There are so many recipes for macarons out there, and so much conflicting advice, that it was hard to decide where to start. After only six batches of macarons (and three fails), I couldn’t claim to be a great deal wiser about what method is best, but I will say that the last batch I made were really good, so I’m beginning to get it, whatever ‘it’ is. I would say that I know what to look for while I’m making them and know by looking at them before they go in the oven if they’ll be a success or not. All that said, I’ve never tried proper macarons made by a professional so I guess even the very best batch could still have been wrong. I’m getting ahead of myself, though; let’s go back to the beginning.
I settled on this recipe at Giverslog for guidance, as it was aimed at first time macaron makers, and was written in a really gently, user-friendly way with lots of reassurance and useful hints. This is not the only site I looked at, by any means, but this is the one I stuck with. Even though macarons are notoriously tricksy and you’re supposed to stick like glue to the recipe you’re following, I went a little off-piste. Here is the recipe I went with to achieve my lavender macarons, based heavily on AmberLee’s, which in turn is based on Martha Stewart’s… This will make 10 macarons (20 shells) plus two extra shells for testing:
- 4 1/2 oz icing sugar
- 2 1/2 oz flaked almonds
- 2 large egg whites, room temperature (most recipes suggest that you age the egg whites, but my best batch relied on eggs that had just been brought to room temperature the morning of baking)
- 1 1/2 oz caster sugar
- red and blue food colouring
Now for that elusive method. I’ll do my best to describe it but it’s something you can’t really learn from a recipe, like most cooking and baking I suppose. But more.
- Mix icing sugar and almond flakes in a food processor or grinder until fine and combined. Sift mixture into a bowl. This was the worst part of the process for me – I rarely sift anything while I’m baking, but for recipes with no raising agent you need all the air you can get into the mix, so I obeyed the rules on this occasion. It took bloomin ages.
- Make sure you have everything for the rest of the recipe ready. Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper and position them in a clear space on your worktop, so that you can easily get to them and so that they can safely rest there for a while before going in the oven. Nowhere near the skink, where they might get splashed, or on a rollercoaster, or down a well. Nothing like that. Make the paper as flat as you can, because this will affect the shape of the macarons; it there is a slight incline, for example where you’ve wrapped the paper round the edge of the tray, this will spoil the final result. Trim the paper to fit exactly inside the baking sheet. Have a piping bag fitted with the largest plain or star tip ready to use. I found that it was important to keep going once I’d started, or the macarons came out flat. I also learned, by trying to do it twice, that you can’t split one batch into two to colour them differently. The second batch just doesn’t bake up nicely, presumably because of the air you lose in the egg whites while you’re working with the first batch. Here are some photos to show an unsuccessful second batch, before and after baking:
- Whisk whites in a large, clean bowl with a hand mixer on medium speed until soft peaks form. Reduce speed to low, then add caster sugar. Increase speed to high, and whisk until stiff, glossy peaks form. It’s important that the bowl is clean and that there isn’t even a hint of egg yolk in with the whites, or they won’t form stiff peaks. Add your food colouring about half way through mixing the whites, so that you don’t over mix in the next step as you try to get the colour right. I used the red colour paste I’d bought for red velvet whoopie pies, and only needed a tiny amount compared to the two capfuls of blue liquid colouring I added. I just dipped a cocktail stick in the red paste and then dipped this into the whites. You don’t have to colour them at all but I think that’s part of the fun.
- Sift flour mixture over whites – argh, more dratted sifting! – and fold until mixture is smooth and shiny. This really is the crucial stage, because if you over fold the mixture it will be too runny and won’t form lovely round, deep macaron shells. You will get perfectly edible and enjoyable meringue biscuit type things, but it’s not the same. So my advice would be this:
- Fold with a spatula until the egg whites and flour have just combined and there are no more lumps and bumps. At first it looks like this will not happen, and it always breaks my heart a little to fold flour into egg whites and see the air disappear out of them like a bouncy castle that’s been invaded by men in golf shoes. Still, there’s nothing else for it.
