Part I. As I squeezed my way through the crowds at Formaggio Kitchen a man thrust out his hand and asked "Would you like to try a macaron?" "What is it?" I stammered dropping my sundries so that I could fetch the brightly colored cookie from his outstretched palm. "It's a french almond cookie." That was the beginning of a love affair with Craig's macarons.
Unable to find a good recipe or another shop we liked, we relished every chewy morsel and eagerly awaited our next purchase. We chatted with Craig, the french pastry chef who made them, each time we visited. But one day Craig was gone - along with his macarons. We inquired as to Craig's whereabouts, and learned that he had returned to his native France to bake for those who truly appreciated his creations - the French. Stunned and saddened, we made our way home.
Part II. (2007) The bellman graciously opened the door and ushered us in to the plush Louis XIV lobby, "Bonjour Madame, Bonjour Monsieur," he said. We had arrived in Paris. Five nights and six days devoted to one mission: to find the perfect macaron.
From one world-class patisserie to the next - chocolate, raspberry and pistachio macarons. To the great chocolate houses and candy shops - more macarons. At the end of the 5th day, exhausted and on a bit of a sugar high, we were no closer to finding the perfect macaron than we were when we started. The mass produced macarons looked good, but tasted mass produced. The shops that had smaller productions were better. Don't get me wrong, they were all good. But none were as tasty as what we had before. We boarded our flight, said good-bye to Paris... and said goodbye to macarons.
Part Three (2008). It was one of those days where I was spending much too much time on the internet. Just as I was about to shut down the computer I somehow linked to a blog called Cannelle et Vanille. What a surprise. I had never seen such beautiful photography, food and recipes. I clicked through the pages admiring the creations and then it appeared - a recipe for Vanilla Bean Macarons.
The bowls came out and the mixing commenced. Patiently, I waited the requisite baking time and triumphantly pulled the macarons out of the oven. They were flat - deflated, wrinkled, pathetic little discs on the sheet pan. My heart sank.
I decided to e-mail Chef Aran and ask about my failure. Much to my surprise, she replied and explained the difficulties associated with making macarons. Temperature, mixing, the age of the egg whites - everything had to be perfect. And that is when my tutorial with Aran began.
This went on for a solid week. I'd make a batch and tell her about the results, she'd review the possible issues and provide solutions. I made them over and over again. Finally, it worked. The macaron came out perfect. Light shell, good foot, balanced color. Perfect. Here is the recipe combined with some of the lessons that I learned from her.
Cannelle et Vanille's Vanilla Bean Macarons
180 grams almond flour
240 grams powdered sugar
2 grams fine sea salt
140 grams organic egg whites, aged
3 grams egg white powder
80 grams plain or vanilla sugar
-Measure the egg whites and store them in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours before using.
-Sift into separate bowl the almond flour and powdered sugar. Make sure your ingredients aren't damp. This can occur if you're kitchen is high in humidity or if you make your own sugars. Use dry ingredients only.
-Add to the bowl of your stand mixer the egg whites and egg powder.
-Whip into stiff glossy peaks, adding sugar near end. (This is also where you'd add the food coloring of your choice.) The whites should hold a peak but fall over a bit at the top when the whisk is pulled away.
-Using a spatula, fold the egg whites into the dry ingredients. Fold them to just before ribbon stage and then test a teaspoon of the batter on a Silpat. If the batter leaves a point on the top, fold a bit more and test again. You want the batter to spread out just a bit so that it's flat and smooth on top. If the batter is runny and spreads out too much, you've over-folded. It's better to over-test than have to discard the batch.
-Using a #5 tip and a pastry bag, pipe about a quarter size of the batter onto a Silpat. Allow the batter to dry for 30 minutes to an hour. How long to dry depends on the indoor temperature and the humidity in the room. For example, in my low humidity kitchen at 75 degrees, they dry for 40-45 minutes. They should be firm and not sticky to the touch when dry. If they don't dry properly, they'll crack or form an ugly skin. If they dry too much, they'll taste like chewy lead. Practice.
-Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (my uneven oven requires the temperature to be 325 degrees - it's trial and error). I only bake one sheet pan at a time. I rotate the pan after 9 minutes and I continue to bake for 2-5 minutes more depending on the size. They should be firm at the top but not brown.
-Place the sheet pan on a cooling rack. Once completely cool, peel the silpat away from the macarons. Don't use a spatula, you'll destroy the foot.
- Fill with what pleases you - buttercream, jam, ganache, etc.
As I look out the kitchen window at the vibrant fall leaves and plump pumpkins, it's hard to believe another year has gone by. I am making autumn macarons with chocolate ganache. They are flawless.
I can't help but think about the generosity of Aran and the time that she took to help me learn this skill. Thank you Aran. I can now say with confidence that these are the best macarons we have ever tasted.
And the best part? We will never, ever have to go outside of our own kitchen to find the perfect macaron again.