Baking challenge: a thousand splendid macarons (or 60, at least)

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week four (biscuits week) of series two: make three flavours of macarons, twenty sandwiched macarons per flavour, for a total of sixty pairs (i.e. 40 shells per flavour, a total of 120 shells).

Macarons. My bete noire.

There was a veritable fashion, some years ago, for food bloggers to write about conquering the mighty mountain of macaron baking. The challenges were epic, the trials and misfortunes of misshapen batches amply documented and the subsequent triumphalist posts, full of tips and tweaks on how to make perfect macarons, were long and technical.

That time – of refined and elegant biscuit, of brutal perfectionism – is now past. Blogging and foodie tastes now run to the simple, the artisanal, the rustic, the thrown together. No less delicious than the delicate refinements of the macaron but also no less stylised and no less of a statement. What it says about the world as it is could be anyone’s guess – does the hankering for the handmade, rough and ready baked goods signify a desire for security and a rejection of the trappings of materialism at a time of global austerity signified by the ornately fussed and primped-over patisserie tray?

Macarons: caramel popcorn, Earl Grey salted caramel, and chocolate and peanut butter
Macarons: caramel popcorn, Earl Grey salted caramel, and chocolate and peanut butter

I’m no social anthropologist. All I know is that I am relatively relaxed about macarons, for the simple reason that I find them very difficult to make. If they bake all the way through and don’t stick stubbornly to the baking sheet, I’m pretty satisfied. My macarons may resemble cottage cheese to some – lumpy and bumpy – but I’m happy to have something more than a scrap of crisp shell and a handful of (almond) dust beneath, to be honest.

I decided to link up the macaron flavours by theme – sweet and salty – and for this reason chose to make chocolate and peanut butter, caramel popcorn, and Earl Grey salted caramel macarons. And yes, like the fashionable macaron bakers of years back I have learnt some tips and tricks along the way.

Chocolate and peanut butter macarons
Chocolate and peanut butter macarons, in closeup

I used three different types of baking surface for the macarons: ordinary baking paper, a silicone baking mat, and a silicone macaron mould. For all three, I discovered that, for me anyway, the trick to getting the macarons off the baking surface was letting them cool down on the surface before removing them. I was surprised by this as I have seen video clips of people virtually tipping perfectly baked macarons straight off the sheet, but this is not something I can replicate at home. I was able to produce the most consistently excellent macarons using the silicone macaron mould (I know, I’m sure Paul and Mary would be horrified. But this is about what works at home). The macarons baked most evenly and were – as you might predict – of the most equal size when using these.

All in all I was pleased with the macarons I made. The chocolate and peanut butter macarons were probably the most universally popular, combining a familiar taste in a sophisticated biscuit. My favourite were the caramel popcorn macarons, the blitzed-up popcorn looking like pearled sugar, with the crunchy bite of the popcorn coming through the icing. I also liked that they were playful as well as unusual; I love fun. I was at first slightly doubtful of the Earl Grey salted caramel macarons and was convinced they simply tasted of straight up salted caramel – but, unprompted, a friend turned to me and said “Oh, these have an unusual floral flavour! Is it Earl Grey?” I love it when that happens.

Chocolate and peanut butter macarons
Shells from ‘Ottolenghi: The Cookbook’ (minor amendments); ganache filling, my own

For the macaron shells

  • 110g icing sugar
  • 60g ground almonds
  • 60g egg whites (I don’t find that pasteurised whites, the kind that come in a carton, work so well for meringue generally, but they will certainly do. I used them for some or all of the macarons pictured and pasteurised whites mix well with non-pasteurised, if you have a stash that need topping up)
  • 40g caster sugar
  • 20g roasted, salted peanuts, roughly chopped
  1. Preheat the oven to 170C. Prepare your baking tray – if using baking paper, trace around something to draw little circles in pencil on the back of the paper. A biscuit cutter works well. As I mentioned, I actually preferred best the macaron mould, which reduced the faff of stenciling.
  2. Soft the icing sugar and ground almonds into a large clean, dry bowl
  3. Place the egg whites and caster sugar in a bowl and whisk with a handheld electric mixer (or, if you have one, a freestanding mixer), whisking on full speed until the whites are aerated. They should be firm but not too dry. I always test by seeing if the bowl can be held upside down without the stiff, beaten egg white sliding out.
  4. Take a third of the meringue and fold it gently into the almond and sugar mix. Once incorporated, add another third of meringue and repear; repeat with the final third. The mix should appear smooth and glossy.
  5. If using baking paper, dot the tray underneath with small blobs of meringue and glue the baking paper to the tray using the meringue.Fit a piping bag with a plain nozzle and scrape in the macaron mixture. It is easiest to place your piping bag in a cocktail shaker or large glass to hold it up while you do this. Pipe the mixture over the drawn circles, holding the bag straight over the sheet. If, when you have finished piping, there is a little bump (or ‘nipple’) where the nozzle has lifted off, tap that down with a dampened finger. However, if you don’t have a piping bag, you can spoon little dollops of meringue over the traced circle and shape them with the spoon.
  6. Hold the tray (with macaron mixture piped on all circles) firmly a little above your kitchen counter and drop it down. If this makes you nervous, just tap the underside of the tray against the counter. This will release any air bubbles that may be lurking in the mixture and ensure the macarons rise smoothly.
  7. Leave the macarons out, uncovered, for at least 15 minutes, to let a skin form (it will look and feel drier and firmer to the touch) – and for me, this took at least 30-45 minutes. You can use this time to make the ganache, below.
  8. Once ready, bake for around 12 minutes. Apparently they are ready when they come freely off the paper with a little gentle lifting from a palette knife, but I can never achieve this. I remove them when they look firm, cooked, and biscuitty.
  9. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool completely. My macarons always come off stickily if I try and prise them off before they are completely cool – however, once this happy state is achieved, the macarons tend to come off smoothly with well-formed, firm bottoms.

