Zhumping on zee — ow you say? — “bandwagon”

Let me just say up front that the irony of this post on the heels of my last post is not lost on me.

Last post: lamenting my inability to lose weight. This post: espousing on the agony and ecstacy that is the macaron. A cookie — and so much more.

I was largely uninitiated in the macaron mystique until my niece became a macaronaholic before Christmas, making dozens and dozens and dozens and DOZENS in an attempt to achieve perfection. Based on the ones she shared with us at Christmas — a glorious assortment of lemon, lime, cherry, and vanilla, each a picture-perfect wonder — she achieved it.

Before that, I had read a bit about the surge in popularity of these pretty little sandwich cookies, but I didn’t understand. I was confusing them with macaroons — those dense, chewy, coconut cookies. Macarons (a French creation) are completely different. Not coconut — almondy, meringuey, chewy — yet light. Yet luscious, usually filled with something wonderful like buttercream frosting. Hard to describe. Easy to love. Gluten-free, so there’s that too.

Also, a little hard to Google, because if you try to search for “French macarons,” Google helpfully switches it to “French macaroons” — at least until it learns better.

Anyway, once I knew about my niece’s obsession, I started doing a little research online and found that macarons have been all the rage for quite some time. Bloggers galore have posted about their attempts, and pastry chefs everywhere have shared their tricks. Me, I just fell in love with the taste and have been wanting to try my hand, despite reading how difficult they are and how any of a dozen little foibles (too much humidity, over-mixing, under-mixing, mixing too fast, mixing too slow, cold eggs, warm eggs, old eggs, new eggs, on and on) can thwart even experienced bakers.

Clearly this macaron obsession is a powerful thing.

For my first attempt, I relied on the method and tips at BraveTart.com — truly a great resource. Howevah, and it’s a big howevah, I wasn’t ready to buy all the tools recommended…e.g, a food scale ($25 on Amazon) to weigh the ingredents rather than relying on the amateur’s way (measuring cups), or a pastry bag and tips for piping out the cookie batter (reverently called “the macaronage”). So, I improvised.

I’m not sure why we have this postal scale that used to be at Mike’s office, but we do. So I used it. I have no idea if it’s accurate, but I figured if I used it to weigh out all the ingredients, at least proportionally everything would be in sync with the recipe.

Also, a pastry bag and tips is not a big investment, but again, I already had this.

Almond flour is a key ingredient, and while I’ve  tried twice now to buy ready-made (Bob’s Red Mill), Wal-Mart has been totally out for well over a week (way to manage inventory, world’s largest retailer). So I made my own by grinding almonds in my food processor — a totally normal thing that many bakers do. Blanched almonds (without any of the brown skin) yield the prettiest result, but blanched, slivered almonds cost a little more than the unblanched, sliced, so I opted for the sliced.

Also, all the recipes call for using a stand mixer with a whip attachment to beat the egg whites into meringue. I just have regular beaters on my mixer, and while I’ve made meringue with no problem, I opted to use my immersion (hand) blender that has a whip instead. It took virtually the same amount of time the recipe called for (like 9 minutes of beating — quite a lot), so I don’t think that was an issue.

Mixing the almond flour-powdered sugar mixture with the meringue to create the macaronage is a crucial step. I think I did OK — at least I think it approximated the description in BraveTart’s recipe. Loading this into my handy Pampered Chef decorator was a bitch — I’ll be springing for a pastry bag. And while it wasn’t easy to pipe out the little rounds of batter, I was happy the batter seemed to be the right consistency and spread and flatten as it was supposed to.

After following BraveTart’s suggestions for whacking the cookie trays on the counter a few times to get any air bubbles out, I was hopeful when I finally got them in the oven. My oven can be set to convection or regular — I chose regular after reading that the fan on the convection can cause the macarons to crack.

I thought I saw the start of “feet” — key to a great macaron. Feet is the name given to a thin layer of airy, sponge-looking cookie that the smooth top rests on. (See the beautiful feet on BraveTart’s photos).

But, alas, feet were not forthcoming.

That thin, airy layer you can see on a few of them should be at least double that size. No cracked ones on this tray, at least. The other tray, below it in the oven, didn’t fare so well. Clearly a product of some oven discrepancy — I’ll have to experiment with that on future batches. I tried the convection setting on the second batch of trays, but cracking was more of a problem. BraveTart recommends adjusting the oven racks to avoid them getting blown on by the fan, so maybe I’ll try that, too. The idea of a convection oven is supposed to be super-even baking, so it seems like it should be ideal for macarons. But so far, not so much.

Also, I experimented with using my silicone baking sheet liners on the first batch and parchment paper on the second. Parchment worked better with less sticking.

In the end, my first-ever macarons turned out flatter than they should have been, and many had cracks. Many were hollow underneath — which I think means they were underbaked. I didn’t achieve perfect, same-size circles — some were downright oval. They were a little tan on top, instead of soft, creamy ecru all over. They had flecks from the almond skin.

So, by now you might be thinking I threw the whole, pitiful batch away.

But here’s the beauty part: Macarons are scrumptious even without feet. Even with cracks and speckles and a suntan. Even without perfectly matched tops and bottoms.

Even more beauty: They get better over time! Store them in the fridge (for up to a week) and they’ll mature into even greater lusciousness.

I soldiered on.

Instead of the classic buttercream filling usually called for, I used a different chocolate frosting recipe from the can of cocoa — one that didn’t require a mixer. Seriously, considering the state of my kitchen, and that I’d been at this for almost two hours and it was now dinnertime, I wasn’t willing to dirty another appliance. (And this shot was after I put the food processor away.)

Soooo, after all that, with my first macaron effort — and a few of the tasty results — happily under my belt, I’m still hooked. I’ll try again, tweak a few things, and strive for prettier, more classic cookies. I’ll try other flavors and colors. I’ll go for the real buttercream and experiment with some other fillings, too. But I’m sure not complaining…except maybe about those 5 lbs. I can’t seem to lose.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
~ Samuel Beckett 

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6 Comments

  1. mel said,

    Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 9:08 am

    How amusing to me that you wrote this, and I just discovered these little darlings last Saturday morning!

    There is an exquisite bakery in Millvale, PA (of all places!)—a French bakery, masterminded by one Frenchman Jean-Marc Chatellier, and he has triumphed over all macarons. I tried the caramel, the espresso, and the vibrant purple PBJ flavor. All were melt-in-your-mouth fab.

    If you’re too lazy or unequipped to make your own (as am I), I highly recommend Jean-Marc’s. They ain’t cheap, baby—but bliss rarely is.

    • WritingbyEar said,

      Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 9:43 am

      Mel, I’ve heard the going rate in Pittsburgh is $2 each — how does Jean-Marc’s compare to that? Thanks for the tip — I rarely go by Millvale anymore, but it sounds like it’s worth the trip just for that.

  2. robbie said,

    Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    I think you’ve answered your problem from the last post. I’ll help you with that problem if any of these delectables are around on Saturday!

    • WritingbyEar said,

      Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm

      I am exercising supreme restraint to ensure there are a few left for Saturday — oh, wait, does that count as EXERCISE!? Even better…

  3. WritingbyEar said,

    Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    My niece is sharing her macarons secrets with the world…take a look. (She is a runner, so can afford to eat way more macarons than I can!)

    http://runninggen.blogspot.com/2012/01/absolutely-off-topic-macarons.html

  4. mel said,

    Friday, January 20, 2012 at 10:02 am

    I believe Jean-Marc’s are $1.35 per.

    (The price forces one to exercise discipline and self-control, so that’s good.)


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