The Short Life Learns: Macarons
“The Short Life Learns” is a series appearing every Monday discussing something a learned this week.
This dessert beckons all my senses. Pastel and vibrant, its myriad of colors draws me to look and appreciate. Each one lines up next to the other in perfect rows. Its consistency is weightless and delicate. When teeth finally sink into the cookie, its airiness causes it to melt in your mouth, while tiny remnants of colorful crumbs hover around lips. The little snap and sugary crunch it makes in your mouth as you chew makes you want more. It’s magical. It’s delightful. It’s one of the most difficult baking experiences I’ve had as of yet.
Macarons are meringue-based cookies made with crushed almonds, egg whites, sugars and whatever flavor you’d like. They are filled with a buttercream, ganache or fruit curd. European in origin, macarons were first created in Italy, but in the 1500s became a distinctly French dessert, rumored to be brought to France by Catherine di Medici. They didn’t become popular (or available) to the masses until the 1700s when two Benedictine nuns baked the treats to support themselves during the French Revolution.
For the past few years, macarons have been gaining in their popularity and are even dubbed by some as the “new cupcake”. I’ve been an avid consumer and spokesperson for macarons for about three years now, and I’ve always wanted to try my hand at making them from scratch. However, I’ve never had the right tools.
Yes! You heard correctly, this dessert is so fancy it requires a set of “tools”, which consist of a container that allows users to “pipe” the batter into perfect circles and a baking sheet with pre-configured circles, just right for a macaron. Thankfully, my boyfriend new of my macaron desires and bought me a kit for Christmas.
This weekend, I decided to try my hand at the tricky dessert. Obviously, my sister started playing Justin Bieber as mood music, and we went to work making the meringue. Although this was my first time making meringue, I did not garner my mother’s help. I strained out the egg whites, and started whipping them in the upright mixer. After adding a pinch of salt, 1/4 cup of sugar and having a dance party around it, my meringue was a more like the consistency of heavy whipping cream.
Mom to the rescue! I learned not only that the egg whites should be beat to a frothy consistency BEFORE adding the salt and sugar but that the eggs should be COLD. Further, NEVER use a plastic bowl to make meringue; it will only set in stainless steel and glass. Since I had failed at almost all of these requirements, we scrapped the old “meringue” and the electric mixer. Instead, we used a hand-held and hand-cranked mixer. It was nostalgic to use a mixer that was completely man-powered. Later, I learned it was a wedding present to my grandmother many years ago.
Because we used proper form, the meringue set perfectly. Next we folded confectioner sugar and ground almonds into the mix. Finally, I added a little bit of toasted marshmallow flavor to the batter and some food color. I spooned the mix into the piping bag and started the process of squeezing macaron dollops onto the baking sheet. My sister and I took turns each row. Then the process turns into a waiting game because the batter must sit for 35 minutes before placing the cookies into the oven. Thankfully, we were able to watch part of the UK Wildcats while we waited.
Once the cookies were in the oven, we made dark chocolate ganache for filling. The second most difficult aspect of making macarons is taking them off the baking sheet. Their gooey centers stick to the bottom, but their tops are so delicate that the slightest tug causes them to crack. My patiences was tried, but the majority of the cookies were successfully removed from the baking sheet, with the help of my mom and sister.
The final step was to knife out the gooey ganache and rub it onto the macarons, making sweet, scrumptious “sandwiches”. They were well worth the pains in the kitchen, and I must say I was shocked at how much they resembled the ones I’ve seen in bakeries. The mysterious veil around macaron making was removed this weekend, and I look forward to experimenting with other flavors and colors like peppermint, green tea, lemon and champagne.
Growing up, my sister and I weren’t allowed in the kitchen very often. If you’ve seen me with a knife, you know why. I’m clumsy and a little dangerous. But this time around, there was something sentimental about all the ladies in the family baking together. We wore beautiful little aprons and listened as mom shared her wisdom of making meringue that she had learned from her mother and grandmother, and I can’t wait to pass that knowledge down, too. Baking is magical in that aspect, these tried-and-true recipes have been passed down through generations from Italian patrons to French nuns to pastry chefs to Kentucky girls. We may have different tools and technologies, but the basics of this dessert and the love for their simple daintiness has remained.