Macaron madness

According to the food media, macarons are the new cupcake. I, for one, am completely happy to jump on this bandwagon in support. When I say macaron, I’m not talking about those outdated mounds of coconut and egg white your grandma used to make; I’m referring to the beautiful little silver dollar-sized mouthfuls of deliciousness you find in France. These little beauties have made their way across the pond, and are steadily making a name for themselves right here in Indianapolis. You can find them around town without too much trouble — Circle City Sweets and Taste are two locations that immediately come to mind.

I was first taken with les belles macarons during our visit to Paris nearly two years ago, and was happy to make their reacquaintance during a long weekend there in November. Within the windows of every patisserie we walked past, and there were MANY, there they were. Mouthwatering rainbows of the tempting gem-like little cookies in all flavors and colors. I only wish I could have tasted them all, but at a euro or so each, I had to be somewhat selective about sampling.

In simplest terms, a macaron is a flat meringue cookie sandwich. The cookies themselves have a shatteringly thin glassy surface that gives way to a slightly chewy interior and some sort of sinful filling in the middle. Chocolate cookies with chocolate ganache, pistachio, lemon, berries, mocha — the possibilities are endless, as you saw if you watched the inaugural season of Top Chef Just Desserts. Morgan turned out a “red hot” macaron with chocolate filling, and a blackberry version that looked divine.

Last night, we ended up hosting an impromptu New Year’s Eve get-together with our neighbor friends down the street, and I decided macarons would be a lovely addition to our hors d’oeuvres table. Since I’d already put together some chocolate custards as a sweet treat, I chose to create a vanilla bean macaron with raspberry filling. Armed with a recipe from the current issue of Bon Appetit and encouraged by two YouTube macaron demonstrations, I started plotting my approach.

On paper, macarons look deceptively simple to make, but hold your horses. It’s not as easy as it sounds to pull them off and come away with the elusive “foot” on the bottoms that allows you to correctly sandwich the cookies together.

There are really only three ingredients for the cookie part of the program — powdered sugar, egg whites and almond flour — plus whatever flavoring agents you might want to incorporate. Now here’s the first challenge: almond flour is not a commonly available ingredient. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what it was, although the Bon Appetit recipe said it was sometimes just labeled as ground almonds. A trip to the Marsh baking aisle uncovered barley flour, spelt flour, buckwheat flour, rice flour and several shelves full of other specialty flours, but no almond flour. Hmph. Fortunately, Trader Joe’s came to my rescue. I quickly located a bag of almond meal that I assumed was what I wanted. $3.99 later, I was appropriated supplied and ready to bake.

Here’s the drill, you sift the almond flour/meal with the powdered sugar (not as easy as it sounds because the almonds tend to gunk up the sieve), then you whip the room-temp egg whites with a tiny bit of sugar until they hit the medium peak stage (I added the vanilla bean here). Fold the almond-powdered sugar into the egg whites in stages until just combined, then carefully spoon the batter into a pastry bag. (A Baggie with the corner cut out will do in a pinch if you don’t have a pastry bag in your culinary arsenal.)

Pipe the batter onto a parchment paper-covered cookie sheet in 1/2-inch blobs about an inch and a half apart and then leave them be for about 30 minutes. They will spread out and become very flat, but don’t worry. This is what you want. Don’t be tempted to cut corners and put them in the oven immediately – the YouTube demo said to wait until the surface is slightly hardened and you can touch it with your finger without it sticking. Something about doing this helps them bake up the right way.

While you wait, you can prepare your filling. In my case, I simmered fresh raspberries with sugar, cornstarch and a little orange juice until thickened, then strained the mixture to remove the seeds.

Once they’re “gelled,” the macarons bake at 290-300 degrees for about 15 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. When they come out, cool them on the sheet and then carefully peel them off the parchment paper. Spread a little filling on each side and stick them together to create the sandwiches. Voila – macarons!

my vanilla bean macarons with raspberry filling

I definitely need more practice piping so all my cookies come out consistently the same size, but overall, I was pretty darn pleased with my first shot at macarons. The texture seemed appropriately delicate and the flavor was good, although the almonds kinda overpowered the vanilla beans. I’m already daydreaming about new combinations to try next time.

Wishing you all a deliciously happy 2011!!!!

Happy New Year!

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