Macarons, macaroons - however you spell them, they are a little piece of heaven! But they are also a real challenge to cook!
The macarons of today are not the same as the macarons of my youth - I remember eating lumpy coconut biscuits with a piece of rice paper on the bottom. But a couple of years ago I had my first bite of a proper French macaron from Paul's patisserie - they are two discs of almond meringue, sandwiched together with flavoured buttercream, and probably one of my favourite indulgent treats!
I tried to make them myself a year or two ago - before I had this blog, so there is no photographic evidence, thank goodness! The meringue spread when I piped it onto the baking sheet, so instead of perfectly rounded discs I had a mixture of random shapes, that didn't rise properly and just didn't taste right. I've always wanted to have another go, and have had my eye on the various macaron classes offered at cookery schools in and around London for a while. Unfortunately as they are so hard to make, and now in such demand, most of these classes cost £100 or more. So I was chuffed when I found an offer on Time Out's website for a macaron-making masterclass for only £22 - half the usual price of £44. So I signed up right away!
The class was run by Caroline of Caroline's Tea and Scones, who has 15 years' experience of specialising in goodies for afternoon tea. The class was held at her central London flat, and I have to admit spending the first few minutes of the class gazing around her beautiful apartment in awe! We had a huge long table in the centre of the room with enough space for everyone in the class - I think there were 11 of us - to sit around. Caroline showed us a few books on making macarons (which had some really unusual flavour combinations in the recipes) and the equipment that we were going to use.
I won't reproduce her recipe here as I don't think that's fair - if you want to learn from an expert, sign up for one of Caroline's classes! But I don't think that you are losing out by not getting to see her recipe- Caroline explained that macarons are indeed very difficult to make, and every baker has one particular recipe that they swear by - and if they use a different recipe, they might not turn out so well. So have a look on the internet or through your recipe books, give one or two a try, and when you find a recipe that you're happy with and that works for you, stick with it! Caroline even commented that there are so many different factors that can affect the quality of macarons, from weather and humidity to the brand of ingredients (she personally recommended Co-op ground almonds) and that as far as she knows, even the famous patisseries will probably throw away about half the macarons they make! So while the piles of macarons you see in their windows look absolutely perfect, there are an awful lot that didn't make it that far!
Frankly I wasn't aiming for perfection, just something a lot better than my previous attempt! So I took note of all Caroline's advice and tips and also resolved not to lose heart if I try them again and they turn out wrong - after all, it could be down to the weather, rather than anything I did wrong!
We began by sifting icing sugar, ground almonds and cocoa powder into a bowl and mixing. Then take the egg whites and whisk into peaks. Add caster sugar and whisk again. Combine with the dry ingredients and pipe onto a lined baking tray.
We were split into two groups, with one group making pistachio macarons and the other making chocolate. Do you really have to ask which one I did? ;-)
It's important to leave the macarons for about half an hour after piping them onto your baking sheet, as this allows a slight skin to form. This means they will (hopefully) be smooth with a shiny top when they come out of the oven. Some recipes also say to leave your egg whites out at room temperature for 24 hours before using; Some recipes even state the egg whites should be separated two days in advance! It's all down to molecules and basically means the moisture in the egg whites starts to evaporate. I also learnt a new word: macaronage! It's the technical term for mixing the egg whites with the dry ingredients. So now you know.
While the macaron shells were in the oven we made the filling, which seemed a lot easier. You basically make a ganache from chocolate and cream - yum!
When the macarons came out of the oven, Caroline sighed that the tops were all a little cracked - but I could have practically danced a little jig, I was so pleased with them! There was one single perfect macaron, which of course we all took a photograph of! You need to leave them to cool a little and pipe a little of the buttercream onto one half, sandwich them together... and eat!
We all had a couple of the macarons to try - both the pistachio and chocolate flavours were lovely (it's a shame pistachios are relatively expensive to buy, then again they are a lot cheaper than buying a whole box of macarons!). Caroline gave us all a little gift box to take another 7 or 8 home, but I was particularly good and managed not to eat any of them (well, I am supposed to be on a diet). Instead, I carefully packaged them up and sent them to my grandmother, who hadn't been well. I've had a report from my mum that she thought they were wonderful, and kept showing them to anyone who visited!
I definitely recommend Caroline's classes - check out her website.
The big challenge now will be to have a go at making macarons myself! This was admittedly a group effort and we were working under Caroline's watchful eye. I also think my oven is a bit rubbish - never seems to be at the right temperature, and I haven't been using it long enough to have understood all its little quirks (Caroline for instance said one side of her oven was hotter than the other so she always accounts for that). And I'm the sort of person who gets half way through a recipe for dinner in half an hour's time and get to the part of the instructions that says "Now marinade in the fridge overnight". So I will probably forget to age my egg whites! Still, I am planning to have another go at making macarons soon, so watch this space!