I was a Grand Diplôme student at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris when I first tried (and failed) at making macarons (mah-kah-ROHNS). For more than a century, these dainty confections of two almond meringues sandwiched around a luscious filling were sold only in patisseries. Then, in the 1990s, chef Pierre Hermé ignited a global frenzy over the cookie. While at the helm of famed Paris bakeries Fauchon and Ladurée, he tinted the meringues vibrant colors and filled them with gloriously sophisticated flavors. (Think rose-lychee-raspberry or grapefruit-orange-Campari.) Suddenly, everyone from London to Tokyo wanted to eat macarons—and professionals and home bakers alike wanted to master them. From that point on, their allure has never abated.
It’s not hard to understand why. The perfect specimen is a wonder: Utterly smooth, elegantly puffed meringues (often called “shells”), with an eggshell finish and a frilly “pied,” or “foot,” rimming the bottom, hold a satiny filling. Take a bite, and the wafer-thin crust gives way to the supple chew of the meringue while the filling—perhaps chocolate ganache, buttercream, or fruit curd—delights with a burst of flavor.
Despite the fact that the shells require just four ingredients—egg whites, almond flour, granulated sugar, and confectioners’ sugar—achieving this ideal can be tricky. If the batter is too airy, the shells may bake up cracked, tall, or lopsided; if you deflate it too much, they will spread flat. Baked too long or at too high a temperature, the saturated color will fade; baked too low, the bottoms may be sticky.
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A Patisserie-Perfect Specimen
- Smooth and round with tinted eggshell finish
- Evenly risen, with airy, frilly foot
- Creamy, bold filling
- Thin, lightly crisp exterior
- Tender, chewy interior
Since those days in the 15th arrondissement, I’ve baked macarons time and time again, sometimes creating masterpieces, sometimes not. I have never minded the flaws too much because the process is gratifying, the cookies can’t help but look seductive with their vivid hues, and they’re delicious every time. But I have always wanted to nail down a method that would make success certain, and now I’ve come up with a recipe that does just that. If you’re a first-timer to macarons, a little practice may still be needed, since a few steps require finesse, and you’ll have to understand the idiosyncrasies of your oven. But the payoff will be sweet.
Science: Fluffy Foundation for Success
A stable, billowy Italian meringue is the best kind for producing quality macarons. All styles of meringue involve whipping egg whites so that their protein strands begin to unwind and form a network that holds water and air bubbles in place. But only the Italian kind calls for drizzling in a hot sugar syrup to cook the proteins and set them into a sturdy foam. This strong meringue affords the baker more control during macaronage: The firmer the structure, the less risk there is of overmixing and overdeflating the batter.
A Process to Practice
Here’s a synopsis of the process: Sift almond flour together with confectioners’ sugar, which will ensure a smooth top, and then whip granulated sugar and egg whites into a satiny meringue (there are a couple of possible approaches here—more in a moment). Next, add the meringue to the almond flour mixture and stir repeatedly, in a process called “macaronage,” to partially deflate the batter. Pipe the batter into rounds and leave the shells to dry so that a “skin” can form on their tops. When the shells bake, this skin forces steam to escape at the base, forming a well-defined, airy foot. Bake and cool the shells, fill them as your heart desires, and then refrigerate the filled confections for 24 hours to “mature.” This resting step, a counterintuitive move for such a delicate sweet, is of great importance: As the macarons sit, moisture from the filling is absorbed by the shells, so the interior softens while the exterior remains lightly crisp.
Before you start baking, gather a few necessities.
- An instant-read thermometer or a candy thermometer ensures that the sugar syrup for the meringue hits the proper temperature.
- A kitchen scale hat weighs in grams is essential for producing a batter with the right consistency.
- You’ll need a large piping bag and ½-inch round tip to pipe the shells into neat circles and a round or star tip for the filling.
- To create shells that are identical in size, use a biscuit cutter to trace circles onto parchment paper or use a macaron mat—a silicone mat that’s marked with guides for piping.
Measure for Measure
Before getting to work on my recipe, I consulted macaron maven Gesine Bullock-Prado. The cookbook author, who is also an instructor at her baking school Sugar Glider Kitchen, reminded me during a video call that classic recipes call for “tant-pour-tant” amounts of almond flour and both sugars—in other words, all three ingredients in equal measure. Using that ratio, I shifted my attention to the particulars of the technique.
A stiff, stable meringue that holds onto its air is critical to success. The stronger the meringue, the more wiggle room you have during macaronage so that you can blend the batter until it is thinned to a texture that will bake up properly. With a weaker meringue, you might accidentally knock out too much air.
