Last week I got to enjoy a rare luxury. Not the actual maracons themselves, but the luxury of free time. My year at work has been rather fraught (in the understated British sense, which means absolutely manic) and thus no easy dates on which to take leave. Sure, I had a mega-trip in the US in November, but I’ve still ended up with way too much leave to carry over to next year. As a result, I’ve been enjoying the bonus of a few long weekends. As I’m the only one around on these random Mondays and Fridays, I’ve foregone the idea of foreign jaunts, and instead I’m able to enjoy a slower pace of life in my own big city. I can go to some of my favourite cafés and just walk in and get a table. No waiting, no sharing. I can go to galleries and enjoy them peacefully, standing in front of the same picture for ages without being jostled or moved along. I can also engage in small talk with some interesting people who are equally unhurried. Bliss.
However, last week was another story altogether. Those first hints of spring from a couple of weeks ago had gone, like some sort of Phoney Spring, and were replaced with snow. Lots and lots of snow. On Monday, the new cats and I just did not fancy leaving the house, so I was left with a little time to fill. After spending an hour getting the cats to chase a piece of string (their joint favourite thing, along with clawing the sofa), I decided to hit the kitchen and have a go at my kitchen nemesis – French macarons.
I know there are some people out there that have “the gift”, who can just knock up a batch at a moment’s notice without a second thought. I, however, am not one of those people. I’ve grappled with them on numerous occasions with varying levels of success. True, I’ve made them successfully on occasions, but I think my hit rate is about one in four at best. So for every batch of picture-perfect delicacies with their smooth domes, frilly feet and perfect symmetry, I’ve ended up with three batches of cracked almond meringue biscuits.
Well finally, finally, I think I’ve nailed it. I think my mistakes can be put down not to faulty technique as such, but the fact that many of my attempts were small batches. The smaller the batch, the more precise the measurements need to be, and I fear that trying to make macarons with just one egg white was pushing things too far. You need to be bold and think big. Large batches are the way to go! And as you can see below, the results look pretty darned good! There is still some irregularity there, but I find it hard to put into words just how utterly thrilled I was to remove the tray from the oven and find perfect macaron shells with no cracks. Yay!
I opted for the salted caramel flavour as it’s actually delicious when made well, and the filling is a doddle to make. However, the one thing that I didn’t go to town on was the colour the shells. I know some people like shocking colours, and that salted caramel is often some sort of day-glow orange. However, I wanted something more subtle.There are two reasons. First, I am not that happy about using colouring that is highly artificial – if it only takes a few drops to turn something bright yellow, vivid red or electric blue, then you have to wonder just what it is doing to your insides. Second, on a purely aesthetic level, I find the intense colours of some commercially-available macarons rather lurid! Instead, I just used a few drops of some natural vegetable dyes in the sugar syrup to provide a light caramel colour to boost the colour of muscovado sugar, which I think looks rather pretty.
When it comes to the filling itself, it can only be described as filthy. The base is a simple caramel made from white sugar. Throw in some salted butter, cream and a few drops of vanilla, then whip once cooled with even more lovely butter. The result is a silky-smooth salted caramel cream which can be easily piped into the macaron shells, but which does not leak out (which pure caramel, delicious as it is, is apt to do). You’ll end up with quite a bit of the filling left over, and you’ll probably just want to eat it with a spoon. As I said – filthy, and irresistible.
One final trick – these are worth making ahead of time. If you can, leave the assembled macarons overnight in the fridge, and be sure to leave them to come up to room temperature before serving. This will help make the inside of the shells lightly chewy and the creamy filling with be delightfully soft and fluffy. Things to make you go wow.
So what’s your baking nemesis? Have you managed to beat it?
To make salted caramel macarons (makes 25-30):
For the shells:
• 175g icing sugar
• 175 ground almonds
• 130g egg whites (about 4 eggs), at room temperature
• 175g light muscovado or brown sugar
• 75ml water
• caramel food colouring
For the filling:
• 150g white sugar
• 50ml water
• 180g salted butter (divide into 30g and 150g)
• 150ml double cream
• vanilla extract
• salt, very finely ground
1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper.
2. Mix the icing sugar and ground almonds, and put into a food processor or spice mill. Grind until fine. Put into a large bowl.
3. Divide the egg whites into two portions (2 x 65g). Add one half to the almond/icing sugar mixture and mix until you have a smooth, thick paste.
4. Next, make an Italian meringue. Put the water and muscovado or brown sugar into a saucepan. Add caramel/brown colouring as desired (I used enough to enhance the brown tint from the sugar, probably 20 drops of water-based colour). Heat to 114°C (237°F). In the meantime, whisk the rest of the eggs whites until frothy. Acting quickly, pour the hot syrup into the frothy eggs and beat the living daylights out of them! The mixture should quickly start to turn pale and fluffy, and increase in volume. Whisk for 5 minutes until the mixture is stiff and glossy – it should easily hold its shape.
5. Take one-third of the meringue mixture, and fold into the almond paste mixture to lighten it. Fold in the next third, then fold in the final third. Try to do this gently, and don’t mix too vigorously or for too long.
6. Fill a piping bag fitted with a 1 cm hole nozzle. Pipe out the macarons, leaving a few centimetres between each. Leave to dry at room temperature for around 20 minutes.
7. Bake the macaron shells for around 12-15 minutes until the shells have developed little feet but they are not browned. You might want to open the door briefly during baking to let any steam escape. When baked, remove from the oven, allow to cool, then peel from the baking sheet. Arrange on a cooling tray and prepare the filling.
To make the filling:
8. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan. Place on a medium heat until the mixture turns into a medium golden caramel (don’t be tempted to stir it at any point – it will turn into a crystallised mess!). The colour should be rich but without any burnt or acrid smell.
9. Remove the saucepan with the caramel from the heat, add the butter and stir well. It will sizzle, so watch out! Add the cream and vanilla to taste (just a drop or two) and stir until smooth. Put the pan back on the heat, and cook until it reaches 108°C (225°F). Remove from the heat and leave until almost cooled.
10. Put the cooled caramel and soft butter into a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until perfectly smooth. It might seem like the mixture has curdled at one point, but keep going and it will come good. You should end up with a very smooth cream. Add a dash of powdered salt (to taste, but go a little at a time).
11. Fill a piping bag with the salted caramel cream and use to fill the macarons.
12. Leave the macarons in the fridge for 24 hours, and remove from the fridge a couple of hours before serving.
Worth making? A complete faff, but the results are superb so it’s worth trying when you’ve got a few hours to yourself.