The first time I ate a macaron I was in New York. I stood in front of a gleaming case of perfect French pastries.
There were little tarts with toasty meringue tops, puffed eclairs, and spectacular chocolate-enrobed cakes. I picked out a few favorites—some madeleines and a croissant to go with my morning coffee. I stopped to eye the rows of pretty frilly-edged pastel pink, green and yellow cookies filled with cream.
Everyone seemed crazy about macarons, but I never really thought to try them. I just assumed they would be a sugary nightmare—my teeth hurt just thinking about it—not for me. Something in me was curious that day, probably because I was delirious from the July heat, and well, I was on vacation. “I’ll take a pistachio macaron too,” I said to the girl behind the counter. I walked out of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery and on to the steamy street with my brown, striped bag full of goodies.
“I don’t even know what this thing is,” I said to my friend. I looked down at the green cookie the size of my palm. I took a bite. It was like biting into a dream. It was a sweet, sugary pillow with a tender chewiness. The nutty pistachio flavor was just right. It was the best thing I had on my trip to New York that summer, and I have been dreaming of them ever since.
The thing about the macaron is that it is French, meaning, you fall in love with it, and then you want to have it all the time, but you can’t have it all the time, because no one near you knows how to make a proper one. If you’re like me, you resort to making them yourself.
The first time I made macarons was disastrous. They were grainy little anemic globs that tasted like Styrofoam. I probably should have hung up my apron then. The next batch was slightly edible, and the one after was the same, but they were still the saddest macarons I had ever seen.
Macarons are also French in that they live shrouded in mystery. Hundreds of comments in forums and recipe sites all claim that you have do nothing short of magic to make a perfect macaron. If your egg whites haven’t aged for days, you are doomed. If you haven’t toasted your almond flour, you are doomed. If it is raining outside— don’t even bother—you are doomed. Rap the pan on the counter just so, let them stand for hours, open and close the oven door in even intervals while they are baking. Stand on your head. Was it really this hard? Did you really need the planets to be aligned a certain way just to make this cookie? It felt that way. I stopped trying for a while.
One weekend, I had to acknowledge the fridge full of leftover egg whites I had. Making ice cream required only the yolks, and I didn’t want to waste perfectly good egg whites, so I saved them. I knew what I had to do. I had to make macarons. I managed this time to find Thomas Keller’s cookbook, Bouchon Bakery, at the library. The man knows how to write an amazingly good, achievable recipe for home cooks. He wouldn’t let me down.
Macarons are made of only a few ingredients: almond flour, egg whites, and two types of sugar. Almond flour can be hard to find, but you can make your own. I have never really had much luck in that arena probably because my food processor just won’t go there.
I made this recipe with my almond flour and old egg whites and sat in front of the oven with my arms around my knees while they baked. I’m not sure if I even took a breath. Making macarons is like the agony and the ecstasy. You are filled with sheer terror as you assemble the ingredients and whip the egg whites. Whip! Why won’t you whip? It’s whipping! Droplets of sweat bead on your temples as nervous fingers pipe the batter onto the baking sheet. But, when you achieve the finished product, it is nothing but nutty, crisp, chewy ecstasy.
I peered into the oven. I could see the macarons had formed perfect little feet (the frilly edge), and the perfect shape, except for one thing: they all ran together. I had failed to leave enough space between them. Sadly, this was encouraging. I could do it. It was possible.
So, I decided to do what all crazed cooks on a mission do, and tried again. This recipe is the only one that has turned out consistently for me. So, if you feel up for a challenge, you should try making macarons. This recipe is easy to navigate and produces delicious results. The kitchen dramatics are indeed worth it.