The Art of Macaronage
“It’s anathema . . . to take the air out of a meringue,” said Jody O’Sullivan, pastry and baking instructor at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and former macaron bakery owner, emulating his students’ reactions. But for macaronage, he explained, that’s what you must do. The technique is the process of stirring meringue together with almond flour and confectioners’ sugar (and in my recipe, some unwhipped egg whites) until it partially deflates and relaxes into a smooth, flowing state.
Senior Science Research Editor Paul Adams elaborated: Macaronage, he said, selectively removes the largest air bubbles from the meringue and leaves the small ones intact. As the almond flour is stirred through the foam, the nut particles are more likely to hit a big bubble than a small one, either popping it or causing it to divide into smaller bubbles. Both scenarios reduce the number of large bubbles to create a fine‑crumbed interior without big hollows.
Using a rubber spatula, stir, fold, and smear the batter against the side of the bowl. When it’s ready, it will flow in a slow, wide stream for about 10 seconds.
That’s what happened when I made a French meringue, one of the two styles commonly used for macarons. All you do is whip egg whites with sugar, which is easy but results in an unstable meringue that doesn’t hold much air and thus produces thin, flat shells. But an Italian meringue, the kind that many bakers, including Bullock-Prado, favor is much more stable: You cook sugar and water to 245 degrees (at this “firm-ball” stage, enough of the water has evaporated that the mixture is 87 percent sugar and 13 percent water) and then pour the bubbling syrup into softly beaten whites that are whirling in a stand mixer. Heating the whites helps set their proteins into a more rigid, buoyant architecture that is remarkably sturdy. After a few tests, I incorporated a touch of cream of tartar for added stability. I also learned to whip the whites just to the right degree, when they drooped on the whisk in the shape of a curved bird’s beak. This “bec d’oiseau” is the cue that it’s time to fold in the dry ingredients and perform macaronage.
When piping the batter (I like a two-bite diameter of 11/2 inches), I produced the neatest circles by holding the pastry bag vertically so that the batter flowed straight down, employing a swift flick of the wrist at the end to cut off the batter and let it settle on top. Then, to burst any big air bubbles, I rapped the baking sheet on the counter a few times. For the resting step, 20 minutes was sufficient to develop a skin firm enough to force steam out of the base during baking, creating a ruffled foot.
Thanks to sifting the dry ingredients, using an Italian meringue, and practicing macaronage, my shells were rising uniformly and baking up smooth. But their interiors harbored large air pockets. Happily, the hollowness disappeared when I left a portion of the whites unwhipped and added them raw to the meringue along with the almond flour mixture (à la the venerable Hermé and many other pastry chefs). Since this resulted in less total air in the batter, the shells were less likely to form a hollow.
Understanding Your Oven
The quality of my macarons also improved as I came to grips with the unique characteristics of the test kitchen ovens. Per Bullock-Prado, “sometimes you have no idea what’s happened [with your macarons] and the oven is usually the culprit.” Unlike many baked goods, macaron shells should not be browned, as this dulls their color. I had been baking mine at 325 degrees, per many recipes. At this temperature, the colors stayed true, but the tops finished before the bottoms, which remained sticky and hard to peel from the parchment. Only by moving the shells to a lower rack to hasten the cooking of their bottoms did I finally crack the code to beautifully baked shells in the test kitchen ovens. You’ll have to get to know your oven too. If it heats unevenly, you may need to rotate the pan during baking or raise or lower the rack.
Working with Food Coloring
Whether you prefer cool pastels, vibrant primaries, or something in between, gel food coloring is the best option for tinting macaron shells. The thick, concentrated product, which has a corn syrup or glycerin base, produces vivid tones without loosening the batter like water-based food coloring will. It can be helpful to put some dye in a bowl and use the tip of a toothpick to add it drop by drop until you reach the desired hue. Supermarkets sell basic colors; for a wider variety, shop at craft stores or online.
There’s one more sensitivity to be aware of: If even the slightest puff of air from an oven fan breezes beneath the parchment paper, it may cause the shells to rise askew. Spraying the baking sheet with vegetable oil spray to adhere the paper to the sheet is a good preventative measure.
After weeks of honing my skills, I was now producing gorgeous macarons in a rainbow of colors and flavors. To celebrate, I swirled sweet-tart raspberry buttercream onto a blush-pink shell and sandwiched another shell on top. This spectacularly chic cookie would more than pass muster at Le Cordon Bleu.
Which Filling Do You Fancy?
The creamy-sweet center of a macaron needs to have real punch because you only get a couple of bites, and the ratio of filling to the neutral shell is relatively low. Creating your own flavors can be great fun, but you may want to start with one of the choices below. (Alternatively, choose a store-bought option such as Nutella, dulce de leche, or jam.)