Welcome to my kitchen

A while ago, I realized I was serious enough about bread baking to stop diddling around with the 3-packs of yeast from the grocery store, or even the small jars for a small fortune. So I pulled up my big girl pants, and ordered "A Pound Of Yeast". It's in my freezer, and I use it regularly, and I guess that makes me "A Baker". Even though I always said "I can't bake". So, join me on my journey, and let's see what that pound of yeast makes, and where we go next....

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Sad, Sorry Saga of My Macarons

If you’re at all a “foodie” (Lord, but I really hate that term, ‘though I can’t for the life of me come up with an alternative), and unless you’ve been living in a cave or on an island in the Bering Sea, you must be aware of the Über-Trend that is the macaron.  Seriously, you can’t avoid them.  They’re the new bacon.  They’re everywhere.  Trendy bakeries in the “hip” sections of town.  Cookbooks by French pâtissiers.  Certainly ALLLLLLL over the Interwebs.  They're so in and hip, they're almost out.  Heck, they’re even in the freezer case at my local Trader Joe’s, so you KNOW they’re a) trendy, b) hip, c) buzz-worthy and d) borderline overhyped.

By the way, you may be noticing that I get a lot (a LOT) of my provisions at Trader Joe’s and probably wondering….”hmmmmm, could this chick cook without Trader Joe’s”?  Simple answer:  NO FREAKIN’ WAY.  Take just about any other of my usual haunts away from me, even rip my BevMo Rewards Club Card from my hands, but don’t mess with my Trader Joe’s.  I *heart* Trader Joe’s.  But, I know, what a surprise….I digress...

That’s a sure sign that a trend is peaking though, when it shows up at Trader Joe’s.  I first saw macarons in the freezer case about a year ago, and of course, because I am a trend-oid, and have to be the first with the newest, and having never seen them anywhere else I frequent, I snarfed up a box.  They were really, really good, and again, I had to think if they’re that good processed and frozen, they must be magical when made fresh, by loving, skilled hands, in a fantasmic, fairy-dust sprinkled kitchen.  Like mine.

Ummm.  Well, OK.  Realistically, the only thing my kitchen is sprinkled with is dog hair (sadly lacking in the fairy-dust department am I).  And, as I find out on a far, too regular a basis, my skill is frequently exceeded in spades by my hubris in assuming I have any kind of skillz (mad or otherwise) at all.

This is one of those stories, one where reality jumps up and slaps you upside the head and sets you down to beat some sense into you.  One where the magic disappears and not only do the wheels fall off, but the entire vehicle disintegrates around you.  I promised you all honesty in this blog, my entire cooking life, warts and all.

Well, kiddos, get out the Compound W, this is ugly.

I’d been wanting to make macarons for a long time, a very long time.  They’d intrigued me when I read about them in the food magazines I take (and I essentially take ‘em all….) and on the descriptions I’d read on the Interwebs.  So, like any new project I launch myself into these days, I researched.  I mean, you have this compendium of information available literally at the touch of a finger, with so little effort, you’d be silly not to avail yourself of it.  So I read probably 10 or 15 articles from various web sources about The Theory And Practice Of Macarons.  They seemed to be divided pretty evenly into two camps.  The first:  (insert haughty, vaguely French accent here) “macarons are not to be attempted by mere mortals.  Not until you have successfully completed at least 5 years of education at the *original* Le Cordon Bleu, and performed at least 20 satisfactory stages at Pierre Hermé (the one *in* Paris, mais oui) should you even consider THINKING about attempting to make macarons”.  The other camp was decidedly more user-friendly:  Macarons are no big whup.  They’re technique driven, but if you can follow instructions and have basic knowledge of baking, you’ll be fine”.

Naturally, I chose to believe the articles from the second group.

The final push came from a recentFine Cooking” pictorial, written by Joanne Chang, of “Flour” bakery in Boston.  It’s pretty well known and the macarons are supposedly to die for (can’t speak from experience, the only ones I’ve ever still had have been the frozen guys from TJ’s).  She made it look very-straightforward and I thought, “yeah, I can DO this”.

