So about two years ago I got it in my crazy head that what I was going to do was learn to bake Parisian macarons, because they are gorgeous and because I heard they were notoriously the most difficult cookie in the world.
This took a while.
But I prevailed.
I don’t think my macarons are perfect yet, but they are reliably acceptable, which I think is about the best I can hope for in an apartment kitchen. Still! Here are the best practices I’ve developed over the many, many batches. Doing things this way, I can be relatively confident in how they’ll turn out.
This isn’t a recipe, or even a procedure! It’s more just a set of notes for each stage of the process.
Here’s the recipe I use: http://www.yumsugar.com/Basic-French-Macaron-Recipe-21651110
This is one of those recipes you’ll want to read several times before you start, and prepare everything ahead of time so you can move seamlessly from one step to the other.
Here’s my setup. (New Year’s bubbly optional.)
Being experienced in piping icing or batter, using pastry bags in general, is a HUGELY useful skill to come in with.
I wouldn’t attempt this without a stand mixer, because you have to mix the eggs a LOT.
The dry ingredients
I always sieve my almond meal, then measure the 2/3-cup out of the sifted stuff. This dirties an extra bowl, but it’s worth it.
At one point early on, I freaked out because I couldn’t find powdered sugar that didn’t also have corn starch in it. Turns out that’s pretty normal for powdered sugar. No worries!
When I stir my dry ingredients, I stir them until they are EXTREMELY MIXED. No beige streaks, no crumbs, no clumps. I also sometimes add a pinch of salt. I don’t know why but it doesn’t seem to hurt.
I don’t think aging the eggs is necessarily helpful. I do think it’s important that they be at room temperature.
I don’t think you have to be especially gradual about adding the granulated sugar.
I use gel coloring because I have a lot left over from cake-decorating class. I add it after the vanilla when the merengue is practically done, by grabbing a clump on a wooden skewer (professional!) and letting it mix in. It always takes more gel to get a strong color than I expect–way more than in cake icing.
I always make sure the peaks are VERY stiff. If they’re still settling when the mixer stops, the cookies tend to crack.
Folding it together
I don’t like the mixing method in the recipe. I like to incorporate the dry ingredients one-half at a time using the under-over method they recommend (the key is that you’re not STIRRING, just FOLDING), but after that, I like to smash the batter against the sides of the bowl, then swipe around to bring it all back to the middle, then repeat. I try to make sure it’s thin enough to start flowing like lava.
The best way I’ve found to get the batter into the bag is to line a tall pitcher with the bag. A little batter will leak out. If it doesn’t, I probably didn’t mix it thin enough, and the cookies will stand weirdly tall.
I freehand it, but you can draw circles on the back of your parchment paper to make sure they’re all about the same size. It will take experience to figure out how much they spread–and that’ll depend on how much you smooshed the batter while mixing. Trial and error!
They say an inch diameter, but an inch and a half or two inches looks more proportionate to me.
Warped cookie sheets = warped, frustrating cookies. New, flat ones are best.
In that vein, cut your parchment paper to lay flat on the tray. Oh, the regrets I have had.
DO bang your trays on the table. I hold down the parchment paper with my fingers when I do, to keep it from slipping around.
DO pop the bubbles that come to the top, and do it immediately, or you’ll get craters. I use the sharp end of a wooden skewer.
I use the flat end of a wooden skewer to clean up edges when I have to. Is there ANYTHING a wooden skewer can’t fix?
DO let them dry until they’re not tacky to the touch. If it takes more than an hour, that warns me I did something else wrong that added moisture to the batter (cold eggs? Poor mixing? Too much extract?) and they were probably doomed anyway. But I also don’t worry if it DOES take a whole hour.
This is the part you will have to work out on your own, because it’s fiddly and your specific oven does make a difference. Here’s how it works in my stupid rented oven, though.
I use the bottom two oven racks.
I bake two trays at a time.
I preheat well in advance.
00:00 Put two trays in, as quickly as possible. If different sizes, big one on the top. (At the beginning, too much heat on the bottom can distort your cookies; at the end, too much heat on top can discolor them. I let the smaller tray take the brunt of both!) Set timer for 2 minutes.
02:00 Open the oven for, like, five seconds to let steam out. Set timer for 7 minutes.
09:00 Switch trays top/bottom, and also rotate, again as quickly as possible. Set timer for 8 minutes.
17:00 Try to pick up a cookie. If it comes off the parchment paper cleanly, it’s done; if not, bake longer, a minute at a time.
Letting them rest
I like to get them off the tray pretty quick.
Careful, they’re fragile.
I don’t know if this trick works, but I let them cool upside-down in hopes of getting good insides. I still almost never get great insides. Still working. (sigh)
I have YET to figure out how to get non-gooshy insides, not-too-hard bottoms, AND not-discolored tops. I’m willing to settle for pretty-good on all three, though. 🙂
I always pipe my icing rather than spread it with a knife. I usually just snip one corner off a snack-sized plastic baggie and don’t bother with a metal decorator’s tip.
This recipe uses a whopping five tablespoons of granulated sugar to stabilize the meringue, with the result that the cookies turn out sweeter than in some recipes. Therefore, I like to avoid buttercream and shortening-icings. They just get too sweet.
What I do like to use:
- Dark chocolate ganache. Equal parts very dark chocolate and heavy cream. Put the chocolate pieces in a bowl. Put the cream in a saucepan and heat it just to the point of boiling at the edges. Pour over the chocolate. Let sit, then stir, then let sit, and by room temperature you should be able to pipe it like icing.
- Lemon curd. Good for using up the egg yolks you generated. Recipe here.
- Fruit fillings. Jams, jellies, and preserves, I have found (the hard way), are NOT thick enough. I’ve recently taken to heating them on the stovetop, then thickening them with cornstarch. That way it’s less likely to slide out of, or off of, the cookie.
- Flour/milk icing. I JUST discovered this. It’s got a similar taste and feel to buttercream or shortening icing, but it’s much less sweet. I think it would go well.
In the ganache and flour icings, you can use extracts to create interesting flavors. I like chocolate-orange. Pistachio is a really popular choice.