I started preparing for Valentine’s Day a month ago. No, not plotting any grand romantic gesture for a significant other – this is a different sort of relationship. I’m talking about my love/hate affair with macarons.
What is it about macarons that seems to have enchanted everyone with Instagram? Here in the states, these French almond cookies that sandwich a soft, flavored filling have become quite a phenomenon. Is it the bright colors? Is it the shatteringly crisp exterior that gives way to a delightfully chewy center? I suspect the fact that they’re French has a lot to do with it; Je ne sais quoi and all that.
When we decided we wanted to offer a special something for Valentine’s Day, everyone in the kitchen agreed that there could be no more perfect way to express our love of chocolate than a box of macarons that showcased five of our single origin chocolates.
The reason macarons are usually only found in bakeries and restaurants, rather than the home kitchen, is probably that they are a rather intimidating project to take on. Admittedly, if you don’t have a great deal of experience making them, even if you’re a professional baker like I am, the prospect of making macarons can be a little…frightening. My team and I had made macarons for our café’s Chef’s Tasting Menu with success before we took on this challenge, but we had never had the pleasure of making them on a monstrous scale in such a tiny timeframe. For Valentine’s Day, we planned to make at least one hundred boxes, with ten macarons in each. My calculator watch tells me that that amounts to 2,000 shells. No big deal, right? We had a month.
The thing about macarons is that something can go wrong at nearly every single step of the process, and they are delicate: the almond flour must be ground and sifted finely enough, the egg whites must be at room temperature, the meringue must be folded into the almond-sugar mixture enough (but not too much!) This process is known as macaronage, and when done correctly produces a thick batter that flows like lava but still holds its shape when piped. This is the hardest part and can only be perfected through practice. Throw our chocolate into the mix, which doesn’t always like to behave like normal chocolate in the pastry kitchen, and you’ve got your work cut out for you. Then of course you have the temperature and humidity of your kitchen to deal with because it just wouldn’t be fun unless the very elements of nature were against you, too.
When we started this project, I immediately began working the macaron shift, churning them out and stowing them away in the freezer to be filled with ganache right before the big day. They all came out perfectly, and I was queen of the macarons.
And then I wasn’t.
I may never know why, but suddenly they were coming out wrong. There were batches that would come out looking like I was making a different cookie altogether. I had not changed anything about my process, and yet the results were, shall we say, less than ideal. There were batches that came out wrinkled on top, ones that spread out too much and stuck to each other, some that looked grainy, and some horrific ones that cracked and deflated into sad brown puddles. And we weren’t even halfway to our 2,000 macaron goal.
That was a bad week. In the depths of my macaron despair, I questioned everything I thought I knew about making them, I tried tweaking my method in various ways, with no success. Finally, I decided to try making them with Italian meringue – pouring cooked sugar syrup into whipped egg whites, instead of a French meringue, where the uncooked sugar is added alone to the whites. French meringue had worked so well for me in the past, and I didn’t think it would make a difference, but I was desperate for a solution. When I made this new batch using the Italian method, I could feel it – this was going to work. And it did.
I don’t know the exact science behind why I could suddenly make macarons again, but this is what I have learned about them: they take practice. You can feel when you’re doing it right: the texture of the batter will be smooth and flowing, and just beginning to get shiny. Once you know that feeling, your macarons will always come out perfectly (well, almost always). And so, with the help of my rockstar pastry team, we made 2,010 macaron shells, plus one extra batch for good measure. We figured out how to assemble the boxes and tie the bows on 100 sets of macarons for Valentine’s Day, a few of which are still left for those of you procrastinators who waited until tonight to grab something for your darling (or yourself, which I advocate). Consider it our way of saying Happy Valentine’s Day, with love, from the Dandelion Chocolate kitchen to you.