I’ll start with a confession. I spent a week in Paris and did not sample even one macaron. Yes, I was a maca-moron. But this was seven years ago, back before macarons took over as the new cupcake. When I encountered the adorable pastel confections in patisseries, I couldn’t stomach forking over two or three Euros for a single cookie. “What?” I thought, “Are these things made out of magic and fairy dust?” Well, yes, sort of.
One day while shopping at Pike Place Market in Seattle, I heeded the siren song of Le Panier (a very French bakery—that’s not my description; it’s on their sign). After picking up a couple of twice-baked croissants to go, I spotted a selection of macarons in their bakery case. A relative bargain at $1.50 or so (they’re $2 now), I splurged on a couple.
As I bit into the pale green pistachio cookie, the crunchy, eggshell-like exterior gave way to a middle that was like the love child of a marshmallow and a cloud, only tastier. In the words of George Takei, “OH My!”
Soon after, I happened upon a slim cookbook called i love macarons. I thought, “You and me both, sister!” as I hightailed it to the checkout. Thus began my obsession.
I love macarons features lots of adorable cookie photos accented with plenty of fussy directions. On my first attempt, I followed them all: tracking down powdered sugar without cornstarch, grinding almond meal and powdered sugar together in the food processor, sifting dry ingredients twice, bringing egg whites to room temperature, etc., etc. I did not go so far as to trace guide circles on parchment paper, but still. Five hours later, I had a selection of flat, footless chocolate sandwich cookies that I dubbed “Oreos de Paris.” I’ve since learned that attempting chocolate shells the first time out is a rookie mistake. Also, I love macarons is pretty but impractical (unless you, too, bake cookies in a toaster oven and make sugar syrup in the microwave).
Second try, I went with Nigella Lawson’s pistachio macarons. After another lengthy batter-making session, I stared through the oven door, high-fiving myself when I saw frilly feet. Then my ego deflated along with the shells as they started to crack. Once filled and properly rested, they tasted great, but apart from the feet, they shared no resemblance to Le Panier’s version, so back into the kitchen I went …
But first, I prepared myself with a crash course in macaron making, reading all sorts of conflicting opinions on the Internet until I felt a case of analysis paralysis coming on and decided to just take the plunge. I spent four days in the kitchen experimenting with different recipes, cooking times, pan configurations, egg aging and oven temperatures. In retrospect, I should’ve kept notes. Oh well. At the end of my marathon baking session, I had a good handle on the French macaron technique. When presented with these pretty shells and tasty fillings (more on those in a moment), friends said “ooh la la!” (Ok, nobody actually said that, but it was implied).
Somewhere around my seventh batch of macarons, I discovered the trickier but more dependable Italian meringue method (which involves boiling-hot sugar syrup), and I stayed loyal to it for years. It consistently delivers perfectly smooth shells with crunchy exteriors and middles that magically meld with the filling. I’ll share the recipe below, after I pontificate just a little while longer.
Notoriously fussy and finicky macaron shells tend to hog the spotlight, but I believe fillings are the true stars of these cookies. If you want to spend a lot of time trying to incorporate flavors into the shells without creating structural damage, go right ahead. But I just ordered the Ladurée macaron book, and most of the recipes feature plain shells plus food coloring. If it’s good enough for Ladurée, it’s good enough for me.
Macaron shells have been known to fail for any number of reasons, but it’s nigh impossible to go wrong with the fillings. I typically start with good old American chocolate or vanilla buttercream and mix in flavors to taste. (This is the fun part—lots of taste testing!) I’ve added in:
- Peanut butter with milk chocolate pieces
- Marzipan with dark chocolate pieces
- Cream cheese and toffee bits
- Fig paste and candied ginger
- Fresh-picked blackberries (mashed up, seeds and all)
- Shredded coconut
- Biscoff cookie butter
- Lemon curd
- Coffee extract with cocoa nibs
I’ve also filled macarons with chocolate ganache, homemade caramel and a variation on pastry cream from the Ladurée book. Even flat, footless and or cracked shells can be salvaged with a great filling. No, they will not be pretty, but rest assured no one will spit them out. Here are a few more things I’ve learned, before we get to the recipe:
A Macaron Maker’s Toolkit
- Essentials: digital scale, electric mixer, piping bag, candy thermometer (Italian method).
- Helps to have: strainer (for sifting dry ingredients), parchment paper, gel food coloring, toothpicks, insulated cookie sheets (or two or three regular cookie sheets stacked on top of each other), teeny saucepan/butter warmer (Italian method).
- Extras I bought but didn’t really need: copper mixing bowl (overrated), silicone macaron baking mate (underwhelming), cornstarch-free powdered sugar (expensive—no discernible difference in quality), macaron kitchen towel (necessary? No, but super cute).
Marvelous Macaron Resources
- I learned pretty much everything I know about making macarons from the Not So Humble Pie blog. Ms. Humble takes macaron making to an obsessively nerdy level. But I’m still a little bitter about her glowing recommendation of copper bowls. That’s $80 I’ll never see again.
- This macaron mythbusters post by Stella at BraveTart changed my macaron-making life. Caveats: She claims you can make macarons out of peanuts; I’ve tried twice with results ranging from inedible to fear-inducing. She also pooh-poohs the Italian meringue method. I agree it’s not a must, but it makes for prettier macarons.
- Macarons, simplified: Stella’s recipe delivers delicious macarons in a fraction of the time. Note: multi-tasking streamlines this even further—get the meringue going in the KitchenAid while measuring and sifting dry ingredients.
- For visual learners, watch this 5-minute macaron tutorial. It’s not the highest quality video and the ingredient proportions/techniques are slightly different from mine, but this will give you a good idea of what the Italian meringue process looks like at various stages.
Ok, I could go on for days about macarons, but my deadline to get this post up is quickly approaching so I’ve got to wrap this up. On to the recipe! Also, what’s the best macaron you’ve ever eaten? Got any tips for success or disaster stories? Please share!