Macaroon Swoon

To be honest, I always thought hand made macaroons were made of coconut and coconut only.
Gooey mounds, baked til they are tinged with gold, crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside.

If you thought that too, you were wrong.

My understanding of the true depth of macarooness was a very slow dawn, and it came pretty late in life. My first non-coconut macaroon came from Gran Paradiso in north west Italy. It was hazelnut, two perfect little golf ball like rounds sandwiched together with ganache. God it was good. I haven’t had one before or since, though I have tried to make them. Haven’t cracked them yet.

But this blog is about macarons Gerbet: Gerbet Macaroons. I’m not going to call them macaroons anymore – it’s disrespectful.  These frenchy-french almond based delicacies can only be called macarons. What’s the Gerbet all about? Well he was the 19th century french pastry chef who thought them up. If you google Gerbet macarons, you will find that they are the subject of a not insignificant global obsession. There are cookbooks, blogs, web pages, and consumers dedicated solely to these little morsels. According to that textbook of mine – The Fundamental Techniques of the Pastry Arts – Gerbet macarons are “considered to be the ultimate in contemporary macaroons”.

You can see immediately why everybody loves them. They are super, super, SUPER photogenic. Dinky. Chouette.
And they are as enticing on the palate as they are to look at. Smooth crisp shells. Little frothy-looking “feet” below the shell. Lightly chewy and soft in the middle, they are sandwiched together with something creamy and fabulous. They crack softly when you bite them, and dissolve into your mouth.

I came to these macarons very late in life. This year in fact.  I met them a lot once I knew about them, chiefly at the Lindt Cafes in Melbourne and Sydney. There, they call them Delice. They make like a million flavours of them, tinted in a flowerbed palate to match their taste. Peach, Blueberry, Strawberry, Chocolate, Pistachio, Champagne… I could go on. They are sensational, and sensationally expensive, something like $2.50 each. Of course the trouble with them is: choosing one.  Or two. Or three. The champagne ones are my favourite. And the pistachio. And the champagne.


Back when I was still the glowing owner of The Fundamental Techniques, (as opposed to being the slightly cynical owner that I am now), I found they had a recipe for Gerbets.  It reads ridiculously simple. Stiff beaten egg whites, sugar, finely processed ground almonds. Combine, pipe out, let them sit for a bit, bake, hey presto. I wondered to myself why on earth these things were selling for so much moolah if they were so stupidly simple to make.
Huh. I can do that. How hard can it be, I thought.

For the record, the reason why I’m good at making cakes, and knitting, sewing, painting, and all the other stuff I clutter my time with, is that my general approach to these matters is: how hard can it be?
I recommend it as an attitude to be adopted in all situations – with the following rider. If you’re going to inquire as to a tasks difficulty with a devil-may-care toss of your head, you do have to accept that just occasionally the answer is going to be: Hard.
Sometimes the answer is: Very Hard.

My first attempt at Gerbet Macarons was such an occasion.

Here they are.

Smooth shells? Nope. Cracks. Holes.
Frothy Feet? Nope.
Crisp outer? Er…. after a fashion…
Chewy inner? Not bad…
Filling? Yes, that’s a winner but that is french buttercream with raspberry puree and there is nothing wrong with that.
Impressive first attempt? Hell no, but they were good enough to fuel my own little itty bitty obsession with les macarons.

Clearly the recipe was lacking. I did some more research.

In Global Baker by Dean Brettschneider, I found additional recipes for these little puppies, but the recipes were pretty similar – slightly different quantities, and no great impartations of wisdom on the trick to making the buggers happen right. Well, there was, there was this idea that you have to let the macarons sit for an hour or so once you have piped them out, so that they develop a skin – the supposed secret to the smooth crust. Only I’d tried that. Skin = nope. There’s a possibility that Auckland is too humid for skin development, because I’d left those little green blobs for more than the recommended time, and I could see no evidence of this magical promised membrane.

Dissatisfied with the lack macaron secret disclosure, and unwilling to put another load of almonds and egg whites to the test without a drastically different approach, further afield I went. I did what all desperate cooks do: I consulted the www.

And after a little surfing, I happened upon a small pocket of genius. I shall impart the location of this pocket immediately, because it contains essential basic macaron research, and was clearly penned (metaphorically) by the Archangel Gabriel himself. It commences at:
Read it all. I would personally like to honour Duncan Markham for his scientific dedication to the pursuit of macarons. It saved me a whole universe of work.

