Just look at those gorgeous little things! I took those beautiful espresso flavoured macaron shells with a light dusting of cocoa and filled them with a 55% dark chocolate ganache. My newest flavour, and one worth adding to my upcoming macaron menu: Cafe Mocha. Oh yes - get in my mouth, sweet little bonbon.
The time had come to prove my theory, and I needed to pull of a successful batch of Italian method macarons. If I really did have faith in my skills and that it was simply the almond flour all along, then it should be a pinch. And you know what? I was right, this time.
Julien wasn't gentle, and he certainly didn't make a fuss over all the little things. I approached my macarons with the same confidence, and just look at these beauties! Those feet! Those smooth tops! It really had been the almond meal this whole entire time. Now, what it was about the almond meal brands, I'm not quite sure. There didn't seem to be any different in fat or protein content, so perhaps it was a freshness or processing thing? Fellow food geeks: feel free to weigh in on your theories!
These vanilla bean macarons will be filled with a combo of dark chocolate ganache and strawberry chocolate ganache - sound familiar? It's the Neapolitan ice cream of all our childhoods.
So what do I take away from this? Well. A little more confidence in my abilities, for one. Yes, a lot of footless and cracked macarons perished throughout the experience, but I got plenty more practice. And like anything, practice makes perfect - not to mention, patience and persistence. At several points throughout these fails, I did lose confidence in myself as a baker. Having finally succeeded (and over something as silly as an almond meal brand), I feel pretty damn good right now. Or is it the St. Paddy's Day beer? Maybe a bit of both.
I had actually ordered some decent quality almond meal to play with (I thought that the generic bulk grocery store stuff was maybe letting me down), but - surprise, surprise - when I wanted to continue my macaron experiment, my expected package was unexpectedly late. Gotta love Canada Post, sometimes.
So I went for some generic almond meal, again. I got enough to make a few batches, just to be on the safe side. But this time, I was gonna get it right - I was gonna make sure my sieve was desert-dry and I was gonna make sure that my almond meal was too. I spread it out in a thin layer on my cookie sheet lined with parchment, and baked it on low heat - 200*F for 30 minutes. Then I let it cool.
For my first attempt, I kept the espresso flavour with a dash of cocoa to top them off. Italian method. Cracked on the tops with no feet. A big fail.
Okay, so it's not a moisture problem. Then what the heck is it?
Well, all of the fails so far had yet another thing in common - the flavour. Maybe the espresso powder and the addition of cocoa powder topping them off was messing them up somehow. At this point, I really wasn't sure anymore.
It's 10pm, and by this point, Jason - my partner in crime - starts to take interest in my experiment and begins troubleshooting with me. The last variable had to be the almond meal - not the moisture content, but the quality itself. The grocery store was still open, but not for long, so we got our butts down to the store and went on a hunt for the best almond flour we could find. Something comparable to the Mandelin brand that had given me so many successes before.
I stumbled on some super-fine blanched almond flour made by Bob's Red Mill. It looked promising, and very similar to the stuff that I had used in the beginning. I grabbed it, as well as an awful Salisbury steak TV dinner to soothe my macaron depression...
Perfect macarons. Nice feet, beautiful smooth surface. Absolutely no sticking to the parchment. I ran across the kitchen and downstairs. Jason heard my commotion as I went to fetch him and he knew - he knew. He ran back after me to the kitchen and stared into the glass of the oven and smiled at me as I beamed and smiled with delight - it really was the damn almond meal all along, wasn't it.
The moral of story? Don't skimp on quality when it comes to the almond flour - it is the back bone of your recipe. When sieving the cheap generic bulk stuff vs the decent quality packaged stuff on the shelf, I saw the difference - but I didn't think anything of it. There was little left at the bottom of the sieve when it came to the good stuff, but with the cheap stuff, there was much bigger and greasier chunks of almond left. And that was even after throwing it in the food processor or coffee grinder. Maybe it was the fact that I used almond meal instead of almond flour? Is there even a difference? I'm so confused.
I cannot make a conclusion at this point - only a half-conclusion. I need to attempt the macaron using the same almond flour, but with the Italian method this time. Only then can I say that it really was the almond meal. But I am pretty confident that this is the issue, and I'm also confident that after all of this, I'm sitting down and having a beer...
I think where I went wrong was being over-confident. "Pfffft, I made five batches of them and they came out great. This next batch won't be any different". "HAH!", said the macaron. "I'll show her..." And it did.
