Brixton Macaron Bake and a temperamental oven

I’ve just come back from a great staycation down in Brixton in South London. My friend K and her baby were on their own for the night, so I went down there, we made macarons, and saw some of the local food highlights. To top off the evening, some guests were coming to dinner, and we decided that they would be tasting the results and giving us their verdict.

K had been determined to at least have a go at making macarons during her maternity leave. In the interests of science, we tried two versions: simple (whisk egg whites, add to icing sugar and ground almonds) while the other was rather more laborious (involving preparing meringue with cooked sugar syrup). We also prepared a range of fillings.

Macarons are a combination of cooking, art and chemistry. You need to have an appreciation of the magic that is at work, everything needs to be measured exactly, and you need to have an oven that works. “Oh, did I mention that there is a problem with the oven?“. Eh, no, you didn’t. “Well, the dials are off, so it’s difficult to know the exact temperature of the oven, or even whether it is the oven or the grill that is on“. It looked like this was to be more of a sporting option than I had first anticipated…

We started with chocolate maracons using the easy method. This all went smoothly. I would have preferred to blitz the almonds in a coffee grinder to get them perfectly powdery as they were a little coarse, but this wasn’t a major issue. I piped out a trayfull, then my co-chef for the day had a go. It turned out it was her first time piping macarons, but after a couple of tries, she got the method down to a tee. The texture was good too – the tops smoothed out perfectly. We left them to dry for 20 minutes, baked them, and they came out of the oven looking perfect. Only one of them saw fit to erupt volcano-style. Nice chewy texture too. Result!

Next we started with the complex version, which was based on the recipe used by Pierre Hermé. I have his amazing book Macaron, which sits on my coffee table. I often leaf through it, fantasising about making some of his creations, and casting icy stares when others dare to think about picking it up. But back to the laboratory – we were going to make another classic, salted caramel macarons.

We started out by diligently measuring everything into bowls, but our need to go freestyle kicked in pretty quickly, and we replaced one-third of the white sugar in the hot syrup with brown sugar. Truth be told, being organised made the process relatively straightforward. The only tricky part was getting the sugar syrup right and making the Italian meringue mixture. But we liked the precision, which made it all seem like science. The resulting mixture certainly seemed more robust. It was perhaps a little stiff at first, but we added an extra teaspoon of lightly whipped egg white, and this seemed to loosen the mixture just enough to get it to the “flowing like magma” stage so that we could pipe it properly.

The quantities used in the recipe also meant that we had to prepare the macarons in two batches, so we would be able to observe the effects of a longer drying time. The first batch sat for 20 minutes, and went in the oven. Oddly, more of the macaron shells erupted this time, but most came out well, with perfect frilly “feet”. Then it happened. The whole day had a sense of lingering danger over it, our successes like stolen moments of warmth in the last days of summer when it should be chilly outside. Sure enough, by the time we got to cooking the second batch, the curse of the Demon Oven of Brixton struck. After 15 minutes, a sheet of grilled macarons emerged from the oven. It seems that our kitchen friend just changed functions itself. The macarons did puff up a little, but they all of them ended up with a bad bout of sunburn. Shame. So there is a lesson here – macarons really only work if the oven you are using is not  possessed.

Sunburned confectionery and possessed white goods aside, we had made the macarons!

Enjoying our success, we left the house for a while to check out Brixton market in the sunshine. We went round the fruit and veg stalls, along Brixton market on Electric Avenue, then had a snack in Franco Manca, which specialises in amazing sourdough pizzas (I’ll post something on that soon – but for the moment, I can confirm that it was de-li-cious!). We collected a few items to fill the macarons (such healthy things are cream, butter, chocolate…) and headed home to finish them off.

For fillings, we prepared three different types – peach and dark chocolate ganache, salty peanut, and creamy caramel. A nice range of flavours. As we were filling (and now professionals with a piping bag), our dinner companions arrived. Our French guest saw the macarons, and sighed “oh, I would love to try using the piping bag, and so we duly handed it over and she gave it a bash. Nice to make these things a little interactive, and she picked it up in no time.

The chocolate-peach was my favourite – it was dark and smooth, but the peach gave a little sharpness and light sweetness which worked wonderfully with the chocolate. The salty peanut was a hit with others – it was creamy and smooth, with a nice combination of roasted nuts, salt and sweetness, which complemented the very sweet macaron shells nicely. Finally, the caramel – this was just great. Rather than pure caramel, you whip in some soft but solid butter into the liquid caramel mixture. It produces the most buttery, silky-smooth but stable caramel filling. Just superb.

The verdict? There was a split about which flavour was best, but our little group though that in terms of texture, the more complex macaron recipe (the Hermé method) was the winner. I have to admit, it made piping the macarons a lot easier, and the finished result did look great. The shell was thin and crisp while the inside remained soft. No surprise this worked best – if there is an easy method and a complex method, only natural that the complex method exists to give a superior result!

