French Macaron Obsession

Some people would say I am a bit obsessed. I say I have a healthy determination to achieve the challenge I’ve set upon myself. I had seen macarons in pastry shops and had had them served as part of dessert in France numerous times. But I didn’t think much of it. Yes, they are pretty to look at (almost too pretty to eat), and generally delightful to the palate. But so are so many other desserts or pastries…
Since a friend recommended David Lebovitz’s blog, I’ve enjoyed reading his intelligent, amusing and interesting things he has to share. And one of his posts especially caught my eye, Ketchup Macarons, by Pierre Herme. Now, that promised to be different! I like different; and I like challenges and creating things. So, this got me thinking that I could make macarons with exotic flavours.The problem is: I had never made a macaron in my life.

Step One: research
Step Two: buy recipe books
Step Three: master the macaron shell making
Step Four: indulge in my determinationIndulging in my determination has filled my freezer with multiple containers of macaron sandwiches and shells. My husband keeps asking me who is going to eat all of them. I simply retort that we’ll have to have a party! However, in the meantime, I do make frequent visits to the freezer for a taste or two and have taken some pretty pictures of them…but I’m stepping ahead of myself.

Step One was relatively time consuming and nauseating. There are SO many people out there with the same determination. It seems like there is a global social phenomenon called macaron obsession, which is daunting. So, I stopped doing online research and bought myself two books: one, Pierre Herme’s Macarons, and two, Mad About Macarons by Jill Colonna. My friend Julie, who seems to share the same madness as I, recommended Jill’s book. And I’ve found that it’s very easy to use; and as a bonus, Jill’s recipes are lower in sugar content than most. (It would be interesting to create a sugar-free macaron! In the meantime, at least it’s a gluten-free pastry, for those of you with gluten issues.)

In addition to the books, Julie and I took a class at L’Atelier des Chefs, which demystified the shell making process for me. I found it rather easy and straight-forward. We followed the class by a joint macaron making session, which resulted in a perfect batch. But it wasn’t until two batches later on my own, that I finally felt like I had mastered the shell making.

My first batch with perfect pieds!

Two very important ingredients have nothing to do with recipes, and more with one’s personality: preparation and Patience! I capitalise patience because making macarons is about exercising a lot of it. Cooking in general, and baking, specifically, is a chemical process, which oftentimes involves waiting. Not a good word for an impatient person as myself.

But, I can now boast that I don’t need therapy for developing patience. Macaron making has done the trick. 😉

As I like being creative and cannot stick to following a recipe to the tee, I’ve come up with some of my own adaptations. One I would like to share here is Beetroot-Sambal Macarons.

Beetroot-Sambal Macarons

Beetroot-Sambal Macarons
(adapted from Jill Colonna’s Macarons Beeterave et Raifort)
Ingredients for Shells

  • 150 g of organic egg whites, aged at room temperature for a few hours
  • 100 g of fine caster sugar
  • 180 g of ground almonds
  • 270 g of icing sugar (finer than powdered sugar)
  • Light green food colouring
Ingredients for Ganache
  • 100 g of organic butter, softened
  • 10 g of cornflour, like Maizena brand
  • 50 ml of beetroot juice
  • 50 g of beetroot, finely grated or chopped
  • 4 tbsp of sambal sauce, extra hot

Process
Shells: I find it’s easier to anticipate and prepare everything in advance, than have to do it once the mixture is ready. So, I prepare my cookie sheets and parchment paper before starting. For the amount produced from this batch, I can generally make three and a half cookie sheets of shells. So, I cut just enough parchment paper to cover the cookie sheets. Do not used waxed paper. The results will not be the same. Also, the cookie sheets work better if they have breathing holes, instead of regular solid sheets. The holes prevent the shells’ bottom from burning or changing colour.

