Macaron shells are notoriously finicky. I bet there’s been a day when you’ve just been minding your own business — walking the dog, doing your taxes — and you’ve heard a gut-wrenching cry pierce the air. What you heard may well have been the plaintive wail of “macaron fail.” Macarons are a beautiful Parisian delicacy consisting of two meringue shells, most often (but not always) made with nuts and filled with a soupçon of sandwiched buttercream. They can also make grown bakers cry. Now I’ll let you in on a secret. Many bakeries use a powdered mix to make macarons. Yup, they cheat. Just add water, and voilà! A no-fuss macaron. To which I say, “Go straight to pastry jail, you lazy varmints!”
Instead of cheating, try my version. It’s time-tested for accuracy and minimal frustration — and it’s from scratch, not some pitiful powdered mix. It’s a little time-intensive, but that’s to be expected from such a fussy confection. Read the directions a few times before you embark.
Place the almond flour or almond slices, confectioners’ sugar, and egg white powder in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the mixture is very fine. Sift the mixture into a large metal bowl and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the egg whites and the salt. In the meantime, place the granulated sugar and 1/4 cup of the water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is completely melted, clip on a candy thermometer, and stop stirring.
When the sugar temperature reaches 210 degrees F, turn the mixer on high speed and begin beating the egg whites. You want them foamy before you add the sugar syrup but you do not want them stiff or chunky and dry.
Continue heating the sugar until the mixture reaches 240 degrees F. Immediately remove the sugar syrup from the heat. Lower the mixer speed to medium-low and carefully pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the egg whites as they are whipping. Make sure not to pour the syrup directly on top of the egg whites, lest they scramble!
Return the mixer speed to high and whisk until you achieve soft, white peaks — the tips of the peaks should still fall easily. (There’s a reason that the French describe meringue at this stage as holding a bec d’oiseau, or “bird’s beak,” since it should have the gentle curve of a birdie snout. It should be a soft meringue, still white and airy, not stiff, and certainly not dry.)
Just before the egg whites are finished whipping, add the remaining 1/4 cup water to the almond flour mixture from step 1 and combine to make a paste (don’t do this any earlier or the paste will harden). Transfer one-third of the egg white mixture to the almond flour paste and stir well, making sure there are no white streaks remaining. You needn’t be overly gentle during this addition — you are mainly loosening and lightening the batter, priming it for the addition of the remaining egg whites.
Add the remaining egg whites and gently fold them into the batter until there are no white streaks remaining. Now, this is important: You want a loose but not runny consistency. When you eventually start piping the batter, you’ll want it to move easily from the piping bag but it shouldn’t pour out so quickly that you can’t control it; likewise, you don’t want your petite dollops to spread into amorphous puddles, nor do you want them to stand rigid, refusing to loosen up and smooth out a little. So if you think that your batter is too stiff, continue stirring until it loosens a bit.
Transfer the batter to a pastry bag fitted with a large open tip. Pipe round, quarter-sized dollops about 1/2 inch apart on a nonstick baking mat or parchment-lined sheet pan (if your sheet pans are thin, double them up before you put the macarons in the oven — they burn quite easily on the bottom). Once every last bit is piped, let the macarons sit at room temperature for at least 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.
Bake the macarons for 20 minutes, rotating the tray once for even baking and to avoid browning. (If you think your oven is too hot, feel free to turn the oven down if you get a hint of browning.) Using a small offset spatula, carefully pull out a shell to test for doneness. (I usually sacrifice the shells at the edges for testing, since they can get a wee bit brown and that’s the last thing you want in a Parisian.) The bottoms of the macarons should be completely flat and crisp and the innards should not look wet or mushy.
A Note from the Sugar Baby: Macaron lore dictates that you use “aged egg whites.” What, pray tell, are aged egg whites? Are they extra pricey and kept under lock and key in the cooler with the Cristal? No. “Aged” is a euphemism for an old and stale egg white, one that’s lost its youthful moisture (lordy, do those words hit home). This means you separate your eggs a day before you bake and leave them out on your kitchen counter overnight. That’s right — unrefrigerated! Sin of unholy bacterial sins! Refrigerating the whites will throw your precious albumen into the nest with aerial moisture, which is what we want to avoid, right? So cover your egg whites with plastic wrap.
After 5 to 10 minutes of baking, you’ll notice little ruffles forming along the perimeters of the shells; in French these are called pieds, or “feet.” This is a very good thing. You also want a shell to have a nice sheen and to be perfectly smooth. You do not want it to crack, and when you bite into it, there should not be a big air bubble between the outer shell and the innards of the macaron. Bad stuff can happen due to overbeating, oven temperature issues, and humidity — this is one of those treats that’s going to test your sanity, so be gentle with yourself.