the little french cookie with a big personality: macarons!

Hi everyone!  Between moving from DC to Florida, setting up the apartment, traveling like crazy for work, and taking a million photos along the way, I have finally found time to properly link my blogs together.  Welcome to the new and improved Piquant Plates!

In honor of this big step in to the official blogging world, I wanted to share my latest baking journey, French macarons! Nope, these are not macaroonsthe coconutty and syrupy American treat that your grandmother may have made way back in the day and that your dad still loves to this day (love you, dad!).  These are light and moist meringue cookies that are just as stunning as they are delectable.  There are a million macaron shops, blogs, recipes, videos, etc. of macarons these days, so you could say they are en vogue at the moment.  My inspiration to start making macarons didn’t come from a fad, however, but a pastry class I took at the cooking school in my area.  We spent a good three hours baking countless flavor combinations and I fell in love with the texture and look of these cookies.

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Now, since I work from home in Tampa and thus have no co-workers except for my adorable dog and taste-tester boyfriend on off-work-hours, I unfortunately don’t have a place to drop off the results of my baking efforts like I did before at the office.  I don’t have a sweet tooth, and neither does P, so we can’t eat a whole pan of nutella brownies or 24 cupcakes by ourselves. Enter the problem of the macarons: I desperately wanted to make batch after batch when I got home from the pastry class, but I had no one to share them with. Lucky for me, I controlled the urge to bake for another week before P and I were due to drive back up to DC for work and a hockey tournament, and then made 6 BATCHES of macarons for the trip! I might have gotten a wee bit carried away… :)

In an effort to ease you delicately in to the recipe and procedure for these cookies, I would like to share some of the things I Googled when making them on my own for the first time.  Luckily, 6 batches of cookies later, I was able to answer said questions as well. Read on!

Q: Oof, I’ve heard macarons are difficult to make.  Can I really do this?

This post will share the recipe I learned, practiced, and use myself at home, but there are dozens of variations by other chefs and bloggers.  I like the one I will share today because 1) it works for me, 2) its not as fussy as some of the other recipes out there, and 3) it is accessible for the home cook.  In my next post I’ll be writing more about my new personal culinary journey and philosophy, but in a nutshell, I don’t think every recipe and technique needs to be as complicated as tradition or craft would demand.  Make things that look beautiful, taste good, and make you (and others!) happy!

Follow my tips and tricks that I learned from an excellent pastry chef (thanks, Chef Barb!) and you’ll be a maca-pro in no time!

Q: What fancy shmancy tools do I need to make these cookies?

Unlike many other French desserts, this one requires no special pans or molds.  Hooray!  However, there are a few tools that will make your chances of making a perfect macaron go up exponentially.  Here’s what you need:

1. Two identical sheet pans – You MUST use two pans stacked together when making macarons to help control the heat. I like the aluminum quarter sheet pans that NordicWare or Calphalon make.  They are inexpensive and indispensable in the kitchen, not just for macarons!  Check out discount stores like Home Goods -they always have them in stock for right around $10 a piece.

2. Parchment paper or a silicon baking sheet – the jury is really out on this one– some bakers prefer the silicon to bake the macarons, and some vehemently prefer parchment paper.  Either way, you need one of the two to lay on the sheet pan and pipe your macarons on.  I actually prefer parchment paper myself, and its a whole lot cheaper!

3. Piping bags – either disposable or polyester (reusable), a piping bag is mandatory for making macarons. This is a piped meringue cookie, so a piping bag is a must.  I have a few polyester bags which are great but must be cleaned between uses.  Plastic disposable bags are super easy if you have those on hand!

4. 1/2 inch round pastry tip – this is optional but highly recommended.  The 1/2 inch round tip makes for super easy piping and even, round cookies. As much as these little cookies are fru fru, the shape is truly iconic and the tip here helps achieve that shape.

5. Electric Mixer (Stand Mixer or Hand Mixer) Lastly, it is crucial that you have access to a stand mixer or a hand electric mixer to whip your egg whites.  This is not one of those “Ok, Kara, I have strong arms and can TOTALLY whip these by hand” moments. The egg whites need to be very stiff for this recipe to work, so an electric mixer really is a must.

Q: Macarons are crazy expensive at the bakeries… are they made of expensive ingredients?

Macarons are expensive at the boutique bakeries because they are popular right now and because they are finicky to make, but they are not made of anything outrageously expensive.  There are three main ingredients in a macaron: almond meal (~$10 for a 1 pound bag which makes about 6 batches), confectioners sugar (super cheap), and egg whites (very affordable).

Q: I’m scared, can I have a hug?

Yes you can, once your first batch is in the oven ;) Let’s make some cookies!

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French Macarons:

Recipe adapted from The Rolling Pin Culinary School. 

– 3/4 cup almond flour (or almond meal)

– 1 cup confectioners (powdered) sugar

– 1 tsp vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla bean

– 3 large egg whites, left out overnight on the counter

– 1/4 cup granulated sugar

– 3 tbsp flavorings (optional), eg: espresso powder, cocoa powder, fruit powder

For the Filling:

– Buttercream icing (butter, confectioners sugar, vanilla)

– Fruit preserves or curds (lemon, lime, orange, etc)

– Flavors (espresso powder, peanut butter, etc.)

Step 1, the waiting: A day before you bake, prepare the eggs.  This seems easy but is a really important step.  The day or night before you’re ready to embark on this culinary adventure, separate three large egg whites in to a bowl being very careful not to get any yolk in with the whites.  Leave them out on the counter overnight (a day is best) so that some of the water evaporates.  Old, slightly dry egg whites are the key to fluffy macarons!

