Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Macarons - For the Very First Time

French macarons
Its hard to ignore the immense popularity of macarons these days and it felt about time that I tried my hand at making some. Initial reading up on recipes and tips didn't exactly fill me with confidence however. Macarons it seems have a reputation for being tricky and unpredictable.

I came across an American blog written by Stella Parks, a lady who bakes macarons 18 times a week so I figured she'd have a pretty good idea what she was on about.  I wanted to follow just one person's instructions rather than mashing a few together and then wondering which bit worked and which didn't.  Stella had also gone to the trouble of testing a good number of the things that get blamed for bad macaronage and exploded a number of myths, instead encouraging us all to face up to bad technique when its staring us in the face.

French macarons
As a meringue novice I had a strong suspicion I'd be one of those bad technique culprits but if you don't try what hope is there of learning? I dusted off my barely used food processor, located an instruction booklet to learn what each bit does (at this point I came to realise I have NEVER used about 80% of its attachments in 10 years of ownership - how embarrassing) and set to work.

From my macaron research it was clearly apparent that sieving the icing sugar and almonds is essential so after I'd weighed them out I gave my purpose bought sieve its first outing.  (I know, I know, but flour is so good these days I just don't use one for cakes.)  This bit took absolutely ages. The bits that refused to go through got whizzed in the food processor and then retried in the sieve.  And repeat a few times.  I wonder if it actually would have been easier to just put all of it in the food processor from the start as small quantities just seem to struggle, getting stuck in the edges.  I will do that next time.  Anyway I got there in the end and I must admit that I took advantage of Stella's assertion that a very small amount of unsieveable bits don't do any harm.

meringue whisking
Next I moved on to my eggs.  I didn't age my whites and I didn't bring them up to room temperature either. Controversial!  But being a complete beginner I had thrown myself completely to the mercy of an expert and if it doesn't matter to her then I'm happy to go with that.  The egg whites and sugar went into the food processor together and my whisk attachment became another kitchen implement to get its very first use.  It's a funny looking thing but my goodness it seemed to work really well.  So well in fact that my eggs became lovely glossy peaks much faster than I expected.

I wasn't quite sure what to do here in terms of judging when the eggs were just right.  They were stiff enough to stay on the spoon hung upside down but I wasn't sure if I should be going beyond that.  I whizzed a bit more and watched the texture change a bit, stopped and took out the attachment.  At the bottom of the bowl was some liquid that clearly wasn't right, I was confident I hadn't reached the key point yet so I stirred in the liquid, added my vanilla essence and set the processor whizzing again.

Another minute or so on it seemed that the texture had changed a bit more, it was a little stiffer but I had no idea if it was 'done' or indeed what would happen if I kept going and it went 'beyond done'.  Stella had provided a picture of the egg whites as they should be when ready but to a novice eye one bowl of peaks looks much the same as another unfortunately.  I decided they were done and hoped for the best.

Next to fold in the dry ingredients.  It seems this is one of the key times that good macarons go bad as you can overmix in the space of a couple of folds and alas I think that I was probably 2 or 3 folds on the overmixed side of the fence in the end.  My mixture wasn't pancake batter runny or anything but I do think it was a teensy bit runnier than it should have been.  This was nothing however compared to the damage that was about to be done by my wildly uncontrolled piping.

I have a piping bag that I've never got along with and for some completely unknown reason it was this bag I selected to pipe out my macarons.  I'd read on someone's blog that they find that a nozzle isn't completely necessary and just using the nozzle holder and coupler can give a sensible size opening for piping macarons.  In my experience this is a BLATANT LIE.  No nozzle left my macarons out of control all over the parchment, glooping and spreading into places they simply weren't supposed to travel.  I made valiant efforts to get them under control and the later piped ones were of a more sensible size but I had mixture all over my hands, the bench and eventually the sink.  Use a nozzle kids.  You know it makes sense.

Next I gave the tray 3 or 4 good whacks to burst some of the air bubbles and then I left my macarons to rest for about half an hour.  When I checked them they were no longer tacky to the touch, as promised.  Result.  Into the preheated oven they went at 130 degrees and I sat down on the floor to watch them for a minute.  Unsurprisingly not a great deal happened and none of it spectacular.  Realising I was being a bit of a lunatic I went and watched tv, returning after 10 minutes to find that a few of my macarons were actually resembling macarons!  Not the mahoosive ones you understand, they'd all merged into a big mess, but some of them had feet and slightly domed tops like real live macarons.

large uneven French macarons
After 18 minutes baking time as instructed I checked them but I was pretty sure they weren't done.  They didn't peel off the parchment and were still pretty gloopy feeling.  A few more minutes and I took them out of the oven, still not completely confident they were actually cooked but they were starting to brown on top and I didn't want that to get worse.

nicely piped macarons

I still had the other half of my mixture to bake (temporary kitchen and only one baking tray) so this time I found a different piping bag and a small round nozzle.  I also redrew the guide circles on my parchment with smaller circles to try and stop me from overfilling them.  This was a much better technique and yes perhaps the nozzle was a little bit too small but far better that way round in my opinion.  These ones looked really nice on the tray and I repeated the whacking and then resting process before baking them, feeling much more confident this time round.

French macarons ready to bake French macarons fresh out the oven

Of course pride comes before a fall because I forgot about them until they'd baked for 21 minutes.  Sigh.  They were a tiny bit brown but didn't look too bad so out the oven they came and I left them with the others to cool.  With the benefit of hindsight I now know that my oven was too cool so despite the long baking time it turned out that this batch were still slightly on the underdone side.  Even when completely cool they didn't peel easily away from the parchment but they did come off and I'll know for next time.

Next my poor macarons had to go through the trauma of a 220 mile car journey and sadly some of them saw fit to crack when they were being jiggled about unceremoniously for 3.5 hours.  I'd decided to bin the first tray anyway as they were so irregularly sized and stuck to the parchment.  Of the second tray I now only had about 14 macarons that looked like they were worth sticking together.  Stick them I did however with plain old vanilla buttercream and actually they don't look half bad.  I'm proud of them and feel that next time I've got a good chance of producing more than 7 bona fide macarons from a batch of mixture.

French macarons with vanilla buttercream

They taste fantastic, especially with the gorgeous vanilla buttercream.  They have slight hollows but I'd expect that considering I know the oven was too cool.  I plan to try some sort of flavouring next time as almond isn't really my bag and I've been looking for powder flavourings to avoid adding liquid.  As for that pesky piping bag, I have finally had a ruthless moment and binned it.  You will only ruin my macarons once you old bag.

French macaron stack

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