For the ganache filling

  • 150g dark chocolate, chopped
  • 150ml double cream
  • 1-3 TBS peanut butter (creamy is probably slightly better but crunchy is fine if you prefer it)
  1. Place the cream in a small saucepan and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Once the mixture comes to boiling point, remove it from the heat immediately
  2. Tip all the chopped chocolate into the hot cream and whisk until it is all melted. If there are any difficulties in getting the chocolate to melt, return the saucepan to a low heat, stirring all the while.
  3. Once the chocolate is thoroughly melted, dollop in the peanut butter and whisk it until thoroughly combined. Have a taste and add more peanut butter if you’d prefer a stronger taste. Let cool. It will firm up a little, all the easier to pipe with.

To assemble

  1. To assemble, use a spoon, offset palette knife or piping bag to place a generous amount of filling on the flat side of your baked macarons, and sandwich similarly sized ones together. Leave at room temperature to set. They are very nice on the first day, but on the second, the flavour will have melded much more harmoniously.

Caramel popcorn macarons
From The Sweet Art

For the macaron shells

  • 110g ground almonds
  • 60g icing sugar
  • 60 egg whites
  • 40g granulated or caster sugar
  • A handful of caramel popcorn – I just used a supermarket own brand
  1. Preheat the oven to 140-150C (the recipe I used said 140C, but my oven hovers more around 150C)
  2. Prepare your baking tray. If using baking paper rather than a macaron mould, trace around something to draw little circles in pencil on the back of the paper. A biscuit cutter works well.
  3. In a food processor or mini chopper, blast the caramel popcorn to crumbs – a mixture of slightly larger pieces and dust
  4. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites with a handheld or freestanding mixer, adding the granulated sugar a little at a time. Beat until the whites are glossy and so stiff that you can hold the bowl upside down without them moving.
  5. Fold in the ground almonds and icing sugar (a large metal spoon is best for minimising the deflation of the egg whites) until just incorporated – avoid overmixing, which will knock air out of the mixture.
  6. Fit a piping bag with a plain nozzle and scrape in the macaron mixture. It is easiest to place your piping bag in a cocktail shaker or large glass to hold it up while you do this. Pipe the mixture over the drawn circles, holding the bag straight over the sheet. If, when you have finished piping, there is a little bump (or ‘nipple’) where the nozzle has lifted off, tap that down with a dampened finger. However, if you don’t have a piping bag, you can spoon little dollops of meringue over the traced circle and shape them with the spoon.
  7. Sprinkle the popcorn crumbs liberally over the surface of the shells. Leave to sit, uncovered, for 15-45 minutes, during which a skin should form.
  8. Bake for around 15 minutes and let the macaron shells cool completely before removing them from the sheet with a flexible palette knife.