Following Jill’s basic macaron recipe:

  • Measure out all of the ingredients first. Although it really pays to be precise as much as possible, I have found that a gram or two will not make a huge difference
  • Using a medium to fine sieve (I purchased a round, flat one at L’Atelier des Chefs, which is wonderful), sift the ground almonds and icing sugar. If you have large chunks left in the bottom, weigh them and discard them. Replace them with more ground almonds to ensure you have the specified 180 g.
  • Whisk the egg whites with an electric beater. When the egg whites start to turn airy, add the caster sugar. (Jill recommends adding it gradually; I find it doesn’t make a difference.) Continuing whisking until glossy firm peaks form and until you can turn the bowl upside-down and the whites do not fall out. Be careful as to not over-whisk. If you do, your shells will turn out too dry and crack in the baking process. Whisk just until the whites no longer fall out of the bowl. I keep checking when I’m getting close to this point.
  • Incorporate the beaten egg whites into the dry ingredients. Mix well with a rubber spatula.
  • Add food colouring at this point. At L’Atelier, they used powdered food colouring, which I’ve found works best and provides the desired colourful results we are looking for. You can also add the colouring when you add the egg whites to the dry ingredients.
  • Work the mixture (macaronnage) until the colour is uniform and the batter forms a soft and brilliant mixture that forms a “ribbon” on the spatula. Do not overwork. If the mixture is too liquid, your shells will be flat and not form pieds. If the mixture is not worked enough, your shells will be dry and crack. Generally, after a few tries, your eyes will be trained to determine this point.
  • Transfer the mixture to a piping bag. I use disposable bags. I turn down the top of the bag to cover my hands before putting the mixture into the bag with the spatula. I tie the end with a rubber band, and cut the tip off with the scissors. I generally do not use a nozzle, but if you wish to use one, it should be plain and inserted into the bag prior to the mixture.
  • Pipe out the desired size of rounds (about 3cm diameter for medium macaron shells) onto the parchment papers. Press the tip of the piping bag down on the paper then finish off with a flourish to obtain a nice round. Do leave some space between each round, as they do spread out a bit. I usually can achieve 7 shells across and 5 to 6 shells down the parchment sheets. But that will depend on the size of your cookie sheets, as well as how large you make the rounds.
  • Leave for about 30 minutes to set (crouter-the u has a cute hat on it!). The crouter step helps the mixture harden on the outside and moist on the inside. You will know when they are ready, because they will be hard to the touch (don’t poke your finger in it, just delicately touch them). This process helps form the pieds later in the oven. Without the pieds a macaron is not a macaron!
  • Before leaving to set, if you wish to decorate the shells, you can add seeds, edible gold, sprinkles, coconut, etc to the shells. The decoration will adhere to the mixture and bake into the shell later in the oven. For the decoration I used on the Beetroot-Sambal shells, I actually painted them, after they came out of the oven, with a brush dipped in food colouring.
  • While setting, preheat the oven to 160C fan setting. If you do not have a fan setting, you may need to make the temperature slightly higher.
  • Bake in the center of the oven for about 10-12 minutes. I usually check about half time, to see how they are progressing. You should be able to touch them, and they should not wiggle, when they are ready.
  • I place two trays in the oven. If I see one is baking quicker than the other, I switch them around and also turn them around, so that the front is facing the back and vice versa to ensure a uniform bake and colour in the shells.
  • When ready, remove the trays from the oven, and remove the parchment paper onto a marble or cool surface. I then proceed to continue baking the rest of the shells.
  • Once the shells are cool, remove from the parchment paper, by lifting the paper off the shells, not the reverse. This process prevents the shells from breaking or leaving pieces of dough behind.
  • Pair up the shells on a surface, at a height which will be easy for you to pipe the ganache/filling onto them. The shells should be turned inside up, with the pieds facing you and the filling.
  • Prepare another piping bag with your filling, just as you prepared the bag with the macaron shell mixture. Pipe the filling, just as you did the mixture onto each upturned shell. Remember, the macarons are sandwiches. So, only one shell gets the filling, while the other will be the cover to the cookie.
Ganache
  • Cream butter and set aside.
  • Heat the beet juice, add to the cornflour, and transfer back to heat. Using a whisk, move constantly until thickened.
  • Add the sambal, according to your taste. I used 3-4 tbsp for this recipe. I wanted the macarons to be spicy enough for a kick and a good contrast to the sugar of the shells. Whisk until well mixed.
  • Once the mixture is cool, beat in the creamed butter and grated beetroot.
  • The ganache should be a thick mixture, thick enough to hold its shape and not slide out of the shells, but still soft enough to pipe easily. If the mixture is not thick enough, try cooling further in the fridge or by placing the mixture bowl inside another bowl with cold, ice water, and continue mixing with whisk until you reach the desired consistency.
  • Pipe ganache onto shells and make sandwiches.
I place my macarons in the freezer and thaw a few minutes before serving. I find I get better results than leaving them out or eating immediately. You can also chill in the fridge for 24 hours before serving.
A Gouter!