Macarons have a reputation for being difficult because of the delicate processes used to produce them. Here is a (not so brief) breakdown of why each ingredient and the process they are necessary for is so important!
The ground almonds and powdered sugar add body to the macaron batter. The almonds provide flavor as well so that the cookies do not only taste sweet. A 2020 study determined that the powdered sugar contributed to the cohesion of the batter, as well as the macarons’ hardness, providing a batter that was easier to work with and cookies with a crunchier texture. (2) Mixing the powdered sugar and ground almonds together at the start and sifting them to eliminate “lumps” of sugar or ground almonds allow for smoother incorporation with the meringue later on. It is important to use powdered sugar for this because it dissolves better when mixed with the meringue. (1) Additionally, fat is meringue’s biggest enemy (4). Adding it last gives the meringue its best chance at staying malleable and giving a good rise. We’ll talk about why in a minute.
Wet Ingredients (The Meringue)
The egg whites are the most important part of this recipe. The foam created with the egg white and granulated sugar contains the liquid and leavening for the batter. This is the meringue I mentioned earlier. When whipping an egg white, the proteins inside are mechanically denatured, or unraveled, thus exposing the hydrophobic part of the protein so that they can coagulate and trap air bubbles, creating a delicate network that slowly grows in volume. (5) When the air bubbles are at their largest size (and thus most desirable for this recipe), the meringue is stiff, smooth, and glossy (4).
The granulated sugar is important to add to the meringue before it forms stiff peaks because it helps stabilize the meringue. Eggs naturally contain water. When the sugar is added, it absorbs the excess water and makes the remaining liquid more viscous, preventing liquid from leaking out of the foam. (1) This is why it is important to add it before the foam is too firm–the sugar crystals need time to dissolve so that the meringue is not grainy, and they also need to absorb that liquid. It’s important to also note that sugar increases the time it takes to whip the meringue to the desired consistency.
The meringue is one of the most varied parts of a macaron recipe because there are actually three ways to make a meringue: the French, the Italian, and the Swiss. So what’s the difference? This recipe uses French meringue, which, unlike Italian and Swiss meringue, does not involve heat. Italian meringue is more similar to French meringue: The eggs are whipped to a thin foam before the sugar is added. Instead of adding the sugar a spoonful at a time, though, the sugar is mixed with a little water and melted to around 110°C and then slowly poured into the eggs as they are beaten. The heat helps denature the egg proteins as they are agitated by the mixer, helping them coagulate into smooth, light, sturdy foam. The Swiss method, on the other hand, involves heating the eggs and granulated sugar on a bain marie–in a heatproof bowl over simmering water–until the sugar is dissolved before whipping them. Swiss meringue tends to be denser than Italian or French, with Italian being the most versatile in patisseries because of its flexibility, stability, and longevity. (1, 4) If one were to use Italian meringue instead of French for this recipe, the strength of the meringue would help it retain enough air bubbles during mixing and resting to give the final macaron cookies their characteristic fluffy, chewy inside.
Although it is not technically an ingredient, the process of combining the meringue and almond/sugar mixture is an important part of macarons. In folding the dry ingredients into the meringue, the air is “knocked out”, reducing the volume of the resulting batter and thus the rise of the cookies while cooking. This is partially why macarons do not inflate like soufflés do!
- Pastry creme
- Preheat oven to 300˚f / 150˚c, and position the oven rack in the center of the oven. Using a circular object of about 1.5" diameter (cookie cutter, piping tip, etc), draw a "template" for your macarons on a piece of parchment paper, leaving about ¾" between each circle.
- Combine the ground almonds and powdered sugar in a large bowl and sift the mixture twice. Set aside.
- Using a hand or stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Gradually the granulated sugar a spoonful at a time. After all of the sugar is dissolved, increase the mixer speed to high and whip until the meringue starts to firm up. Add vanilla; continue to whip until stiff peaks form. If you remove the whisk and scoop a small amount of meringue with it, then hold the whisk upright, the meringue should not sag or slip off.
- Fold half of the almond and powdered sugar mixture to the meringue. Add the remaining almond mixture, then stir lightly to combine. Fold the mixture in a series of 'turns', deflating the batter by spreading it against the side of the bowl. Turn the bowl slightly and repeat the movement - scooping the batter from the bottom of the bowl, and spreading it against the side. Continuously check the consistency of the batter - you want it to flow like lava when you lift the spatula from the bowl, and you should be able to 'draw' a figure 8 with it, without the batter breaking.
- Fit a large pastry bag with a medium round tip. Place the macaron template on a baking sheet, then place a second sheet of parchment paper over it. Holding the piping bag at a 90˚ angle to the surface, pipe out the batter into blobs the size of the circles drawn on the template. Finish off each piped circle with a little "flick" of your wrist. Remove the template from under the macarons.
- Hold the baking sheet in two hands and carefully, evenly bang it against the countertop a few times.
- Once all of the batter has been piped, allow the macarons to dry at room temperature for 30 minutes, or until they form a skin that you can touch without your finger sticking.
- Bake for about 17 minutes, checking for doneness after 15 minutes. To do so, press down lightly on a shell. If the foot (ruffled part on the bottom) gives way, they need a little longer. If not, test a shell by gently peeling it up from the paper. They should peel cleanly; if not, give them another minute or so.
- Allow to cool on the sheet pan for 10 minutes before transferring the macarons to cool completely on a wire rack. Filling
- Prepare an ice bath by filling a large bowl (big enough to fit a saucepan) about half full with water and ice. Set aside.
- In a saucepan, whisk together milk, vanilla bean and seeds, and 1/4 cup sugar. Heat milk mixture over high heat until it just begins to boil. Remove from heat and set aside.
- In a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar until thick and pale. Sprinkle in cornstarch and flour; continue whisking until well combined.
- Remove vanilla bean from milk mixture. Whisk half of the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture. Pour the egg mixture into saucepan with remaining hot milk; slowly bring to a boil. Continue whisking until thick, about five minutes. Remove saucepan from heat, stir in butter, and let cool slightly.
- Gently set the saucepan in the ice bath, being careful not to let any water or ice get into the pan. Stir pastry cream occasionally until it is cool, about 30 minutes. Use pastry cream immediately or press plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pasty cream and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Cover photo: "macaron" by Julien Haler.
(1) Gabriel, S. M. S.. The science behind patisserie: A chemical, physical, and biological science. 2014. https://www.edubcn.cat/rcs_gene/treballs_recerca/2014-2015-05-1-TR_baixa.pdf
(2) Luangsakul, N., and Chiralaksanakul, N.. The effects of reduced sugar on macaron quality. International Journal of Agricultural Technology. 2020, 16 (5), 1113-1124. http://www.ijat-aatsea.com/past_v16_n5.html
(3) McGee, H. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, 2nd Ed; Scribner, 1984; pp 86-109, 113.
(4) Pop, A.; Păucean, A.; Socaci, S. A.; Alexa, E.; Man, S. M.; Mureșan, V.; Chiş, N. S.; et al. Quality characteristics and volatile profile of macarons modified with walnut oilcake by-product. Molecules. 2020, 25 (9), 2214. MDPI AG, 2020. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/molecules25092214
(5) Potter, J.. Cooking for geeks: real science, great cooks, and good food, 2nd Ed; O’Reilly Media, 2015.
(6) Provost, J. J.; Colabroy, K. L.; Kelly, B. S.; and Wallert, M. A.. The science of cooking: Understanding the biology and chemistry behind food and cooking; John Wiley & Sons, 2016.