In Paris, patîsserie shops are a dime a dozen. Unlike in the U.S. where the word “bakery” encompasses all things baked, in France, breads, croissants and the like are found in boulangeries, while patîsseries are where you will find more luxurious desserts like tartes, cakes and the famed macaron cookie.
If you’ve had the good fortune to gaze into the window of a Parisian patîsserie, the bejeweled arrangement of macarons is enough to catch your eye. They say you eat with your eyes first, and these cookies have a way of stealing the show both visually and in taste. In Paris, macarons are everywhere, but you will want to know where to go (Pain du Sucre, Stohrer) to make sure you’re getting your Euros worth. The good ones are worth the bite-size price of admission.
Selecting your macaron might be the biggest challenge of all though, because the flavor profiles are endless. Sweet, savory, a combination of the two. Picking just a few and having them tossed into a bag is a far cry from the satisfaction you get from filling up a box with all of the different colored cookies. It reminds me of picking out a dozen donuts with my dad at Winchell’s when I was little.
For me, the salted caramel variety (typically made with fleur de sel) has proven particularly irresistible, and fortunately for my mouth and unfortunately for my waistline, we found an authentic patîsserie in Houston that would make the bakers in Paris proud. In fact, we took a box along for the flight attendants working our flight from New York to Paris in the hopes of being moved up front. It checked-in full, sadly, but they did supply us with our own box of wine to leisurely serve ourselves over the Atlantic.
But back to the macarons. Getting the Culinary Hopscotch train back on the tracks was much easier on this trip with many cooking classes to choose from. We spent a week in Paris and took day trips this time, so it was easy to set aside an afternoon to learn more about these cookies. I don’t fancy myself a baker. At all. And in fact, I’m not a huge fan of the practice. It’s the measuring. And while I appreciate the science behind baking, I’m much more of ‘a pinch of this, a dash of that’ girl. Please note: there is no room for this methodology with macarons.
For something so small, there are numerous steps that go into making these cookies, but there isn’t much to them ingredients-wise. Right off the bat, I learned that they are gluten-free, which is great for sweets lovers who need to steer clear of wheat. And it’s the unique combination of Italian meringue (egg whites, sugar and water) and almond meal mixed with confectioners sugar that give the delicate little cookies their smooth exteriors and feet in the oven and allow you to fill them with almost anything you can imagine.
I love admiring my macarons before eating them; to look at the sheen and the smoothness of the shell. And now that I know what goes into this process, I believe my admiration is justified. Cracking is one of the biggest problems many bakers face while making macarons, and there are a variety of things that can cause this to happen. An oven that is too hot. One that is not hot enough. Improper sifting of your almond meal and confectioners sugar. Not incorporating the ingredients properly. And perhaps the biggest enemy of all, moisture. Our teacher pointed out that we would be using powdered food coloring to mix into our batter for this very reason. Since some of the color bakes away in the oven, she encouraged us to be generous with the food coloring if we wanted to achieve richer colors.
We started by creating the fillings for our macarons so they could set-up in the fridge while we worked on the shells. In groups of three, we created a white chocolate-raspberry filling, a pistachio filling and a dark chocolate-orange filling (ours). Once done, they went into the fridge until we needed them again. At this point, we started on the macarons. We heated up the sugar and water to 115 degrees Celsius, flipped on the KitchenAid mixers to get the egg whites going, and when the sugar reached 118 degrees Celsius, we gradually added it to the egg whites, allowing them to mix until the bottom of the steel mixing bowl was comfortable to the touch and they formed stiff peaks.
In the meantime, another member of our team worked on sifting the almond meal and confectioners sugar together, and then added in egg whites and the powdered food coloring. Each team selected two colors for their macarons, ours being a royal purple and fierce magenta-red. Once the meringue was ready, we incorporated it into the colorful batters in three batches (mixing twice, and folding on the third and last go) before filling pastry bags with the mixture.
Regarding baking, a Silpat is going to be your best friend because macarons tend to stick and ripping them off a baking sheet will undoubtedly cause them to crack and you will lose the little footing. You can try parchment paper, but a silicon mat will work the best. All you need to do is to pipe small circles about the size of half-dollar onto your baking sheet, giving the macarons a bit of space to expand in the oven. They cook for about 12-15 minutes depending on your oven, and require time to cool before you remove them from your baking sheet. If your macarons are properly cooked, they should remove from the Silpat easily.
From here, it’s rather easy. You match-up different shells of similar size, and then pipe in a small amount of filling, twisting as you go to allow the delicious filling to reach the edges. Regarding storing them, freshly made macarons will need to be placed in the fridge for at least 24 hours to allow the flavors to come together and help them to set. But they will keep for sometime in the fridge, and you can freeze them for up to three months as well, including any leftover batter or filling. To serve, bring the cookies out of the fridge and allow them to come-up to room temperature. You can decorate macarons both before and after they’ve been baked, the former with things like shredded coconut, crushed speculoos cookies, sprinkles and the like, and after with pastry dusting powders or edible pens.
La Cuisine Paris
80 Quai de l’Hotel de Ville