I decided to make French macarons for some of my Christmas presents this year.
They’re a bit of a luxury to buy (but so delicious!) since most bakeries price them as though they’re big cookies even though they’re about an inch or so wide and composed largely of air, but as far as baking them goes, their ingredients cost about the same as any other cookie (unless you want to make fancy flavors using imported ingredients). What you’re paying for at the bakery is the cost of labor and expertise, as these cookies take a bit of planning and time to make, and you’re not likely to end up with an entire batch of picture-perfect cookies on your first try. Or your second or third.
As it is, I ended up with a few pretty cookies (that still wouldn’t pass for bakery-quality) and a bunch with cracked tops or irregular shapes that I gifted anyway because they tasted good and there’s no sense in letting a perfectly good cookie go to waste just because it’s not pretty enough.
Since you’re supposed to let the egg whites sit out overnight for these cookies (supposedly to let them thicken so that the macarons will be less fragile), I prepared enough egg whites for four batches in fear of my completely ruining my first attempts and not having enough time to prepare more egg whites for additional attempts. Since my first batch turned out roughly ok (meaning they tasted good but looked nothing like what they were supposed to look like), I decided to try a triple batch of another recipe so that the remaining egg whites wouldn’t go to waste. After both of my first attempts, I read Brave Tart’s argument for not needing to age the egg whites at all, so next time I make macarons I probably won’t even bother with this step. In fact, I’ll probably try her recipe since her Macaron Mythbusters article leads me to believe her recipe would probably be even easier to follow than the others I tried so far.
I actually liked the second recipe better than the first, possibly because I corrected a few things from my attempt at the first recipe. So, for your reference, here are the recipes I tried (both use American cooking measurements instead of metric weights, which was a must for me since I don’t have a cooking scale):
- First try for the cookies: A La Cuisine’s basic macaron batter
- Second try for the cookies: David Lebovitz’s chocolate macaron batter (much easier and much more successful)
- Chocolate ganache filling: I created variations on Serious Eats’ recipe
And here are a few other sites I found useful in my research:
- Brave Tart debunks several macaron myths, thus making it easier for the rest of us to make macarons. Yay!
- Serious Eats gives extremely useful tips and a number of links to other recipes (which was how I found the recipes I used)
- Macaron Fetish includes a link to a useful video to watch for the macaronage process (folding the ingredients together until they’re the right consistency). Also I would LOVE to try the cappuccino coffee macaron recipe someday once I have a kitchen scale.
- Bakerella explains how to make your own almond flour using a food processor (which will save you a lot of money and time since almond flour is a bit pricey and difficult to find).
- Pinterest.com is extremely useful in finding recipes (I think I found most of the sites listed in this post on that site), as recipes for macarons are a pretty popular topic on that site AND more importantly, you can see pictures of everything before looking further. I like searching with pictures.
And now for the step-by-step process photos! I’m including photos from both of my attempts and tips based on what worked and didn’t work for me.
Ingredients: Refer to the recipes linked earlier in this post to determine what you prefer to try. I recommend trying David Lebovitz’s recipe.
I originally read that at least a day before you plan to bake, you should separate the egg whites for the recipe and leave them sitting out at room temperature until you plan to bake. This allows the egg whites to thicken so that the cookies will be less fragile upon baking. However, as I mentioned earlier, this might not actually be necessary. So if you’re feeling adventurous and impatient, consider skipping this step.
If you’re not feeling so adventurous and you think you might make multiple attempts, I recommend leaving out a cup of egg whites for each attempt. I went a little overboard and planned for four attempts (and just did a triple batch of cookies as my second attempt).
Make the almond flour. I couldn’t find almond flour at the grocery store and only found extremely large quantities of it online, but after a bit more research discovered you can make it yourself with a food processor. Doing this, you can use any type of almonds you want (or for that matter you could use any nut ground up for the flour, maybe even a nut alternative if you’re making macarons for someone with nut allergies). I had blanched slivered almonds, so I used those. Two 8 oz bags were more than enough for four batches of cookies.
