Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Art of Making French Macarons

I've been debating if I should make this post, given the plethora of macaron resources available on the web, but thought that, with the countless batches I've made, it wouldn't hurt to add my thoughts, tips, and suggestions that I haven't seen many people talk about. Therefore, this post may skim over the basics of making macarons but I will provide a list of all the posts I've read and found helpful in my journey to making macarons. Please note that I use the French macaron recipe, NOT the Italian version!

Note: I am in NO way an expert at making my macarons (oh how one can dream!) but I have made them enough times and watched enough videos to have learned what does and doesn't work [for me] and what, really, [imo] just doesn't matter. And if you learn anything from reading all this mumbo jumbo, it's that macarons may be finicky, they're very individual-tailored but you can still get away with variation in some places.

1. The Recipe
There are SO many different recipes for macarons and I really don't think it matters which one you use (so long as there are enough reviews saying it works). I've actually written down all the macaron recipes from the big name bloggers and compared their amounts of almond flour, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, and egg whites and yes they do vary (some more so than others) but I've tried them all and they've all created normal nice macarons. In general, the egg white amount is constant in recipes with the greatest variation in almond flour to powdered flour ratio. Granulated sugar is always less than powdered sugar and almond flour but I've found that the amount of granulated sugar doesn't make a huge difference to the success of your macarons. Most recipes call for more powdered sugar than almond flour; others call for equal amounts. I personally like the ones that call for an equal amount because I (assume) it means the macarons will be less sweet. If you go for a recipe that has a super high almond flour ratio though, your macarons will end up with a more cakey dense texture rather than the light fluffy one.
The recipe I am currently using is from Indulge with Mimi . I've halved it so that my ingredients are:
  • 25 g egg white
  • 22.5 g granulated/white sugar (I've lowered this to 20 g and had no issues with my macarons)
  • 32.5 g powdered/confectioners' sugar
  • 32.5 g almond flour
My scale doesn't go actually measure to the 0.1 g so I guestimate from there and it doesn't make or break my macarons (more evidence to support my hypothesis that macarons may not be as finicky as you think). I have also tried All Recipes recipe which (when divided by 4) called for:
  • 25 g egg white
  • 12.5 g granulated/white sugar (I usually used 7g actually without issues)
  • 50 g powdered/confectioners' sugar
  • 22.5 g almond flour 
What you hopefully can tell is that the top recipe calls for more granulated sugar and less powdered sugar. Some amount of the powdered sugar (about 10g) is also added to the amount of almond flour. So here are 2 quite difference recipes that both gave me fine results. Both have given me batches that didn't work out also but I blame other external factors (ie. myself or the humidity).
2) Batch amounts
I highly recommend that you start with small batches of macarons if you are new to making macarons or experimenting with adding flavors (ie cocoa powder, green tea powder, etc). Even I still work in small batches (mostly because my silipat doesn't fit properly on my tray so I can't fill it up completely) because almond flour is quite expensive and I really don't want to be throwing away 60 macaron shells (aka two whole trays) if something went wrong. It is also recommended you only bake one batch of macarons at a time due to incomplete heating if you use two racks of your oven. I think if you're pro enough or know your oven well enough, you can try using two pans at once but I wouldn't advise it if starting out.

3) Macaron Baking Process
The general guidelines for macarons are simple:
1. Sift almond flour and powdered sugar
2. Beat egg whites to soft/medium firm/firm/stiff peaks (I will discuss this in a bit) - at some point of this beating process, you are supposed to add in your granulated sugar. When you do this honestly doesn't matter. Just sometime before it gets to the right peak stiffness (I add it in earlier than later. You can add it in all at once or break up the additions, I don't find that making a difference either but I think splitting it up is better to "not break the meringue").
3.Fold egg whites and almond flour+powdered sugar mixture together (aka MACARONAGE process)
4. Put into piping bag/plastic bag and pipe onto silicon mat or parchment paper
5. Bake at some temperature for some amount of time.

