Zen and the Art of French Baking – Perfect French Macarons

Zen and the Art of French Baking

Scenes from my last post:  Alas we see our heroine (played by me) confronting her fears and, with a bit of careful instruction, succeeding in deboning a turkey.  To tell you the truth, this task was never really more than a bit of drama then an actual fear.  I actually looked forward to learning how to skilfully fillet that beast, preparing by carefully sharpening my knives like a serial killer with an evil grin on my face.  No, this was no fear. I enjoyed it waayy too much.

 Over the years, I’ve taken on many culinary challenges with equal zeal; Baguettes, croissant lacquered dough, soufflés, home made cheese, etc… except one. 

 This summer, we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary in the Alsace region of France.  Anyone lucky enough to visit this region will be greeted by its famous steely white wines and hearty cuisine. One Saturday afternoon while walking through the medieval streets of Colmar, we come to Patisserie Gilg.  In its modern interior every sugared creation was showcased on its own special pedestal, some even with dramatic lighting.  It looked more like the Museum of Modern Edible Art than a pastry shop, all works too intricate and artsy to actually eat.   Marko and I walked studiously around the store admiring each piece; a few steps back, pondering, while thoughtfully rubbing our chins.   “This cake has influences of Mondriaan.  Yes, I am seeing a bit of Frank Lloyd Wright in that one.” we joke to each other. 

Actually, I consider myself a baker, but I would never try to replicate any of these creations.  They are way too fussy for me. I prefer things that people will actually eat not wear as a hat. So my admiration is justified but I’m just not intrigued.   As we walk around, we come to a refrigerated case.  In this case, glowing under its own special lighting, I see my next obsession.  Perfect little buttons in a bevy of vivid colors and flavors, each filled with its own special genache and encircled by little lacy collars: French Macarons. 

Now I must try these!  Bite-sized bits in the most intriguing flavors like ‘Pommes d’Amore’.  Translated this means ‘Apples of Love’.  How romantic is that?  When I get home, I search to find that this is what the French call those red cinnamon candy apples.  I love the French! They can even make a sickly sweet carnival treat sound like food of the Gods.  I decide to try two flavors:  Chocolate and Caramel.  After I express my selection to the handsome young man behind the counter, he does something completely unexpected.  Instead of grabbing a pair of tongs and sticking them in a bag like every other bakery on earth would, he ceremoniously dons a pair of white cotton gloves and carefully slides each cookie in their own tiny clear plastic bag and packs them together in a small white box.  WOW! A cookie that gets the white-glove-treatment!!  Suddenly, I begin to feel intimidated.  How difficult can these be?  At a-euro-fifty apiece for an inch and a half cookie, they better be good though!! 

And they are. Marko and I find a café and order coffees.  When our coffees arrive, I gingerly place the box between us. With a deep breath, I open the box and remove the bag with the caramel cookie inside.  Let’s start with the one with the lightest flavour, I said as if we were at a wine tasting. Taking the cookie between my two fingers, I take the ever-so-slightest nibble. “And? And?”, Marko asks.  Sweet, almondy, with a distinct taste of caramelized sugar. Their extra fine texture as light as air with their filling giving them substance. Yes.  I HAVE to make these.

When we get home, I google to find to the recipe only to discover that these are some uber-trendy rage at the moment.  RAGE!?  Have I been living under a rock or something?  I’ve never seen or even heard of these until just last week?  Am I a day late and a dollar short on this one?   I always consider myself on-top of the latest culinary trends. Maybe I’m just too close to the fire here. 

All my obsessions start with a bit of research.  I have to warn anyone doing research for a French recipe, it’s just as intimidating as French cooking itself.  I found all kinds of warnings, and signals and techniques as to what temperature the ingredients must be and how to whip the egg whites just so. Do you let the formed buttons sit overnight to get a shiny crust or just wack ‘em in the oven?  What do you have to do to get those nice collars on the bottom?.…failure and success stories abound.  UGH!  I don’t want to have to make these 20 times!  I just want to try them once maybe twice.  Geez, I totally psyched myself out now. 

