I have done it.
The French Meringue 101 is finished.
Two months of testing, almost 80 hours in the kitchen baking. Obliterating countless eggs and pounds of almonds and sugar trying to produce not only good macarons but also the maca-wrongs that plague bakers. Testing the limits of how many macarons my family was willing to accept ("Gah! Not MORE macarons!" has been a common utterance around here). That is what it took for me, Ms. Humble: Wannabe Macaron maker, to feel comfortable posting a 101.
Have I mastered everything? No, of course not. Have I learned a thing or two about French Meringue Macs? Absolutely, and hopefully I can provide some hints for folks seeking to master--or at least mildly subdue--these temperamental cookies.
Before I get into that though, let me mention a quick note about emails: I'm wretchedly behind on answering them. I've been doing a tremendous amount of behind the scenes baking. If you've sent me pies for the contest, questions, science goodies, or just general love, and I have not gotten back to you, I'm so sorry. I adore and appreciate every email I get, I've just been swamped for weeks now. I'll try to get caught up on them asap.
Alright with that out of the way, let's rock n' roll.
Macaron 101: French Meringue
Disclaimer: For us non-professionals, macarons are frequently annoying and unreliable.
What may work in my kitchen may not work in yours. There is almost universal agreement that macarons require a very individual approach. This is one of the reasons there is so much variation between recipes for their execution. There are some universals, yes. However, finding what will work in your kitchen, in your ovens, with your ingredients may take a little time.
This quote from the Times kind of sums it up:
Even the professionals struggle with macaroons, says Meike Beck, chief home economist at the Good Housekeeping Institute. “Three seconds of overbeating and they’re ruined.” The institute spent a month making hundreds of batches of macaroons, trying to perfect a recipe. In the end it gave up. “They’re best left to the professionals. Macaroon recipes do work. But they are not consistent.” -- Times Online
Not exactly a confidence booster, is it.
Best left to the professionals though? Nonsense.
Sure macarons can be pesky and frustrating. Making even perfectly lady-like women, such as myself, call them obscene names on occasion, but they're certainly not impossible.
In fact, getting a cookie that is close to ideal isn't all that difficult. Getting the perfect macaron, where every detail is just right, that can be tough. However if a newbie like myself can manage it on occasion, so can you. I'm no trained professional, after all.
So, in setting out to conquer French meringue macs I started by looking for the 'perfect' recipe.
I began by researching what was out there on the web. Looking at what worked and what seemingly didn't. I started gathering recipes, from various cookbooks, ones posted online supposedly used by Laduree and Hermé, recipes from the well known--and not so well known--macaron baking food bloggers. I gathered over a dozen unique, 'successful' recipes for the basic french meringue macaron and I poured over them.
Single recipe, many results.They all looked different at first impression, each recommending different of amounts for each ingredient. However, when I started reducing them to simple ratios of egg, sugar and almond, I noticed they were actually quite similar...
Even small variations in technique can make for big differences in the final cookie.
Even small variations in technique can make for big differences in the final cookie.
Let me demonstrate with a bit of scatter plot nerdery:
If this is an unforgivably dorky approach to baking, I apologize but this is how Ms. Humble rolls.
The dots are the ratios of 1 gram of egg to grams of sugar and almond. The amount of almond meal in macarons is pretty consistent across recipes with a few exceptions. Roughly 1.2-1.3g of almonds per 1g of egg white. There is slightly more variation in sugar, with most of the recipes using 2.1-2.5g of sugar per 1g of egg.
Really though, apart from the outliers, most recipes are pretty similar. Which made it amusing when I saw debates over X's macarons vs Y's macarons, knowing that they were nearly identical.
In crafting my own recipe I decided to toss out the radical outliers (like that lousy I Heart Macarons recipe), deciding to focus on the point around which many of the successful recipes clusters. I felt like this was where I would find the 'perfect recipe'. Or at least, the most 'reliable' recipe. I liked the 1.2/2.35 point and I decided it was where I would begin my baking trials. I did messed around with some slight variations on that recipe, +/- a few fractions of a gram for almond/sugar for every gram of egg, but it doesn't result in much difference.
So yes, that is how I chose the recipe. 1.2/2.35 grams almonds/sugar for every gram egg white.
