How to make macaroons
Which London pâtisserie, if any, is willing to give up its macaroon-making secrets?
How do you make the perfect macaroon? In London, it seems the only thing harder than making them is pinning down someone to teach you how.
In a surprisingly difficult quest to find that person I first approach legendary Parisian pastry brand Ladurée at Harrods. Intriguingly it doesn’t have a kitchen but a macaroon laboratory… to which outsiders are not welcome. With its large, old-fashioned macaroons filled with heavy butter cream, French bakery Paul seems the next logical step. Yet despite being happy to chat, Paul’s people won’t extend a welcoming hand to a journalist wanting to see its chefs at work. Finally, I approach Soho tearoom Yauatcha. If Ladurée is the classic choice, Yauatcha is on the cutting edge of the macaroon revolution, creating a fusion between Chinese dim sum and European pâtisserie. At last the answer comes back – ‘Yes’ – and I’m in.
Yauatcha’s pastry chef Stephane Sucheta is taking the macaroon into the twenty-first century with vivid colours and Asian-influenced flavours. He’s been a pastry chef for 24 years and worked for Pierre Hermé, often dubbed the King of Macaroons. When I arrive, Sucheta tells me we’re going to make neon tangerine-coloured kumquat macaroons, a typically offbeat creation. A pristine white shirt is proffered, surely an invitation to make a mess.
Method manThe basic macaroon formula isn’t hard. There is only one recipe for the biscuit: fine almond powder, icing sugar, beaten egg whites, caster sugar and food colouring. Sounds simple but, as Sucheta explains, macaroons are tricky; he regularly throws away whole batches if they’re less than perfect.
In the macaroon lab
There are two methods: the French (easier) and Italian (for the pros). Both are similar, except that the Italian method first heats the sugar in water while the French uses plain caster sugar.
Even though the Italian method is harder work, it makes the mixture more stable, which chefs prefer. If you ever attempt it and want to know when the sugar and water mixture is hot enough, put a tiny spoonful in cold water and it should soon solidify enough to be rolled into a transparent little ball.
The rest of the preparation is deceptively easy. The egg whites, food colouring and sugar are beaten till fluffy by an industrial mixing machine and then the almonds and icing sugar are added. Stirring the fluorescent batter proves a challenge so I’m told to whip myself up into a rage by imagining I’m beating an ex-boyfriend. It does the trick. The batter should be mixed until it is shiny and smooth, a sign that the sugar is melting.
The intensity of the colours and the pristine kitchen make the process feel a little like a science experiment, which partially explains why this kitchen – like Ladurée’s – is called a lab. (Sucheta even refers to himself as a ‘sweet scientist’.) The next stage in the experiment is to pour the dough into bulbous piping bags and gently squeeze it out in perfect little pairs of circles.
Perfect little circles
Once the tray is filled with orange blobs they are ready for the oven, or what Sucheta calls the ‘good luck part’ where everything can go wrong. Take them out too early and they will collapse, too late and the colour will be lost. He says that, unlike with cakes, you can’t disguise an imperfect macaroon. Here, for once, the style is the substance. They go into the oven at 150C. When the first batch rises I feel like a proud mother. But they soon stop and sit like the squat ugly sisters of the beauties displayed in the cabinet nearby.
Helping hand from historyIt seems extraordinary that it’s possible to draw a direct line between our half-cocked modern neon creations, and the magical macaroons that first originated from an Italian monastery in 1792. These were more like today’s amaretti biscuits, with a crisp shell and soft middle, the name coming from the Italian word for paste: ‘maccarone’. During the French Revolution, two Carmelite nuns seeking refuge in Nancy in northern France baked and sold macaroons to pay for their housing. They became known as the ‘Macaroon sisters’ and their slogan was: ‘Almonds are good for girls who do not eat meat.’ No doubt they also made a life of chastity a little sweeter.
Smart cookie: Sonya's first tray of macaroons
Fabulous fillingsMy twenty-first century efforts have fallen a little flat, so Sucheta whips out some he’s made earlier to cheer us up. We move on to the next stage: the fillings. ‘This is the really creative part,’ Sucheta enthuses. He has created 17 flavours, from coconut pistachio cinnamon (all in one tasty morsel) to decadent gold-leaf encrusted Champagne. ‘I want each one to be an experience, for the new taste to transport them somewhere,’ says Sucheta. He feels that dessert chefs must work hard to invigorate lethargic taste buds, and prides himself on delicate, refreshing tastes instead of settling for satisfying sugary expectations. His dedication is clear from the standards he sets, but it is underlined when – after being asked which is his favourite – he scoffs and asks how he’s supposed to choose between his ‘children’.The final stage is to sandwich the meringues together. For the kumquat macaroon filling we use a marmalade made from fresh kumquats and butter. The result smells divine. It’s difficult to resist sampling it straight from the bowl, but I get on with piping dollops of filling on to each macaroon then putting their hats on. Tasting is still some way away because, even after all this, they need to settle in the fridge.
Yauatcha has 17 different flavours of fillings
Luckily again, Sucheta has some ready to be eaten. The first bite is truly sublime: a crisp, rich, fudgy, slightly tart, satisfying mouthful. Three bites later and it’s all gone.
Macaroon-making is undoubtedly a delicate and volatile process, and getting the fine balance between colour, flavour and texture was not
as easy as it seemed. Despite their attempts to keep me out, the macaroon mafia shouldn’t have worried. I may have learnt the basics, but I’m still a rank amateur, on the outside happily staring in.
Bake themThe French method (slightly easier)…
1.Mix 100g of ground almonds and 100g of icing sugar.
2.Choose some food colouring and add a liberal amount to 50g of fresh egg whites. Add 130g of caster sugar, and beat until mixture stiffens.
3.Add the almond/icing sugar mix and stir until you get a shiny and smooth texture.
4.Pour the dough into a piping bag.
5.Squeeze out evenly sized blobs of mixture onto a baking tray covered in parchment paper.
6.Preheat the oven to 150C then pop them in. In the first few minutes they should rise, but watch carefully. There is no precise baking time; it takes practice to judge when they are firm enough (roughly 15 minutes).
7.When ready, take them out and leave them to cool.
8.Decide on your filling. Jam, chocolate ganache, butter cream and lemon curd are good options.
9.Pour the filling into a piping bag and squeeze out small dollops onto one biscuit and then attach its matching hat to complete the sandwich.
10.Set in the fridge before eating.
Buy themNo time for baking? Purchase the best macaroons from:Ladurée, Harrods, 87-135 Brompton Rd, SW1X 7XL (3155 0111/ www.laduree.fr/en). Knightsbridge tube; 71-72 Burlington Arcade, W1J 0QX (7492 9155). Green Park or Piccadilly Circus tube.Pierre Hermé, 13 Lowndes St, SW1X 9EX (7730 3663/www.pierreherme.com). Knightsbridge tube. Selfridges & Co, 400 Oxford St, W1U 1AT. Bond Street tube.