all your ingredient sources, you can never predict how they’ll turn out. But the more you make them – the more you’ll understand them and you can make adjustments accordingly. Right now I am using the French Meringue method more than the Italian Meringue, but that may change eventually as I get busier and conservation becomes an issue.
 

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My macaron posts are the most popular on this blog and I am working on a redesign to make it easier to navigate, which will include videos and different experiments. I’m also working on a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page on macarons. I have received dozens of emails with macaron questions and most of them are the same problems with a little variation mostly to deal with humidity in other countries. Though most of the answers are scattered across different posts, I think it’s time to put them all in a comprehensive format which I can add to as more queries come in. It’s hard for me to go through all those emails again, but if you would leave a question for me in the comment section, please do so and I would use this to build my FAQ page. Also what part of the video would you want me to focus on, 90% of me thinks it’s macaronage. Thanks!

Also check out MACTWEETS, a wonderful monthly event hosted by Deeba of Passionate about Baking and Jamie of Life’s a Feast, there’s a spicy roundup of lovely macaron creations from around the globe.

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Macaron Chronicles V: A Study of the Sucre Cuit Method

Macaronplate   

The Tartelette alerted me of Pierre Herme’s new book simply titled “Macarons”. After we decided that it would not be feasible for Helen’s mom to get the book for me and bring it on her next visit to the U.S., I promptly went to Amazon France and put in my order. And she was right; I probably couldn’t wait to get my grubby fingers on it anyway.

The book arrived at a time when I was busy with work and couldn’t find an opportunity to sit down and translate the recipes I was interested in. Pierre Herme uses sucre cuit – the cooked sugar method, or more commonly known as the Italian Meringue (IM).
I had my misgivings about the IM method because earlier trials were very sweet and I did not like the texture.

As mentioned in my Macaron Chronicles I, I caught the macaron bug in San Francisco. Most macarons I had earlier tried were hard shells that tasted more like meringue and I wondered what all the fuss was all about. The macarons from Miette were different. They were made from raw almonds instead of the traditional blanched ones. The cookies had a slightly crisp shell that gave way to a pillow-like layer that you would just love to sink your teeth into.

I then decided to go to other pastry shops to continue my tasting but they were more of the same meringue type. I began to wonder if my concept of the macaron was wrong this whole time. Was Miette’s rustic San Francisco version just an aberration and not Parisian at all?

I was apprehensive when I attended Pierre Herme’s class in Chicago. He’s the Oracle on macarons. What if his were like the hard crackly meringue shells that I detested and presumably was how a macaron was supposed to be like? The first sampling came during a teatime break where the passion fruit milk chocolate was offered as a petit four for the tea.

The first bite met slight resistance; the thickness of that layer was as whisper thin as the most fragile of eggshells giving way to a stratum that had substance. I picked it apart just to taste the shells by themselves – it had none of the cloying sweetness that I had earlier experienced from some mail order ones I’ve tried. A sigh of relief! This is the macaron I loved! “A macaron should not give the impression of being chewy at all and that it was okay if it appears undercooked”, says Pierre Herme. I happen to agree. But he uses the sucre cuit method…a method I swore produces those thick jaw breaking sickeningly sweet shells.

His recipe in his book, “Macaron”, is a scaled down version of what we had used in class. He uses a standard macaron formula and rarely adds flavoring to the shells. I have translated what is essential to the recipe – ingredients, temperature etc. I suggest you read more on Helen’s Macarons 101 first – specially the steps about proper “macaronage”.

 

ItalianMering 

Macaron Shells

300 g almond flour
300 g confectioner’s sugar
110 g egg whites
300 g sucrose
75 g water
110 g egg whites

Mix TPT (the almonds and confectioners sugar) with the first 110g of egg whites. (Bring water and sugar to a boil until it reaches 245F or 118C). When the syrup reaches 239F(115C) start whipping your egg whites to soft peaks at high speed and then set lower to 2nd speed. Once sugar syrup reaches 245(118C), pour it on the whipped egg whites. Continue whipping the whites until the meringue reaches 122F (50C) and incorporate it with the almond mixture. (Note: read Macaron 101 for the flows like magma description)

Preheat oven to 356F(180C).
Pipe macarons 3.5 cm with a no. 11 tip on a silpat or parchment paper. Let dry for 30 minutes.
Bake for 12 minutes with the vent open.

Take the macarons out and flip the sheets on a wire rack. Take them off the paper/silpat and pipe with the filling.

Below is my own recipe for Saffron-Pear ganache. I was going to make PH’s peach-apricot-saffron ganache but I thought pear is more appropriate with the season.

Saffron-Pear Ganache

225 g white couverture chocolate
130 g heavy cream
35 g pear puree
1/4 tsp ground saffron

Using a mortar and pestle, ground enough saffron threads to get about ¼ tsp. Add a tiny bit of sugar to help make the ground finer.

Partly melt the white chocolate. Bring the heavy cream to a boil. Turn off and add the ground saffron and let it steep for 20 minutes. Add the pear puree to the cream-saffron mixture and return to boil. Turn off and add to the white chocolate and whisk until well blended.
 

Macomp 

Cooking Notes:

I already knew what the issue was going to be because I had tried the recipes from a PH class a couple of months ago. The recipe, as it stands, has a tendency to get those hard shells – and I will tell you why and what I did then to alleviate this problem. Professional kitchens can grind the almonds with the confectioner’s sugar to a very fine powder without getting greasy, in a relatively short amount of time. With the home food processor, this is possible but can be tricky because the longer you grind the almonds the higher the risk for them to get greasy. More often than not, your tant-pour-tant (TpT) do not have enough small particles capable of absorbing/blending with your whipped egg whites to attain proper macaronage.