So, based on the scatter plot we see that most macaron recipes are very similar, so why the variation in the results or appearance, right? This comes down to variation in technique. As I mentioned above, macarons are notoriously persnickety when it comes to execution. Of course, the prescribed method is where the recipes start the deviate. The results of this instruction isn't always clear. As I mentioned in the Italian Meringue Macaron 101, you can make beautiful looking macarons that are not great (hollow, hard, dry, chewy etc). So given a set of good french meringue ratios, what do I do to produce good macarons?
This is where I started experimenting.
Vanilla bean, vanilla sugar, pure vanilla extract make this delicate
Swiss meringue butter cream filled macaron pure bliss.
Swiss meringue butter cream filled macaron pure bliss.
To keep this from becoming a 10k word post I'm going to limit things to what did work and try to address some of the pitfalls that result in macawrongs along the way.
The French Meringue Method
When I first jumped into macarons several months ago I started with the Italian meringue method, as it is often recommended to beginners as 'more reliable'.
I'm not entirely sure why this is the case. Perhaps it has more leeway when it comes to over/under-mixing. It is difficult to under-mix and even if mixed to death and still makes decent looking cookies (provided one cooks them hot enough) as I demonstrated in the Italian meringue 101. However, French meringue macarons are a little more particular when it comes to mixing.
The upside though is a cookie that is lighter than the Italian meringue, tastier (not as sweet as the cooked sugar method) with a more delicate, cookie-like texture.
Now that I've gotten the hang of french meringue, I prefer it to the Italian. Not only because they are tastier, but because they are simpler. I don't have to worry about boiling small amounts of syrup and whipping up fragile egg whites with molten sugar.
All I need to do is ready my ingredients, beat, combine, allow to rest and then bake.
Do folks have more trouble with french meringue than Italian? It does appear that way. However I think this is because many more bakers attempt the French method. After all, cooking sugar to a specific temperature can be intimidating. Not to mention the idea of combining hot sugar to raw eggs seems like the perfect recipe for candied omelets.
I'm going to come out and say I think the French meringue method is, at its core, easier than Italian. Are beginners really more likely to mess up the French method more than the Italian? Debatable. I think Italian meringue is easier to mix but harder to bake correctly (it is tough to conquer IM's tendency to produce hollow shells or sticky bottoms). I think french meringue is marginally harder to mix correctly (based on the results I see out there in the blogosphere).
Which method should you use? Whichever one gives you results you're happy with.
(For the moment. I'm always experimenting)
(For my latest Macaron recipe and Macaron troubleshooting guide, see this post: LINK)
Ms. Humble's Scatter Plot Macarons
yields 50 (100 shells) macarons (feel free to divide it for fewer cookies)
120g almond meal
200g powdered sugar
100g egg whites
30-35g granulated sugar
food coloring gel
Line 2-3 heavy gauge aluminum baking sheets with parchment or silicone liners (more on this below). Prep a piping bag with a round tip (I use a Ateco #11 for most of my macs, though I'll occasionally use a #804 for larger macarons). I place the bag into a tall drinking glass (or stout glass) and cuff the bag's opening over the top, this makes the bag easy to fill hands-free.
Weigh out almond meal and powdered sugar and sift together to remove any clumps. (If you own a food processor, I highly recommend blending the ingredients and then sifting.)
Weigh out the egg whites into a large mixing bowl (stainless steel or copper), if you're using stainless feel free to add a pinch of salt, 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar or couple drops of lemon juice to help strengthen the whites. If you're using copper you need not and should not add any additional acid (more on this below).
Weigh out the granulated sugar. (Often I'll use homemade vanilla sugar for this.)
Begin beating the eggs on low speed. What you're doing here is unraveling the egg white's proteins (these are what will capture the air bubbles you whisk in), they're bundled up and you need to gently unwind them. A light touch does this far better than scrambling them on high speed. Once the egg whites are very foamy, begin sprinkling in the sugar as you beat. Increase the speed to medium, if necessary, and beat the meringue to stiff glossy peaks. (If they start looking grainy, clumpy or dry... uh... you've gone too far.)