My second attempt was therefore according to Duncan Markham’s Italian-meringue recipe. I am not afraid of Italian meringue. I have a kenwood mixer and a digital thermometer, and its only a little bit of hot sugar syrup. Zero scaredness.
And the results looked like this:

Purrdy. Vanilla macarons with chocolate ginger ganache. Nice feet. Gorgeous shells.
But on the biting, there was a problem. There were air pockets under all the shells just as Duncan relates.

I thought I’d used the right temperature – but there were the holes to prove me wrong. Hmm.

Thence began an investigation of the true heating qualities of our oven. With the aid of a candy-thermometer-onna-string, I measured (massively accurately of course – not) the temperature at both the front and the back of the oven. I didn’t need to do multiple readings in order to find some kind of statistical significance; not when the initial readings showed a 15 degree difference between front and back!
The short of it is, in exchange for 500 odd dollars, and after a rigmarole of electricians and whatnot which is actually worthy of a blog all of its own, we got new seals for the oven.

Third attempt.

Here’s the Italian meringue just before the dry ingredients went in. Ground almonds are too coarse, they need to be pulsed in a food processor with icing sugar (used as a glidant!) until they are very fine.

Here’s the mix halfway through mixing. Its comforting to know that you don’t have to be as gentle with the mixture as you do with say an angel food cake which needs its flour gently folded in a tablespoon or two at a time.

And here’s what it looks like when the mixture is just combined.

This time I wanted to have my macarons and eat them too, so I split the mixture into two for individual flavouring. I made Duncan’s Italian meringue recipe again, folding cocoa into one half of the mixture and pistachio essence and a little colouring into the other. While he says that you don’t have to be scared about pounding all the air out of the Italian meringue, Duncan does warn against over mixing. If you want to make different flavoured batches, I would recommend you do them separately – no matter how much of a pain in the butt this is!  I’ll show you why in a little bit.

So you put the mixture into a big piping bag with a plain round nozzle and pipe out inch wide rounds. They settle a bit and the tips from the piping process sink back into the blobs until they are smooth and shiny.

Skinning actually occurred this time – after about an hour and a quarter, the surface seemed slightly gelatinous in texture and not sticky. It was a dry day so perhaps that’s why it happened. I noticed that Duncan is equivocal about skinning, but I don’t believe in messing round with the methods anymore so I think unless I am in a hell of a hurry, I will always leave them.

And then the baking: the prescribed temperature for no-air-pocketness is 160 deg C in a fan forced oven, and since we’d had our oven fixed, I was much more confident that setting the dial at 160 would actually lead to a temperature close enough to 160. As luck would have it, this was right. 

A quick check on a very warm macaron proved that 160 is the magic number. Crisp. Chewy. No pockets. We have success.

Well sort of. Duncan warns against over mixing and he shows you what happens when over mixing occurs. And so can I: sticky arses. Here are the arse variations I had from my batch of pistachio shells:

Moral of the story, mix til combined and no more. And if they are sticky, a little mist of water on the underside of the baking paper really does work.

Having previously made raspberry french buttercream and ganache, I was keen for something a bit different – something which could be flavoured two or three ways so I could have chocolate and pistachio macaron combos.
Considering my recent foray into mousseline with the Panama Torte, I thought that perhaps I would have a go at a non-chocolate variety of mousseline.

Sans chocolat, mousseline is simply creme patisserie with butter (at a ratio of around 1:3.5) whipped in. It makes an incredible macaron filling, because as it ages (and macarons get better as they get older, if you can let them sit around that long) it becomes more and more cream-like. So your macarons become MORE luscious. Brilliant!

I folded some ground espresso and melted lindt into some of the mousseline, flavoured another portion with pistachio essence, and folded four berry jam into the final lot. Actually the berry jam caused the mousseline to split, and I can’t work out why – there was a fair non-lipid component which should have grabbed on to the jam, but it didn’t. Severe beatings did serve to re-emulsify the mixture. I gather though, that if you want fruit flavoured mousseline you need to make a creme patisserie substituting the milk for fruit pulp. Sounds weird – I haven’t been bold enough to try it yet. Also, we haven’t quite finished the last batch of macarons, even though I made them a week and a half ago. The best flavour combos were double pistachio, mocha chocolate, berry pistachio and berry chocolate. For some reason the choc/pistachio combination seemed to wipe each other out. At least that’s what my Chief Taste Tester (Mama!) says.

About three egg whites and  a couple of hundred grams of ground almonds gives you upwards of 40 macarons. At $2 or more each… they are definitely worth making!