French macarons. I have always considered the ability to make these little French cookies the mark of a good pastry chef. The French macaron is a notoriously difficult cookie. Entire books have been dedicated to perfecting the art of the macaron. It has a reputation of being incredibly fickle and temperamental despite the fact that the base cookie really only consists of four freaking ingredients.
It is safe to say that its reputation has made me utterly terrified of the little things. The first time I ever attempted them myself was a disaster. They were all cracked and misshapen, and looked nothing like the smooth and perfectly round macarons I had seen in pastry cases my whole life. I tried twice that day before admitting defeat, and I spent the rest of the night feeling bad about the money I had spent on almond flour…shit’s expensive…
I never entertained the idea of a macaron for years after that. I read books and watched videos, but every single tutorial and recipe made it sound like you just had to know in your heart and soul how to do them right. It was cowardly, but I admit that I just shied away from the damned cookies, forever waiting for the day that I would build up the courage to attempt them again.
When I was at ICE, my chef for Module 3 was Chef Kathryn Gordon. She is a brilliant pastry chef, and if you know her, you probably know her as the author of the book Les Petits Macarons. Obviously, I desperately wanted her to teach me her secrets. Finally came the day that we’d be making macarons. I asked her tons of questions and listened intently, waiting for her to tell me that special tip that would make me the best macaron maker ever! That was my problem… I really thought that there was a solution to my issues. I thought it was a simple fix: “do this and they’ll be perfect every time!” There isn't. I watched her fold the batter in the macaronage stage and was disappointed to see that yet again–based on the texture, the fluidity, the “way the batter moved,”–she just knew when it was ready.
I went through culinary school, graduated culinary school, and entered my externship, still never having made a successful macaron on my own. I felt kind of like a fraud. How could I ever call myself a professional if I couldn’t even make this STUPID COOKIE?
So here I am, trying again years after my first ever macaron attempt. I spent the whole day before reading Les Petits Macarons, watching YouTube videos, and asking people questions online. I swear that I have read or heard every single “tip and trick” that there is to know about macaron making now.
It took two attempts for me to make a batch of successful macarons. There are three main methods to making French macarons: French, Swiss, and Italian. Each method is ultimately the same except for the type of meringue that’s used. For my first attempt, I used a Swiss meringue because it’s the meringue I use for my buttercream, and I’m confident making it.
My first attempt started out looking alright until I got to the macaronage stage. In Les Petits Macarons, Chef Kathryn states that the Swiss method results in a slightly firmer batter due to the cooking of the egg whites making their protein structure stronger. While folding my batter, however, I noticed that it was too stiff. It literally felt like a dough and not a batter. I knew something was wrong, but figured I’d bake it off anyway to see what would happen.
In all honesty, they came out better than I expected them to. They had feet! That was a big deal to me because my macarons had never had feet before. And the tops weren’t cracked, but they were discoloured and misshapen. They also didn’t have a smooth, hard crust–they were squishy. And when I bit into one, it was super chewy.
So… ultimately a fail. But it was honestly the closest I had ever gotten to success, so I was motivated. For my second attempt, I decided to try French meringue. People seemed to have success with it and it didn’t involve cooking, so that was nice.
The tip that helped me the most was actually the “Figure 8 Test”. It is impossible to articulate how to identify the stage in which the batter is ready for piping. People say things like “slack,” “fluid,” “glossy,” but when you’re in the moment it looks like lumpy batter…and the lumpy batter 20 folds earlier looked the same as this lumpy batter.
Thus, the Figure 8 Test. If you can hold your spatula 2-3 inches above the bowl and draw a figure 8 without the batter ribbon breaking, the batter is ready. I piped and baked off this new batch, terrified. I forced myself to leave the kitchen while they baked to avoid the agony of waiting, and when I came back, THEY WERE GODDAMN PERFECT.
They weren’t the smoothest, but they had beautiful feet, a hard shell, and peeled right off the parchment. When I bit into one, it was crisp at first, and then chewy underneath. As they should be. I was so happy.
I am still leaps and bounds away from being a macaron master, but I am proud to say that I am no longer terrified of the French macaron. I feel ashamed that I avoided them for so long, but I truly feel like now, I can conquer any dessert I set my mind on. That feels good. And I’ve actually become somewhat obsessed with them… They are so beautiful, and such a great vehicle for flavour. I am excited to experiment and try new flavours in this brand new medium.
No longer will I fear the beast that is a French macaron!
Also, huge, HUGE shoutout to Chef Kathryn Gordon and her incredible book. Without Les Petits Macarons, I probably wouldn't have been inspired to make them in the first place, and they definitely wouldn't have come out as beautifully as they did. Find the link to purchase her book here: Les Petits Macarons