Add the food coloring (for the full recipe it usually takes 2-4 drops of gel, for a half batch 1-2 drops does the trick) and mix.
Add about 1/4 of the almond/sugar mixture and fold in until no streaks remain. Continue to add the almond mixture in quarters, folding until you reach the proper batter. (More on this below)
Pour the batter into your prepared piping bag and pipe rows of batter (dollops a little bigger than a quarter) onto the baking sheets, giving them space to spread.
Tap the pan on the counter to bring up any air bubbles and quickly pop them with a toothpick.
Allow the cookies to rest on a level surface for 30-60 minutes. Until they are no longer tacky to a light touch. If you have problems with burst shells, you may need to allow them to rest longer or double stack your baking sheets to provided better insulation from the bottom.
While they rest, place an oven rack in the lower 3rd of your oven and preheat to 275-310°F (I've had the most success with about 285-290°F). I do not use fan-forced (convection) heat. If your oven tends to brown the cookies, consider placing a rack in the top of the oven with a baking sheet on it to shield the cookies. Occasionally my top element in my spastic electric oven turns on and browns my cookies, upsetting me greatly.
Bake the cookies for 16-20 minutes.
That out of the way, let's get to the details now...
Silicone baking liner vs. Parchment: I've tested and retested and found that on average I get the best results from parchment. The precut sheets you can find online and in bakery supply stores in particular (they're great). Parchment from a roll tends not to lay flat (even with a little extra macaron batter tacked to the corners to help it stay down) and that can sometimes make my macarons look a bit more like amoebas than round cookies.
I have found that parchment produces taller compact feet, the Silpat baked cookies' feet tend to be shorter and a bit ruffled. In my kitchen, at temperatures under 300°F, the cookie's bottom tends to lift off the slipat and cling to the top of the shell, making a little hollow under the cookie. This makes them easy to remove and the macs don't have a gap between the cookie's insides and the top of the shell. Which if you're having trouble with hollow at the top macs, could be a good thing.
The down side of parchment is that the surface can be uneven (particularly if you reuse your sheets), prone to crumpling up when you tear them off the roll, or like I mentioned, don't lay flat. You can often help the latter of those issues by gluing the sheet to the pan with little splots of macaron batter.
Silicone baking liners (I use the Mui brand) are nice because they're reusable (rolls of parchment run me $4-5 (ridiculous) at the grocery store, I hate buying parchment (parchment and garbage bags! Grrr)), perfectly level and may add extra insulation to the bottom of the shells (which could be good for bursting shells issues).
Hand Mixer vs Stand Mixer: Long ago I eschewed my stand mixer for a hand mixer when it comes to making macarons. Proving that sometimes inexpensive kitchen gadgetry can produce the best results. While I own two stand mixers and neither of them can make a decent meringue from a small amount of whites. This is due to the small volumes of whites called for and the fact that the meringue is difficult to monitor in the bowl as it mixes. It is hard to see into those deep bowls, the view is obstructed by the mixing arm and the powerful mixers can quickly take a almost-there meringue to an over-beaten mess.
I'll even hand whisk a meringue before I use my stand mixer. Great for beefing up your forearms...
So my mixer. I use one with wire whisk attachments (as well as standard and 'European' beaters and a hilarious padded, travel-esque case) and I have been very happy with its ability to whip up good meringue.
Copper vs Everything: Folks who have been reading my blog for a while should be aware that I bought a copper bowl a while back. It arrived a few weeks ago and I've been making macarons, meringues (remember those chocolate meringues...) and Swiss butter creams with it ever since.
Let's talk copper review for a moment...
I am absolutely in love with my bowl.
I love it like a child, a child that does exactly what I want.
It makes absolutely beautiful meringues. Dense, glossy and almost impossible to over-beat. Yes, that's right. No more grainy broken meringues in this household. It has fulfilled every promise touted by its proponents (those discussed in length in the Chemistry & Beauty post).
I'm not going to imply that it is impossible, or even difficult to make macarons without a shiny copper bowl, of course you can make great meringue in a stainless steel bowl. Copper just makes meringue so much easier (near fool proof).
Every batch of meringues I have made has been phenomenal. Strong, dense and glossy. Chemistry rocks.
