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Sunday, February 17, 2019

Blue Sky Walnut Macarons

Oh hey. I remember how to do these. 
I hadn't made macarons in a long time when I got the idea to whip these up. I had an afternoon and decided to see if I still remembered how. As it turns out, I do. I'm a huge fan of eating macarons, but not a huge fan of how annoyingly fussy they are to make. They're really a marker of a skilled pastry chef, to make a perfect macaron. It must be first shiny on top, have good "feet" (those little bubbly bits at the bottom) be not hollow on the inside, be crisp yet chewy when bitten into, and be evenly round. They're, in essence, a deflated meringue that's held together with sugar and ground nuts. The fat of the nuts gently break the inflated bubbles and yet somehow hold everything together in this 'cookie', and thicken it just so that it it bakes in one lump.

Since 1792 when some French nuns began selling them, these crunchewy delights have been a well-kept secret to we ignorant Americans. It seems as if they've just sprung up overnight! I don't see why they wouldn't - they're a mark of great skill, they're a vessel for plenty of fun fillings and flavors, and they are adorably aesthetically pleasing. Watching videos on youtube and instagram of chefs piping, baking, and filling macarons is just one of those things that helps me check out and forget the nonsense of my day. If you aren't watching ASMR baking videos, I think you're missing out on some serious self care.

The thing about macarons is that there are no 'quick' ways to do it and there's no real 'fool-proof' way to do it. They require skill, patience and practice, and no matter what they end up looking like you'll still have the cookies at the end. Please be kind with yourself and allow yourself a few failures here and there. Please understand as well that you are going to mess up your home kitchen like crazy with several bowls and lots of different dyes as well. It's okay, guys. Part of these are the mess! And hey, it's okay to make a mess when you're learning.

Traditionally, macarons are made with almonds. Almonds are great, classic, and hard nuts to crack (har har har) but still soft and fatty enough to make the right way of crunchewy cookie. I like walnuts for several reasons, those being which they are softer and easier to hand-grind and that because I was allergic to almonds for a fair portion of my young life I tend to have walnuts in my house instead, especially for when I feel like whipping up a nice muhamarra. In the case of walnuts, I also like how they have a nicer texture and that they're just a little bit luxuriously soft. They're quite fatty, though, so if you don't have an airtight jar to store them in, I suggest freezing them, lest they go rancid.

Walnut Macarons
They're not perfect, but they're mine!

  • 115 g walnuts, ground into flour using either a spice grinder, a food processor, or a mortar and pestle
  • 230 g powdered sugar, sifted
  • 72 g granulated sugar
  • 4 egg whites, room temperature
  • 1 fat pinch of kosher salt
  • Gel dye of desired color
Strawberry Ice Cream Filling
  • Your favorite vanilla buttercream
  • A good spoonful of strawberry jam
Start by prepping your baking trays. I like to use silpat mats. You can get them on amazon for pretty cheap, or you can find them at most specialty baking stores. You can also use parchment paper, but I like reuseable stuff, so that's what I use. This recipe makes two half-sheet pans worth of macaron halves so I prepare two silpat mats on two trays. Always give them a good wipe with a damp cloth or paper towel to make sure they're clean!

Sift together the walnuts, salt, and the powdered sugar to get rid of the bigger lumps. I like the mortar and pestle approach to breaking them down if you find a fair bit of them, and walnuts are soft enough to crush in your fingers so you shouldn't have too much of a problem. Make a well in the middle of the bowl and pop two of the egg whites in. Stir with a spatula, starting in the middle and adding a little in as you go, until you have a paste, that will be rather tight. It is also at this stage you may add some gel dye. I used a pretty cornflower blue gel dye that I found at the craft store. For this galaxy effect above, I used a chopstick and smeared some stripes of the dye all up the side of my piping bag, fitted with a round tip. A little goes a long way, so don't go crazy!

Combine the other two egg whites and the 72 g sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Whip these together until tripled in volume and have stiff peaks, but aren't dry and lumpy. Take a spoonful of your meringue and stir in gently to your paste, just to loosen it. Take another large spoonful of the meringue and now fold it in, pressing and scraping gently, breaking as little of the bubbles as you can while still having it be a homogeneous mix. The remaining egg whites can now be scraped in and folded in, gently, until everything's just barely combined. You want the consistency of pahoehoe lava (which means the kind that's flowy and liquid) for this batter. 

Pop your mix into your piping bag and pipe in circles of equal sizes that are at least an inch apart. I usually count to three, out loud, while squeezing to ensure the sizes are equal. If they aren't,  you're going to have some funny-looking cookies to sandwich! This might take a minute and might take some practice, but don't worry if they're not perfect the first time. You're here to have fun and that's the joy of it. Finally - don't skip this - pick up the tray with both hands and lift it about three or four inches off the surface of the table and drop them once or twice. You can also slap them from the bottom, but you might not do this in a way that things hit evenly and will therefore screw the shape of your macaron up. This will also knock out any large air bubbles there might be lurking beneath the surface, waiting to destroy all that you have created. 

I did this on a day with about 60% humidity but it was also winter, and it took about 20 minutes for a skin to form. So.
You may now heat your oven to 300 degrees F, and while it's heating you should clean up the mess of your poor kitchen and your utensils that will have likely gone sticky with the sugary egg mixture. What you are now doing is waiting for the macarons to form a skin. This step is really fussy and very annoying for those of us - like yours truly - that are impatient and want our treats now. It is essential to do this step, however, because without this skin forming you might get a blowout in the tops and you might not get those pretty feet on the bottoms.

Sidebar: Please don't google pretty feet. Please google "macaron feet" instead. 

The skin forming takes anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes. This is highly dependent on the weather, the heat of your home, the humidity in the air, everything. I know it's rough but just wait until the macaron is ready. You'll know it's ready when the tops of the piped batter is dry to the touch. Bake all at once for 11 minutes and do not, for the life of you, open the oven during that time. A cold gust of air at precisely the wrong time will ruin everything and cause it all to collapse in the middle.

A few might have baked together in the oven. That's okay! You can still eat them.
If all was well, you should have perfect macarons! Now please don't try to move them until they're completely cooled. Use this time instead to make your favorite buttercream and stir in a generous spoonful of strawberry jam. I call this flavor "strawberry ice cream" but you can honestly use whichever flavoring or jam you like. I think I used about 3/4 c of buttercream to fill all of these, with some left over. Don't overfill. These must be consistently filled just like the macaron sandwich cookies must be consistently piped.

You can wrap and freeze these either in columns or in straight flat packs like this, so long as it's airtight.
The best part about macarons is that they freeze perfectly. Wrap them gently in stacked columns with lots of plastic wrap and store them in the freezer for up to 6 months. You can also ship them to friends with bubble wrap and some dry ice! The freezer is the pastry chef's best friend next to the oven, so don't be afraid to use it. But what would you want with a frozen macaron?

They only take a short time to thaw at room temperature, because of the high sugar content, so I wouldn't dare put it in the microwave to defrost. You could give them as a treat to guests or save them as a light dessert for after dinner, if you pull out as many as you want as you're eating your evening meal. You could also use them as a garnish for a cake or milkshake if you use a lot of whipped cream. You can even take the unfilled shells that have cracked or broken, freeze them until quite hard, and then break them up and mix them in with ice cream or a cake batter for an extra-special treat. The possibilities are limitless!

Thanks so much for reading. We're getting more into desserts for the next few weeks, since I've gotten several requests for a few sweet things from a few sweet things. If you want to request something special, please feel free to leave a comment below, message me on Facebook or Instagram! If nothing else, I'll try my best to respond. 

Happy cooking and happy eating!

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