Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Those Cute Little Feet (or French Macaroons)

A month ago, one of my good friends asked if I, his friend-who-just-graduated-from-culinary-school, could help him with something.

I was more than happy to oblige, but when I found out what it was for, I tried my best not to fall into a pile of girly mushiness.

Apparently he had befriended a cute girl at a recent group dinner, and for dessert noticed she was "gobbling up" a plate of French macaroons. So my friend decided that in order to show his affection, he would learn how to make macaroons and present them to her.

I know, "awwwww" right?

"No problem!" I told my friend after I heard the story.

Except that there WAS a problem. I never learned how to make macaroons in school. I mean, I learned how to make the coconut kind, but not the French kind. So after extensive reading, here is what I learned about making French macaroons:

-A proper macaroon is smooth with no cracks
-A proper macaroon has "feet"--a crackly, puffed second layer that measures about 1/16-inch high. If your macaroon has no feet, you either overmixed it or underbaked.
-You have to be in a good mood for them to turn out right.

Ok, sounded simple enough. And the recipe I was using sounded simple too. My pastry teacher even let me make a batch at school during one of the nights I was assisting her.

An hour later, the pastry teacher came round and asked me how the macaroons were coming along. "Great!" I replied, and showed her my tray of piped macaroons. She shook her head in disapproval.

"You underbeat the egg whites," she said. "See how they are spreading out as they are drying?"

I decided I would make round two at home.

This time, my friend was around to help me. I made sure the egg whites were at a definite stiff peak this time, but unfortunately my friend was still sifting the almond meal by the time the whites were done and waiting. So I kept whisking, and I should have listened to my gut to NOT add the expensive almond meal in, to just start over, but I didn't. By the time my friend added in the sifted almond meal, I knew it was a lost cause. The whites were dry and crumbly. We baked them anyway. They turned out like little turds:

Lovely, purply turds. But turds. With no feet.

Time for round three. This time I whipped the whites until they were *almost* to a stiff peak but not quite. I also decided not to dye them with any color. I didn't need any more factors that might ruin this batch.

Better, but they still spread out a little more than they should have. Meaning, I just barely underbeat the egg whites again. Also I should have achieved more feet--so I might have underbaked them just a bit.

So three trials later, this is what I learned:
-Do not underbeat the egg whites, or they will spread and become flat.
-Do not overbeat the egg whites, or you will end up with snail-like turds.
-For perfection, keep trying. One day, you might get there.

French Macaroons
200g confectioner's sugar (aka powdered sugar)
110g blanched almond meal (available at most grocery stores)
100g egg whites, room temp, preferably aged overnight
Cream of tartar
30g granulated sugar

Food coloring (optional)

1) Sift together confectioner's sugar and almond meal and set aside.
2) In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk egg whites and a pinch of cream of tartar to a foam. Gradually add sugar and whip to a stiff peak. Whites should be firm and shiny. If desired, add food coloring.
3) Add sugar-almond mixture to whites and fold until completely incorporated. The mixture should be smooth, shiny and able to flow off a spoon.
4) Pipe small rounds (about 1 1/2") with a piping bag onto parchment covered sheet trays. Let macaroons dry at room temp for an hour.
5) Bake at 300 for about 16 minutes.

Cool completely, then fill with buttercream, jelly or ganache.

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