The maintenance isn't as bad as I had expected. Before using, I sprinkle a little salt onto a slice of lemon and rub down the bowl, removing any trace of oxidation. Then I rinse the salt and lemon juice off the bowl, dry and start whipping my eggs. Clean up is easy, just a little soapy water and a thorough drying to prevent spots. It is still as shiny as the day it arrived, though I suppose the daily use prevents it acquiring much of a tarnish.
Despite being expensive and its usefulness limited to beating eggs, I'm completely smitten by the bowl. I should have bought one long ago. I'm so committed to copper now that I bought a second bowl to give to Mother Humble (sorry to ruin the surprise, Mom but you didn't show up last week).
I bought Mauviel brand bowls, however it is not necessary to go out and drop a lot of money on a fancy French beating bowl. There are less expensive bowls on the market that offer the rounded bottom and copper ions perfect for beating meringue. Old Dutch makes copper bowls for a fraction of Mauviel. The one catch is Old Dutch bowls are coated with a thin layer of varnish to keep it from tarnishing (in case you wish to use it as a decorative piece, fruit bowl, etc). The varnish needs to be removed before you can cook with it, which requires a $4-5 trip to the hardware store for a striping agent. So, if you or someone you know doesn't mind the smell of solvents, you can pick up a Old Dutch bowl for the price of a few large pizzas.
Alright, I've said my piece about copper bowls. Back to the macarons...
Almonds. I've made wonderful macarons with either slivered blanched almonds or almond meal. I'm a big fan of Bob's Red Mill almond meal/flour (usually found on the baking aisle of many grocery stores with the specialty flours, or hidden with the organic food). However, when I am making hundreds of cookies (like I have been) I trade convenience for economy. If you have a food processor you can weigh out the required amount of silvered blanched almonds along with the powdered sugar. Blend in your food processor for a few minutes and then sift the mixture through a medium sieve and then reprocess anything left behind.
Do this until everything falls through neatly. This should allow you to achieve nice smooth shelled macarons without any lumps or bumps.
Powdered Sugar: I use starched powdered sugar, despite its reputation for being ill suited for macarons. Unfortunately, powdered sugar without starch is near impossible to find in retail stores in the U.S.. It appears if I want to bake with it, I need to order it from a specialty shop.
Pressed for time and wanting to know what influence 5% starched sugar has on my macarons I decided I was going to make my OWN powdered sugar. Equipped with absurdly over priced, superfine sugar ($6 a pound?! Who buys this stuff? Madness!) and a blender, I set about making it.
I processed the sugar in the blender for a couple minutes until it turned into a fine powder. I probably could of let it run another few minutes but my blender was getting hot and I wasn't about to destroy any appliances in my quest for perfect macarons.
This is what I ended up with. It was close but not quite. Powdery, but not quite 10X.
So I baked two batches of macarons with this sugar.
That is not right. The cookies were feet-less and cracked. Total macawrongs! Finally, I've made a true foot-less mac! Woo!
The insides vaguely resembled a normal macaron and the smell was... weird. Like toasted marshmallow. Perhaps I undermixed? After all that can lead to puffy macarons with no feet. Perhaps I didn't allow them to dry long enough? I did place them in the oven after 30 minutes and they were still tacky to the touch (I was impatient...what can I say). Maybe my sugar wasn't fine enough and didn't dissolve like powdered sugar would? Is that why they smell like sugary marshmallows?
So I decided to test them again. The same recipe, the same sugar, only this time I would learn towards over mixing a little and allow them plenty of time to dry.
I allowed my second tray of starchless-blender-sugar macarons to sit out for over an hour and it was STILL tacky. Then I let a fan blow on it for another 20 min to help them along.
After 20 minutes they were still tacky but I baked them anyway.
On the right. I believe they're flatter coming out of the oven than going in. Flat, feetless monstrosity. I'm so proud.
Clearly substituting superfine sugar or homemade powdered sugar for a commercially made variety kills macarons. The Starch vs No-Starch mystery persists, I'll have to get my hands on a bag of it sometime soon and update this post.