Ahhhhhhhh, yes, once when I was young and innocent….

Here’s the cast of characters.  It all started out so well…..

The ingredients for the cookie part of the production are pretty simple.  Eggs (you use the whites only, since you’re essentially making a meringue), almond flour, confectioner’s (powdered) sugar and regular sugar.  That’s for the almond flavored cookie.  You could put in vanilla to make a vanilla cookie, or cocoa for a chocolate one, but I wanted to start with the classic.  I was shooting for almond cookies with a chocolate ganache filling.  No photos of the stuff for the ganache, since, well, we didn’t get that far….

Yes, that’s a TJ’s product in there, as were the eggs.

And that may have been a major part of my problem….the recipe in Chang’s article called for “almond flour”, but *I* had (expert that I am…..) read some of those Web articles that had claimed great success using TJ’s almond *meal*.  Hmmmmmm.  I figured, almond meal, almond flour, corn meal, corn flour, six-of-one, half-dozen-of-another.

Maybe not so much.

Because I immediately ran into trouble with the first step of the recipe.  Well, OK, the second step of the recipe.

You’re supposed to weigh the powdered sugar and the almond flour, and then mix them together in a sieve, and press them through.

Which I did.  Kind of….

Weighing confectioner’s sugar:

Weighing almond meal (sadly not almond flour):

In the sieve, and onto the first roadblock:

The size of the particles of the almond meal was way, way, WAY too coarse to fit through my sieve.  And I was SO proud of myself too !  I’d remembered to use a large enough sieve, and a large enough bowl (so unlike me, I know) to do the blending.  But I pushed with a spoon (a big ‘un, too) and pushed, and pushed, until I was afraid I was going to rip the mesh of the sieve.  The sugar went through nicely, but the almond meal was just recalcitrant.  To say the least.  I finally switched to a smaller, coarser sieve, and didn’t have much luck with that either.

I was afraid at that point that I’d left too much of the almond meal caught in the sieve, and that the batter would be off because there wouldn’t be enough starch.

I even tried to run it through my mini-food processor to grind it up more, to no avail.  At that point, I think I had too small a quantity to get any bang for my buck, so to speak.  So I just kept pressing and pressing, and finally said “close enough”.

Whether or not that contributed to the total fail, I guess I’ll never really know, but I do believe it was a significant cause.  *MENTAL NOTE DE MACARONS #1*, use almond flour, not almond meal.

But I was still determined to carry on.  So we cracked the eggs, and separated them.   I wussed out and used a separator.  HEY, I was tired from all that pressing to get the damned meal through the sieve.

One of the yolks broke, but the Circling Vulture Dogs didn’t notice when they got some of them drizzled over their Pedigree that night.

And here’s the whites in the bowl of the KA:

Time to start beatin’

According to the recipe, you beat the whites for a bit, until they’re frothy, then add the granulated sugar in 4 increments, beating in between each addition.  Then you beat them until they get stiff and glossy.

I think that was fail number 2….I didn’t get a shot of it (the action was getting a little hairy, it was starting to get REALLY hot in the little kitchen, and I sort of knew I was on the runaway train to nowhere….), but I think I underbeat the whites.  When I’d made that lovely chocolate/espresso/mascarpone cake a while back, I’d slightly OVERBEATEN the whites, and they’d separated a bit.  I think I was so afraid of doing that again, I didn’t take them as far as I should have.

*MENTAL NOTE DE MACARONS #2*, beat the heck out of the egg whites !

Then, assuming you have the coveted glossy and stiff whites, dump in your almond/sugar mixture.

And fold that in using a large rubber spatula.

One of the many Web articles I’d read said not to worry about deflating the egg whites (unlike most meringues), you actually WANT them to deflate, so that they will puff appropriately in the oven.  HUH?  So maybe I was too rough with my folding.  And now, after watching the video that’s on the “Fine Cooking” website for this tutorial, I see I should have folded the flour/sugar mix into the eggs in TWO additions.

