12 March 2007
It seems French macarons, those wonderful confections decorating Parisian patisseries, have finally made it across the pond. Unlike their American double 'oo'-ed cousins, these almond cookies bear smooth tops and sandwich creamy fillings for a wonderful chewey texture. And as they pop up in more and more American bakeries, I just want to say that I was there first. Me, ahead of the trend.
Several years ago I had read somewhere about the famous macarons of LaDuree and made a point of seeking them out on a week long soujourn in Paris. Immediately, I was smitten with the colorful myriad of flavors and I will admit I made an almost daily pilgrimmage from my 5th arrondisement hotel for my macaron fix (I say almost daily because it had to broken up with some Damien's caramel beurre salle ice cream, of course). When I returned to the U.S., a country sadly macaron-less at the time, I set out on a quest to make my own.
However, I soon discovered that making macarons was not as easy as I thought. First, even finding a recipe was difficult, as I searched through cryptic pastry chef recipes in French with metric measurements. Luckily, a thorough discussion on EGullet and Pierre Herme's recipes helped. But there were also the cookies themselves, which are notoriously difficult to master. The goal is to get macarons with frilly little 'feet' around the edges and smooth tops. I whipped egg whites, piped and baked, piped and baked again, but my cookies came out flat or deflated. Finally, on my third or fourth try, there they were, a whole sheetfull of little feeted cookies. I baked up bunches of chocolate macarons that day, and then I never made them again. I had conquered the macaron, and I had no desire to return to battle.
Over the following years, a few well-timed trips to Paris kept my macaron craving sated, but recently I'd begun to get a little itchy. I knew it was bad when on a trip with a layover at Charles DeGaulle, I considered whether I could have macarons delivered to the airport (I already knew you couldn't get them in duty free). Luckily, my more frugal side kicked in, and I decided to try my hand at making them again.
Now, if this tale has not made me sound crazy enough already, this is the part where my Indian grocer and his flower powders come in. There is a small Indian grocery near my appartment in New York who stocks all kinds of wonderful spices and dried beans and flours and international products. I had stopped in there to pick up some zaa'tar, a staple in my house, and was as usual browsing the unusual products lurking on the shelves. Norwegian root powder? Red seaweed? And there in a little plastic bag, a pink powder labeled hibiscus flower powder. "Do you know what you use this in?" I asked the grocer; but the man speaks not a word of English. So, since I apparently do not posess the normal-person's fear of purchasing strangely colored powders in tiny subterranean stores, I bought it anyway.
A few days later as I embarked on my macarons (I also made this ginger-apple version), that little pink bag caught my eye, and I thought I could experiment with a batch of hibiscus macarons. I didn't expect the hibiscus to make a big difference, but to my surprise they turned out wonderfully, with the hibiscus bringing a pronounced tart-sweet floral note and a bright purple interior. I should have made a proper buttercream filling, but after all those cookies, I lazily folded some jam and hibiscus into some whipped cream I already had in the fridge, and the result was lovely. They lasted about 3 days chilled, but we had no problem devouring them all by then.
Please don't be put off by all my mis-adventures with macarons. Once you get a feel for them they are quite easy to make. It is important that the batter have just the right consistency, so if you have a kitchen scale, now's the time to use it. Also, as you'll see in the note below, hibiscus powder is not that hard to find, but you could also experiment with other flavorings, like these and these..
Hibiscus powder adds a tangy floral note and can be made by grinding hibiscus tea or dried hibiscus flowers into a powder. You could also experiment with using dried roses or another floral or herbal tea blend.
1 cup (100 g) powdered sugar
1/2 cup (50 g) ground almonds
3 tbl hibiscus powder
2 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 cup (55 g) sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line baking trays with parchment paper.
2. Pulse the ground almonds, powdered sugar, and hibiscus powder in a food processor a few times to combine (this will also help make sure you don't have any large chunks of almond). In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they hold soft peaks, gradually add the sugar and beat until the whites hold stiff peaks.
3. With a spatula, fold the almond mixture into the egg whites. Fold using smooth strokes until the mixture is encorporated- the whites will deflate somewhat and the batter should be thick and flow like magma.
4. Transfer the batter to a piping bag and pipe into 2 inch rounds (about 2 tablespoon-fulls) on the baking sheets. Bake in the center of the oven for 15-18 minutes, the macarons should form frilly 'feet' and smooth tops. Let cool completely, then remove from the parchment. Sandwich the macarons with a tablespoon of filling.
Quick Hibiscus Filling:
1 cup whipped cream
1/4 cup Damson plum jam or tart seedless berry jam
2 tbl hibiscus powder
Combine all ingredients. If you use this filling you'll have to keep the macarons refrigerated to keep the cream from running.
You can also make a basic buttercream by creaming 6 tbl butter and 1 cup powdered sugar, then fold in the hibiscus for a more stable filling.