Thursday, February 14, 2013

French Macarons

I love everything about macarons and have from the moment I read about them a few years ago. I've been dying to learn how to make them, but the recipes all seemed a little daunting and I'm not a great baker-no patience for detail. I occasionally purchase them in French bakeries (expensive) and read the millions of blogs about making them, but never had the guts to try them out myself. I was recently invited to join a monthly dessert group. I really don't have much time to socialize, but I'm starting to really miss my old life, so I said I'd join-even though desserts aren't really my speciality. This first month the theme was to try something new. With that in consideration, and Valentine's Day right around the corner, French macarons were the only thing I could think of making.

Many recipes on the internet are based upon weight and I'm not a good enough baker to invest in a scale, so I kept looking until I found one that had real measurements. I also read a lot about the Italian macaron version that requires you to boil sugar and water to add to the meringue. People say that it is an easier method for a beginner, as it works more consistently. But, I feel I had perfected the French method in about 3 batches and didn't want to try another.

Once I started baking and I was instantly in love. I made a lot of batches until I was satisfied with the look of my finished product.

The website I got the basic recipe from was The first batch I made was a basic vanilla recipe with a vanilla buttercream filling. Next I tried a "red velvet" version by adding some cocoa powder and pink gel food coloring, filling it with chocolate ganache. And, for the last batch I really had fun experimenting and they finally turned out perfect. I added hazelnut extract, vanilla bean and a little cocoa powder to the cookies, dusted them with cocoa powder before baking and topped with some chopped hazenuts before baking. For the filling, I used the leftover chocolate ganache and mixed it with Nutella. They were our favorites! Once the basic recipe is perfected, the possibilities are endless, which allows you to be so creative!

The key to making the batter perfect is not mixing it too much, but at the same time, making sure to mix it enough. The first two batches I didn't mix enough, which made the cookie shells thick and bumpy. This is a great video I watched in-between batches that helped me perfect the mixing process (I still used the other recipe). The third one I mixed just until I thought it might be too much and it was perfect! The others were too thick when I piped them onto the parchment paper. The first batch I sifted the flour and powdered sugar, but it was so time consuming that I gave it up for the other batches and they seemed to be just fine. I did use the Red Mill almond flour, which is already very fine. I purchased it at Whole Foods and it was very expensive (but you don't use a lot). Many recipes say to leave your egg whites out at room temperature for 24 hours. I have no patience for things like that and used them right out of the fridge, but warmed them slightly over the flame of my burner until they were room temperature.
These were the first flavored ones I made; they were chocolate hazelnut.
I added hazelnut flavoring and a little bit of cocoa powder to the shells,
filled with a mixture of chocolate ganache and Nutella, and topped w/hazelnuts.
Basic French Macron Recipe

2/3 c. almond flour (sometimes called meal)
1 1/2 c. powdered sugar
3 egg whites
5 T. granulated sugar
1 t. vanilla extract

Heat oven to 280 degrees and place the racks on the two lowest positions. Cut pieces of parchment paper to fit two cookie sheets perfectly and then make 1-inch circles all over the papers, leaving at least 1/2-inch of space in between circles (I found something in my drawer that looked like an inch and traced it).

Whisk the almond flour and powdered sugar together and set aside.

Place egg whites in the bowl of a mixer and start to mix on med-high. When they start to get frothy, add sugar, 1 T. at a time. Continue to beat until glossy, stiff peaks appear. To test it, pick up the whisk and if the egg whites peak and the top doesn't fall, they are ready. If it falls down, keep mixing. Make sure you don't over mix (it will become clumpy).

Transfer egg whites to a large bowl. Add half of the dry mixture and fold it about a dozen times until just mixed. Fold with a spatula, going up the sides, pushing down the center. Finish mixing the rest of the dry ingredients, being careful to fold and not stir. When you lift your spatula, the mixture should pour off like thick molten lava. If it's not flowing when you lift the spatula, it is too thick and needs more mixing.

Use a piping bag (ziplock bag with the tip cut does not work) with a large round tip. Place it in a large cup and fold over the sides. Pour in half of the mixture and twist the top. Start piping the batter into the circles. The best way to do it is hold just over the pan (not touching) and let the batter come out until the circle is perfectly filled. Then quickly turn your wrist as you lift the tip to try and not leave a tail. Once the first pan is filled, hold the pan with both hands and tap hard on the counter 3 times. Turn the pan so your hands are on the opposite ends and tap again 3 times (helps get any air pockets out and flattens the cookies). Continue until both pans are filled and the rest of the batter is used up. Let them sit on the counter for at least 15 minutes, or until the tops are no longer wet when you touch them.

Place the cookie sheets on the two bottom oven racks. You will have to experiment with the cooking times, but this is what worked for me. Set the timer for 2 minutes and when it rings, open the door to let any humidity escape. Then set the timer for 6 minutes. Once the time is up, change the pans so that the top one is now on the bottom, as well as turn around so the back of the pan is now in the front. Bake for 7 more minutes. To test the doneness, carefully lift the cookie off the sheet. If it comes off the parchment easily, they are done. If the cookie separates in half, bake one more minute, and so on. Cool the macaroons completely before filling.

Use any jam, jelly, buttercream, frosting, chocolate ganache, etc. to fill the middles of the macarons (see below for some recipes I have loved). Try to match up sizes and shapes (easier when your cookies are all symmetrical) as you go. Once they are filled, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days and freeze for up to a month. They are best in the fridge for at least a couple of hours so the filling chills and they meld together a bit. Let them come back to room temperature before serving. If they are frozen, let them thaw completely in their original covered containers to avoid condensation from forming.

These were from my first two batches where the batter was not mixed quite long enough.
They tasted great but were not smooth and round.

Basic Buttercream

7 T. unsalted butter, softened
2 egg yolks
1/4 c. granulated sugar
3 1/2 T. milk
1 t. vanilla extract

Cut butter into pieces and mash with a spatula until the consistency resembles mayonnaise. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks, then add the granulated sugar and whisk until the mixture lightens to an off-white and you can no longer see the granules of sugar. Add the milk, and whisk to combine. Pour the egg mixture into a small saucepan and heat over low, whisking frequently to ensure that the mixture does not curdle or scorch. Cook until the mixture becomes thick and custardy, like pudding. Pour the egg mixture back into its bowl and whisk constantly until it returns to room temperature. Whisk in the butter in three batches, add the vanilla, and stir until smooth and all ingredients are fully combined. Pipe or spread onto one macaron half and sandwich between the other. This basic recipe can be flavored and colored however you'd like.

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