As many of you already know, or are finding out, I **LOVE** Paris. I love the architecture, the shopping, the language, the culture, the people... everything - especially the FOOD. And one of the Frenchest (is that a word? yes, I'm going to go ahead and decide it is) things you can eat while in Paris is le macaron. You can hardly walk down the street without seeing these shiny, colourful little sandwich cookies beckoning "mangez-moi" to you from a pâtisserie window. In fact, the array of stunning window displays in Paris, crafted from macarons could easily fill a coffee-table book - and a stunning book it would be (hmmm... there's an idea, and one hell of an excuse to go back for a visit)!
For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of tasting un macaron, they are, at their most basic, a sandwich cookie comprised of two almond meringue cookies and a filling of some sweet sort. That description simply does not do them justice. The variety of colours, flavours, fillings and flavour combinations they are available in is absolutely limitless. In fact, I would be surprised if you could find a pâtisserie in Paris that does not have at least a dozen varieties on hand on any given day. Ranging from the simplest vanilla with buttercream or chocolate filled with chocolate ganache, through the slightly more sophisticated cassis-violette (backcurrant & violet), caramel au beurre salé (salted butter caramel), olive oil & vanilla (a personal favourite of mine), and upwards into the very daring (or some would call them bizarre), white truffle (the fungal kind), wasabi & grapefruit, ketchup, and even fois gras - the competition among pastry chefs to create the hot new flavour is so intense that they can go a bit crazy in effort to out-do one another. Macarons have achieved an almost cult-like following, so much so that they even have their own day; le Jour du Macaron falls on March 20th of each year, when the leading pastry chefs in Paris donate the day's proceeds from macaron sales to their charity of choice. To drive donations and traffic, they usually go all out with the varieties available and "sell" them at a discounted rate.
Needless to say, upon returning home to Canada, I decided I needed to learn how to make these magnificent little confections. Trial and lots of error ensued (and still does), and I learned that even though they may look simple, they can be surprisingly finicky to make. You see, there is an anatomy to the ideal macaron; the two cookies should each be perfectly uniform in size and roundness, with a smooth, shiny dome resting on the iconic ruffled foot or "pied" as it is called (don't kid yourself, this is the very thing that makes them so darned tricky to make). The cookies will have a crisp outer shell, with a soft, chewy interior. But it doesn't stop there... hugged between these two flawless, almond-y shells is a delectable filling typically made of either a creamy, flavoured buttercream, a silky ganache or a brilliantly fruity preserve. Well at least that's what it "said" they should look like...
Had this been any other dessert, I would have thrown in the towel and given up long ago, especially with a success rate somewhere around 15% (like I said; lots of errors), but they're so delectable and A) you couldn't get them anywhere in Edmonton until very recently, and B) I absolutely refuse to be beaten by a few lousy egg whites, some sugar and ground almonds! So I soldiered on, read everything I could get my hands on and quickly discovered there are a few little tricks to achieving success - but, oh, yeah... even with all the tricks it can all go out the window if it's a little to hot or humid or dry or cold or cloudy or... who knows - my success rate is still only about 15%.
But because I love macarons so much, despite the apparently abusive relationship I have with them, I keep trying. To that end, I've recently joined the fabulous ladies on MacTweets as part of their MacAttack macaron challenges. YAY! Now I can torture myself on a regular basis and blog about it too! Seriously though, I see it as much of a support group as it is a teaching tool. A place where I can turn when I have meringue in my hair and cracked, flat, or footless macarons. They feel my pain, and what's more, they understand why I keep going back...
part of a flower! Now it's not typically used in sweet applications, but who knows - it might just turn up on Pierre Hermé's menu this spring.
