Ethereal to the tongue, bright and pleasing to the eye, the dainty Parisian pastries known as macarons are tiny bites of luxury.
Made of little more than almonds, egg whites and sugar, often dyed to a bright, lacquerlike sheen, the shells are tantalizingly crisp, with a slightly springy interior. Dissolving in the mouth, they give way to fillings of beguiling and delicious variety: ganache, buttercream or citrus- and whiskey-soaked concoctions dancing with complexity.
All this decadence comes at some cost. Trendy macarons are expensive to buy and intimidating to make. Rumors that they are "the new cupcake" have been greatly exaggerated. Only a person who has never executed a macaron would offer to bake them for a party.
Jialin Tian's lovely little book Macaron Magic (Jayca, $17.95), includes impeccable step-by-step directions and photographs and is filled with all kinds of macarons that reflect her personal tastes: tea and espresso, coconut and lemon grass, Georgia peanuts and pecans, margaritas and mojitos.
Tian, who received a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from Georgia Tech in 2004, is a native of China who lives in Virginia and conducts research for NASA. She fell in love with classic macarons in Paris about a decade ago. She perfected her craft while living in Atlanta.
Tian's book espouses the careful precision and methodology of a highly disciplined and analytical mind. And making macaron shells is a science, let me tell you. It takes practice, and patience.
To get that authentic look, the shells should puff up and sit on little "feet." When you sandwich them together, they are supposed to look like tiny hamburgers — not whoopie pies. The shells are made by blending a paste of aged egg whites and almond meal with a stiff Italian meringue, then adding color if desired. "Aging" egg whites means you let them dry overnight (or longer) in the refrigerator. Because eggs vary in size, you must weigh the whites — all the ingredients, really — before assembling the batter.
"Variables such as the texture of the almond flour, the temperature and state of the sugar, the moisture content of the egg whites, and the viscosity of the macaron batter," Tian writes, "as well as random environmental variables such as ambient temperature and humidity, can all play a crucial role in macaron baking."
No surprise that my first batch was a major failure. I might have overmixed the batter, and the almond meal could have been too fine. (I now think a bit of coarseness helps bind the ingredients, and the tiny bumps virtually disappear under cover of dye and shiny shell.) I committed two other no-nos: I didn't weigh the egg whites, and I don't think my Italian meringue was stiff (or cool) enough. You have to beat the meringue for quite a long time — 15 or 20 minutes — and measure the temperature along the way.
"I think the common mistake most people make is not to make the Italian meringue correctly," Tian said.
On my second try, I ground my own almond meal, increased the baking temperature from 325 to 335 degrees and doubled the thickness of the baking pan by adding a second tray.
Voila! The shells puffed up magically.
Most of Tian's fanciful creations begin with two basic recipes, for shells and Swiss meringue buttercream. By adding color and flavorings, she creates magic.
Italian meringue is an essential component of the shells, but because it's hard to make the meringue in a stand mixer with one or two egg whites, Tian uses four, which makes enough shells for about 90 macarons. (Hey, they are small, and they freeze well.)
If this seems like a lot of work, pace yourself. Make the fillings one day, shells the next. To add variety, we divided the batter and the Swiss meringue buttercream in half to create Meyer lemon and rose water- scented macarons. We dyed the shells bright yellow for the Meyer lemon and a pretty rose pink for the rose water.
For this recipe — which takes about 4 hours to make (plus overnight time for aging egg whites) — fresh egg whites are "aged" overnight to reduce moisture content. Because eggs vary in size, it is essential to weigh the egg whites before assembling the batter. Be sure to take temperature readings on the Italian meringue, and beat it until it is quite stiff and cooled to about 95 degrees. Hot meringue will soften the batter, reducing thickness and viscosity. You want your shells to make little "feet." Don't worry if they don't. They'll still taste good.
