Sunday, March 25, 2007

Paris is...Macarons!

Ask many visitors to Paris to name one of their "absolutely must try" foods, and they will tell you macarons. The debate is endless over whose macaron is best--Ladurée, Jean-Paul Hévin, la Maison du Chocolat, even Angélina. Nothing frightens macaron lovers--not even Pierre Hermé's recent foray into foie gras macarons filled with chocolate ganache.

The perfect macaron is evenly round, with a slightly flattened dome. The outer surfaces are slightly shiny and have a flaky texture nearly like puff pastry. The bottom edge of each dome has a crispy, bubbly ridge. The inside of the dome is slightly chewy. And the whole thing is held together with a generous amount of dense, creamy filling. They can come in nearly any flavor combination imagineable, but chocolate is probably the most classic of the classic. Other favorites are pistachio, lemon, raspberry, rose and violet.

Last week, pâtisiers throughout France gave away free macarons to raise money to fight rare diseases. OurParis' very own Anne helped spread the word and created quite a stir on SlowTalk. A recipe was posted in French and then translated into English. A chorus of "oohs" and "aahs" went up. The recipe was dissected and discussed. Questions about ingredient sourcing were put forward and substitutions debated. The outcomes were hypothesized. And...nobody...not even Our Paris' own Anne...stepped forward to try the recipe!

So, what's a guy to do? There's now a small mound of homemade chocolate macarons with bitter chocolate and maple ganache "curing" in our fridge. Remember my description of the perfect macaron? These aren't perfect!! In fact, they're downright homely.

I'm a pretty good cook and the recipe looked relatively easy--not many ingredients (although a key ingredient is essentially unavailable in the U.S.), not many steps, and not much time.

The first challenge is dealing with the amandes en poudre problem. Available at the corner store in Paris, there's apparently not a single store in all the fifty United States that sells it. Trader Joe's has almond meal, King Arthur Flours makes toasted almond flour, but nobody has simple powdered almonds. You can order it online from L'Epicerie, but that's really not very helpful when you suddenly decide to whip up a batch of macarons.

So, the first thing is that you have to make your own almond flour from blanched, raw almonds. Just put them in a food processor or coffee grinder along with the sugar and grind with the on/off button until they're powdered. The hard part is that the almond powder can become almond paste in the blink of an eye. (And then you've got to think about making homemade marzipan....and that's a whole different blog.)

Sift together 275 grams of powdered sugar, 140 grams of almond flour, and 25 grams of unsweetened cocoa powder. Put aside. In an electric mixer, beat 4 egg whites at low speed until foamy. Increase the speed to moderately high and beat until stiff peaks form. Gently fold in the almond mixture until completely combined.

Line three baking sheets with parchment paper. Fill a pastry bag with the macaron batter and pipe rounds of batter onto the sheets. Let the macarons sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, 11-12 minutes, leaving the oven door slightly ajar.

Pour a little water between the parchment paper and the metal baking pan. The moisture will help the macarons release from the paper without tearing. Cool the macarons on the tray and then carefully transfer to a wire rack.

While the macarons are baking, bring 300 grams of heavy cream to a boil over moderate heat. Pour the cream over 325 grams of finely chopped chocolate, and stir with a silicone spoon until cooled to around 80 degrees. Stir in 75 grams of cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces. Stir until the butter is melted, and the mixture is shiny. Cover and refrigerate until thickened enough to spread.

Spread half the macarons with a coating of the ganache and place another macaron on top to make a sandwich. Refrigerate the macarons overnight to allow the flavors to meld.

Et voilà, you have macarons!

Here's what I learned:

  1. Almond Flour--I tried making the almond flour in a food processor and in a coffee grinder. The coffee grinder worked much better, but because it holds such a small quantity, it would've taken forever to make enough for the recipe. After you've finished grinding the almonds, pass it though a fine sieve at least twice to remove any large bits. If they are left in, you will notice them in the texture of the baked macarons. I sifted twice, and should have done it again.
  2. Egg Whites--At the very least, warm the egg whites to room temperature by leaving them on the counter for a few hours or placing them in a bowl nestled inside another bowl filled with warm water. Older eggs become fluffier when beaten. A little after-the-fact research suggests "aging" the egg whites in the refrigerator for two or three days after separating them from the yolks.
  3. Beating the Meringue--Just like my mama taught me, egg whites always beat better if you add a pinch of salt at the very beginning. Some people suggest substituting powdered egg whites for a portion of the fresh egg whites. I've never used them, but they're standard in the pastry industry. The next time, I'll not mix all the powdered sugar with the almonds, and I'll beat in maybe a third of the sugar with the egg whites to help them become more firm.
  4. Piping the Batter--Make your rounds about an inch in diameter. I traced circles using the foot of a champagne flute--about 2 in diameter. What I didn't realize is how much the batter would expand, both during the "resting" period before baking and during the baking, itself. I now have macarons roughly the size of a bun on a McDonald's hamburger--hardly the light little sweet snack.
  5. Resting the Batter--The recipe says to let the batter sit for a few minutes. The point is to allow the raw batter to acquire a "skin" that will help them hold their shape during baking. This is essential to create the bubbly rim around the bottom edge of each dome. I think an hour or two would be better, and some others even suggest overnight (again, there's that problem of satisfying a last-minute macaron craving....)
  6. Cooling the Macarons--The domes have to be completely cooled before you even think about removing them from the parchment. I'm an impatient cook and tried too early. That's why I could only photograph two macarons. The others are a bit unusual looking....
  7. The Filling--Chocolate is chocolate. I added maple flavoring and used 71% bittersweet chocolate for my ganache. The bitterness of the chocolate plays against the maple sweetness for a very satisfying flavor.
  8. The Filling Part II--Plan in advance for something to do with extra ganache. I didn't plan and now I have a bowl of chocolate-maple ganache sitting in the fridge. Every time I open the fridge, I reach in and grab a spoonful of ganache. This is not--I repeat--not a healthy eating habit!

And if you have to ask--yes, they are delicious. Yes, I will make them again. Yes, I'll try different flavor combinations. And yes, I'll still buy a couple made by someone who knows what they're doing the next time I'm in Paris!


Anne said...

Hi Doug ! Quel courage ! Congrats for your chocolate macarons. I will add a link from my "ladurée macarons story" to your recipe !

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Truffaut said...

Wow, it's interesting that somebody could be so unhappy and bitter. Whoever you are, I do you're well, soon.

phread said...

Passover is coming an macarons are the perfect solution. I bought the ground almonds today. thanks for the inspiration!

Truffaut said...

Be sure to pass them through a sieve a few times. I suspect the ones you'd get in France will be fine enough. G actually asked me to make some more this weekend. I was thinking lemon with raspberry filling or maybe orange with orange buttercream.

acartozian said...

Thanks for the recipe, Truffaut! It's just in time to help christen my newly remodeled kitchen, and I can think of nothing I'd rather bake! Did you try the lemon with raspberry filling? I'd like to hear about them, and what you did to tweak the recipe.

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