I've been reading and re-reading a 17-page eGullet thread about macarons, the French almond meringue-like cookie often sandwiched with a buttercream filling. Before we go further, I want to distinguish between macaron and macaroon. The latter are an American confection, usually a gooey coconut cookie but sometimes a dense, chewy almond cookie. Neither of those describes the French version. The French version is much like a meringue. The outside is crisp but the inside is chewy. I've seen the chocolate ones described as the best brownie you've ever eaten.
However, I've never eaten a macaron before. For all I know they're crap and I'm wasting my time, my egg whites, and more importantly, my expensive almond meal. But that eGullet thread has been calling me for months. I recently accumulated several egg whites, got some almond meal at a health food store, and decided it was time.
While perusing the eG thread for about the tenth time I noticed that one person mentioned using a recipe from Sweet Miniatures. I got excited - I could kill two birds with one stone! I could make progress on the book, yet make these cookies I've been drooling over for months. Since I've read dozens of recipes and discussions on the web, I compared Flo's recipe to them. Hers is for a chocolate macaron (which she calls macaroons - I suppose she is writing for an American audience, but I tire of having things dumbed down for me). The proportions and ingredients seem pretty close to many other recipes - so far so good. Egg white, powdered sugar, almond meal/flour (I've seen it written both ways, and I'm not sure which is more accurate), and cocoa. That's it.
Since I read a lot of horror stories about making macarons, I decided to get my act together and have a thorough mise en place. This is the most organized I've been for a recipe in a long time. It really does make the final process so much easier; I really should do it this way all the time. But often I don't and sometimes I forget an ingredient or something. Bad Darcie.
Macarons seem fraught with potential disaster, from cracked tops to wrinkled tops, voids between the shell and the interior of the cookie, no rise, too much rise, no "feet" and other hazards. This is why I waited so long to try my hand at these confections.
There are three things in Flo's recipe that I found unusual, but I proceeded with her instructions anyway. The first is that she has you sift the almond meal/flour (actually she instructs you to grind almonds in the food processor, but I already bought the durn meal), powdered sugar and cocoa together to blend and remove any lumps. This is not unusual, but she has you use the bits left over in the strainer. Most recipes call for any pieces too large to fit through the strainer to be discarded. I hoped that the resulting cookie wouldn't be too grainy.
The second thing that struck me was her instruction regarding oven temperature. She has you use 475 degrees Fahrenheit initially, turning down the thermostat 25 degrees every 2 minutes until you reach 350. If ovens lost temperature at 25 degrees every 2 minutes, set at 475 it would take only 36 minutes to reach room temperature with the door closed. I don't think so. On the first batch I decided to open the door every couple of minutes to help the temperature go down. It seemed to work pretty well. For the second batch, I decided to bake them at a lower temperature and not bother with it. They turned out practically the same, so there's one less hassle for next time.
The third thing wasn't really a defect in the recipe so much as that I disagreed with how it was written. Flo instructs you to put parchment on a baking sheet, then pipe the batter into rounds on the sheet. After that you are to put the baking sheet in another sheet for insulation. Why not just put two sheets together in the first place? So much easier, plus, if you didn't have enough sheets for a full recipe, you might not catch that until you're ready for the oven. But I guess that is a minor complaint. On with the baking.
One instruction in many recipes that I found unusual is that the cookies are to sit for at least 30 minutes after piping before they are baked. This is to allow a "skin" to form on the cookies which will ostensibly keep them from cracking and/or rising too much. Many recipes also call for the batter to "flow like lava." I find that funny because how many people have actually seen a lava flow? I've seen it on TV, but that really doesn't make me an expert on how it flows. Perhaps a trip to Hawaii is in order, just in the interest of making the perfect batter.
I was striving for macaron perfection, like the cookie shown here. I felt unlikely that I would achieve it my first time, since these cookies seem to be finicky. Also, most people say that the best recipes call for an Italian meringue (a hot sugar syrup poured into beaten egg whites which creates a very stable meringue) as opposed to a regular meringue like Flo uses. I didn't get perfection, but they weren't terrible either. I got little "feet" on the bottom (what the frilly edge is called), but they deflated a bit upon standing. The tops were smooth and not cracked, which is good. All in all they were good for a first effort.
I had read that these are very difficult to remove from the parchment. Most recipes call for putting the cookies in the freezer to aid in removal, so that's what I did, although Flo doesn't instruct you to do so. I tried pulling one cookie off the sheet before freezing, and a lot remained on the parchment. After freezing, they came off much more cleanly.
You can see my results at the top. They really do taste like an excellent brownie. Some people say these taste better after ripening in the fridge a day or two. I'll let you know - if they last that long.