Are macarons becoming the culinary equivalent of the lava lamp?
Before I launch into my not-so-short-and-sweet but utterly delicious salted caramel macaron recipe, I should share that I started to worry about the future of macarons when patisserie star and macaron genius Adriano Zumbo appeared to be ‘jumping the shark’ by marketing a DIY pre-packaged macaron mix. However, I felt the time of macarons reigning patisserie supreme really might be over when McDonalds started to sell them.
I absolutely love macarons. I love them for so many reasons. Chief among these reasons are that the desire to make them reignited my passion for baking. I had to get real with my kitchen, my oven and appliances. They taught me patience, persistence, perfection and pride. I don’t care that there are multiple sites out there promoting that anyone can make macarons by throwing ingredients together and there’s no ‘art’ to it. I do believe that too much is made of the ‘art’ of macaron making; but short of having children, nothing has come close to matching my feeling of accomplishment in biting into one of my macarons and feeling the crunch of the outer, giving way to a soft, slightly chewy centre and then breaking into a delectable creamy filling with an astonishing taste.
The beauty of the macaron for me is that those little shells are the perfect vehicle for a giddy array of tastes – limited only by imagination (and perhaps a little feasibility).
Salted Caramel Macarons – Italian style
I’m not going to lie. Basically I make macarons as a vehicle for salted caramel. It seems piggy to eat salted caramel by itself, so macarons are my excuse for getting my fix of sweet, salty caramel. The salted caramel recipe below makes way more than you need for 16 macarons, so you can thank me now. You can use salted butter to make this, but I prefer to add salt to unsalted butter; that way I can control the amount, type (coarse or flake) and quality of salt. Needless to say, caramelising sugar makes things dangerously hot, so do this when you are not going to get distracted by anything.
I colour the shells orange for these, though they tend to become a burnished orange once baked.
Adapted from Pierre Hermé’s macaron recipe, copied 1000 times in different web sites.
Salted caramel macarons
Makes about 50 macarons (or about 16 each of three different fillings – see ‘random notes’)
- 220 g ground almond
- 220 g icing sugar
- 80 g aged egg whites at room temperature
- food colouring paste of your fancy! Try to find quality colour pastes rather than liquid colouring, which can change the consistency of the mixture
- 220 g caster sugar
- 50 ml water
- 80 g aged egg whites at room temperature
- Blend the almond meal and icing sugar together in a food processor, then sift two or three times into a medium bowl. Add one batch of egg whites (80 g) without mixing them and food colouring (if using) – you mix them just before adding the meringue.
- In a small saucepan, combine the water and sugar and start to bring this syrup to the boil. Meanwhile, place the second batch of egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer equipped with the whisk attachment. When the syrup reaches 105°C*, turn on the beater and start beating the whites on medium speed while the syrup keeps heating up (this shouldn’t take more than a minute or two).
- Once the syrup hits 118°C, take it off the stove top and slowly pour it over the egg whites as they continue to beat (avoiding hitting the mixer blades or else the syrup will splatter the bowl). Keep beating until the temperature of the mixture drops to 50°C and you have a compact and shiny meringue.
- Now mix the almond-sugar-colouring-egg white together, then fold in the meringue until the mixture is uniform. Don’t over-beat it or else it will be too thin and the macarons won’t rise.
- Place the mixture in a large pastry bag with a plain #11 tip (1 cm).
- Pipe 3 cm rounds of the mixture onto baking trays lined with baking paper, spacing them 2-3 cm apart. Leave them out at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes to allow them to form a crust. The crust is important for the macarons to rise properly and develop their ‘feet’ while they bake. More or less time will depend how humid your room is. By the way, high humidity is the death of macarons, so chose your baking day wisely…
- Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan forced). Bake two trays of macarons at a time for 14 to 16 minutes. Quickly swap trays in the oven half way through the baking time. The swapping time is also good for venting moisture from the oven.
- When baked, remove trays from oven and after a few minutes, when cooled slightly, slide the baking paper onto a wire rack and allow macarons to cool completely.