For the salted caramel filling

  • 100g granulated sugar (this is actually quite a bit for caramel, but I used the sauce for both the popcorn and the Earl Grey macarons below)
  • 60ml water
  • 120ml double cream
  • 3 TBS butter
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp salt – I used, and prefer, Maldon sea salt, but any large-flaked salt will work. Avoid using ordinary running table salt
  1. Place the water and sugar together in a light-coloured saucepan (important to see the changing colour of the sugar as it burns). Swirl the pan slightly so that the sugar starts dissolving.
  2. Cook over a medium heat, swirling the pan gently from time to time. Keep on hand a pastry brush and small bowl of water. When sugar crystals catch on the side of the pan, dip the brush into the water and gently brush the sugar crystals back down into the pan. Don’t stir, especially not using a metal spoon – it can cause the caramel to seize.
  3. The sugar will start turning golden and from then will darken to a deep amber fairly rapidly. I tend to take caramel quite dark – just this side of burnt, really – because pale caramel can taste very sweet. However, it can burn very quickly so take it to the depth of colour comfortable for you.
  4. Remove from the heat and wait for about 10-20 seconds for any frothing to subside. Slowly add the cream – it will splatter and foam up. Whisk the mixture together briskly until fully incorporated.
  5. Add the salt, crushing it between your fingers as you pour it in. I advise you to start slowly, with a small amount, ensure it’s fully incorporated, then have a taste as soon as it’s cool enough. If the caramel doesn’t have enough of a salty edge for your tastes, then add a touch more salt, stir together, and taste again. You can always add more, but it’s more difficult to take it away. Let cool completely before using to sandwich the macarons together.

To assemble

  • Dollop the half of the caramel filling onto the flat sides of the macarons, ideally using an offset spatula or palette knife (I used the other half for the macarons below but if you aren’t making them, halve the caramel recipe or keep the caramel for any other use, or just surreptitious dipping with a spoon from the fridge). Sandwich together. Let set for a while – 15-20 minutes.
  • Take the remaining caramel popcorn dust blitzed up earlier (or process a little bit more if necessary). Scatter this onto a plate. Take each macaron sandwich and gentle roll the sides (where the caramel filling is peeking through) into the caramel popcorn crumbs. Set aside when done.

Earl Grey salted caramel macarons
From Food, Je t’aime

For the macaron shells

  • 110g ground almonds
  • 200g powdered sugar
  • 90g egg whites
  • 30g caster sugar
  • 2 Earl Grey tea bags – I used Twinings. You could use leaf tea, but actually tea in tea bags is ground finer and is dustier, and while this is usually considered inferior for drinking by tea conoisseurs, it actually works well for baking.
  1. Prepare your baking tray. If using baking paper rather than a macaron mould, trace around something to draw little circles in pencil on the back of the paper. A biscuit cutter works well.
  2. Cut open the tea bags and pour the tea leaves and dust out. Combine the ground almonds, icing sugar and Earl Grey leaves.
  3. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites using a handheld or freestanding electric mixer on high speed until frothy. Gradually add the caster sugar, beating well after each addition. Beat until stuff peaks form and you are able to hold up the bowl upside down without the meringue falling out.
  4. Using a large metal spoon, add half of the almond-icing sugar mixture and fold gently to incorporate. Add the rest of the almond mixture, again folding gently to incorporate, using a light hand to avoid at all costs deflation of the egg whites.
  5. Fit a piping bag with a plain nozzle and scrape in the macaron mixture. It is easiest to place your piping bag in a cocktail shaker or large glass to hold it up while you do this. Pipe the mixture over the drawn circles, holding the bag straight over the sheet. If, when you have finished piping, there is a little bump (or ‘nipple’) where the nozzle has lifted off, tap that down with a dampened finger. However, if you don’t have a piping bag, you can spoon little dollops of meringue over the traced circle and shape them with the spoon.
  6. Let the mixture rest, uncovered, for 15-45 minutes, until a skin forms – that is, the tops of the macarons are a little drier and firmer.
  7. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 140-150C (again, the original recipe suggests a much lower baking temperature of 130C, but my oven cannot accommodate this. If yours can, that’s great! If not, there was no harm done, just keep a close eye on the shells to ensure they don’t burn.
  8. Bake for 20 minutes and let cool completely on the baking sheet before very gently lifting them off with a flexible palette knife.

To assemble

  1. NB: the salted caramel filling I used is a half batch of the recipe noted above, in the popcorn salted caramel macaron recipe.
  2. Dollop the half of the caramel filling onto the flat sides of the macarons – an offset palette knife is great for this (I used the other half for the macarons below but if you aren’t making them, halve the caramel recipe or keep the caramel for any other use, or just surreptitious dipping with a spoon from the fridge). Let sit at room temperature to meld.
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2 thoughts on “Baking challenge: a thousand splendid macarons (or 60, at least)

  1. Caramel popcorn macarons sounds amazing!

    I did, of course, force my mother to go macaron-eating with me on our trip to Paris. All of them were good, but the pistachio were perfect. With them, the unique macaron texture was an asset.

    1. Pistachio is amazing! I’ve tried salted caramel too (lovely) and also truffle – the mushroom (not so great). I really like the slightly strange and powerful ones too – violet, rose.

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