- Continue folding, but very slowly and gently. Every two folds (yes, that often), lift the spatula and watch what happens to the mix as it drops back into the bowl. For one thing, you want it to fall in a smooth ribbon. For another, when it lands back in the bowl, you want the edges of that ribbon to almost immediately disappear back into the rest of the mix, while the middle of the ribbon takes a little longer. After several seconds, the ribbon will be gone altogether, absorbed back into the contents of the bowl, but it should put up a bit of a fight first. The disappearing edges were the key landmark for me. The classic description is ‘flows like lava’. It’s ridiculous, but when you see it, you know it. It’s less burny and carries far less devastation with it, right enough. If you’re not sure if it’s enough like lava, it probably is; remember that you still have to get it from bowl to piping bag and this will thin it out a little en route.
- Transfer batter to the piping bag. Most recipes advise a plain tip, but I used a star tip and still achieved round macarons, so I wouldn’t worry if that’s all you have. I could feel you worrying, out there. Don’t. I found that the best thing to do was to fold the tip of the bag up and hold it in place while I filled the bag, so that the lava-esque batter couldn’t escape while I was still filling the bag. It will flow out slowly of its own accord so watch out for that. Get as much of the batter into the dead centre of the bag as you can, because it’s pretty sticky and difficult to encourage off the sides of the bag once it’s there.
- Unfold the nozzle of the piping bag and coax the batter so that you can see it beginning its final descent. Position the tip of the bag close to the parchment-lined baking sheet and gently squeeze, counting to five. Stop squeezing, lift the bag till a tiny point forms then, quickly and confidently, move the tip along about three inches and pipe the next macaron. The batter will not stop flowing as you move the bag, unlike with buttercream, so you do have to be ready for it. There has to be a gap between the shells or they’ll merge and the shape will be ruined; likewise if the batter touches the parchment and you continue to move the bag, you’ll get oblongs. It’s not the end of the world if you have oblongs, of course, but it’s not what you’re aiming for. Pipe eleven rounds on each sheet, carefully turning the nozzle back upwards again between sheets to avoid making a trail between the two.
- Let the macarons sit at room temperature for half an hour or so. There is yet more debate over this stage; some people say it’s altogether unnecessary, some say that you need to leave them to set for hours. I went with 30 – 45 minutes and they worked out alright. Once the time is up, heat your oven to 135C. I know this is extremely low, but with my oven I found the tops of the macarons browning even at 140C. Your oven will be different, of course, so as with all the steps of this recipe you might have to experiment a bit. When the oven’s ready, bake the macarons on the middle shelf for seven minutes, then rotate the sheet and bake for a further 7 minutes. It’s so hard to check them to see if they’re done; the best advice I can give is to try and make one extra shell for each sheet so that you can check them. As I understand it, you want them to be a little chewy in the centre but not too much, and it’s better to have them over baked rather than under. The reason for this is that when you fill them (with buttercream or jam) and let them mature, they will absorb some of the moisture from the filling. Another thing you have to play around with. They’re finicky, there’s no doubt about it.
- Take the macarons out of the oven and let them cool on the sheets 5 – 10 minutes, then *gently* peel off and transfer to a wire rack. Pair the shells up into equal couples and then fill with buttercream, jam or I rather suspect a thick mousse would be kind of delicious.
- To make lavender buttercream, infuse 100g icing sugar for 24 hours with 1tbsp of lavender, available from the herbs and spices sections of bigger supermarkets. I got mine in Waitrose, fancy place that it is. When you’re ready to make the buttercream, process the icing sugar in a food processor or blender, then sieve (MORE SIEVING!) into a bowl with 50g of room temperature butter. Combine with a hand mixer until thick and buttercreamy. Use the same food colourings as the macarons, but go for a darker or lighter shade for contrast.
- Fill the macarons very carefully to avoid cracking them. It would be best to use a piping bag but a) I only have one and I’d already done a lot of washing up during the whole High Tea prep session and b) I was making such small amounts of each buttercream that it wasn’t enough to put in a piping bag. Instead, I used a teaspoon to place buttercream in the centre of the bottom shell, then spread it evenly right the way to the edges, so that it could be seen once the two shells were sandwiched. This was made much easier by having a small bowl of piping hot water on hand, and dipping the metal teaspoon in it between spreads. This melted and softened the surface of the buttercream to allow it to be neatly shaped, and also made it easier to stick the two shells together without pressing down.
Et voila! There you have macarons, so pretty to look at and so crisp on the outside yet chewy and sweet in the middle. I think there’s a benefit to making them a day or two ahead, and apparently freezing them is an option, too. I’ll definitely make them again… just not for a while, OK?