To address this issue, I added more TpT. Sifting is very important but I have yet to find a sifter with holes big enough … or small enough to allow the right size of almond flour to go through. If your batter appears too runny, no matter how careful you are about folding, chances are your almonds are not ground fine enough. No problem, just add a bit more dry mixture to the overall recipe. But please do not neglect to give the grinding of the almonds your best shot.

For this post, I followed the exact amounts of PH’s recipe so I can address the issues that may arise – like the thick shells and meringue-like results – and make suggestions that would lean towards more favorable results.

Notice that PH does not add sugar to the whipped egg whites – I figure this is to lessen the meringue- like quality of the macarons. My shells were a bit too sweet and a little too thick but were not jawbreakers – either I cooked my syrup too long or I needed more TpT. I wanted more control over the development of my Italian Meringue so I used Rose Levy Beranbaum’s method of making it. She suggests using a hand mixer to beat the egg whites and pour the sugar syrup to a measuring cup first to stop the cooking – this way you do not lose much syrup as you would when using a Kitchen Aid Mixer because you can pour it right into the center of the whites while moving your whisk out of the way. Maybe the amount of the PH sugar syrup accounts for that loss to the sides of the bowl or the whisk.

I also did an extra experiment with macaronage. After I piped my first shells, I noticed that they were not spreading so much and I knew they were going to get puffy… so I tried beating the remaining batter some more – oops! The circles started to spread more than I liked. Grrr! Maybe I should stick to French Meringue.

Macaron recipes are mostly guidelines. You will more than likely need to make some adjustments because of the type of eggs – aged egg whites are the best, keep them covered in the refrigerator for three days before using. It could also be the type of almonds you use. PH uses Valencia almonds that are not too greasy. A good type of almond to use here in the US is the nonpareil variety – the almonds from California. I did not follow his oven temps and leaving the oven door slightly ajar because the oven I am using would not permit this. This is to let the humidity out, PH says. I usually bake in a convection oven at a low temperature of 280F. The macarons should be done between 12-14 minutes for 1.25-inch disks.
 

Drytop_macs 

Here is a list of problems one might encounter while making these delightful but finicky cookies:

1. Shells spreading too much and are misshapen- If you piped them properly, the most likely cause is over mixing. Remember to start slowly and then beat harder in the end, but not overly so. The sugar is what holds the water molecules of the egg whites in place, that’s why cooked sugar is more stable because they form a stronger bond, but if you beat too much they would start leaking and make the batter runny. If that was not the issue, then just add more tant-pour-tant. You would be surprised what an extra 10 grams can do.

2. Cracked shells- the cause may be from two things – over beating which releases more moisture and therefore prolongs the drying time of the tops or humidity. A definite way to prevent this is to touch the top of your piped circles and make sure they are dry before you pop them into the oven.

3. Lopsided shells – your shells got too dry. The foot got too attached to the parchment so that it cannot be lifted up any more. I realized this when I got a phone call just as I was about to pop my tray of macarons into the oven. I was already done with the first trays from the same batch of batter and they were perfect. I was gone for an hour. I thought I would have better shells but I ended up with some macarons that were lopsided.

4. Beaked shells – Yes, the ones that looked like Donald Duck wanted a guest-starring role in your macaron making!  Most likely your nuts are too oily.

5. Spaces between the skin and the foot – this can be really tricky to diagnose as this maybe oven temperature related, or it could be not enough folding (which can leave a lot of meringue with no TpT to give it structure). Or it could just be that the almonds are not ground enough, or you need to add a little bit more TpT

6. No Feet – over mixing, too dry. Too much tant-pour-tant (yes, I have done this before being overzealous with almond flour it decimated my meringue – I could hardly pipe it out)

7. Thick shells or too sweet – cooked sugar beyond 245F, not enough TpT or not enough folding. As I have stated earlier, I did try increasing the TpT and this addressed both the sweetness and the thick shells. However, I am also wondering if my sugar syrup was cooked beyond 245F and this concentrated, thus adding to the sweetness even more.

And there you have it – my take on sucre cuit method of Macaron Making. I find that it needs more involvement and requires more precision than the French Meringue. It all depends on what you are used to doing. I personally hate boiling sugar but if you are someone who loves playing with sugar syrup like one French pastry chef I know, have a go at it!

My preference for my macarons is not to taste too sweet. I tend to add more almonds, which make the shells less than traditionally smooth. I also use raw almonds, which mutes food colorings – but on the other hand it adds speckles to my shells, which I love.

This is also my entry to Anita’s Sugar High Friday over at Desserts First. Her theme is: Spice. And I’m thrilled to be able to use my favorite spice of all – Saffron with my favorite cookie!
 

 

Macshells

And the Macaron Gods mock me…

AKA Macaron Chronicles IV

Do not use the Italian Meringue method if you have the attention span of a gnat. This is what happens when you let your sugar syrup boil to 270F instead of 245F. Wrinkled marshmallow discs:

Macaron_marshmallows

And I changed several variables too, like using the new almond flour that I got and adding some raspberry flavor.

When all was said and done, I realized that the almond flour I used was the culprit of subsequent batches as evidenced by the result of the chocolate macarons from Pierre Herme’s book . My batter was as stiff as a brownie batter and the piped circles formed peaks that wouldn’t sink – much like chocolate kisses.

Brownie_bites

The supplier said it was ground specifically to be used in macarons. NOT!

They looked more like brownie bites, and they do taste like chewy cocoa brownies. They were delicious – but they were not macarons.

So I sent the hubby to the supermarket to get me whole almonds – guess I’ll have to grind them myself. The question is…what to do with 3lbs of almond flour?

I will be on semi-hiatus for the rest of November so my posts will be far between. No, the macarons have not "booted" me out of the kitchen with their frilly feet – just other projects that need my attention.

Au revoir!