Now if you read this recipe, you might have lots of questions. Aren't macarons supposed to be very finicky? Why is there not one straight guideline on how to make them? Well that's because they are highly specific to the baker! What works for one person will not work for another. So let's slowly take apart this generalized recipe and go over the important and not so important parts.

1. Yes you need to sift your almond flour and powdered sugar. This gets rid of lumps. However, does this need to be the first step? I've decided: no not really. IF (and only if) your almond flour is very fine - usually meaning you didn't grind it up yourself - and you know it will sift through the strainer easily, you can directly sift the powdered sugar and almond flour into your bowl of beaten egg whites. However, because I previously would grind up my own slivered almonds to make almond flour, I know that making your own almond flour means it is a lot harder to sift and therefore takes more time. In those cases, I advise sifting before hand because waiting too long to incorporate your meringue and dry ingredients can cause issues (I have yet to run into those. Fingers crossed, knock on wood!)
2. I'm going to talk about aging your egg whites in the next section because I want to focus on the stiffness of your meringue here. Some recipes/videos call for medium firm peaks, others call for firm, and some call for stiff. I personally tend to err on the side of too stiff rather than too soft, but that's just me. I do this because I read you can beat the air out of the meringue that is stiffer but you can't really "add air" to a meringue that doesn't have enough (ie. one that only has soft or medium peaks). I've seen lots of videos where people use meringues with only medium peaks however and their macarons turned out beautifully though so what does that tell me? That either way is fine! Perhaps one is more reliable than the other (I choose to think that is the stiffer peaks method) but it's up to you to experiment and figure that out.
Credits to Betty Lou Crocker
In this image above, the most right photo is labeled as a "stiff peak." I, however, beg to differ. I believe that is more of a medium firm peak. A true stiff peak (one that I aim for) looks like the photo below (credits to acup4mycake). The "peaks" shouldn't fall over like in the previous photo. Do note that the size of your "glob" of meringue does affect whether or not the peak will stand up or not (aka if you get a bigger glob with a higher peak, it's more likely to fall over because of gravity). However, if in that same meringue batter, you can get a smaller peak that stands straight up, I think you're good to go.

