Macarons (Vanilla Bean & Dulce de Leche)

A week or two ago, my cousin's baby, Elodie, had her first birthday. I decided that her birthday was an occasion worthy of a special dessert, thus, I set out to make my first batch of macarons. I was somewhat successful, perfect domes with visible "feet" - though as you can see, some of my cookies have some slight cracks, and I did have 1 batch that was completely ruined.

Click after the jump for a long long long blurb on the history, the science, and how I made these cookies for the first time.
Macarons, if you've never had them, are flour-less French cookies made with a meringue base and ground almonds. I think the cookies themselves originated in Italy (derived from the Italian word for macaroni, maccerone, mahk-KEH-roh-nee) and they are not to be confused with American macaroons, which are also made with ground almonds. Macaroons also got their name from the Italian word, maccerone. Why the word maccerone? Well, the word maccerone comes from the word ammaccare, am-MAK-ka-ray, which literally means "to dent" or "to bruise," though in the case of these cookies, I think "to crush" is more appropriate. And that's what you're doing to the almonds before mixing it into a dough - which applies to both types of cookie.

The double decker macaron, a.k.a. the "Paris macaron," or the "Gerbet," (JEHR-bay) is made of a filling, sweet or savory, sandwiched between two cookies; an idea thought up by Pierre Desfontaines (Pee-AIR Day-fohn-ten), pastry chef at Ladurée (La-doo-ur-ray), which is the macaron mecca. These days, Pierre Hermé is the macaron guy. He's known for his unusual but awesome flavor combinations - olive oil and vanilla macaron, anyone?

