This past fall I made about five full attempts at macarons, trying to achieve the perfect appearance and deliciousness of Pierre Hermé's creations. I'm happy to report that by the last couple of tries I was pleased with the results, and so it seems like a good time to document what I've learned.
Let's take a step back at this point and talk about what a macaron is and the desirable qualities therein. It is a sandwich cookie with two light "shells" that are made of a nut powder (usually almond, hazelnut is also an option) and a meringue (egg whites and sugar). The filling is most commonly either a ganache or a buttercream, with flavors limited only to the baker's imagination. Bits of fruit, jelly or nuts can also make their way into the middle of the macaron.
In appearance, the shells should be smooth and rounded, with frilly 'feet' around their bottom, and are often colored to match the filling's flavor. The filling should be a rounded disc about as thick as each shell. The texture of the shell is crumbly, airy, and only slightly chewy, and its flavor is mild, with the filling taking center stage ("melts in the mouth" is a common report). Some complain that a lot of the macarons they've had are too sweet. This gripe has honestly never occurred to me.
Why do macarons inspire obsession? I think it's a combination of the difficulty in their preparation, the dazzling appearance of a multicolored selection, and the multitude of flavors that can be incorporated.
As I indicated last time, I've considered a number of recipe sources in my quest. The list has grown to this (and here I'm really talking about shell recipes):
- A la Cuisine
- David Lebovitz (chocolate shells)
- Pierre Hermé from a restaurant industry magazine
- Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé (I transcribed this using Amazon Reader before buying the book)
- Syrup and Tang: a thorough consideration of techniques and variables as well as a recipe
- Nicole Kaplan's "macaroons a la pierre herme", as posted on eGullet. Kaplan is a renowned pastry chef who has worked in Hermé's kitchen, as well as Eleven Madison Park and Del Posto.
- The Sweet Life by Kate Zuckerman - not available online.
- eGullet member JGarner
- Pierre Hermé from his book PH10, translated and transcribed on eGullet (the book costs about $270 and is only available in French).
My plan for the bulk of this project is to go patiently through the macaron-making process, explaining all the different ideas that I and others have tried, what you may encounter, and what I've found to work best. But for now I'd like to expend some text on recipe comparison.
After initially combining the Pierre Hermé restaurant industry mag and The Sweet Life recipes, I started to agonize over which one to try next. I didn't want to end up doing the same thing, without realizing it due to different wording or measurement conventions. I decided on two key variables that determine how a shell recipe is going to work. First, the type of meringue. Second, the proportions of sugar, egg white, and almond flour.
Almost all the recipes start by mixing the almond flour with some confectioner's sugar. Then the meringue is prepared by beating the egg whites and adding some other sugar. Finally the almond mixture (sometimes known as 'tant pour tant', or TPT) is folded into the meringue to complete the dough/batter.
The following table attempts to condense all the recipes into an easily compared form by converting measurements to proportions. Where some cocoa powder was used, I've treated it as confectioner's sugar, since they are texturally similar.
(Definition aside: an Italian meringue is made by pouring boiling liquid sugar onto whipped egg whites while continuing to whip them. This supposedly cooks the whites, and makes them very glossy. A French meringue is made by gradually adding confectioner's sugar to the whites as they are beaten.)
|Recipe||almond||conf. sugar||egg white||meringue sugar||meringue type|
|A La Cuisine||2.66||3.33||1.0||0.66||french|
|Syrup & Tang||1.35||1.35||1.0||1.35||italian*|
|*Some unwhipped whites added straight to TPT|
|*Some unwhipped whites added straight to mixed batter|
|*Half of whites added unbeaten to mixed batter|
After making this table and reading the eGullet thread a dozen times I decided that 1.33/1.33/1.0/1.33 and Italian meringue represented a sweet spot of Hermé-ness. However when I tried the variation of adding some unbeaten egg whites to the batter, I found that it contained a fatal flaw that still baffles me. What I ended up succeeding with is therefore closest to Nicole Kaplan's recipe, though I pulled technique tips from many other sources. I didn't try all of the others, so they may well work just fine.
In the next post we'll dive into the devilish details of this fickle concoction.