Step 2, the whipping: Stir the almond flour (almond meal) and confectioners sugar together in a bowl.  I used a whisk to simulate sifting the ingredients, but just make sure they are well blended together with no lumps.  In a stand mixer (or with your hand mixer), whip the 3 egg whites and 1/4 cup of granulated sugar together until stiff peaks form.  Add vanilla and food coloring (if desired) at the last few whips. Test the stiffness by holding the bowl upside-down over your head for 10 seconds.  If you don’t get plunked with whites, you’re good!  It should look silky and smooth. Voila, you made meringue!

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Step 3, the stirring: Combine half of the dry mixture (flour and sugar) in to the meringue. At this point, I added 1/4 cup of pulverized freeze dried raspberries to flavor the batter. With a rubber spatula, fold the dry ingredients by hand in to the whipped eggs.  Once incorporated, add the remaining half.  THIS IS THE TRICKY PART. Macarons are made or broken by this step.  Fold the eggs and dry ingredients together just until they are combined and then use your spatula to make a line in the middle of the batter.  If the batter slowly fuses back together, you’re good!  You want to take care not to overmix here or the macarons will be as flat as a pancake.  Undermix and they will look like puffy Hershey’s kisses!  About 50-60 mixes should do. Here’s the picture of my raspberry batch:

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Step 4, the piping: In a piping bag with a round tip, divide half of your macaronage (a fancy French name for the gooey mixture you just finished folding) in to the bag.  On a parchment lined baking sheet, pipe small quarter-sized circles about 1/2 apart.  On a standard quarter sheet pan, I can pipe close to 35 cookies.  My pastry instructor would kill me if she knew (she likes to do ~20 per pan but not everyone has an unlimited pan collection!).  Piping technique? Hold the bag completely vertical, 1 inch above the parchment, squeeze, stop, and rotate your hand so that the cookies don’t get a swirly top. If you are normal human, like me, and your cookies get the swirly top, dip your finger in a tiny bit of water and pat them down.  No big deal!

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Step 5, the slamming: Once piped, we need to settle the cookies in to their smooth, round shape.  This step lets you take out any pent up aggression by rapping the cookie sheet firmly on a countertop over and over until the cookies spread ever so slightly and get a smooth top.  Don’t be shy… you have an excuse to bang around and make noise!  Use it! :)

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Step 6, the resting: An interesting quality of macarons is that they have a hard shiny top but a soft and moist inside. That shiny top is achieved by letting the piped cookies rest and dry for at least 20-30 minutes until they are dry to the touch.  This can take much longer in a humid environment (COUGH, FLORIDA), so I like to pop them in front of a fan to help them out.

Step 7, the BAKING! Once they have dried, put the macarons in to a preheated 300 to 310 degree oven for baking.  This is a trial and error sort of temperature– if your oven runs hot, I’d back the temp down around 300.  If it is a reliable temperature, meet in the middle around 305.  Making sure there is another empty cookie sheet stacked under your beautiful pan of piped macarons, put them in the oven for 6-8 minutes, rotate, and again for 6-8 minutes.  Pro tip: My instructor taught us to prop the oven door open with a wooden spoon to let excess heat escape during cooking.  This helps prevent an oven that is too hot and will cause your cookies to crack!  Check doneness by juggling the top of a cookie after the second 8 minutes. If they are firm and don’t wiggle, you are done!

P.S.– this is the step where your macarons get their FEET.  Feet are the hardest thing in the world to achieve on a macaron and I didn’t have success until my third batch.  That dry shiny top makes the macaron puff over on the bottom as it cooks, creating a little bubbly layer around the outside of the cookie called “feet”.  Keep an eye out for them!  Here are my chocolate ones WITH FEET!

(P thought I was crazy when I ran in to the bedroom shouting, “they have feet! they have feeeeeet!”)

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Step 8, the filling:  When your macarons are finished and cooled, use an offset spatula or a knife to quickly slice under the macaron to release it from the parchment paper.  If using silicon, this can be a little tougher.  Use a buttercream frosting, preserves, lemon curd, or any other thick filling (eg: nutella or peanut butter, etc) to pipe in between two identically sized cookies.  Very gently squeeze the halves together and set aside to “cure”, or let the flavors meld together for a few hours in the fridge. (I know… you have to wait!  I’m so sorry!)

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Step 9, THE EATING:  Eat and share with your loved ones.  Sharing is optional. If all the cookies don’t disappear in the blink of an eye (very common), you can store them in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer until you are craving just oneeee more at 11:30 before bed… :)

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I made 4 different flavors of macarons for my adventure and we made 6 different kinds in class.  I will not mislead you at all in to thinking that my macarons were perfect– some batches came out better than others.  I had some cracks, some overmixed batter, some undermixed,  No matter the hiccup, each batch was delicious and made with love!

Dark Chocolate Macarons with Nutella Buttercream

Vanilla Macarons with Blackberry Buttercream

Blueberry Macarons with Lemon Curd Buttercream

Raspberry Macarons with Raspberry Buttercream

I hope after reading this you all have a better idea of whether you’d like to take on the mighty macaron in your kitchens. Although there are quite a few steps and extra considerations, its not that difficult to make a delicious and impressive box of these cookies for special occasions, family gatherings, or just for fun!  I’m getting better with every batch and having a blast along the way :)