Macarons are the big sweet obsession at the moment, in Australia that is. Television cooking programmes have included them in the competitions to find top home chefs. Yet macarons have been around for a long time in France but for some reason they have hit the big time here. I learned to make them in Paris at my friend Paule’s cooking school Promenades Gourmandes. Paule Caillait – don’t mistake the name as Paule is a woman.
Paule specialises in cooking tours and classes in Paris and takes you shopping first and then you find out where and how the French who live in the trendy areas of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements shop for ingredients. Her tours are followed by a cooking class in her contemporary large kitchen with its glorious cast iron Lacanche cooker.
For the macaron classes she invites Joël Morgeat, maître pâtissier to lead the class. We found him a charming young man who spoke a reasonable amount of English, but if there were any misunderstandings or faux pas on our part, on standby were Paule and her French friend Carol who speaks English fluently. By the way Paule speaks English just as fluently which will appeal to anyone considering doing a cooking course in Paris.
For our macaron class, the ingredients were all laid out in the methodical style of the master pastry chef, everything ‘measured’ and ready for us to tackle the art of making macarons. The first rule you learn is not to measure by cups and spoons etc. but by weighing.
An essential part of the process is to make an Italian meringue, you do that by cooking sugar and water to a state where it becomes sort of plastic like a piece of silicone and can be rubbed between your fingers. After it reaches that state, the hot sugar liquid can be poured into lightly beaten egg whites. You then whip those almost into oblivion, for at least another 10 minutes until really stiff and glossy. I thought the electric mixer might burst a ‘foofoo’ valve like mine did before I left home. I kept watching it but being a later model, it stood up to the test.
The procedure to test the readiness of the cooked sugar is in the danger zone and Joel showed us how he uses his fingers to test it. He places his fingers in cold water and then plunges them into the boiling pot and then, its fingers straight back into the cold water! It was not something we were anxious to emulate but he insisted! I was a bit of a woos at this, quietly thinking I’ll be hunting down the confectionery thermometer back at home. That is if I am ever in the ‘mindset’ to set aside 3-4 hours uninterrupted by nuisance telephone marketing calls to make them!Paule is the one with the dangly earrings. The other person is a student, not a picture of me as I am the one taking photos.
Nothing but the best goes into these babies, finely ground almonds, caster sugar, butter, egg whites and almond paste are the ingredients for cases and fillings. The flavourings are entirely up to all individuals concerned, but we learned the correct consistencies to aim for when using either melted chocolate, fruit juice, fruit coulis or simple bottled essences of flavours. My recipe called for pink grapefruit zest and juice.
I discovered my piping ability was incredibly rusty, you just have to have a piping bag attached to your elbows every day to keep piping skills up to scratch. We all had to learn or regain old skills quickly as we piped the macarons out and later more piping required to fill the cooked macarons.
Baking the macarons was both straightforward and complicated, how can that be? Well we used two different ovens and results depended on how they performed, one was the Lacanche electric cast iron oven and the other, a regular domestic fan forced electric oven. Another factor was how many trays went into the oven at once, this affected whether the macarons cooked evenly. Experimenting at the class with our teacher taught us that we are going to have different results in our home ovens and not to get despondent, just to keep practising.
We learned when to put the macarons in the oven, don’t rush this part as I have seen done on TV’s Masterchef competitions. Once they are piped on the trays, let them settle and form a light firm crust on top to set for baking.
Watching Joel take them out of the oven was mind-boggling. Joel carefully poured cold water under the baking paper sheets to aid in cooling the undersides of the macarons. See my photo of how he tipped the tray lightly toward the sink and the water ran down the tray under the macarons. Now undertaking this crazy procedure without wetting the macarons takes a lot of practice.
Our macaron shapes varied slightly but all achieved the trademark effect of sporting a delicate frill around the edge.
If taking a class in Paris appeals to you, after you have read this blog go back to the top and click on Paule’s name and it will take you straight to her website for more information about her classes in Paris. If you have a macaron story or know where to buy quality versions in Australia please share through the ADD A COMMENT section at the end of this blog. Roz