If you breathe too deeply, your macaron will collapse. If it is raining outside, it will crack. If an extra drop of water lands in the mixing bowl, it will never rise. Macarons can smell your fear and they punish you for it. They inspire equal parts terror and adulation from formally trained and experienced pastry chefs. The chef this morning told us that macarons are a “mystery” and she makes a cup of tea and eagerly watches the oven to see if they will rise when she bakes them. Our macaron teacher, a Michelin trained chef with thirty years of experience who successfully ran his own restaurant told us that it is a gamble every time he makes macarons whether they will rise. He said he was “afraid” to add flavors to the batter because a sprinkle of cocoa powder could throw all the proportions off and result in utter disaster. I could almost picture the cooking school staff drawing straws to see who would get stuck with teaching the fraught macaron class.
Needless to say, after these introductions I was already convinced that it would be folly to ever try macarons at home, so this was my one and only chance to attempt to make them. When we started, we were sternly told that “You do not decide at six pm after a long day of work to make macarons. They demand advance planning and complete focus.” For example, you should separate your eggs five days in advance and refrigerate the egg whites so that they become stiffer and more likely to rise. You’ll also need to get an early start – it took seven people over four hours to make a single batch.
Although the shell is the masterpiece, I think the filling is the most delicious part. We made three types of macaron fillings: salted caramel, blackberry, and white chocolate lemon zest ganache. I love salted caramel in any circumstance but this was easily the best I’ve had. Not surprisingly, there is a right and a wrong way to make caramel (turns out that the quick, easy, and very good caramel we made in Brittany falls under the “wrong” category). It is essential to have a completely clean pot, totally clean sugar, and not to use a spoon or spatula because they are impossible to fully clean. Any extraneous food residue on cooking equipment will create unwanted crystals in your caramel. Making the caramel involves patiently adding sugar to the pot bit by bit until it is bubbling and brown – there is an instant between deeply flavorful caramel and a burned batch so you have to be vigilant (we were instructed to remove all small children from our kitchen before any caramel attempts). The key with macaron fillings is that they have to be thick so that they don’t drip out. For the caramel, this requires refrigeration so that you almost have chewy caramel candy by the time you put in into the macaron. For our blackberry jam filling, this meant using a ton more pectin that you would for ordinary jam so that it was almost like jello.
I tend to think of cooking in France as all natural – you know the village where your cheese comes from, what your chicken has been fed, and where your vegetables were grown. The surprising thing about macarons is that you use decidedly un-natural food coloring to get the beautiful hues of the shells. The batter was the same flavor for all three types we made but a macaron wouldn’t feel like a macaron if the shell didn’t match the filling – I just had never thought about the dye needed to achieve that effect. The other surprise was that we put makeup on the shells once they were out of the oven – we used small brushes to delicately apply shimmery colored powders that looked much more like eye shadow and blush than they did food. Our macarons certainly felt all dressed up and ready to hit the town by the end of class. I, on the other hand, felt ready for a nap – I can’t remember the last time I had to concentrate so hard while cooking!