If you make your own almond flour, there’s a good chance it will still have some moisture from the almonds in it and will clump as a result. You don’t want your almond flour to clump because then you’ll be able to see little lumps in the otherwise smooth surface of your macarons. A La Cuisine recommends spreading the dry ingredients on a baking sheet in the oven on low heat to dry them out. Unfortunately I didn’t realize my ground almonds still had moisture in them and skipped this step, so this made some of the later steps more difficult and made my macarons more lumpy. Drying the almond flour is another myth that Brave Tart debunks, but having seen the visible lumps in my batter, I’m a little skeptical. Perhaps that’s just an indication of my macaronage skills needing to be polished, though.
Before making your macaron batter, line a few (maybe 3 or so for a single batch) cookie sheets with parchment paper and use a pencil to draw 1 inch circles about an inch or so apart on the backside of the paper (you don’t want your cookies to touch the graphite). Make sure you do this before starting the batter so that you’ll be ready to squeeze out your macaron batter right when it’s the right consistency. If you want consistently shaped and sized cookies, I recommend not skipping this step, at least for your first couple of times of making macarons.
Measure all of your dry ingredients into a food processor and pulse it a few times to mix everything together and fluff it up (you want the dry ingredients to be light and fluffy, not packed together).
Some recipes call for passing your almond flour through a strainer. I’m guessing this would help to ensure you have very fine, smooth cookies, but I don’t recommend doing this as it was VERY difficult and time-consuming (I did it for my first attempt, then switched to the food processor for my second attempt) and the food processor method of fluffing everything was much more effective.
Beat the egg whites on high speed until they’re foamy and form peaks. If you’re making a single batch of macarons, don’t use your largest mixing bowl, as you’ll have too much surface area for the volume of liquid and it will be difficult to beat the eggs effectively. Again, Brave Tart determined that this step wasn’t necessary for her and actually bypassing it made her more consistent and thus possibly more successful in making macarons, so next time I might try to just dump the sugar into the egg whites from the start. It would certainly be much easier!
Gradually add the sugar (like I said, I might instead add it all at once next time), continuing to beat on high speed until the mixture forms stiff peaks that mostly hold their shape when you lift the beater out of the mixture.
Using a soft rubber spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the wet mixture until they form a “magma-like” consistency. What is a “magma-like” consistency, you might wonder? I did. It’s when the mixture is thick enough that when you form a peak, it will briefly hold the peak but then sink back into a mostly-smooth surface within about thirty seconds. I recommend watching the 3:50-5:12 segment of this video first (Note: it is in french, but you should get the idea from just watching), as it gave me a good idea of the technique. If only I had a rubber spatula like theirs! I only had a long-handled one, which felt a bit more awkward for this type of folding/mixing, but it worked well enough.
Technique is supposed to be very important for this step (although I’m sure I didn’t get it right in my first attempts). This was what my mixture looked like when I was done (note the lumps in the otherwise smooth batter from my using not-entirely-dry almond flour).
Use a pastry bag with about a half-inch plain round tip to squeeze the batter onto the circles you drew on the parchment paper. You can cut the tip off of the pastry bag if you don’t have a large enough tip attachment (I don’t), or you can use a ziplock baggie with the corner cut off if you don’t have pastry bags.
However, I strongly recommend at least using pastry bags with the tip cut off, as the shape of ziplock bags (a right angle to the corner instead of a sharper angle to the corner) makes it more difficult to control the batter coming out and MUCH easier to accidentally cut off too much of the corner of the baggie and have way too much batter come out. As I mentioned before, I also recommend not skipping the step to draw the circles on the backside of the parchment paper (at least, if you’re new to making macarons), as they made it much easier for me to evenly size, shape, and separate the macarons in my first batch. I skipped this step on my second batch, and between that and using the more-difficult-to-control ziplock baggie method, I ended up with a very wide range of sizes and shapes of cookies, and a few cookies that spread and melded together on baking.