I separate my eggs and leave the whites in a bowl on the counter covered lightly with a paper towel for at least 24 hours. All my French meringue attempts have been done with aged eggs, I just didn't have time to multiply all the different tests x3 (farm fresh whites, 24hr aged, 72hr aged, etc).
This is a great video of macarons being mixed. This is the technique I'm in the habit of using now. For some batches I would add all the almond/sugar mixture to the meringue at once (as recommended by some recipes) and then fold. Which produces better cookies? Difficult to say, they tend to have similar results. Still, I like doing it this way and feel it is a great demonstration.
How to bake a French meringue macaron? If only I had a dollar for all the different techniques I've seen suggested.
Some recommend a higher initial temperature in the oven and then dropping it. Others recommend a consistent temperature.
Some keep the oven cracked all the time, some part of the time, some not at all.
In terms of testing, I had my work cut out for me.
One of my most reliable sources (explaining how they learned it at pastry school) recommended placing the shells into a 350°F oven and then reducing the heat to around 300°F.
The results of this: it worked. I had to reduce the cooking time to 12-15min however. It is worth trying if you're having trouble with the low and steady method. I lean towards the low and steady method now as I've found it produces a slightly more agreeable macaron texture.
I've cooked the shells at the temperatures called for in my recipe with the oven cracked and the oven closed and have failed to notice a major difference in results. The idea of venting it is, I'm told, to help reduce the humidity in the oven. Perhaps my oven is well ventilated and this isn't necessary. If you're shells are completely hollow (from the insides collapsing after cooling) it might help to keep the oven cracked (keeping an eye on the temperature), a drier oven might help the cookies' interiors set. If you have a small pocket above a otherwise great interior, ignore it. It will disappear when the cookies are matured.
Overall, after testing several batches of macarons under different conditions, I found that temperatures in the range of 270-310°F for 15-20 minutes produced the best results (in my kitchen, mind you). The lower you go the longer you'll need to cook them. Minding them carefully as should you go too low and too long, you'll make extra-crisp meringues not macarons and they'll require a prolonged maturation to become proper macaron cookies. Too low and too brief and your cookies' will have hollow shells since the insides will never dry out enough to set and then collapse while cooling. While testing progressively lower temperatures (towards the 250-275°F range) I also noticed that the cookies were more likely to be hollow.
The higher range of temperatures I attempted resulted in good cookies but the texture inside is a little dry when completely cool--which is fine and will be fixed during maturation. The trick is finding the time/temp spot in your oven where the interior of the cookie sets during baking so it will not collapse when cooling, creating hollows.
I did not test French meringue macs at prolonged high temperatures, only for the hot-then-drop method would I go above 335°F. I'm not certain of the logic of the hot-then drop method, I assume the initial heat is to give the cookies a good rise and foot development and then they drop the temp to gently cook the inside. It does not produce a taller cookie or more impressive foot. It does work, it simply seems to be an alternative method of baking--one that I tend to avoid recommending because depending on the baker's oven it carries an increased risk of browning, burst shells and irregular foot formation.
What is the best method?
Honestly, there is probably a range of times and temps (baking at or dropping down to 275°F-335°F) that will produce good results. I don't think it is possible to pinpoint a universal sweet spot as variations in humidity, altitude, ingredients, meringue, mixing and above all, ovens that prevent me (or anyone) from giving universally applicable advice.
I can simply offer advice in the form of what works for me.
Clockwise from top:There are so many ways to fill macarons. Rather than post recipes for specific fillings I'm going to provided a few basic recipes, bits of advice to set you on the path to creating your own macarons.
Mascarpone Cheese, Caramel, White Chocolate Ganache,
Bitter Sweet Chocolate Ganache, Homemade Raspberry Jam.
Mascarpone Cheese, Caramel, White Chocolate Ganache,
Bitter Sweet Chocolate Ganache, Homemade Raspberry Jam.
One always needs to be conscious of the moisture content of whatever filling they are using. Too much moisture and it will eat through the shell. Too little and the macaron cookie may be dry and flavorless. The idea is that during maturation the filling permeates the inside of the cookie both improving the texture and imparting flavor.
Lets start with jams. A very simple, delicious and low-fuss filling. If too watery, gently heat the jam in a sauce pan to evaporate some moisture--for advanced bakers, experiment with adding pectin to thicken.
