The Macaron Project: Part One

 Guest Author: Susanne Skinner

Macaron weather has arrived!  Cool and dry, with temperatures in the sixties and no humidity. It’s time.

macarons, the perfect macaronFor those of you who follow my blog you may remember in January I gave myself a New Year’s culinary challenge – master the French Macaroon. Once you announce such things on your blog, there is no turning back. It is a work in progress and mistakes will be made.

In the business world, good is the enemy of great; implying a decent result is possible even if it interferes with the pinnacle of success. In the world of macarons there is no such euphemism. This is an undertaking with two possible outcomes:  perfection and failure.  There is no middle ground with a macaron. There is no good.

My cookbook of choice in this undertaking is Thomas Keller’s homage to his bakery – Bouchon. These macarons are the gold standard to which I aspire. I have studied countless hours of instructional video and read blogs that cover this topic in great detail. I have memorized step by step photos and I’m ready to bake. I don’t expect perfection. I see a learning curve that builds confidence and more than a few lessons learned.

For such a specific creation there are quite a few variations on the basic recipe, and many different techniques. The outcome however, is a precise and perfect cookie with three critical evaluation points. A small base called a foot on the bottom of each cookie, a smooth and shiny crust on top, and a delicate meringue texture inside. Getting all three at the same time – priceless.

macaronWho Invented the Macaron?

The history of this amazing indulgence begins in Europe, but the exact country of its origin is unclear. While France seems the likely birthplace of the macaron historical accounts give the credit to Italy.

The macaron was introduced by the chef of the de Medici family in 1533. It was then brought to France when Catherine de Medici married the Duc d’Orleans – a.k.a. Henry II – who became the king of France in 1547.  Back then it was a simple cookie.

It was not until the twentieth century when Pierre Desfontaines got the idea of putting two macarons together with chocolate filling. Today there is no limit to the creative ways to color, flavor and fill these cookies. In my research I found Italian and French versions of the recipe – different methodologies but the same end point. The traditional filling is French or Swiss buttercream. On my planet, even the complete failure of a baked item, when coated or filled with buttercream, has redemptive value.

For a recipe with such complexity it has humble ingredients: egg whites, almond flour, granulated and powdered sugar and salt. The trip wires are in the preparation of these ingredients. Over-mix and your macarons will be flat and have no foot; under mix and they will not be smooth on top. They must rest before baking, refrigerate for 24 hours before eating, and follow a series of precise steps that begin with weighed (not measured) ingredients. Did I mention sifting? We sift three times to ensure there are no lumps in any of the dry ingredients. Once the batter is piped onto the baking sheet, they must rest at least 20 minutes before baking.

MacaronThe Secret is Science

It comes down to science. The question is – which of the many variations is the correct science?  Some recipes claim the sugar must be added as soon as 25 seconds after beating the egg whites. This increases the viscosity or thickness of the whites, making it more difficult for the enemy air bubbles to form.  Some claim the whites must be beaten for 6 minutes, others 10 and even 12.  If you get it wrong, you end up with tiny air bubbles, giving the batter a shaving cream consistency that results in a flat cookie.

The consistency we are going for is like lava. The batter needs enough thickness to mound up when piped, but enough fluidity that after 20 seconds, it will fall back down. Once the egg whites have been beaten, the dry ingredients are carefully folded in by hand. Here again the directions are mixed. Some indicate 50 strokes achieve the perfect result but urge repeated checking after 25. Others give a broad range and leave you to find the magic number.

I am ready for the macaron project. I chose a basic vanilla macaron with vanilla buttercream filling. I am a skilled baker, passionate about texture, flavor and appearance. This is a cookie. I can do this.

Stay tuned.

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