I’m officially obsessed. I want to make every macaron flavor in the Universe– every odd, outrageous, and wonderful flavor known to man– and file all the really memorable ones into my repertoire. But right now I have to experiment with recipes and techniques to find the ones that produce consistent results for me. And then I have to master them. And I also seriously need a better oven, but more on that later.
Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of hands-on application to become an expert at anything. And I know this is only my second try at macarons, but the improvement in knowledge from my first to my second try is immense. The recipe I tried this time was the French macaron recipe from the adorable Les Petits Macarons book. It’s a little difficult to bake from because the base recipe is a few pages away from the flavor variations so you have to flip pages, but you can easily remedy this problem by typing the full recipe up into one piece of paper or recipe card. (Luckily I’ve done that for you already!) Despite this, the instructions in the book are very informative, and it has a troubleshooting portion at the back with scenarios and pictures which is beyond useful.
The smorgasbord of flavor combinations between shells and fillings the book offers is probably enough to allow you to clock in the 10,000 hours if you make them all. There is no doubt in my mind that I will get there, but for now I’m going with something very simple, straightforward, and fresh-tasting: Lemon Macarons.
Baby-steps, you know?
A quick disclaimer before I begin my long analysis of my own efforts: I am by no means obliging you to follow my process to the letter. I think successful macarons are a case-to-case basis, meaning there is a proper combination of recipe and technique (and even ingredients and equipment) that might work for me but not for you, and vice versa. So until you find that winning combo, you can just experiment– much like what I’m doing now. This post is merely to share my experiences and adjustments on the recipe to make it work for me. You’re welcome to try it and bounce ideas off me if you wish. 🙂
Okay, because I am trying a new recipe from a book that until now I have just spent a lot of time ogling, I decided to make 1 full recipe and split it into 4 batches for baking. I felt this was necessary to allow me to get a handle on the kind of macarons this particular batter creates. After last time’s surprise success, going into the kitchen I was practically radiating with confidence. I was so confident that even when my first two batches of macarons came out like a landmine was set off on the surface, I did not feel fazed! I guess I had been expecting something like that subconsciously, thus the decision to experiment in batches.
My first batch was one I had put straight into the oven right after piping (the recipe in the book does not have the waiting time for the batter to form a “skin”). I followed the baking time indicated in the book which asked me to bake the shells initially at a low temperature to dry them out, and then increase to a higher temperature and bake some more to cook them through. What came out were these cracked shells.
I tried to pinpoint what went wrong and my assumption was that they cracked because they were in the oven for too long and the temperature was too hot.
So on my second batch I thought I would try upping the oven heat right away and baking it at a shorter time. But those shells cracked too, at a faster rate even.
Now since most of the macaron recipes I’ve read calls for the “skin”-forming waiting time, I decided to leave my third batch on the counter-top for 20 minutes before baking. Even though they still didn’t come out perfectly, they were vastly improved. I reverted back to the original baking time and temperature stated in the book (starting with low heat then increasing the temperature) and they did not crack at all. I stupidly did not pipe my shells all the same size so the smaller ones ended up getting really browned and crisp. The main problem though was that the feet were terribly lopsided.
Typically, this is the part where I pull my hair out in frustration and go, ‘WHAT! But I am 200% sure I had folded my meringue correctly!’ Thanks to the troubleshooting pages at the back of the book, I found out my shells have a “baseball cap effect”. And the reason? Uneven oven heat. See, even the book supports my bid for a new oven!
My oven is soooo old it doesn’t even light up on its own anymore and I have to throw in a match just to light it. The temperature can be really inaccurate at times as well. It has been heating up pretty fast too, and the heat no longer circulates well. So there, I think I have a legit excuse for the way my macarons look here and it does not involve any macaronner errors on my part, but for now I have to figure out a way to work past this since I doubt I’ll be getting a new oven anytime soon.
So trying to work my way around my wild oven, I decided that the batter could benefit from developing a little more “skin” on the counter. I let my last batch sit there for about 40 minutes just to be sure. When I felt that the skin was sturdy enough (I lightly poked the macaron with a finger), I popped them into the oven and adjusted the cooking time to shorten it, mostly because I felt my oven was too hot.
When I pulled out my fourth and final batch, I still got some lopsided shells, but they were the best-looking bunch that came out of the oven that day.
The side of the shells facing the center of the baking sheet got nice little feet and the other side facing the edge of the baking sheet did not rise much, so some of the shells ended up looking really uneven. In contrast, all of the macarons lining the center of the baking sheet rose evenly, and that’s what, a mere 5 shells? Looking back to last time when I made David Lebovtiz’s Chocolate Macarons, they rose so high inside the oven that there was very little chance the macarons would get no feet at all. This particular recipe does not rise all that much, but I do like the daintier look on the feet of these macarons. One has to wonder how a single recipe could produce such different results. And even though I’m leaning towards my oven as being the culprit, I’m happy to experiment until I get consistent results.
