Airy, tender, chewy, ethereally sweet, a good French macaron is one of the few desserts I am always in the mood for. Until a couple of weeks ago, I never contemplated making them on my own. They have a notorious reputation as finicky, fussy, requiring the right level of humidity and arrogance to pull off. I am a throw-everything-in-the-pot, figure-it-out-as-you go cook. I like breads and pie because they’re playful baking. You can squiggle things around. Macarons? They seemed like the holy grail of the science-minded, detail-oriented baking which is my kryptonite.
But then my friend decided we should make macarons to bring to a dinner and it went just about perfectly and I was inspired. Sure, she’s a pastry chef, but whatever. I had helped make a great batch–or at least, watched closely as she did. I could do this. The recipe she used was reassuringly un-fussy and backed by absolute truck-tons of Q&A, and developed by Stella Parks, a pastry chef who’s now a senior editor at my beloved Serious Eats. I’d seen it in action. It was a trustworthy recipe. I set aside an entire day and got to work.
Here is the thing about macarons. They sound pretty easy to make.
Step 1: Make a stiff meringue using egg whites, sugar, salt.
Step 2: Aggressively fold in a well-sifted dry mix of almond flour and powdered sugar. The batter should be “molten”: visible peaks should slowly melt back into the rest.
Step 3: Pipe into cute little circles on parchment, and bake at 300 for not quite 20 minutes.
And yet. I made five separate batches over the course of the day. I got three half-sheet pans full of cookies from each batch. Of those 15 trays, three were keepers. THREE. That makes my success rate, what, 20%? That’s not even “F” grade bad. That’s, like, “go to summer school and we won’t speak of this again” bad.
You may be thinking, Well, Margaret, at least you learned something! What was so different about those three successful trays? BUT I DON’T KNOW. Of the three successful trays, one was the only success in its batch, and truly came out almost perfect (the other two trays of the same batch? flat as pancakes). The other two successful trays were from my last batch of the day, the one that should have been the most challenging because I added extra ingredients to the meringue. (Gel coloring and flavor extract; at this point, I was like, who cares. If I’m going to fail, it might as well be pretty.)
In order to describe my failure, let me describe success. The meringues should come out of the oven perhaps a warmer color than the white they went in, but not brown. They should peel cleanly off the parchment when done (a handy way to test if they are done). They should rise into cute fat little domes with a separate ridge around the bottom. The ridges are called “feet” and they are highly desirable for some reason. They should be smooth and glossy. When broken open, they should have a consistent lacy internal structure. When eaten, they should at first have a lightly crisp texture, followed by a toothsome chew. After a day or two of aging they should be more universally chewy but still disappearingly light.
So, failure. Completely flat cookies. Slightly risen cookies, but with no feet. Cookies with okay rise and feet but cracked surfaces. Cookies with uneven or hollow internal structure. Cookies that are crunchy rather than crisp-tender. Brown cookies.
A few of the failures had clear reasons. One batch was for sure overmixed: although I thought I had that molten consistency perfect, it had gone too far. Overmixed batter will not rise. Another batch may have been overmixed as well, but that was subject to a different overriding problem that ruined two whole batches. My oven thermometer, which I was being so careful to use to avoid relying on the perhaps inaccurate oven dial, was–wait for it–inaccurate. By about 30 degrees. The macarons will not rise in a too-cool oven. That was my first incoherent rage-scream of the day (but by no means my last, gentle reader).
I will break down the basic recipe with my lessons learned or questions raised. Mostly the latter.
- Sift together twice as much confectioner’s sugar as almond flour (8oz and 4oz).
- When I made this recipe with my pastry chef friend, we used almond flour made from whole almonds. Pushing this through the sieve was something that was “interesting” to do once. Had I had to do this for each of my own five batches, I would have been a puddle of tears by #2. Fortunately, Costco had a big bag of superfine flour made from blanched almonds and that was easy peasy. Get that stuff.
- I threw in a couple teaspoons of ground cardamom into three of my batches at this stage. You’re not supposed to add liquid flavoring/color to the meringues until you’ve nailed down the recipe, but after a bit of research, it looked like this might be a safe way to play. My hands-down best tray was from one of these batches, so I think it was fine.
- Beat a very, very stiff meringue from twice as much egg white as granulated sugar, plus a touch of salt (5oz, 2.5oz, half a teaspoon).
