Memoirs of a Troublesome Macaron

When we were planning our Mother's Day recipes here in the test kitchen, we came up with a great assortment of French pastries. The buttery financiers, the crunchy palmiers, the almond-laced croq-télé; it felt like a good list. But one of my favorite memories from France is trying the chocolate macarons at Pierre Hermé's shop on Rue Bonaparte in Paris. They had a crisp outer shell and a chewy, chocolaty ganache center.

I was determined to re-create them. My colleague Christine looked at me and shrugged. I can't remember her exact words, but they were along the lines of "You're crazy." When she worked at Cook's Illustrated, she had tackled macarons with her fellow test cooks, and they weren't easy.

I had made macarons once before, lemon ones that tasted good enough. But I was blindly following a recipe and not thinking much about it beyond that.

This time, I wanted to understand them. So I read recipes and blogs on how to bake the perfect meringue cookie. One of the common pitfalls, I learned, was with the cookie's "foot." That's the name for the circle under the domed cookie top. As the cookies are baking the tops rise. Sometimes the foot "runs," meaning it starts spreading well beyond the boundaries of the cookie shape (see the image above for some classic runniness).

The first batch was perfect. I had used two-week-old egg whites, which I had read was one of the ways to avoid a runny foot. I felt triumphant.

And then I tested again, and again. On one test they had huge runny feet; another batch after that had smaller runny feet. I tried everything I could think of. I let the rounds sit for one to two hours before baking them, I tried four-day-old egg whites, then fresh, and then a batch left out overnight. I'm fairly certain I have more gray hairs now than I did three weeks ago when this madness began.

The thing is, they tasted amazing. They just looked sort of ugly, with that runny foot. Certainly not the perfect sandwiches of Pierre Hermé.

I started talking to pastry chefs. I spoke to Meg Ray from Miette. She suggested letting them sit for one to two hours before baking (I had tried this already), and then baking them at a low temperature. Her former partner, Caitlin Freeman, who is now at Blue Bottle, didn't really have an answer. "We had to toss about 5 percent of our macarons away," Freeman says of her stint at Miette. I spoke to a friend of Freeman's, who is also a pastry chef, and she said that the cookies shouldn't sit for two hours—that 30 minutes was enough. Rose Levy Beranbaum, the author of The Cake Bible, said the humidity of the room could be a factor. Kate Zuckerman, the former pastry chef at the late Chanterelle in Manhattan, suggested that I leave the egg whites out overnight or use powdered egg whites. Whites left out overnight? I'd have moms calling to remind me about food poisoning. But I hadn't yet given up on the fresh kind.

Paulette Koumetz of Paulette in San Francisco and Los Angeles said to make sure the egg whites are at the right temperature. But what is the right temperature? And what does room temperature really mean? She continued, "The macaron is the most complicated pastry in all of French pastry." Great! Koumetz told me that when she began, Paulette's had a lot more macaron casualties than it does now. Half the battle is getting to know how the batter should look and feel, as well as being able to control the humidity and temperature of the room and the oven. My colleague Amy later admitted that when the batch of macarons she tested came out with runny feet, she pulled out the scissors and clipped them back. Not a bad idea.

Some of the other theories I read about:

  • Tap the sheet pans of piped raw dough against a hard surface a few times.
  • Place a second sheet pan underneath the first when cooking.
  • Open the oven door halfway through the cooking.
  • Make an Italian meringue (one where melted sugar is beaten into the egg whites) instead of a French meringue (where dry sugar is beaten into the whites).
  • Fold the batter 15 times, pressing it against the side of the bowl after each fold. This is called macaronnage. Not 10 times, and not 20. 15.
  • Don't make chocolate macarons; they are the most difficult to master.

I still don't have an answer to this foot problem, or the stain problem (that's another thing that can happen if you don't treat the batter just so: Dark stains can form on the meringue cookies). But I will continue to try to figure this out. In the meantime, don't let feet or stains stop you from making and eating these delicious cookies. Here's the recipe. Believe it or not, they are simple to make if you don't sweat the details. Perfection is overrated. Try making them at least once; then you can go to Paris and fully appreciate the perfection that Parisian pastry chefs are able to achieve.

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