To make my Bittersweet Raspberry Rosewater Macarons: Add a few drops of rose water to 1/3 cup good quality raspberry jam that has been strained to remove the seeds. Use the rose water sparingly, you're aiming for a raspberry flavor that has a floral note that lingers towards the end. Pipe a ring of bittersweet ganache onto the bottom of a macaron and then spoon a small dollup of the rosewater jam into the center. Top with a second macaron to complete the cookie.
To make ganaches here are a few basic recipes:
9 oz bittersweet chocolate
8 oz heavy cream
White Chocolate Ganache
9 oz white chocolate
4 oz heavy cream
Finely chop the chocolate and place into a heat safe bowl. Heat the cream to a simmer over medium heat and then pour over the chocolate. Give the bowl a gentle shake to settle the mixture and allow to stand for one minute. Stir the chocolate slowly until completely melted. Strain through a fine sieve if desired for a perfectly smooth ganache. Allow to stand at room temprature, stiring occasionally until firm enough to pipe.
Store the leftovers in the fridge, bringing to room temperature before using.
One of the ways you can flavor ganache is by infusing the cream. Add coffee granules, tea, vanilla bean, spices, lemon grass, etc (If you're infusing with chunky things you'll need to strain the cream when you add it to the chocolate). Also add any water based flavorings you wish to use now. Chocolate doesn't jive with water, so it is best to add any liquid ingredients to the cream when trying to flavor the ganache.
You can mix non watery ingredients with the ganache after it is set. I like adding a little caramel and crushed praline to my white chocolate ganache to make my White Chocolate Caramel Crunch Macarons. Mix 4 parts white chocolate ganache with 1 part caramel and mix in a sprinkling of crushed praline (I've been using hazelnut praline). Delicious.
I really enjoy fruit fillings in my macarons. I have a freezer full of purees. I buy fruit when it is in season (best flavor and lowest cost, win!) and then puree it (90% fruit 10% granulated sugar) in my blender. I then strain the mixture and freeze it for use in sauces, homemade chocolates, cheesecakes and of course macarons, year round.
Zest is great for infusing cream in ganache or flavoring butter cream. Lemon curd is also lovely mixed with a little mascarpone (try to choose curds that do not have a high moisture content).
My favorite filling for macarons is Swiss meringue butter cream. Maybe it is because I love butter (I keep a supply of butter on hand that would appall even butter-fanatic Paul Dean). It is delicious, not too sweet, can play host to many flavors. It also matures the macarons quickly. (Other butter creams are also useful, I just prefer the swiss meringue style.)
I use either an Ateco #11 or #804 tips to pipe the fillings onto macarons seen on this blog. Unless I use a ziplock baggie... in which case I sandwich the cookie a little closer in the hopes you don't notice my less than perfect results. I tend to be generous when filling macs for the blog as it looks yummy, in reality you'll want to use a bit less. That much filling tends to squish out when bit into....
Things that do not make good macaron fillings: Anything moist, runny or unstable!
You want your filling to stay put and not break down while your cookie matures. Wet fillings will dissolve your cookies. I've seen pastry cream, plain whip cream, and other moist ingredients recommend as fillings. These will result in the sad discovery that your cookies are, or are beginning to become, icky sludge.
If you must use wet filling, skip the maturation and eat them ASAP.
This is really important. Try not to judge the quality of your macarons until they've finished maturation. It fixes a whole host of evils. Small hollows disappear, dry insides can become moist again, the texture improves and of course the flavor, maturation really makes a difference there.
Generally 1-3 days in a loosely covered container in the refrigerator does the trick. The more moisture in the filling, the quicker it will mature. Mascarpone, cream cheese, curd-based, caramels and some butter creams will mature first, followed by white chocolate ganache and then chocolate ganache.
Always bring the macarons to room temperature before serving.
If you're feeling as though your macarons are not turning out "right", give them a chance to mature and then give them a bite. You might be surprised.
It's almost 3am in Seattle now, this post is a monster...I think it is time to wrap up.
I'll be taking a couple days break to recover from all my work these past few weeks. I'm exhausted and I've been neglecting my laundry....
I'll leave you all with this photo because it is awesome.