3. Folding your macarons is something you just sort of watch videos to learn how to do and then do your best to imitate. I don't think counting how many folds you do is very helpful because different recipes = different amounts of batter = different amount of folds needed. I suggest watching every macaron folding video out there and choosing which folding technique you like best and working with it. Or just do a combo of them all. There's no one absolute way and as long as you don't OVER fold, you're good. I actually was so scared about over folding that I under-folded my macarons the first time and they came out all bumpy! If you are having issues with hollow macarons by the way, you're probably being like me and simply folding together the egg whites and dry ingredients and you need to actually 'deflate' the batter by smearing it on the bowl. This is kind of scary the first time around because everyone's always saying don't fold too much or else your batter will get runny and here you are just smooshing down this air-filled batter that you worked on so hard to maintain. I'm just going to leave you with one macaronage video that I learned from (you can tell I really like Indulge with Mimi; she has good resources). I basically try and fold under the batter and bring all the dry ingredients to the top and then use my spatula to scrape the edge of my ball of meringue so that some "wetness" from it can touch the dry ingredients. That probably doesn't make sense but I do that over and over and then when it's all combined, I start smearing my batter across the side of the bowl to "deflate" some of the air. Like I said, watch videos!
4. Oven Temperature
Everyone's oven is different. Some people say 285 F, others say 300 F, and some even say 350 F. I started at 305 F and had my macarons totally melt (feet spread outwards - a sign of too high oven temp) so I lowered it to 295 F. This was better but macarons still browned or were hollow if I took them out earlier so I came to 285 F. I have a feeling my oven runs on the hotter side (I don't use an internal oven thermometer but highly suggest you get one to ensure your oven temperature is true to what it says. They're quite cheap anyways ~$6-8). The temperature and timing is something you will have to play around with but I think starting at 300 F might be a good starting point. If your macarons brown or your feet spread outward, lower the temperature by 5-10 degrees next time. If no feet form, you need to increase your temperature. Timing wise can range from 10-20 minutes. I currently work with 16 minutes at 285 F but I put my oven temperature to 295-300 F when preheating and then lower it to 285 F when I put the macarons in. Not sure if this makes a huge difference but I like to think it prevents my oven from reheating due to loss of heat when I open the oven to put in the macarons. This is a good trick to try if your macarons seem to crack even though you are putting the oven at a relatively low temp and doing all other preventative measure (aka smacking them to get rid of air bubbles).
5. Aging Egg Whites?
This apparently is a much discussed topic and more often than not, people say to do this. This is because it does some funky stuff with the egg white proteins which will stabilize your meringue making it firm up and make those nice beautiful peaks. I assume this has something to do with denaturing the proteins and also drying out the egg white so it has less liquid. After consulting the various online macaron gurus, websites, and discussions, I've decided it doesn't matter if you age your egg whites or not but it doesn't hurt to either. I've only come across one recipe that specifically said to use fresh egg whites and I didn't try their recipe because, despite using the french macaron style, they said their macarons didn't need to be set on the counter for one hour. Crazy and I have no idea how that works but they definitely had nice looking macarons! Anyways, if you wish to age your egg whites, you can split the egg yolk and meringue 1-5 days before (after 5 days, your egg whites might go bad) and leave them in a container either in the fridge or counter top. I've never left mine on the counter top for fear something might go wrong with them (I live in America where we put our eggs in the fridge; I do know elsewhere people just leave their eggs out which is crazy to me but apparently is due to differences in the processing of the eggs? Who knows). I've heard that the container should have holes in it (ie. use saran wrap and poke some holes) but I'm not too fussed; like I said, aging your egg whites doesn't make or break your macarons. I've made macarons with aged and non-aged egg whites. If you're worried about your meringue not stabilizing (or you've had issues getting stiff peaks), you need to make sure your bowl is clean (wipe it down with vinegar or lemon juice if it's been used for other cooking adventures involving oil) and try adding a pinch of cream of tartar or salt right when you start beating your egg whites. I do find that my egg whites stiffen up more quickly when they're at room temperature so this IS one thing I recommend. If you're taking a egg right out of the fridge, put it in a cup or bowl of warm-hot water while you go measure out the rest of your ingredients (about 5 minutes). If you've already pre-split your egg white and yolk, just leave it on the counter for 20 minutes (but that usually is too long for me so I just go ahead and use it "cold").
6. Troubleshooting
Last but not least, here are a few things I don't think enough people talk about so I wanted to cover them here:
- Double stacking baking pans
