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A brief history
As the legend goes, the concept of the macaron was introduced to France by Catherine de' Medici's Italian chefs, and the delicate treats quickly spread in popularity. Convents often made them for both consumption and profit, and in the late 18th century, following the closure of Les Dames du Saint Sacrements Convent, two enterprising sisters -- known as the legendary Les Soeurs Macarons (who have a street named after them in Nancy, France) -- continued on the tradition.
Fast-forward to the 20th century when the famed Ladurée tea salon and pastry shop in Paris began selling the iconic cookie-style macarons we know and love today.
Demystifying macarons: One "O" or two?
The first step to demystifying macarons is knowing what they are. The Parisian macaron features two domed meringue cookies with "feet" (the distinctive crumbly edge) that sandwich a filling of ganache, cream or jam. The whole thing is elevated in sensory appeal by the addition of food colouring, which adds a dreamy, pastel allure.
The macaron is not to be confused with its Yankee friend from across the pond, the macaroon (note the extra "O"). Macaroons are made with a shredded, sweetened coconut mixture that is piped into a star shape. They leave the oven with golden brown tops. None are ever pastel. They have no French accents of note.
Time to make macarons
Every macaron-maker, whether a professional or not, has his or her own method. There are even three styles of making the meringue for the cookies: French, Swiss and Italian. However, for the Parisian-style confections, four main ingredients persist:
• Almond flour
• Confectioner's sugar
• Egg whites
• Granulated sugar
The basic procedure for making the meringue batter is as follows:
• Sift the almond flour with the confectioner's sugar. Be sure your almond flour is dry (moisture or oiliness is the enemy). If your almond flour is coarse, pulse it a few times in a food processor.
• Some pastry chefs swear by "aging" the eggs -- that is, separating the whites from the yolks and leaving the whites refrigerated for a few days before using them. This supposedly reduces any elasticity and, in turn, reduces the chance of over-mixing the batter. Whether you age your eggs or not, carefully separate the egg whites from the yolks.
• Beat the whites and gradually add the granulated sugar until you get stiff peaks.
• Next, fold in the flour mixture gently. The emphasis on the word "gently" is important, as overworking the batter is an often-made mistake.
"The most important part is the macaronage. This is the way you mix the batter," says Sylvie Thobor, the pastry chef and chocolatier at Thobors Boulangerie Patisserie Café in Toronto.
"If you mix too long or too strong it can fall a bit. And, if you beat too much -- don't even bother putting it in the oven. If the batter is completely flat, you won't get the domes in the oven."
Once your batter is complete, transfer it to a piping bag. To create a quick piping guide, repeatedly trace a circular object about 1-inch in diameter on the back of wax paper.
Then turn the paper over and place it on a baking sheet. Use these circles to pipe consistently sized cookies. Be sure to leave a good amount of space between each circle, as the batter will spread in the oven.
The oven is another area where things can fall apart. "You want your oven to be between 160°F and 200°F, but some ovens are stronger and some are less strong," notes Thobor. "I know when I make macarons at home, and when I make them at the bakery, what the oven will be like."
Thobor also recommends keeping a notebook on hand to jot down exactly what you've done during the macaron-making process. As she explains, if you attempt to make them again and change any step, even slightly, this may alter your end results -- so it's a good idea to take notes as you go.
"I've learned it takes some time," says Thobor. "It's only when you do it, and do it, and do it, that you learn."
If things do go awry, don't get discouraged. Les Petits Macarons: Colorful French Confections to Make at Home (Running, 2011) by Kathryn Gordon and Anne E. McBride is a wonderful resource that is sure to help. In the book, the authors offer some helpful advice for some of the most common macaron-making conundrums.
- Conundrum: Sloped shells or "baseball cap" effect
Your oven heat may be uneven. Rotate the baking sheet twice, front to back and from top to bottom.
- Conundrum: The cookies are cracking
You likely folded the batter for too long.
- Conundrum: No feet form
There may not be enough sugar. Or the oven may be too hot.
- Conundrum: The feet are too large
You likely folded the batter for too long.
- Conundrum: Misshapen shells with uneven "explosions" in shape; excessive browning
You may have used too much powdered or granulated sugar.