à la Française – Macarons (and mistakes!)

This post is also available on my other blog, azeatsandbeats.wordpress.com

Just recently, I returned to my home state of Arizona after spending a year of my life abroad in wonderful Paris, France! This meant that for an entire year, I was surrounded by some of the world’s best cuisine (and I make the distinction to say surrounded by it, because I’ll admit I didn’t always get the chance – or have the courage – to sample it). Inspired by my time in France, I’ve challenged myself with bringing some of the world’s finest and best delicacies to my own  kitchen. First up, I’m diving right into the deep end by attempting to bake le roi de tous les friandises*: the macaron.

I was warned that making these devilishly good treats would be extremely extremely difficult. However, right before I left France I picked up a pocket-sized cookbook dedicated exclusively to the macaron – and to be honest it made the whole process look like a piece of cake. Yet just like baking anything else, making a perfect macaron is an art; and if that’s true, then you could say I’m still on the step where I’m learning to fingerpaint.

In the end, I attempted to make four different but complimentary varieties of the confection: chocolate, coffee, caramel, and vanilla-nutella. For a first effort, I was quite happy with the results, even if they fell a bit short of expectations. Actually, they were, without any doubt, far from perfect. Always looking on the bright side (and like any good chef), I’ve decided to focus on my mistakes and learn from them. Here are some of my takeaways after baking the macarons; my hope is that these notes provide insight to anyone who is considering attempting to make their own batches.

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Almost a Mistake #1: A Cookbook in French

I’m fluent in French, so a French language cookbook isn’t a deal breaker. Despite making only minor use of a dictionary, the cookbook still posed it challenges. For example, the book was written using the metric system in mind, and some of the ingredients were harder to find here than in France (plus the quality of products can vary from country to country). In the end, I’m not afraid to admit that I did have to remake parts of the recipes due to misfollowed steps. Not a huge deal, but obviously it’s a waste of time and ingredients.

Almost a Mistake #2: Four Different Varieties

This wasn’t a cardinal sin, but in hindsight, trying to make four different varieties during my first attempt wasn’t the best of ideas. It felt hard to keep track of everything and the quality definitely suffered because of the quantity. To make things easier, next time I’m planning on focusing more on a smaller variety so that the overall quality isn’t compromised.

(Real) Mistake #1: Not Aging the Egg Whites

As it turns out, the verdict is that aging egg whites is an important step in the baking process. Partly because of a translation error, I skipped this step. The recipe I was following did in fact call for the egg whites to be refrigerated overnight, however I falsely thought this was because eggs aren’t always stored in the refrigerator in France. Assuming the cookbook was simply implying that the eggs should be cold, I beat my egg whites right after cracking them: a big no-no.

Mistake #2: Not Beating my Eggs Stiff Enough

Okay, so the mistake cited might not be the actual problem, but regardless my batter felt a lot runnier than it should have been. It possibly could have been because I didn’t beat my egg whites enough, but at the same time I can’t rule out too much downtime (remember, trying to make four kinds at once!) or the Arizona heat that could have melted the batter (it’s a serious thing!). Next time I’ll definitely be more in control of the factors I can, and hopefully by beating my egg whites longer and by being more efficient I’ll end up with a better result.

Mistake #3: Not letting the batter dry

Going off of the last mistake, since it felt like my shells were melting too quickly, I used my not-so-great improvisational skill and had the “genius” idea of putting the shells straight into the oven. This, of course, was the exact opposite of the step in the cookbook that was telling me to let the shells rest and dry for an hour. The reason this step is important is because it’s vital in order for the macarons to get their famous ‘legs’. The result, of course, is that my macarons turned out just like cookies. At least they tasted great!

Mistake #4: The Fillings

Just when I thought I couldn’t mess up anymore: I did. With the exception of the Nutella filling, which was simply just a spoon of Nutella, my fillings were less than perfect – atrocious even. The chocolate ganache filling just felt a bit too overpowering. The coffee filling tasted superb but was runny like a sauce. The worst of the lot, however, was the caramel that instantly hardened up and turned the macarons inedible. In all fairness to me though, I’ll attribute this mistake to the recipes (in French) that I was following.

Fortunately, my attempt to make macarons did have its bright side!

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 Victory #1: Caramel Shells

So remember when I said I put the macarons straight into the oven? Well, as it turns out, I did let one batch sit and dry up. Can you guess what happened? They turned out perfectly, with legs and a glossy finish! Obviously, since I’m not an expert I can’t say 100% that letting them sit was the reason this happened, but having them turn out the way they did was fantastic! Unfortunately, I did mention that the caramel filling was horrid, but at the very least I’m happy with these shells.

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Victory #2: The Coffee Macarons

Without a doubt these were the hardest to make of the batch, and it showed. I ended up tossing most of the shells, and the filling was runny like sauce. All that being said, the few that did turn out surpassed my expectations when it came time to sample them! Absolutely amazing! Although I’m on the lookout for a different, thicker recipe for the filling, the coffee macarons were a hit!

Bonus Victory: Making Brownies

In the end, my chocolate macarons turned out a lot like mini-brownies. Considering the goal was to make macarons, it wasn’t the best of results, but I really enjoyed them anyway!

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In all honesty, for a first attempt this wasn’t bad at all. I learnt first hand the hardships of making these little devils, and in turn why they’re often so expensive and hard to come by in stores. The caramel macarons had perfect shells yet a disastrous filling. The chocolate macarons turned out more like brownies. Finally, both the coffee and vanilla-nutella macarons looked like monstrosities, but they tasted far beyond their looks. Next time, with the lessons learned from this bake, I’m planning on being more efficient and streamlined. And since macarons come in all different varieties, I’ve got my eyes set on some of the fruity varieties for next time. Hopefully with this advice, my next batch (and yours as well if you decide to make them!) will turn out better, and I’ll end up with delicious, fantastic looking macarons.

*the king of all confections.

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