For the chocolate macarons (“simple method”:

• 2 egg whites
• 20g caster sugar
• 133g icing sugar
• 83g ground almonds
• 10g cocoa powder

Combine the icing sugar, cocoa and almonds in a bowl and sieve. Set aside.

Whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl until you have soft peaks. Add half of the caster sugar, whisk well, then the rest of the sugar, and keep whisking until you have a meringue mixture with very stiff peaks.

Add the meringue to the icing sugar and almonds, and mix quickly with a plastic spatula. The batter should be thick, but flow slightly (so when you pipe it, the macaron shells will be smooth on top). I find about 30 seconds of very vigorous mixing gets you there.

Pipe the batter onto a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking sheet. Leave to sit in the open for 20-30 minutes, then bake at 150°C for 15 minutes. Half-way through cooking, turn the baking sheet around.

Once cooked, remove from the oven and allow to cook on the baking sheet. Assemble the macarons with the filling of your choice.

For the caramel macarons:

• 150g ground almonds
• 150g icing sugar
• 110g egg whites (4 egg whites – but weigh them to be sure)
• 1 teaspoon instant coffee granules
• teaspoon yellow food colour (optional)
• 165g white sugar (granulated or caster)
• 35ml water

Combine the icing sugar and almonds in a bowl and sieve. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine 55g of the egg whites with the coffee granules and food colouring (if using). Pour onto the almond mixture, but do not combine.

Whisk the other 55g of egg whites until this reaches the firm peak stage.

Put the white sugar and water in a saucepan. Heat gently until it reaches the “soft ball” stage (118°C, or when you drop a little of the sugar into cold water, it forms a soft ball). Once ready, pour in a thin stream into the whipped egg whites, mixing continuously. This is best done using a Kitchen Aid or beater. Allow to cool to just above room temperature.

Add one-third of the meringue to the almond mixture and combine. Add another third, combine, then add the remainder of the meringue.

Pipe the batter onto a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking sheet. Leave to sit in the open for 20-30 minutes, then bake at 150°C for 15 minutes. Half-way through cooking, turn the baking sheet around.

Once cooked, remove from the oven and allow to cook on the baking sheet. Assemble the macarons with the filling of your choice.

For the chocolate-peach ganache:

• 100g dark chocolate, finely chopped.
• 25g cream
• 60g peach coulis
• 15g unsalted butter, softened

Put the chocolate in a bowl. Heat the cream and the coulis and bring to the boil. Cook for a few seconds, then pour the hot mixture over the chocolate. Stir until smooth and the chocolate is melted. Allow to cool, and add the butter when lukewarm, stirring well until combined.

For the salty peanut cream:

• 70-80g smooth peanut butter
• 13g butter, softened
• 35-40g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
• 1/2 teaspoon of salt, finely ground

Cream all the ingredients with a spoon until smooth. You may need to add more sugar or peanut butter depending on texture and your personal taste.

For the salt caramel cream:

• 100g granulated sugar
• 15g butter
• 165ml double cream
• 70g butter, softened

• 1/2 teaspoon of fleur de sel, very finely ground

Heat the sugar in a saucepan until it melts and caramelises. Turn off the heat. Add the knob of butter, stir (careful – it will hiss and spit) then add the cream in two batches, mixing after each addition. Stir well, then cook on a gentle heat until the caramel is smooth and lump-free. Leave to cool to room temperature. Add the ground fleur de sel and the softened butter, and stir until well combined and smooth.

Note: adding the salt as a fine powder means you get little sparks of saltiness in the sweet caramel. If you prefer, add the salt when adding the cream so that it is mixed into the finished caramel for a smooth result.


Filed under Guest chef, Recipe, Sweet Things

6 responses to “Brixton Macaron Bake and a temperamental oven

  1. Christelle Lafon-Paredes

    Hi Russell,
    Thank you very much for sharing the result of your baking afternoon with us. It was a lovely evening and a delicious treat. I am going to start going through your blog.
    Let me know if you hear from the piment d’Espelette contest!

    • You’re welcome – and thanks for your skill in filling the caramel macarons. Thank goodness Tina had made the aubergine bake – something healthy to balance all that sugar!!!

      I’ll keep you updated on the Piment d’Espelette. Fingers crossed!

  2. It looks like you did an amazing job on the Macarons. I have been wanting to try making them myself and they are somewhere in my to do pile. In the meantime I’ll be studying your Macarons.

    • Thanks, glad you like them. They are one of those annoying things that you need to try again, again, again to get them right. But it’s great when you finally get a batch that come our perfectly. Good luck with them!

  3. These look amazing and the fillings sound sublime. I can’t wait to try these.

    • Thanks! The chocolate was good, but the peanut was amazing. I think a fusion of the two would be really good – chocolate and peanut is a winning combination.

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