Being in the right mindset to commit to the tedious process of making macarons helps navigate potential pitfalls.
French macarons are one of my very favorite things in the entire world. Is there anything more adorable, more whimsical, more celebratory than a dazzling array of macarons laid out in a gleaming pastry case? Tiny, colorful, and with just the right amount of sweetness, I am completely powerless to resist them. And at nearly $4 per cookie, I have spent a pretty penny on these little cuties (as my husband can attest to; sorry, babe).
Never in a million years did I think I would attempt to make them myself because macarons — not to be confused with macaroons, which are dense, chewy, flourless cookies with lots of coconut — are notoriously fussy and difficult to make. I genuinely expected this experiment to turn into one of those hilariously bad Pinterest-gone-wrong failures, but I could not have been more elated with the results. The texture was absolutely perfect — soft and chewy on the inside, slightly crunchy on the outside. It could all just be beginner’s luck, but I think I just might have discovered a new, genuine obsession.
I was very intimidated and nervous to begin the baking process, but I had also had a very rough day at work and was excited to throw myself into a world of sprinkles and color (seriously, hooray for baking therapy). I think being in the right mindset to commit to this tedious process helped me navigate the potential pitfalls of making macarons because let me tell you, there are a lot of them. I scoured professional food blogs for all of the dos, don’ts, tips, and tricks of mac-making and made a list. My best friend also attended pastry school, so I called her to get insider information.
The ingredients for the macaron “shells” are deceptively simple: eggs, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, food coloring, and almond flour — which makes these little guys naturally gluten-free. The almond flour is the lynchpin ingredient, and it is of utmost importance that it be as fine as possible (a lot of the blogs I read recommended Bob’s Red Mill superfine almond flour). It should also be sieved — along with the powdered sugar — through a fine mesh strainer to further ensure against clumping.
Another big part of getting the perfect macaron shells is properly whipping the egg whites. Here I had a little bit of an advantage, because from a young age I’ve gotten to watch my grandmother and mother deftly separate egg whites from the yolks and beat them for high-to-the-heavens meringues and fluffy-light cakes. They told me one of the big secrets to perfect egg whites is making certain no water or other liquid, gets in the whites whatsoever, or they won’t whip up properly, so I made sure to start with a bone-dry mixing bowl. I also added a dash of cream of tartar, which helps the egg whites to fluff up (not all macaron recipes call for this, but I wanted it as a fail-safe). Then I beat them on high for four minutes, added the sugar, and beat them on high for six more minutes. One of the tips I read said don’t be afraid to create very dry egg whites, as it helps to stabilize the batter so it doesn’t get too runny.
The next step is to fold in the sieved almond flour and powdered sugar, and this is the step where my best friend’s advice came in super handy. She said to fold in the flour/sugar mixture in shifts until it is fully incorporated, and that I would then continue to mix it rather vigorously with a spatula until achieving the perfect “ribbon.” She explained that some baking experts test the batter by lifting the spatula and letting the batter “ribbon” back into the bowl. If the ribbon slowly incorporates back into the rest of the batter, then it is ready; if it just sits stiffly on top of the batter, then it needs to be mixed a bit more. But you have to be very conscious of not overmixing, too, because that will cause a drippy batter that will spread too much and flatten in the oven.
Once your batter is ready, you load it up into a piping bag and pipe small circles onto parchment or a baking sheet. One blog I was reading highly recommended getting a macaron baking mat that depicts how much batter to pipe for each shell, so I picked one up at Michael’s with that ever-awesome 40 percent off coupon they always have floating around. It was helpful in that I’d never piped macarons and it gave me a definite frame of reference for how big they were supposed to be, but I oddly ended up liking the shells that I piped onto simple parchment paper for my second batch more — they just seemed to cook better. I think I got the oven cook time a little better on the second batch, so that may have had something to do with it as well.
When the macarons are in the oven, the main element to keep an eye on is how well the “feet” are baking, which are the frilly, signature edges of the shells. If they start to puff up too high and fast, or spill out too much, then the oven temperature is too hot; cool it down by leaving the oven door open for a bit. After pulling them out of the oven, they need to cool down completely before icing. If baked correctly, they will pop clean off the parchment. My first batch was just slightly underbaked (I couldn’t stop hearing Paul Hollywood from The Great British Baking Show saying that word in my head), and so they stuck to the mat pretty badly. But that second batch popped right off and in the most validating way possible (take THAT, Paul).
Once they were cool, I whipped up a simple icing recipe of powdered sugar, butter, milk, and vanilla. I also added a dash of almond extract because all good things in life have almond extract in them. I put a small pat of icing onto the bottom of each shell and delicately sandwiched it out toward the edges with the top shell. Once I was done, I stepped back and was stunned to see that I did nail these difficult little French cookies. They were so adorable I almost couldn’t eat them (almost).
I foresee many, many more macaron baking sessions in my future. Though a bag of superfine almond flour ran me about $12, that’s not very much considering that $12 would only get about three or four store-bought macarons, whereas one batch of batter makes about 16-20 cookies. And there is an endless black hole of different flavors, colors, and designs to try on Pinterest — from sprinkles to glitter, to tie-dye, to chocolate or icing dipped, and even to unicorn macs with fondant ears and horns. I think I might be in trouble.
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