For weeks before this project, I spent hours and hours on my computer researching the art of making macarons. What I learned is that so many chefs (both professional and amateur) had such differing advice. There were many points that seemed to be unanimous but some of it was dishearteningly contradictory. Here are a few examples that initially worried me:
  • Age egg whites in the refrigerator and use cold VS. age egg whites at room temperature and use at room temperature
  • Let piped macarons set and form a skin before baking VS. put the piped macarons in the oven right away
  • Whip egg whites until foamy, then add sugar slowly in small increments until soft peaks form VS. combine egg whites and sugar all at once and beat until stiff peaks form
  • French meringues (egg whites and sugar) VS. Italian meringues (egg whites and simple syrup)
  • Silpats VS. parchment paper
What I took away from my research was that you have to adjust to your kitchen, your ingredients, and your environment. Humidity, oven temperature, quality of the ingredients, so many factors will affect the outcome of your macarons. Therefore, there is no general macaron bible; there is only trial and error in your own kitchen and SCIENCE. Here are MY golden rules:
  • Why almonds? Almonds are one of the least oily nuts so they won't prematurely over-deflate the batter.
  • Food scales are kind of important. I say "kind of" because you can still achieve great results with cups and teaspoons but you will receive the most consistent results by measuring your ingredients by weight.
  • Age egg whites at room temperature but use a cold (and clean) bowl to make the meringue since temperature aids stability. Aging the egg whites draws out some of the moisture - egg whites are 90% water, 10% proteins so we're trying to even out that ratio a bit more in this process.
  • "Feet" or "crowns" are that enviable frilly bottom on the macaron, which can only be achieved when the making of the batter and baking process are performed correctly.
  • Glass or stainless steel bowls are better than plastic ones. Plastic holds onto grease and oil, which will ruin the meringue. The tiniest drop of fat will prevent the egg whites from foaming. That's why you need to make sure that everything is clean - bowls and beaters.
  • Use a pinch of cream of tartar, just for insurance. Some chefs think this is cheating. Uh... if it helps and doesn't hurt anything, obviously I'm going to do it. Cream of tartar is an acid and acids help stabilize a meringue. There are two types of proteins in egg whites - one type likes water and one type likes air. Acids help these two frenemies to bond.
  • Sugar works similarly to an acid in that it's like a glue that will help hold the foamy egg whites together so no, there are no low-sugar macaron recipes, sorry.
  • Do NOT over-whip the meringue. Imagine a room full of people. Now, imagine that some of them are chewing gum and blowing bubbles. The rest of the people are filling up water balloons. After a while, the balloons and bubbles will have expanded enough that the room will be pretty full. BUT, at some point, the balloons and bubbles will be stretched beyond their tolerance and will burst. That's kind of what's happening with the egg whites (and sugar). In the case of whipping JUST egg whites, what you'll see is a chunky, sponge-y looking mess so you'll know you ruined it but in the case of a meringue, you won't feel the full effect of the failure until you actually bake it and eat the product which will be tough and not delicious. How do you know when to stop whipping then? Keep checking for consistency - you want stiff peaks for a macaron batter so as soon as you reach that, you should stop.
  • Macaronage is the art of deflating the batter - mix the batter enough so that the batter can form ribbons and a blob of batter plopped into the rest of the batter disappears in 8 to 10 seconds. Some chefs compare it to molten lava - well, I've never really had much experience with molten lava so I like using the 8 to 10 seconds rule. If the batter disappears quicker than that, then I'm sorry, you might have ruined your batter. If it takes longer, give the batter a few more turns. I like to give it 2 or 3 folds and then check the consistency again.
  • If you aren't that skilled at piping, use a template to make sure the macarons are piped uniformly.
  • After piping the macarons, tap the baking trays a few times to get rid of any large air bubbles and to soften any peaks that might have formed during piping.
  • Dry out the macarons a bit before baking. The timing will depend on the humidity but wait long enough for a skin to form. The skin formed on top will prevent cracking and will help you get the "feet" or "crown" around the bottom of the cookie.
  • After baking and filling the macarons, let them "ripen" in the refrigerator overnight. The surface of the cookie that's touching the filling will start to absorb the moisture. This will help to get that chewy texture on the interior but don't worry, the exterior will still be crisp.
This tutorial, by Tartelette, is my favorite out of all the ones I found out there on the internet, and her recipe is quite simple, just 4 ingredients:
I wanted to make a flavored macaron so I also had a vanilla bean and a bit of cream of tartar for egg white stability insurance.
Other tools you will need: food processor, scale, and mixer (either hand or standing).
And if you're a simple kind of gal, like I usually am, you'll need a zip-top bag to use for piping but I was feeling a bit fancy so I went and got myself some disposable decorating bags ($20 at Michaels, they are sturdy and can be washed and re-used), piping tips, piping tip coupler, and some icing colors. I didn't end up coloring my cookies because I was afraid I might ruin them and thought I should start with a "virgin" batch BUT, gel colors or powdered colors are better than the liquid ones, as far as maintaining the texture of the batter without adding too much moisture.
First step is to weigh the almonds and powdered sugar. I used slivered almonds, which ground up beautifully. I'm assuming whole almonds would take a bit more power, which my food processor does not possess. Add almonds and half the sugar to the food processor and pulse until a fine meal is formed. Sift through a fine sieve or sifter to isolate any overly large pieces. Return to the food processor, along with another two or three tablespoons of powdered sugar and pulse again. Repeat the process as necessary. Set the almond/sugar mixture aside.
Get the piping bag ready (it's important to have these things prepared before the batter is assembled so that it doesn't fall flat and get ruined). If you're using a zip-top bag, you don't need to do anything but if you have a piping bag to assemble, snip off the bottom inch of the bag, drop in the piping tip, screw on the coupler, and then twist and push the bag into the tip. This will make sure the batter doesn't leak out of the bottom when it's filled. Oh! And if you're using a zip-top bag, don't cut the tip until you've filled it with batter - but that step will come later.
Now it's time to get started on the meringue. Measure the egg whites and sugar. Three egg whites ended up being over 100g, but just by a bit so I kept it all. I think +/- 5g is not a huge deal.
Pour egg whites into a clean bowl and start whipping. Once the egg whites begin to get foamy add in a pinch of cream of tartar. I probably used 1/16th of a teaspoon - you don't need much. Then keep whipping until you get soft peaks; the egg whites should look like the foamy top of a cappuccino. Then, dump in all of the sugar and start whipping. The whites should start to become glossy and form lazy, drippy peaks. Keep whipping, testing the peaks every minute until stiff peaks are achieved. This means that the peaks should stand straight up and you wouldn't hesitate to take that bowl of meringue and hold it upside-down over your own head.
Then, add in the seeds of 1 vanilla bean and dump in the almond/sugar mixture. Fold the batter until it's uniform. Every few folds, test the texture of the batter. A drop of batter plopped back into the bowl should disappear into the rest of the batter in 8 to 10 seconds. But remember, thicker is better than thinner so do not over-mix.
Shove the piping bag into a cup if you need some assistance (like I do) and then pour in the batter. It should be glossy and pretty and speckled with lovely vanilla bean. And a reminder, don't forget, don't cut the tip off of your zip-top bag (if you're using that instead of a piping bag) until you've filled it with batter.
Use a template, if you like (here's a link to some good ones), and pipe out the macarons onto lined sheet pans (either silicone baking mats or parchment), leaving plenty of space in between so they don't spread and become siamese.
Once all of the macarons are piped, leave the sheet pans somewhere safe where the tops of the cookies can dry out. I was baking these on a rainy day so it took an hour for my cookies to dry out. Don't forget to remove the templates.
When they're ready, pop the pans into a 300 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Babysit them carefully so they don't get too much color. I was definitely ecstatic to see that the cookies had risen and most of them had visible feet!
Once they're cool, peel them from the pan and fill with your desired filling. I made a faux dulce de leche by cooking a bit of sweetened condensed milk (1/2 cup) in a sauce pan for a few minutes, whisking continuously, until it started turning a lovely tan color. To finish off, I whisked in some heavy cream and let it cool. You only need about 1/2 teaspoon of filling per cookie.
Place cookies in a container - I lined mine with parchment paper - and leave in the refrigerator overnight, 24 hours is best, to allow the center of the cookie to soak up some moisture from the filling. This way you get that lovely contrast in texture - the crispy outside, the chewy inside, fabulous.
Here's the recipe page - although, if it's your first time making macarons, I recommend you follow Tartelette's tutorial.