After settling on a recipe from  Pure Gourmandise, a French site with recipes for all kinds of macarons (check out the McAron,  a cookie that looks like a hamburger.  Oh so cute) ,  I cut and paste the entire recipe into a French to English translator. The ingredients are simple enough; egg whites, ground almonds, sugar and some flavouring.  Viola!  I’m going to follow this to the letter.

About two months ago, I prepared the dry ingredients in full hopes of trying this. To this day, I still hadn’t tried it.  Besides a small drop of intimidation,  I don’t know,  maybe the mood wasn’t right.  I just wasn’t in the right place mentally.   There was always something; too rushed, not in the mood, something else to make.  Me, the recipe, and the ingredients just weren’t at ‘one’.   Today, I’m forcing myself in a bit of a state of Zen.  All the ingredients are laid out before me. The translated recipe taped to the wall in front of the counter where I’ll be working.   Ommmm, Be the cookie, Ommmm

 As I follow the recipe, I realize that it is much simpler than I expected. It really is just a lesson in how to beat egg whites to the correct consistency. Many of the warnings/ recommendations  are actually  unnecessary and that by following a few simple principles and a bit of luck, you will have a reasonable chance of success.  

These principles are:

  1. Make sure your utensils and bowls are absolutely fat free. 
  2. Make sure all your ingredients are room temperature.
  3. Make sure your oven is exactly 350F (175C).  Test your oven with a good thermometer. 
  4. For inch and a half (3cm) buttons, bake the buttons for exactly 11 minutes. 

 Macarons au Chocolate

Adapted from Pure Gourmandaise

 3 Egg whites
200g (1 Cup) regular white sugar
125g Almond powder (made by putting blanched almonds through a food processor, then a fine sieve)
15g cocoa powder
30g Powdered/Confectioner’s sugar

To make genache:

120g  Dark(pure) chocolate
80g Butter  (I used salted butter)
30g Heavy cream

 Hardware

3 identical baking sheets, a food processor, a mixer with a whip attachment, a sieve, a measuring cup, household scale, parchment paper, a pastry bag with a wide, round tip, spatula

Instructions:

The dark chocolate ganache

1. Melt chocolate, butter and cream over low heat (or microwave). Mix well and smooth. Cool.  It will become a thick paste.
 

Chocolate macaroons

Preheat oven to 350F/175C

2. Mix cocoa with powdered sugar and almond powder in a food processor until fine. Sift through a sieve.

3. Add a small pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat  until stiff,  adding a spoonful of sugar when the whisk leaves a mark, then putting in the rest and whisking at full speed until it reaches a soft-peak stage.  This is when you lift the beaters (or whisk) you will see peaks that will fall slightly over after a few seconds. The eggs will be bright white and glossy. It will look like cake frosting.   

4. Sprinkle the powder mixture gradually  into the whites and mix with the  spatula. The mixture should be shiny, smooth, and form a ribbon when falling back into the bowl.  It will look like cake batter.

5. Prepare a sheet of parchment on a baking sheet.  I pre-drew 3cm circles with a pen before starting.

6. Put the batter in a pastry bag and form small 3cm domes onto the parchment on a cookie sheet.

 7.  While it is recommended to wait 20 minutes or even overnight before baking, I just put them in the oven right away…and the earth continued to revolve.   Apparently waiting a bit also helps in removing from the parchment.  Mine stuck a bit but nothing serious. 

8.  This is going to sound weird but it really works in order to get that classic lace collar:  Stack the cookie sheet on two other  identical cookie sheets (yes, you will have a stack of 3 cookie sheets) . Bake for 11 minutes at 175 ° C. (13 to 17 minutes for larger buttons).

Assembly

9. Let the buttons cool a few minutes on a wire rack, then take off the buttons from the parchment. If cooked properly, they should come off easily, if not bake a minute or two more.

10. Paste the buttons in pairs with a dollop of chocolate ganache in between.

Storing

To be the best tasting, it is advisable to let them cool in the refrigerator at least a day before. Of course, this is not always easy to resist the temptation …

It can also be frozen and they thaw very well at room temperature. But remember that they can be thawed then refrozen!

 AHHH….The stars are all aligned and I am at one once again with the culinary universe.

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