- Beat for 10 minutes total, at increasing speed: 3 min @ medium-low, 3 min @ medium-high, 3 min @ high.
- Add any extracts or color at this stage, but regardless, beat for another minute on high “to show it who’s boss,” as Stella says. The meringue will be clumping inside the whisk at this point.
- I never had trouble making a good stiff meringue. Fat lot of good it did me. In my research, I have now found that perhaps beating my meringue a tad less might help with the hollowness issue. I was worried that my 325 watt, 5-quart stand mixer would not do as good a job as my friend’s larger model, but that was no problem at all.
- There are many macaron mystics who claim that the age of the egg and the temperature are critical. Stella dismisses this. I left my eggs on the counter all day as I went. Cold egg whites, from my hopeful morning, seemed to perform just the same in the meringue as room temp ones in the late afternoon, as I was sinking into despair.
- During round one with my pastry chef BFF, we ran into trouble trying to use liquid egg whites and had to switch to separated whole eggs. The liquid ones may have been over-pasteurized, so watch out for that.
- Dump the almond flour/sugar mixture in all at once. Fold into the meringue. You’re trying to deflate the meringue, not preserve it, so fold the heck out of it.
- 40 strokes is what Stella recommends. Apparently I am aggressive? Or something? Because my 40 strokes were definitely too many. I found it took more like 25ish for me to get to the right place: when dropped onto itself, the batter would hold its shape briefly. It would ooze back to near-formlessness after about thirty seconds.
- I really don’t know how you adjust for this. Slightly under-mixing the batter led to predictable results for the first trays of the batch I piped (cookies that retained their little peaks–let’s be honest, they look like nipples–even after resting and baking). However, it resulted in PERFECT texture for the last tray of the batches in question: smooth, glossy, risen domes with nary a nipple in sight.
- As the batter rests, and as it gets scooped into a pastry bag and piped out, it continues to develop. That’s why the last slightly under-mixed stuff to be piped worked so well. How can you possibly pipe all of the batch at the same time? I could let the whole batch rest longer, okay. Then the first piping bag full might be good. But the last two or three definitely would then be over-mixed. (See above, viz. rage-screaming.) This was also an issue that my pastry chef friend ran into, and it matters the least of all the failures–so it’s definitely the lowest rung on my ladder of concerns–but still. STILL.
- Pipe onto parchment-lined baking sheets.
- Just breaking this out to share my friend’s method for this, which I really like. As opposed to trying to pipe in a circle, which is tough, simply pipe straight down for a consistent length of time. The batter will spread to make circles. Like, count 1-2-3 as the batter comes out. If you use consistent pressure and time you will get perfectly matched cookies. Piping fifteen trays of meringue cookies did really improve my piping skills, I will say.
- Bake at 300F for 18 minutes, or until the cookies peel easily away from the parchment.
- Honestly, between my villainous thermometer and my verging-on-antique oven, I’m not sure I can say that I ever baked at exactly 300. I did find that erring on the side of too hot was preferable to too cool.
- Colored macarons are apparently harder to get the timing right for. They can take up to twice as long to bake. It is true that the first tray of my only colored batch never passed the “done” test–but it’s also true that leaving them in for an extra ten minutes resulted in waaaay overdone cookies (although I was using professional color that should be heat-proof, these also went from rosy pink to yucky brown). It was the only tray I actually threw out. The subsequent two trays also did not peel up cleanly when warm, but I took them out at 18 minutes anyway; when cool, they did peel up just fine. They were even a bit over-done, but with my oven temp being so effing mysterious, I can’t really blame the recipe for that.
- For reference, I used 3 drops of gel fool coloring and two teaspoons of raspberry extract in this batch, within the parameters Stella gives for her flavored versions.
- Fill and enjoy! Buttercream, fruit curds, jams, alone or in combination with each other–the options are truly endless. They are best once they have been filled and rested in the fridge for a couple days, giving the meringue a chance to absorb some moisture from the filling and achieve that luscious texture.
- I chose two different combos for the few of mine that qualified for filling: (1) Cardamom meringue with orange flower and almond buttercream; and (2) raspberry meringue with raspberry buttercream and lemon curd. For the batch I made with my friend, we chose hazelnut buttercream with a Nutella center sandwiched in plain meringue.
The diversity of macarons is actually what appeals to me so much about them. The process may be exacting, but the flavors can be so playful. That’s why I will–at some point–make these again.
But not, like, for a while.