So in a nutshell, here are the new things I learned about macaron-making this time around:
- From now on I am leaving my shells for at least 30 minutes on the counter-top to develop a “skin” before popping them into the oven.
- I really should learn how to pipe even shells, or maybe make myself a macaron guide.
- There is nothing wrong with test-baking a tray with a few pieces of macarons first to see how your oven is doing in terms of heat circulation.
- Even though the shells look butt-ugly, if your recipe is a good one, they will still taste awesome! (Like these ones!)
- I’m glad I didn’t give up on the first two fail-batches and tried to think through how to adjust to get better results. It just goes to show that if things do not seem to be turning out the way you want, just keep swimming. Or baking. Oh you know what I mean.
Before I move on to the recipe, a quick note about the filling I used for these macarons: I used my favourite 5-minute Lemon Curd recipe because not only is it quick, it doesn’t require a gazillion eggs and egg yolks. And did I mention it tastes like sweet tangy lemon candy melted in your mouth? Lemon heaven. I thought it did a fantastic job of giving a tangy flavour contrast to the sweet shells. It makes about a half cup give-or-take, so it would be best to double the recipe for the curd to be able to fill all the macarons. (Yes, even the cracked ones!)
Lemon Macarons with 5-Minute Lemon Curd Filling
Makes about 24 1.5-inch sandwiched macarons
For the lemon curd
- 3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- ¾ teaspoon lemon zest, finely grated
- 3 Tablespoons sugar
- 1 large egg
- 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
For the macaron shells
- 165 grams almond flour *
- 165 grams confectioner's sugar
- pinch of fine sea salt
- 5 grams powdered egg white, optional (I don't use them)
- 150 grams granulated sugar
- 115 grams aged egg whites, from 4 eggs **
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 packed teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, or 1/4 teaspoon lemon oil
- 5 to 6 drops yellow liquid food colouring, optional
- 2 Tablespoons poppy seeds, if desired
Make the lemon curd
- 1. Whisk together juice, zest, sugar, and egg in a 1-quart heavy saucepan. Stir in butter and cook over moderately low heat, whisking frequently, until curd is thick enough to hold marks of whisk and some bubbles appear on surface, about 4 to 5 minutes.
- 2. Transfer lemon curd to a bowl and chill, its surface covered with plastic wrap, until cold, at least 1 hour.
Make the macarons
- 3. Place almond flour, confectioners' sugar, and salt in the bowl of the food processor and pulse 4 times for 3 seconds each to combine them. Scrape the sides of the bowl in between pulses with a spoon or spatula.
- 4. Sift almond meal mixture with a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. Set aside.*
- 5. In the bowl of the stand mixer, whisk together using your whisk attachment the granulated sugar and powdered egg whites (if using), then mix in the egg whites and cream of tartar until the mixture is homogenous.
- 6. Set the bowl unto the mixer and whisk on medium-high speed until the meringue is glossy and forms stiff peaks. This will take about 10 minutes. Stop the mixer once the whisk leaves heavy marks in the meringue as it goes around in the bowl and the mixture resembles marshmallow fluff. To see if the meringue is ready, turn the bowl to the side or upside-down and check if the meringue slips in the bowl. If it does not move or slide at all after about 3 seconds of being tilted or held upside-down, then move on to the macaronner stage.
- 7. With a spatula, quickly fold the sifted dry ingredients into the meringue to beat out the air bubbles in the mixture. Once the mixture looks to be 90% incorporated (there will be a few streaks of dry ingredients left), scrape the sides of the bowl then fold in lemon zest and food colouring with about 3 to 4 strokes if possible. To test of the batter is ready, scoop up some batter and drop it back into the bowl. It should have a thick consistency like flowing lava and the batter dropped in should disappear into the rest of the mixture after about 3 to 5 seconds.
- 8. Spoon the batter into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch round tip. Fill the bag halfway to about 3/4 all the way full. If you overfill the bag, you will not be able to squeeze the bag properly to pipe even shells. Twist the top of the bag to lock in the mixture.
** I aged my egg whites on the counter overnight loosely covered with plastic wrap. You will need almost exactly egg whites from 4 eggs. I'm usually left with about 1/4 teaspoon of egg whites after weighing so don't worry about leftovers since you will be using almost all of them.
*** Since I didn't pipe my macarons too far apart, that might have hindered them from rising properly in my already bad oven.
**** The book calls for rotating your hand in a clockwise motion to avoid having a "tail" on top of your macaron rounds. I do not do this because my tail typically sinks into my macaron batter after a few seconds, and more so after I bang the baking sheet on the counter, but if you fell like your batter is thicker than it should be, do the twisting motion to be sure.
***** For now I just bake one tray at a time because my oven is bad and I'm not brave or experienced enough to bake 2 trays yet. By the 12 minute mark, when you see the macarons already have sturdy feet, you can rotate the baking sheet and turn up the oven temperature. Adapted from Les Petits Macarons by Kathryn Gordon & Anne E. McBride