November 6, 2011

Delicious disaster - Chocolate Macarons

I must've thought about making French macarons - those dainty, delicious little bites of airy yet crisp and chewy cookies - for years now.  But like so many others, I've been deterred by how complicated they sound and by the many firsthand accounts of things gone awry.  The macaron is a perfect example of baking as a science.
Chocolate macarons with chocolate ganache filling
I wish I could sit here and tell you my macarons came out great and I'll be making them over and over again from now on.  Alas...the lone macaron you see above is essentially the only one that came out nearly right (it's as close as I got).  Some things worked and other things didn't.  I got that shiny, crispy top and chewy center but didn't achieve the coveted/signature "feet" on the macarons.  I had a horrible time removing most of the baked cookies from the tray; each tray that came out of the oven seemed to have a distinct problem.  But I call it my "delicious disaster" because they tasted awesome.  My son and I had a great time eating the broken cookies and frankly, even though most of the ones that made it on to the plate were far from perfect, they tasted really good.  If you close your eyes, you could be tricked into thinking you were biting into the real thing.  When I was telling my little guy that they didn't come out right, he kept telling me "but they're still really tasty, mommy" and he's right.
So I was motivated to finally roll up my sleeves and dust off my piping bag to give the macarons a go by a recent visit to Ladurée, the pâtisserie based in Paris that started it all.  They just opened their first shop in New York City and on a cool Fall day, we went to sample the goodies.  Naturally, I loved the macarons.  Just stepping into the cozy shop and seeing the pretty pastel packaging is almost enough for me.  I wanted to take every gift box home.  To do what with, I don't know, but they're just so beautiful. 

But I have to say that our six-year old son has an almost unnatural love for these cookies.  Each time I've had any and attempted to hoard them for myself, he manages to sniff it out and is chomping at the bit for a bite.  What is up with that!  Like mother like son perhaps?  So we sampled an array of flavors that day in the city and I'll never forget sitting in Central Park and my son eagerly awaiting each taste.  He took a bite of the coffee macaron and told my husband and I: "the coffee one is really good!"  He was totally right again; I think the coffee flavor is so good because it offsets the sweetness that comes with meringues.  We had to go back for seconds and he has since asked often for macarons.  It came to the point where he started asking if I knew how to make them and if I could make some for him.  Of course I had to try with motivation like that.  He really wanted coffee ones but I told him I had to keep it simple and start with chocolate.  He had no problems with that.  He seriously loves macarons, even the ones I made.
Now you've seen my attempt and I'll go into details of what I think went right and what went wrong after the jump.  But how about taking a look at the real deal. 

This is the Ladurée shop on the Upper East Side in New York.  I kept telling my husband not to take out the camera (I've heard stories of people being kicked out of the shops in Paris for taking pictures) until I saw plenty of locals playing tourist as well. 
I think we tried about ten flavors that day.  Of the ones we tasted, coffee was the clear winner for my husband and son.  I'm a bit on the fence.  I stay eternally faithful to chocolate so that gets my vote, as well as pistachio.  On our return trip to the shop for seconds, I heard the woman behind the counter explain to a customer that praline was hazelnut and I had to try it given my love of hazelnuts.  The praline macaron turned out to be (another) favorite of mine; although it was quite sweet, the strong hazelnut flavor more than made up for it.
Another great place we can get our hands on some macarons is La Maison du Chocolat.  I love their chocolate to bits.  My husband got me some macarons from there a while back and I remember the caramel flavor was surprisingly my favorite.
Check out the serious "foot" (that sort of foamy bottom) on them.  When you bite into one, the crisp shell shatters and the center is soft and slightly chewy mixed with a creamy filling.  It is so delicious.  And everyone loves the array of colors that come with macarons; it's really visually appealing. 
I plan to give these macarons another try.  I've learned a lot from my first attempt and I'll arm myself with the exact equipment I need next time around (I had to make due with what I had on hand in a couple of instances).  Saving nearly $3 per macaron is a huge incentive, not to mention my child's love for them (he literally licks up every bite).  I'm always telling my son that practice makes perfect.  In this case, even when the end result is imperfect, it can still be quite good and worthwhile.

Before I started on this project, I read plenty on the making of French macarons.  Blogs, cookbooks, and even a couple of youtube videos were all helpful but can leave you confused and intimidated taken together - there are lots of advice and warnings to heed.  In the end, I followed this recipe from the Tartlette blog.  I think many people in the food blogging world use this recipe for chocolate macarons and follow the advice given by Helene.  If you take a look at her macarons, you'll know why.  They are just beautiful.  Her recipe is actually for "snickers macaron" but to make chocolate ones, simply substitute the peanuts for additional almonds.