I read about this a few times but didn't think it was a huge deal. I started with only one baking pan and had enough good macarons turning out in each batch to think that one baking pan was good enough (I usually had 2-4 out of 20 macaron shells that cracked). My baking sheets are (I assume) good quality ones also so I didn't think double stacking would help much. Plus who knew what adding a second pan would do to my baking time or temperature? But, when I had two completely failed batches of macarons (cracked shells) without any changes to my recipe or technique (well besides using parchment paper but that's not supposed to affect your macarons!), I decided to give it a go (what else did I have to lose?). The effect was significant and I'm disappointed I didn't start doing this sooner. Before double stacking my pans, my 2-4 cracked macarons were always piped in the same area so I assumed this was a "heat pocket" area of my oven. However, because double stacking baking sheets (aka using two baking pans instead of one) apparently conducts the heat better, this eliminates the issue of heat pockets. And sure enough, my batches since double stacking my pans have all had ZERO cracked macarons! Woohoo! So I am now a converted advocate of double stacking pans.
A batch of my beautiful no crack animal shaped macarons :)
- Wrinkly macaron shells
This happened to me once and I am still puzzled why. I was trying to make bear shaped macarons on parchment paper and it was raining outside (see next trouble shooting point on humidity). As you can see in the photos below, the macaron shell looks wrinkled like a thin sheet of paper (and there are cracks!). If you look carefully, the edges of the macarons (at the feet) are slightly browned meaning I baked them for too long. I've tried troubleshooting what might be the cause for this but it seems the general answer is you either took your macarons out of the oven too quickly or you didn't let a skin form. Now I made sure that a skin was formed on all my macarons before putting them in so unless humidity affects macarons in another way, I don't think it was the rain. However, when I checked my macarons at the 4-5 minute mark (total baking time 16 minutes at 285 F), they were cracking so I opened the door quite a bit before closing it quickly. I think this gust of cold air may have contributed to the macarons crinkling but I can't say for certain. So as you can see, I don't have a good answer for wrinkly macarons either but they don't seem to be a common thing so hopefully you don't find yourself in this dilemma. I'm leaning towards the answer being that my macarons cracked and wrinkled because I didn't tap them enough and that random gust of cold air. Perhaps the humidity made my skin that formed weak but I do recall that when I touched them, I was surprised by how firm they felt. If you have a better answer to why this happened, please leave a comment below!
Apparently this plays a pretty large role in making your macarons. If the area you live in is too wet or humid, the macarons will have a harder time drying, thus making it harder (if not impossible) to form a shell. This can be circumvented by running a range-hood fan (aka the fans above a stove) and/or using a fan on light speed to blow at the macarons gently to dry them. Now I've baked macarons twice in the rain and all my macarons in each batch cracked. However, I was also using parchment paper (vs a silicone mat which I normally use) and not double stacking my pans. I had also checked and there was definitely a skin formed so not 100% sure that the humidity was the factor or if it was something else. I have baked with parchment paper since then WITH double stacked pans in normal weather conditions and had 100% success rate so I'll leave it up to you to decide how large of a role weather plays.
- Overmixed or spread out badder
No one talks about how you can SAVE these but I've found a way (hoozah!). It's not entirely foolproof but works most of the time! If you know your macaron batter is too liquidy, start by piping REALLY tiny circles. They will spread so pipe less than you think is okay (I'd say maybe a dollop the size of a US 25 cent quarter) because even if it's too little, you can add more. Now what if you put too much or your batter just totally spread? Let your macarons sit for about 15 minutes so a thin shell can form. Then take a circular cookie cutter or a small cup with the circumference you desire and place it on your macaron. Wipe away whatever excess macaron batter there is outside of your circle and remove the cutter. You should have a normal sized macaron that will hold its shape. If your batter is still too liquidy and spreads out after you've tried fixing, wait another 15 minutes before repeating. Make sure that you give enough time after fixing a macaron via this method (~15-20 minutes) to form a skin around the edges because even if the tops are dry but you just scraped the sides, the sides wont have a skin and will likely crack or do something weird in the oven when you bake it. This technique also works well if you have a silicone macaron mat that actually has raised circle spots to place your macarons as this acts as a guide.
I suggest (if you haven't already) you go check out these pages if you are troubleshooting basic issues These are the web pages I looked at when I first started a few months ago and still look at today when something goes wrong.
  • Food Nouveau - covers the basis really well
  • ChocoParis - my favorite and probably most comprehensive troubleshooting page; so many people have posted questions and gotten answers so you're bound to find your problem
  • Not So Humble Pie (aka Ms. Humble) - great for trouble shooting
  • Zumbo - A nice clean cut problem & answer page
  • Indulge with Mimi - helpful photos included, not the most complete troubleshooting page however

    I know this was a really long post but hopefully you found some answers to any questions or concerns you've had about macarons. Macarons are beautiful little desserts when you get them right but know that they taste good no matter how they look so have a ready line-up of friends to eat your "failed" batches that don't meet the photoshoot cut!

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