Basic macaron shells
For the base:
4 ounces aged egg whites (about 4 egg whites), at room temperature
2 cups blanched whole almonds or 22⁄3 cups blanched almond flour
1½ cups granulated sugar
Powdered food coloring, water soluble (optional; see note below)
For the Italian meringue:
4 ounces fresh egg whites (about 4 egg whites), at room temperature
½ teaspoon dried egg white powder
1½ cups granulated sugar
1⁄3 cup distilled water
1 recipe of Swiss meringue buttercream (recipe follows)
On the day before baking, separate 4 eggs and place the whites in a mixing bowl. Loosely cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Reserve yolks for another use. One hour before baking, take the aged egg whites out of the refrigerator and allow them to return to room temperature.
In the bowl of a food processor, combine blanched whole almonds (or almond flour) and 1½ cups granulated sugar. Process the almond-sugar mixture for about 15 seconds or until mixture becomes a fine powder. Do not overmix. Pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl and reserve.
Mix powdered food c oloring (if using) with the aged egg whites. Add the colored egg whites to the reserved almond-sugar mixture. Mix all ingredients well with a spatula or bowl scraper until a thick, sticky paste has formed. Set aside.
To make Italian meringue: Place fresh egg whites in a 5-quart electric-mixer bowl. Add the dried egg white powder. Attach the mixer bowl to the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.
Cook the 1½ cups granulated sugar and water in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir constantly until the sugar has dissolved, about 2 minutes. When the mixture comes to a boil, insert a candy thermometer and stop stirring. When the sugar syrup reaches 230 degrees, turn on the mixer and beat the egg whites at high speed. When the sugar syrup reaches 244 degrees, slowly pour the syrup in a steady stream along the sides of the mixer bowl while the mixer is whisking. Continue to beat until stiff, glossy peaks form and the meringue has cooled to about 95 degrees, about 15 minutes.
Mix the Italian meringue with the almond-sugar paste using a spatula or bowl scraper until a soft, glossy batter forms. When lifted up with the spatula, the batter should flow back into the bowl in ribbons.
To make shells: Preheat a conventional oven to 325 degrees. Line a 13-by-18-inch baking tray with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
Fill a large (18-inch) pastry bag fitted with a 3⁄8-inch plain tip with macaron batter. Pipe the mixture into 1-inch mounds on the baking mat, leaving about 1 inch between each mound. The mixture will spread out to about 1½ inches in diameter.
Gently tap the baking pan against a hard surface to reduce air bubbles in the batter. Use a toothpick to pop any remaining air bubbles. Bake shells for about 12-15 minutes on the upper-level rack in the oven. Cook in batches, if necessary. Remove the baking pan from the oven and place it on a cooling rack.
Let shells cool completely before removing them from the silicone mat. Place them on a large clean surface with the smooth side up. Flip over half of the shells and pipe the Swiss meringue buttercream (or other filling of choice) onto the shells using a medium (12-inch) pastry bag. Cover with remaining shells to make sandwiches. Makes shells for 85 to 90 (1½ -inch) macarons.
Refrigerate overnight. Macarons will stay fresh for about 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator or about 3 to 4 weeks stored in the freezer. Serve at room temperature.
Adapted from Macaron Magic by Jialin Tian
Swiss meringue buttercream
4 ounces fresh egg whites (about 4 egg whites), at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1½ cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
Combine egg whites and granulated sugar in a 5-quart electric-mixer bowl. Place the bowl over a saucepan filled with simmering water over medium-low heat. Beat the egg whites and sugar with a balloon whisk constantly until mixture turns opaque, glossy and warm to the touch (about 160 degrees), about 3 minutes.
Remove bowl from the water bath, and attach bowl to the mixer fitted with the wire whisk attachment. Beat the mixture on high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form and the meringue has cooled to room temperature, about 5 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low, and whisk in the soft butter in small increments. Make sure each addition of butter is completely incorporated into the meringue before adding more butter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula if necessary. Once all the butter is incorporated (about 10 minutes), adjust the mixer to medium-high speed. Continue to beat for a few more minutes or until the buttercream is light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Makes filling for 85 to 90 (1½ -inch) macarons
Add flavoring ingredients such as rose water or Meyer lemon curd if using. Whisk to combine, about 1 minute. Place the buttercream in a container. Cover the surface of the buttercream directly with plastic wrap. Use at room temperature.
Adapted from Macaron Magic