The usual suspects in London are Ladurée and Pierre Hermés in Selfridges, but I noticed Maison du Chocolat had started knocking them out in little boxes and other places - bakeries and patissieres - experimenting. They are highly flavoured, delicate, soft and crunchy at the same time, very sweet and also often bizzare. The classics are peerless; I have a particular fondness for Ladurée's caramel-filled and their coffee macaron are heaven. You can only eat a couple at a time because they are rich and sweet, but the texture and flavour explosions are sublime.
Finding them in Leeds, of course, is not likely to happen anytime soon so the only way to get them here is to make 'em. If you've ever tried making meringue before you'll know it takes more than just a smile and a quick whizz of the whisk; everything can affect how well they come out, and macarons are worse. A friend's father-in-law is a genuine, honest-to-goodness French patissier and even he steers clear of macarons because they are a faff to make. The sugar you use, the almonds, the humidity of the kitchen, and even the heat distribution of your baking sheets can make a huge difference, and if you over or under-mix by the tiniest amount the difference can be a soggy puddle or a cracked brick.
Sounds like a challenge to me.
Having read the delightful Not So Humble Pie's macaron 101 I decided that simple would be better, and I wouldn't start messing about with colours just yet. Concentrate on getting the macaron right first, get a decent filling and then start making them look pretty. This, obviously, wasn't going to happen on my first attempt. I'd picked up a copy of Hisako Ogita's I Love Macarons and decided to follow the recipe for French macarons, just because I didn't like the idea of making sugar syrup in the microwave just yet.
I'm not detailing the recipe here (not until I have a fully working example!) but basically you go through the following steps:
- Mix ground almonds and icing sugar.
- Whisk egg whites.
- Add sugar to egg whites and whisk some more.
- Add sugar/almonds to egg whites.
- Pipe onto baking sheet...
See? Simple. Except it isn't; I have a fear of overwhisking egg whites, after doing it a few years ago and turning my lovely, stiff peaks back into mush (by hand, too). And there are certain rules that you have to follow to enable the results to be called "macarons". I didn't really get the results I should have, so all I can call them is "almond cookies". Very tasty almond cookies, though.
First of all; they didn't rise the way they should have. I didn't beat the egg whites enough, and they cracked, and coloured too much, so the oven was too hot (despite the oven thermometer) and I didn't leave them to dry out enough. I suspect the mix was too runny, and the foot (la pied) didn't rise anywhere near as much as it should. Indeed, on many it didn't rise at all. My baking sheet wasn't totally flat and I cooked them on parchment, so didn't lift off as easily as they should have. The edges got a little singed, and one batch accidentally caught on fire when the parchment got a bit too close to the oven flame.
But, they tasted fantastic. I made a coffee buttercream filling for half of them, and some lemon curd (well, I needed to use the yolks) for the other half. The coffee ones looked like this:
Hints for next time: after filling, put in the fridge in an airtight box, not on a plate. These things soak up atmospheric water like... well, like meringues. They are very hygroscopic. The filling needs to be stiffer, too. I need new baking sheets (if anybody reading wants to send me review copies of baking sheets, I'll happily give them a try!) and I should try using Teflon instead of parchment. Colouring, and flavouring the macarons themselves should be attempted. And I need to be braver when it comes to beating the egg whites.
So this was attempt number one. I'll be trying this again soon, and will let you know how I get on.