[For the French Meringue Macaron 101 click HERE]
It feels really wrong writing this, after all I've only been making macarons for a few months. People have been asking for tips though, in the comments and via email so I'm going to make a How-To guide of sorts.
I do have some tips and I'm going to share them with the humility of someone who only barely knows what they are talking about. I'm still learning every time I make a new batch. Like today, where I learned that putting almond praline crunch on top of a mac shell was a really, really dumb idea.
So with that in mind, let us get down to it.
For many home bakers these are a challenging cookie. Particularly so in the United States, where many have never had a true Parisian macaron.
How do you bake something that you've never seen in person or even eaten? Well, it certainly doesn't make it easy, but I'll do my best to describe what you're aiming for in terms of looks and taste:
Now, Italian meringue macs don't have quite the same taste and texture of the French meringue macs. Both are delicate and very sweet. Just for looks, I prefer the Italian meringue method as it produces those lovely smooth shells. For taste and texture I like the standard French meringue's airy, cookie-like result.
Of course, Italian meringue macs do have a firmer shell (particularly if the cookies have rested for extended period prior to baking), but ideally it should still give way easily with just a delicate crackle.
The cookies should have a nice compact foot (French meringue tends to have a higher foot than Italian meringue, well at least for me) and a meringue like interior. Hollow, cracked shells and protruding feet (or no feet at all) are not ideal and are among the many ways this cookie can drive you to madness.
I find that macarons taste the best after they've rested in an air tight container in the fridge overnight, like the cookie above. The filling has time to flavor the shell slightly and the slight humidity improves the overall texture of the cookie. This is called maturing. The higher the moisture content of the filling, the faster the shell will mature. Ganache filled macs will mature faster than butter cream macs, etc.
Of course, overly high moisture fillings do not lend themselves to maturing as they will reduce your macarons to a blob of goo.
The following are the three things that I find are vital to making good macs. Everything else is flexible. You can whisk the meringue with a $500 stand mixter or a bundle of birch branches, doesn't matter so long as it works for you. You can even pipe the batter with those dang cut-corner ziplock baggies.
1. Kitchen Scale
Why don't you own one of these? Really. They're inexpensive and open up a whole new wonderful world of baking! That is, baking by weight rather than volume (which is totally unreliable). The scale I personally use is (here). It is roughly $25, very accurate (I've tested) and allows you to be precise with your measurements. Trust me, eventually you'll wish you could just weigh out all your ingredients in your mixing bowl and never deal with the tedium of scooping, tapping and leveling measuring cups ever again.
2. Oven Thermometer
Turn that dial to 350°F on your oven and let it heat up. Once that pre-heating indicator light goes off, what temperature is it? 350°F? Probably not. These are not precision dials. I have two very nice ovens and mine are never accurate.
Invest in a oven thermometer and I use the word 'invest' loosely as they cost almost nothing ($3-$25). A small price to pay compared to the cost of tossing out batches of bad macarons. All that almond meal gets expensive, trust me. If you're curious, the type I use in my ovens is the following: Taylor Oven Thermometer
3. Good pans
Good quality, heavy guage aluminum sheet pans. Again, compared to the macaron ingredients, they're really not all that expensive. My first three Mac attempts were mired by lopsided feet. Why? Lack of insulation from the bottom and my ancient cookie sheets were no longer perfectly level (not that I could tell just by looking at them).
So much frustration could have been avoided had I figured out early on that it was my pans not my technique.
Seattle area folks, hit up the Business Center Costco in Lynnwood. Look for the restaurant supply goods, you'll be in inexpensive pan paradise.
A key step in the macaron making, where the wet ingredients are added to the dry. The French meringue method is less forgiving than the Italian meringue for this step. This is why newbie macaron bakers tend to have more success with the Italian meringue method.
I've taken some shots of me getting my macaronage on to illustrate what a good batter should look like. I apologize for the poor quality photos, but I'm using my Macbook's camera to snap these.
Here I'm adding the food coloring (we're using brown today just for contrast) and the 60g of egg whites to the tant pour tant (half and half almond sugar mixture). You can mix this to your heart's content, no worries. It will start off crumbly and then it gets thick and fluid like molasses full of sand.
Please ignore my cave salamander pale hands (I live in Seattle, remember) and frightening double jointed thumbs.
Molasses full of sand! See, I told ya!
Now you're ready to add the meringue. Dump it into the bowl and begin folding.
As you fold the meringue the mixture will become a little more fluid with each stroke. Scrape the bottom of the bowl with your spatula as the almond mixture likes to cling to the bowl. Continue to fold until the streaks in the mixture become thinner and less apparent.
Okay, the mixture is barely uniform now. See how it flows thickly off the end of my spatula in a fat ribbon? Notice how thick the coating of the batter is on the spatula? This is a good batter. I'm going to dump half of this into a piping bag and continue mixing the remaining batter! That's right, I'm going to ruin my macarons. Just for you.
This mixture is slightly over mixed. Notice how the thick coating of batter on the spatula is gone? Note the thiner ribbon of batter flowing off the end? The batter is also slightly darker and glossier. The good batter above was lighter and more matte than this batter.
I'm going to divide this batter and place half into a pastry bag. The rest, well I'm going to mix it to the point of macaron death.
Over mixed batter. Oh this is so sad... just look at it. Fluid, overly glossy and thin. Pours quickly off the end of my spatula. The batter is clearly darker now. It took a surprising amount of mixing to get it to this state, but there it is... bad macaron batter. Of course, I'm going to bake this mess too.
So, I took my three batters and baked small batches of each under different conditions today. I took lots of notes and photos of my results.
I was aiming to recreate some common problems, like no feet and cracked shells. I wasn't able to recreate all the fail states, but I did document the conditions under which certain problems can arise.