HUMMMM.  Didn’t say THAT in the recipe, “Fine Cooking” !  So, it wasn’t *all* my fault….mostly, but not all !

*MENTAL NOTE DE MACARONS #3*, add the flour/sugar mix in two additions.

Anyway, in went the almond meal/sugar mix, and now were ready to proceed with piping the little beauties onto my nicely prepped baking sheets, lined with parchment.  Heck, it was a special occasion, I even used my non-skanky baking sheets !

I had, in preparation for this macaron extrava-a-ganz-o, purchased some time back, a pastry bag and a set of tips.  Hadn’t had one in my batterie de cuisine until that point (remember, me no baker).  But, the set I got didn’t come with a tip with a large enough opening.  So I was going to improvise.  The second camp of web articles (the ones that said macarons are no big whup) said just to use a zippy top bag that you cut the corner off of, and pipe the batter from that.  *THAT* I can do !

Again, I thought I was being So Smart….I realized my batter was a little, erm, runnier than I’d wanted (and that it should’ve been it turns out), so I very cleverly clipped the hole I’d cut in the corner closed with one of those little plastic snappies you use to seal open packages of pasta, crackers, chips, cereals, etc.

Pretty spiffy, huh?  I was pretty damned pleased with myself.  Until I started to scoop the batter from the bowl into the zippy bag, and realized it was about as runny as pancake batter, and there was no way it was going to hold any kind of shape at all when I piped it onto the prepped baking sheet.  I tried one anyway, and watched my puddle of batter spread into about a 2-inch diameter blob, about 1/32-of an inch thick.  Not the nice, puffy macaron of my dreams.

I was also pretty damned pleased with myself when I remembered to pull the little plastic snappy OFF the zippy bag before I threw the whole damnable thing in the trash can.

What went wrong (other than the whole freakin’ project??).  Where do I start…?

Well, first off, it was too hot in the kitchen (and too humid, it was one of those rare SoCal days when the humidity was over 80%) for a fussy new project I’d never attempted before.  It seriously was like 95° at about 9:30 in the morning, and we’d had a run of extremely hot days so the house had retained the heat.

I also was trying to do too much.  I should try to do macarons again on a day I’m getting a delivery pizza for dinner.  NOT on a day I’m also making a loaf of bread, salad dressing and an entrée.  Although the latter two are fairly simple, and easy to pull together (this was the day of the Pasta With 3Ps), I was still on a tight time-line, and was feeling the pressure from the moment that almond meal started giving me tsuris.

Then there’s the mental notes I made earlier….almond FLOUR, not meal, beat the egg whites well, add the flour in 2 additions, all of those I think contributed to the epic mess that these macarons were.  And I will go back and watch the video on the “Fine Cooking” site (which I hadn’t before) when I attempt them again.

And I will attempt them again, and I will master them.  It was a learning experience, and while those are always painful, they do serve a purpose.  I was also really proud of myself that I didn't kick the trash can (or the dogs), pull my hair and rend my clothes and fall to my knees screaming "WHY, WHY, WHY MEEEEEEE?".  As I would have not too very long ago.  Instead, I just took a deep breath, and got back to cleaning up and carrying on.  And then jumped into the car and got some pistachio gelato for dessert that night.

All that said, I deeply believe that macarons really seriously, do not seem that hard.  But sometimes you gotta make a sacrifice to the Culinary Gods and Goddesses, and fall flat on your face, before you hit the home run.

And if that isn’t a hugely mixed metaphor, I’m sure I don’t know what is !

In lieu of a recipe, since I can’t really vouch for it, here’s the web-link to the “Fine Cooking” article and video.


  1. Roberta,
    When doing macarons use "old" egg whites, not really fresh ones. Search online and you will find some information regarding it.
    Good luck for your next macarons!


  2. Hi Ana,

    Thanks for the advice. I had seen that in some of the on-line articles I'd read, but it wasn't specified in the "Fine Cooking" article I was following, so I just skipped on by. I'll try it next time.