Tap the bottom of each cookie sheet on the counter to get rid of any air bubbles in the cookies. Some recipes recommend that you let the cookies sit for thirty minutes to an hour before baking them so that a film will form on the surface and a “foot” (or rather, a less-smooth band at the bottom of the cookie that forms when the cookie rises and the smooth surface simply lifts instead of expanding) will form under the cookies when they bake, but I saw disagreement on this online (both David Lebovitz and Brave Tart gave good arguments for not needing to) and decided to not do it myself since I was impatient. My cookies were imperfect, but they did have a “foot” to them, so I’m concluding that you don’t need to wait. Bake your macarons at the temperature directed by your recipe for the length of time directed (generally around 325-350 for anywhere from 10-20 minutes, depending on the recipe). Consider propping the oven open with a wooden spoon to prevent the humidity from building up in the oven (which will make the cookies a more chewy/sticky consistency).
Make the ganache. I recommend using Serious Eats’ recipe for a bittersweet chocolate cream ganache as a base. One recipe of ganache was more than enough to fill my four recipes of macarons, so don’t worry about running out, and do be adventurous and create a few flavors out of it.
Once you’ve made the ganache, divide it into three or four bowls and mix in additional flavoring. Here are a few ideas:
- Coffee: Mix two or three tablespoons of coffee grounds into the ganache (one at a time, tasting between to make sure you’re happy with the flavor strength). This was a VERY popular flavor.
- Peppermint: Melt 10-20 Hershey’s Candy Cane Kisses, Andes Peppermint Crunch, or similar soft, creamy, peppermint candy (usually available near Christmas) in a mug in the microwave (30 seconds on high and stirring afterward should be sufficient) and mix the melted candy into the ganache. Add more if you want a stronger peppermint flavor. If you want a minty flavor at another time of year, try regular Andes or mint chocolate chips, which some grocery stores now sell. This was by far the most popular flavor of ganache that I tried.
- Spicy Chili: Mix a little cayenne pepper or chili pepper into the chocolate (start with a small amount such as a quarter teaspoon as this can get spicy quickly). I wanted to try this idea but was afraid I wouldn’t have enough ganache if it didn’t work out. Having seen the volume of leftover ganache I had, I wish I’d tried it. Next time!
- Amaretto: Mix two or three tablespoons of finely ground almonds into the ganache (again, one at a time until you’re happy with the flavor).
- Hazelnut: Mix two or three tablespoons of finely ground hazelnuts into the ganache (again, one at a time until you’re happy with the flavor).
Unfortunately I forgot to take photos of the ganache-making process. Instead I was a bit preoccupied with figuring out how to rescue my ganache after I realized I had used unsweetened chocolate as opposed to bittersweet chocolate. If you have ever wondered, I can assure you that there is a BIG difference between the two. And if you ever make the same mistake, yes, you can mix in granulated sugar to sweeten it (you’ll want to add quite a bit), and yes, you can then microwave the already-made ganache to melt the sugar granules into the mixture. However, you will need to wait quite a while (as in hours) for the ganache to re-thicken, and it will tend to want to separate as a result so you’ll need to stir it. While the consistency will differ somewhat from your original ganache as a result, it will still taste just as good, so don’t worry, you haven’t ruined it and you don’t need to go buy a jar of nutella as a quick replacement filling. Not that I considered doing that, of course. :)
Fill the cookies with ganache and let them sit for about a day before eating to let the flavors blend together. You might think this wouldn’t make a big difference, but it does.
Macaron Preservation: I searched a bit for whether macarons keep well enough to make ahead. I saw mixed advice, from saying that professional macarons would keep for five days to saying that even waiting one day for the flavors to mix might run the risk of the macarons drying out and becoming chewy. I saw one suggestion to freeze them (we did not end up trying this), and I saw several recommendations to not refridgerate them as it might change the texture. I went ahead and made the macarons ahead of time anyway, and everyone enjoyed them. Some cookies lasted longer than others (I think that the moisture of the ganache helped the larger ones stay fresh longer), and some definitely got chewy by a week later, but I think that part of that was probably also my not having made them as well as I could have to begin with. So if you really want to make macarons, try to make them as close to gifting/enjoying them as possible, but don’t worry too much about it because everyone except for food snobs will enjoy them regardless of whether they’re a little chewy. And they’ll appreciate the fact that you took the effort to make them.
You can also make cute inexpensive packaging for the macarons if you’re gifting them by placing a few in snack-size ziplock baggies, piercing a corner, and running a ribbon through to attach a homemade tag.
This also works very nicely for protecting the cookies when mailing them.