To begin my macaron adventure, I started by "aging" some egg whites a few days in advance.  Three egg whites get separated and stored in the fridge for up to 5 days or at room temperature (covered) for a day.  This helps you achieve a better meringue (so I'm told).

To avoid getting into too much nitty gritty about this project, I'll summarize my story through pictures.

Here I've prepared parchment paper and a piping bag with a round tip.  Ideally, a 1/2 inch or thereabout round tip is used.  I thought I had one but didn't and couldn't find the size (of course).  I ended up using about a 1/4 inch round tip, the largest I could find.  Since I was using parchment paper rather than silpat, I drew 1 1/2 inch circles on the back of the paper to help myself along.
A scale is a must-have.  Weigh the almonds and sugars accurately using one.  Making macarons is a science experiment.
You need a food processor to grind the almonds with powdered sugar and cocoa powder.
The mixture needs to be passed through a sieve.  I have 2 fine mesh sieves, which totally did not work.  I need to invest in a medium coarse one asap!  I used both sieves I have but had to give up half way and whisk the whole thing together.  I don't know how much that affected my result.
There's a lot of talk about the next two steps.

Take those aged egg whites and whip them.  When the whites begin to foam, add granulated sugar to achieve a stiff (but not overbeaten and dry) meringue.  I was careful about this and I think I got it right here (I think).
Time to work on the macaronage - incorporating the dry ingredients into the meringue.  Start by folding it in quickly to break things up, then gently fold until the batter is thick and ribbons.  If you don't fold enough, the batter will be too thick and you'll get a pointed tip on the macarons.  But over-do it and the batter will be too runny and it won't work.  I thought this would be the most difficult part but ironically, I think I got it to the right consistency here.  It's best to drop a bit of batter on a plate to "test" it.  If the top flattens on its own, it is just right.  As it turns out, the batter is a lot thicker than I thought it would be.  I always envisioned a very fluffy, delicate type of batter but it's more thick and gloppy.
Time to work with the piping bag.  I have a whole collection of bags and tips that I bought from Martha Stewart ages ago and have never used.  I'm really glad I used a disposable bag though since the project was taking way more time that I anticipated by this point.  Fill the bag and get ready to pipe out 1 1/2 inch rounds. 
I thought I was golden when I piped these babies out and the tops settled and they were neat little rounds.  It was very easy and they looked so good.  I even experimented with a larger size for a third tray.  Before they can go in the oven, these need to sit out for about an hour to create that dry, crispy, crackly shell. 
So promising going into the oven but there were serious problems once in there.  I think the oven temperature had a lot to do with it.  The recipe says 300 degrees and I noticed my oven temperature fluctuating (I recently invested in an oven thermometer) but it is difficult to adjust the temperature during the baking time.  Secondly, I wonder if using the 1/4 inch piping round might've been another mistake.  I got the sense that my rounds should've been thicker, as though I needed a bit more batter for the macarons to lift off.  Maybe using a larger opening and piping them a big higher would've helped?  I also had more in quantity than I should've, which again makes me think each one should've been thicker.

Each of the 3 trays that baked had a unique problem.  From the lack of "feet" to cracked tops or extreme sticking to the parchment.  For whatever reason, the tray with the larger cookies cracked but they were the easiest to remove.  Of the two remaining smaller size cookie trays, one stuck to the paper quite a bit (a little water under the paper is supposed to help but it didn't do much good for me) while the other was just wet on the bottom.  Thinking the "wet" batch was under-baked, I popped them back in the oven a few extra minutes but they stayed wet. 
I'm not exaggerating the issues I had.  I made these a couple of days after the snow storm (gambling on the power staying on) when my son was home from school (he was home all week since schools were closed).  We ate a ton of cracked cookies that I could barely remove from the sheet.  Some were definitely not pretty but they did taste great - honest!
I was sticking with the "make it work" motto.  I made the ganache and filled what I could salvage that we hadn't already eaten.  We ate a lot of them. 
So what started out rather promising became a bit of a disaster.  But it was delicious.  Did I mention that already?  My son would snatch one out of anyone's hand and that's good enough for me.  This really gives me an even greater appreciation for these dainty little beauties.

Update: Check out my second attempt at chocolate macarons here.


For a chocolate macaron recipe, go to this recipe from the Tartlette blog and substitute almonds for the peanuts.  You'll find amazing photography and a bunch of interesting macaron recipes. 

I used a basic bittersweet chocolate ganache as the filling.  Take 4 ounces of chopped bittersweet chocolate and pour 1/2 cup of warmed heavy cream over the top.  Let it sit a few minutes and then stir to combine.  Let the mixture stand, stirring or whisking occasionally, until set enough to fill the macarons.  You could add a bit of corn syrup and butter to give it more sheen and fluidity.  I choose to keep it simple since the macarons didn't come out very successfully to begin with.

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