So, I went about making my meringue with my aged egg whites, folding in the almond/sugar mixture, and performing my little tricks (remember?); completing the macaronnage, and waiting ever so patiently for that full hour for them to dry just the right amount so that their little pieds would magically pop out beneath them when they baked. Well, our Olympic athletes aren't the only ones getting gold today - when I finally found the courage to peek through the oven door, I found my macarons have feet!!! WooHoo!!! As for the Saffron Buttercream, it's not bad, but it certainly didn't knock my socks off. I'll be stripped of my medal if the IOC ever finds out, but I did have to artificially enhance the colour a tad. Saffron is known for it's bright orange hue, however, when it's diluted in buttercream, it comes out looking a lot like something that is much less appetizing (I'll spare you all the graphic comparison).
At the end of the day, I am pretty happy with my result. The colour marbling effect that I tried wasn't as dramatic as I had hoped and I didn't quite have the flavour success that I wanted, but ultimately they are so pretty and quite yummy anyway, that I really don't care - there's always next month. All that matters is that they have FEET!
Many thanks to Deeba and Jamie and all my new friends on MacTweets - I can't wait for the next MacAttack!
makes 40 sandwich cookies
3 3/4 Cups (315 g) finely ground almonds
3 1/3 Cups (380 g) confectioner's sugar
1/8 tsp salt
5 egg whites (190g), room temperature, aged 3 days1/8 tsp cream of tartar
5 tsp (25 g) granulated sugar
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Line two or three baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside. Fit a large pastry bag with a 1/2" plain tip; set aside.
In a food processor, process the ground almonds, salt and confectioner's sugar until the mixture is very finely ground. Into a large bowl, sieve the mixture three times, to remove any large pieces or lumps.
In bowl of a standing mixer (if using a hand mixer, use a large, very clean bowl), whisk the egg whites on medium low speed until they frothy. Sprinkle in the cream of tartar and increase speed to medium-high. Whip until they are thick and voluminous (about a minute or so), then sprinkle in the granulated sugar. Continue to whip until stiff peaks form - about 1 minute. Be careful not to over-whip!
With a large rubber spatula, fold in about 1/3 of the ground almond mixture, followed by the almond and vanilla extracts. Gradually fold in the remaining almond mixture until the mixture is very thick, and falls in a thick ribbon when the spatula is held over the bowl.
Fill the pastry bag with the mixture and pipe into 1-inch dots onto parchment-lined baking sheets - spaced about 3/4 inches apart. The batter should slowly spread a little and become smooth and round on top. Now we play the waiting game.......
Let the macarons sit at room temperature to dry - about 1-2 hours, depending on humidity (In Edmonton in February, it takes about 45 minutes - more than enough time to go apply another layer of lotion to your moisture-starved skin).
About 30 minutes before baking, place a rack in the centre of your oven and preheat to 300F. If you normally bake with convection, I recommend you turn that feature off if your oven allows. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time for 14-16 minutes. If you've done everything right, and the stars are properly aligned, and the macaron gods deem it so, you should have frilly little feet at the bottom of each perfect little macaron. Transfer to a cooling rack and do your dance of joy. If your macarons are feetless, transfer to a cooling rack, take a deep breath and join the ranks of bakers world-wide who have felt your pain. Allow the cookies to cool completely before filling.
Saffron Vanilla Buttercream
makes about 2 cups
2 large eggs
1/2 cup (50 g) granulated sugar
10-12 threads saffron
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 Cup (226 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1-inch cubes
Transfer the egg mixture to the bowl of a standing mixer and whip on medium-high speed until it becomes light and airy and has cooled to room-temperature (about 5 minutes). Reduce the mixer speed to medium, and add the butter one piece at a time. When half of the butter has been added, it may look curdled, but don't fret, that's how it should look. Once all of the butter has been added, increase mixer speed to high and whip for 1 minute, until the buttercream is light and fluffy.
Fill a piping bag with the buttercream, and pipe half of the cooled macaron shells with about 1 tsp of filling. Top with an empty shell, and gently press the two together until the buttercream presses out and is almost flush with the foot of the macarons. Take a deep breath, admire your handy work, and savour the fruits of your labour. Voilà!