My first five batches were great! First batch, French method - great. Second batch, French method - I undermixed it a tad bit and a few of them ended up with tiny nubbies. That's okay. Third batch, French method - great. Fourth batch, French method - my best yet. I ran out of almond flour. Fifth batch, Italian method - quite a few had cracks, but the remaining were beautiful. Okay. Sixth batch, French method, and seventh batch, Italian method - okay, something is definitely wrong...
I wish I had taken photos of the sixth batch (French method). Many of them were cracked, but there were a few nice looking ones... on the outside, that is. I tried to remove them from the parchment, and the skin completely separated from the bottom. The inside was sticky and the skin itself wasn't hard and crunchy like it was supposed to be. It was moist and immediately broke when I applied any pressure at all. I scrapped these after stuffing a few in my face. Delicious, by the way, but completely unusable.
So what else do the two issues have in common? Too much moisture, apparently, says the internet. An "ah-ha" moment came over me.
I had ran out of my almond flour, and for the last three batches, I had been using some new stuff that I got in the bulk section at the grocery store. It had felt a little moist, but I didn't think anything of it. And an even newer discovery that I made? My brand new sieve that I had been using, with it's big thick plastic brim, I discovered... holds water. I discovered this after washing it and rinsing it not too long after. I gave it a shake, and I could hear water splashing around inside the brim. Could it be that some of this water had gotten into my macarons when I sieved the almond meal? Bingo...
So now that I have ran out of this bulk almond flour, feeling like a failure at life, and thrown out this new (but awfully useless) sieve, I am in the midst of mentally preparing myself for another batch. I've ordered a new sieve (and am leaving a review for my old water logged sieve) and I've ordered more almond flour from one of my favourite companies. It isn't the almond flour that I originally used for all those successful batches, but the company I ordered it from this time around has never failed me with it's quality. So we'll see.
The almond flour I originally used for those first four batches? Mandelin brand. The stuff is amazing. It's delicious. It made amazing macarons, and it's easy to see why - it is world renowned for having amazing quality... but it was also getting expensive, which is why the distributor I got it from in the first place had to discontinue it. I can't find it anywhere else.
The great macaron adventure continues, guys, and you know that I'll keep you posted, of course - whether I succeed or not!
Wanna follow along with me? Indulge With Mimi and Entertaining With Beth are great places to start for a French method macaron.
Take my recipe, for example. After mixing, I chill my dough. And after rolling and cutting, I chill my dough. But then you read other recipes claiming that they're "no chill" and, like it says, there is no chilling required. So which one is right?
What it all comes down to isn't the recipe itself, but your interpretation of the recipe. The recipe may claim that it needs to be chilled, but you ran out of time one day and stuck the cookies in the oven without chilling them at all - they came out the same as usual. Or you followed a "no chill" recipe right down to the last detail, and they came out of the oven as sugar cookie blobs.
The thing is, we all read recipes differently, and we all have our own way of doing things. You tell ten people to follow a recipe, and they are going to come up with ten different results. As a baker sharing her sugar cookie recipe online, all I can do is tell you exactly what I do and hope for the best.
I swear by chilling my dough - both after mixing and after rolling and cutting. My dough is mega buttery, and if I were to try to roll it out without chilling, I'd end up with a sticky mess. Trust me, I've tried it. I always let it chill in the fridge for atleast 4 hours or so after mixing and portioning it (into flat 1kg blocks - I make a lot of cookies). As long as you chill it for that minimum time, it's very forgiving - you could chill it over night or even make a whole bunch of dough ahead of time, portion it, and freeze it. The key is making sure you bring the dough out to room temperature and roll it while it's still cool but not cold. Too cold, and you'll break your wrists trying to roll it. Too warm, and it'll stick to everything.
I always chill my sugar cookies after rolling and cutting, as well. I find it helps the cookies from spreading in the oven. Many many cookie decorators swear by this, but you'll also get a lot of cookie decorators that don't feel the need to chill their cookies before baking. I throw mine in the freezer for about a half hour (I'm sure even 15-20 minutes would be sufficient) and again, the freezing process is rather forgiving - you could freeze them overnight if you ran out of time in the kitchen that day. I've tried rolling and cutting my sugar cookies and then putting directly in the oven - sometimes they spread, sometimes they don't. It could depend on a lot of factors, especially things like heat and humidity. Heat and humidity seem to have quite a big spotlight in cookie decorating, don't they?
So what's the answer? Well, it all depends on you - the dough handler. You may have great success in chilling your dough, and some of you may not find it necessary. Like I said, it's the interpretation of the recipe, and not always the recipe itself. So what's your preference? Let me know in the comments below!