From Bouchon Bakery by Thomas Keller & Sebastien Rouxel
1¾ cups + 2½ tablespoons (212 grams) almond flour/meal
1¾ cups + 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons (212 grams) powdered sugar
¼ cup +1½ tablespoons (82 grams) egg whites
¼ cup + 2 tablespoons (90 grams) egg whites
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 cup + 3 tablespoons (236 grams) granulated sugar, plus a pinch for the egg whites
⅔ cup (158 grams) water
You’ll need a Thermapen or other candy thermometer, a pastry bag with a ½-inch plain tip, and a pastry bag with a ⅜-inch plain tip. Baking in a convection oven is preferable; the tops of macarons baked in a standard oven often develop small speckles, which can affect the texture (though not the flavor).
For the macarons
Because the cookies will be sandwiches, it is important that they be as close in size as possible. Even if you are proficient with a pastry bag, we suggest making a template, as we do. Use a compass or a cookie cutter as a guide and a dark marking pen, such as a fine-tip Sharpie.
Lay a sheet of parchment paper on the work surface with a long side closest to you. Trace 4 evenly spaced 2¼-inch circles along the top long edge, leaving 1 inch of space around them. Trace 3 circles below them, spacing them between the first circles. Continue with another row of 4, followed by another row of 3. Turn the parchment and spray the underside with nonstick spray to keep it from blowing up while the cookies are baking. Repeat with a second sheet pan and piece of parchment paper.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (convection) or 400°F (standard).
Place the almond flour in a food processor and pulse to grind it as fine as possible.
Sift the almond flour and powdered sugar into a large bowl and whisk together. Mound the almond flour mixture, then make a 4-inch well in the center, leaving a layer of the flour at the bottom. Pour in the ¼ cup +1½ tablespoons (82 grams) egg whites and combine with a spatula. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add them to the mixture, stirring until evenly distributed. Set aside.
Place the remaining ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons (90 grams) egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Combine the 1 cup + 3 tablespoons (236 grams) granulated sugar and the water in a small saucepan and heat over medium-high heat until the syrup reaches 203°F.
Letting the syrup continue to cook, add the pinch of sugar to the egg whites, turn the mixer to medium speed, and whip to soft peaks. If the whites reach soft peaks before the syrup reaches 248°F, reduce the speed to the lowest setting, just to keep them moving.
When the syrup reaches 248°F, remove the pan from the heat. Turn the mixer to medium-low speed, and slowly add the syrup, pouring it between the side of the bowl and the whisk; the meringue will deflate. Increase the speed to medium and whip for 5 minutes, or until the whites hold stiff, glossy peaks. Although the bowl will still be warm to the touch, the meringue should have cooled; if not, continue to whip until it is cool.
Fold one-third of the meringue into the almond mixture, then continue adding the whites a little at a time (you may not use them all) until when you fold a portion of the batter over on itself, the “ribbon” slowly moves. The mixture shouldn’t be so stiff that it holds its shape without moving at all, but it shouldn’t be so loose that it dissolves into itself and does not maintain the ribbon; it is better for the mixture to be slightly stiff than too loose.
Transfer the mixture to the pastry bag with the ½-inch tip. Hold the bag upright ½ inch above the center of one of the traced circles and pipe out enough mixture to fill in the circle. Lift away the sheet pan and tap the bottom of the pan to spread the batter evenly and smooth any peaks left by the bag.
If using a convection oven, bake for 8 or 10 minutes, until the tops are shiny and crisp. If using a standard oven, place the sheet pan in the oven, immediately lower the oven temperature to 325°F, and bake for 9 to 12 minutes, until the tops are shiny and crisp. Set the pan on a cooling rack and cool completely. If using a standard oven, preheat it to 350°F again.
Pipe the remaining meringue mixture into the circles on the second sheet pan and bake as directed above. Let cool completely.
To fill the cookies
Macarons are traditionally filled with buttercream. Use your favorite recipe, add the vanilla bean, and pipe onto the flat side of the macaron and top with a second. I used leftover homemade vanilla bean ice cream that I had on hand for the filling, and rolled the outside in sprinkles. I also experimented with a vanilla cardamom shell filled with a pistachio buttercream. Enjoy within the next day or two, or freeze.
This story is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month Future of Food series.