Thursday, January 19, 2012

Absolutely Off Topic - Macarons

Yes, this is a running blog that I've been sadly neglecting.  Yes, I'm still running (more about that in another post).  Yes, this is a wildly off topic post.  BUT, it's also full on awesomesauce because, loyal readers, I'm going to share with you the secrets of macarons.  Not coconut macaroons, but French macarons, the stuff of daydreams and indulgence.  These babies usually sell for about $2 a cookie, so it pays to be able to make your own.  And people are ridiculously impressed with them.  Take a plate to your next pot luck and people will seriously worship you for the pastry goddess/god you know you'd love to be.  So, enjoy the fabulousness of macarons.  And then go run a few miles because they aren't low fat or paleo or anything other than purely and indulgently fabulous (they are, however, gluten free, so, you're welcome!).


(Makes 18-24 assembled cookies, depending on size)

For the cookies:
1 ½  C (6oz/185g) confectioner’s sugar
1 ¼  C (5oz/140g) blanched almonds or almond flour
3 large egg whites
Pinch salt
¼ C (2oz/60g) granulated sugar
½ tsp flavored extract of your choice
Gel paste for coloring (optional – Wilton’s cake dye works well)
Sanding sugar (optional)

For the filling:
1 C (8oz/250g) unsalted butter, at room temp
¾ C (3oz/93g) confectioner’s sugar
1 ½ tsp extract of your choice

Tools needed:
·         Pastry bag with ½-inch round tip (or, you can cut the end off of a disposable pastry bag, which works just as well, or just don’t use a tip with a reusable bag, since the opening is about the right size.  In a pinch you can cut the corner off a zip lock freezer bag, but you won’t have quite as much control over the size of the cookies and they might not be perfectly round)
·         Baking parchment (this is key, it’s a big pain in the butt to make these without parchment)
·         Electric mixer (you can whip the meringue with a manual egg beater, but you may die in the process)
·         Food processor (you need this if you don’t buy ground almond meal (and if you do get the ground stuff, splurge on Bob’s Red Mill from Whole Foods, the Trader Joe’s almond meal is too coarse and doesn’t give as good of results)
·         Sifter or sieve  (absolutely key – I use a sieve and it works fine)

A note about macarons
Macarons have a reputation for being kind of fiddly and difficult to make.  There’s a lot of myth around them, and a lot of mysticism, none of which I knew when I decided to make them.  With a few exceptions (when I got a little too creative with the recipe), they’ve always turned out well for me.  If you want to read more about macarons, has a wonderful bunch of entries about macaron commandments and myths.  I haven’t actually had as much success with her recipe as I have with the one here, but her technique suggestions have been invaluable.  I’ve included weights as well as volume measurements since weighing is the best way to get really consistent results.  The biggest thing about macarons is that even if they come out cracked or undercooked, they still taste pretty fabulous, so don’t let fear of messing them up stop you from making them!

 For the cookies (oven at 325F)

1.       If you’re grinding your own almonds, put the almonds and confectioner’s sugar in a food processer and process for 1 minute.  If you’re using ground almonds, just wisk them together with the confectioner’s sugar.  Sift into a bowl, and if you have any large pieces that won’t go through the sieve, put them back in the food processor for another 30 seconds, then sift again.  You should have no more than 2 Tbsp of chunkier bits, and you can just throw them in (too many chunky bits, and your macarons will crack, since they’ll be like little pieces of shrapnel).
2.       In a clean large bowl on medium high speed, beat the egg whites until they form a dense foam (myth has it that you should use room temperature egg whites that have been left out for a few days – totally unnecessary, though room temp eggs do separate more easily.  And remember, if you get yolk or other grease in the egg whites, they won’t make meringue, so separate them carefully).  Add the salt and granulated sugar.  Beat until stiff, glossy peaks form, 3-4 minutes.  Add the extract flavoring of your choice and the food coloring and beat until combined.
3.       Using a rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture into the meringue in three batches.  You want to deflate the meringue a bit, so you fold and kind of press against the side of the bowl.  Undermixed macaronage will be too stiff and won’t spread properly, and will probably crack, overmixed will spread too much.  The consistency should be like magma – fluid, but no runny.  If you take a spoonful out and plop it back on top of the batter, it should reincorporate back in in maybe 30 seconds.  If it just sits on top, mix a few more strokes and try again (the bravetart blog has some good advice on this).
4.       Cut 3-4 pieces of baking parchment the size of your cookie sheets.  Using a pastry bag, pipe the macaronage into 1 ½ inch circles about an inch apart (if you’re afraid they’ll all be different sizes, you can use a stencil to draw circles on the parchment, then flip it over so you don’t get ink or pencil on your cookies and fill them in, stopping right before the margins of the circle, since the cookies will spread a little).  If your little circles don’t flatten out and have a little peak, like a Hershey’s kiss, your macaronage isn’t mixed enough.  If you want, you can sprinkle sanding sugar on top at this point.  Strictly speaking, this isn’t traditional, but it can hide cracks if you’re worried about that, and give a little extra crunch (my mom is a fan of this –s he was pretty bummed I didn’t put sugar on top of these ones).
5.       At this point, slide your cookie sheets under the parchment and smack the cookies sheet, cookies and all, hard on the counter a couple of times.  Turn the cookie sheet 90 degrees and smack it a couple more times on the counter.  This moves the air bubbles out of the cookies and helps keep them from cracking.  Traditionally, you’re supposed to let the cookies sit for an hour to form a skin on top, to further protect against cracking, but I’ve found this to be pretty unnecessary, so go ahead and pop that first sheet in if you’re so inclined (you won’t hurt them by waiting, but you don’t have to).
6.       Bake for 12-15 minutes, depending on your oven.  Overcooked is better than undercooked if you have to make a choice.  They should peel fairly easily off the parchment when cooled, so if they stick and the bottoms come off, make a note and try cooking a minute longer next time (I cook mine for 15 minutes, and the smaller ones pull off leaving nothing behind at that cooking time).  If you can, cool completely before taking them off the parchment, and you can use a small metal spatula if you want (though it’s not usually necessary).  I get the best results cooking one sheet at a time on the middle rack.  If your cookies are sticking to the parchment paper, I found it helpful to pick up the cookie and then “flick” the parchment with your index finger, which helps remove it quickly without leaving a lot of cookie behind.

 For the filling and assembly:
1.       Beat confectioner’s sugar and butter in a large bowl on medium speed until just combined, then increase speed to high and beat until light and fluffy.   Add the extract of your choice and food coloring (if desired) and beat until combined.
2.       Using a small rubber spatula or spoon, spread the filling on upturned cookie.  Find another that’s about the same size and sandwich them together.  My husband thinks I should match them all up in advance, since invariably I end up with one very small half and one very large one at the end (which I think is fine, since I just eat that one).  This recipe makes a bit more buttercream that you need (usually) so don’t feel like you have to be stingy with it.
3.       The finished macarons should be stored in the fridge in an air tight container for about 24 hours before you serve them.  Get them out an hour or two before you want to serve them to let the buttercream warm up a bit.  These are noticeably better the second day, so it pays to plan ahead.  You can store these in an air tight container in the freezer for a couple of months, just be sure to thaw in the container, since they’ll get soggy otherwise.