- Pair macarons up according to size (and in my case, shape – my ten year old is excellent at helping with this) and you are now ready to fill and finalise the macarons.
For the salted caramel
- 175 g caster sugar
- 125 g 35% fat (regular, pouring or thickened) cream
- 175 g unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into cubes
- 5 g salt flakes (as good as you can get).
- Heat cream in a small saucepan on a medium heat until it simmers – do not let it boil.
- Remove from heat and set aside.
- Dump the sugar in a large pot and heat it at medium until it melts. Keep it on the heat and watch it all the time! Stir from time to time to ensure all the sugar is caramelising evenly.
- When it turns a nice deep amber colour, remove from heat and slowly add the cream while gently mixing with a wooden spoon or heat-proof spatula. It will splutter like crazy.
- Once all the cream is added and the mixture has settled down, add the butter a cube at a time, continuing to mix until all the butter in incorporated and the mixture has cooled to warm. If it looks clumpy, return to a medium heat for a while to melt again.
- Add salt and mix it in. I prefer to add Pink Murray salt flakes right at the end when the mixture is almost at room temperature. That way, the salt doesn’t dissolve and you get nice bursts of saltiness when you bite into the macarons.
- Pour caramel into a bowl and cover with cling film (directly on the surface to stop a skin from forming). Keep in fridge until needed. Can be frozen here, too.
- When ready to use, use a whisk to lighten it up.
- * The Pierre Hermé recipe says to turn the beater on when the sugar reaches 115°C, not 105°C. I always start mine a little early because I can’t tell the difference between 115°C and 118°C on my sugar thermometer and besides on my stove top, it seems to take a millisecond to go from 115°C to 118°C!
- Special equipment? I am not going to kid you, doing this method without a stand mixer is quite challenging and tiring. A sugar (candy) thermometer is essential and while you’re at it, an oven thermometer is very useful. Good sturdy baking trays that don’t warp in the oven also help.
- Aged egg whites? Geez there’s a lot of discussion about this. It’s all to do with the amount of water egg whites hold and their elasticity, which in turn affects how the whites hold together when you whip them (ageing breaks down the albumin, making them much easier to whisk to soft peaks), so it is important to get right. I tend to freeze left-over egg whites (for up to three months) and a couple of days before I make macarons, I thaw them in the fridge.
- Ratios? I usually make 16 each of three different types of macaron with this recipe and split everything in thirds. I keep the ratios the same and start with the weight of egg whites I happen to have to determine the amount of everything else needed in the recipe.
- Perfect shapes? You can draw circle on the baking paper to help with making nice even round shapes, but I find my biggest problems are macaron nipples and odd bumps on the surface (mostly likely because I tend to under-mix my mixture a little – believe me, over-mixing results in a far worse macaron fail!). You can avoid the bumps and nipples with precise piping, or make a good go at getting rid of them by knocking out the air by lifting and banging the tray on the work surface, or pressing down on them gently with a slightly wet finger. Or you can just go with rustic shapes.
- Baking temperature? You will probably end up experimenting with this as every oven differs. Some recipes call for 150°C for 14 minutes, others say 180°C for 12 minutes, and anything in between, including up to 18 minutes cooking time. I have found that if the oven is too hot, my macarons darken before they cook and if the oven is too cool, the macarons end up too moist, they don’t rise well and stick to the baking paper. Don’t be afraid to open the oven door, give one a quick poke and see if it is cooked and can lift off the baking paper.
- Filling macarons? Here’s where you can really play with the flavour and consistency of your macaron and the sky is the limit. Whatever you use, allow the assembled macaron to mature in the fridge for at least 24 hours before serving. This way the filling and the shell meld to bring about that perfect gradient from crisp outer to soft centre. If the filling is quite moist (such as for fruit curds) the macaron shell will get softer faster than it will for a dry (such as caramel) filling.
- Macarons also freeze quite well. I place them in single layer in a plastic container lined with baking paper and then thaw in the fridge before allowing to come to room temperature before serving.