I have always been fascinated by macarons. Not the squidgy English coconut-mudpie-splats on rice paper with a zig zag drizzle of chocolate, which are also delightful. No, I speak of the French macaron, a delicate affair of almond meringue, sandwiched together with chocolate ganache, jellies and the like. However, in contrast to the dumpling which this website is dedicated to, the macaron is much more well… unforgiving. I have never had to weigh or measure anything for a Chinese recipe, ever. I can have a slightly wetter dough on some days, a slightly thicker pastry to compensate, a single celery stick or the whole bunch, as long as I squeeze the water out first, there are always ways to make up something new depending on what’s in the fridge.
Based on this humble training I was not prepared to make the macaron. No, compared to the dumpling, the macaron is a diva. The first time I tried to make them I wanted to flavour it with mango, so added mango pulp. Naturally all the little piped rounds ran into one huge baked pancake… Never ever add anything wet to a macaron recipe. Even food colouring I’ve learnt to play it safe with gel food colouring. Otherwise the shells crack, even if the mixture’s perfect it still cracks. The oven could be a few degrees too hot. I even learnt to make them with free range eggs only. A few pence makes all the difference to the protein quantity in the egg white. Cheap eggs are more watery, even after leaving them out for a day to evaporate. So that was 3 failed batches. Then there’s a question of overfolding. My first perfect batch were plain white, from the same mixture I wanted to add some colouring- in order to mix it in I overmixed- and they cracked in the oven.
I’ve always called myself a cook, not a baker. Shows like the Great British Bakeoff astound me with their dependence on precision for measurements and time, yet the episodes always refer very little, if at all, to the recipe itself. In fact the whole comedic value derives from the headless chicken state the show subjects its bakers to. Until the macaron, I really had very little incentive to follow the same route into what appeared to be a semi-mad state of agitation, peering through glass oven doors and comparing if my buns have risen as much as the person’s on the bench beside me.
The first macaron I had was by complete accident. My father is a lecturer and one of his French students gave him a box as a present straight from Paris. He gave them to me, I didn’t know what they were, but it did come in a very pretty box. I took a bite, and then another, by the third it was confirmed- this, whatever it was, was truly special. It turned out to be a very fine sample of Pierre Herme’s rose and quince French macaron. Although I have tried Laduree macarons, for me Pierre Herme will always be the best. For such a delicate offering his flavours are so varied and complex. And on a very simple level- his macarons are bigger than Laduree. In London, there’s a stall in Selfridges and a shop in Mayfair, which has a little more choice.
Since the first and best macaron I tried was Pierre Herme, that was the state of perfection I wanted to achieve. My efforts were based chiefly around this recipe:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/recipes/10302607/Pierre-Hermes-classic-Ispahan-macaron-recipe.html
In addition to this recipe, from reading other blog posts I sieved the almond flour 3 times, and the egg white once. This is necessary. In my scepticism I sieved the almond flour once and it didn’t work, however having said this the macaron is so temperamental it could have been many things, so it’s good to be on the safe side. I didn’t leave my egg whites out for a week. Just under 24 hours outside the fridge was enough, as long as the egg whites are good quality. Weigh everything to the gram.
Based on some experience and internet research I experimented with dry flavours such as osmanthus flowers (very Chinese, very subtle and fragrant) and earl grey tea. In all honesty you can concentrate your efforts more on the flavour of the filling. A plain-flavoured but coloured orange shell, with a square of apricot jelly (made from apricot jam and gelatine) hidden within a halo of buttercream was the best combination I’ve come up with so far. Raspberry jam and white chocolate ganache is also very tasty and perfect for someone with a sweet tooth.
This is a batch I made for the Hawkhurst Vault. A fantastic tea room on the less touristy, north end of Brick Lane. And half of the money is going to the charity I’m working with this Summer in Tanzania. Raleigh International. You can read about my trip here: http://www.justgiving.com/Louise-Wang1
Perhaps there is something the macaron has in common with the Chinese dumpling after all. Aside from having to be cautious of over-watery mixtures, the macaron is a very interesting playing ground for different combinations and flavours. To put it simply, it’s the reason I cook, or bake. To try to add something new and make something delicious for everyone to enjoy.