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French confection: Temperamental macarons worth effort

Celebrate Bastille Day by making your own French macarons, like these buttercream- and blueberry jam-filled cookies painted with food coloring made by Lynette Pflueger at Common Crumb in Spokane. (Adriana Janovich)
Celebrate Bastille Day by making your own French macarons, like these buttercream- and blueberry jam-filled cookies painted with food coloring made by Lynette Pflueger at Common Crumb in Spokane. (Adriana Janovich)

Lovely, light and cute as a button, French macarons are as deceiving as they are darling.

They require few ingredients, which makes them seem ever so simple. But oh-so-many things can go oh-so-very wrong.

The cookie shells can go as flat as Necco wafers, crack or come out hollow or lopsided or, worse, missing that funny little foot, the rough ridge that serves as a pedestal for an otherwise smooth and perfectly puffed dome.

They’re fussy, to say the least.

“One extra fold, and it’s all over. Not enough, and you won’t get that little foot,” David Lebowitz writes on his website, where he also shares a macaron recipe adapted from his book, “The Sweet Life in Paris.”

You can eat your mistakes, of course.

Sugar and ground almonds bound by egg whites don’t taste particularly bad. But they also don’t taste like anything much – unless you link the discs together with a flavorful filling, such as jam or buttercream or both – or, maybe better yet, chocolate ganache.

Done right, the charmingly chubby sandwich cookies offer a melt-in-your-mouth, cloud-like quality. Their exquisite, crisp exterior encases a chewy middle that’s difficult to resist. The entire ethereal experience is over in about two bites.

“They’re like fancy Oreos,” said Jorge Cano, owner of Spokane’s CasaCano Farms. For Valentine’s Day, he and his fiancée Madyson Versteeg spent $50 on French macarons at Common Crumb in Spokane, where the dainty little domes sell for $2.50 each.

“They were supposed to be gifts,” Versteeg said. “We ended up eating them all.”

Elegant but ‘tempermental’

Once difficult to find outside of France, macarons – not to be confused with coconut macaroons – gained popularity in America in the mid-1990s. During the past 10 years, they’ve become increasingly sought-after, adding gorgeous pops of color to dessert tables at wedding receptions, bridal and baby showers, and other special occassions.

But they’re also so high maintenance that many don’t attempt to make their own at home. Others, understandably, don’t want to share tips and tricks.

“Unfortunately, French macarons take years to perfect (and a lot of heartache) and we can’t publish what we’ve discovered for our competition to see,” Judy Beebe, co-owner of Sweet Frostings in Spokane, wrote in an email.

Her shop sells the cookies for $2 each.

If you have no qualms about cutting corners, there are commercial mixes. Just add warm water, no egg whites – nor whipping, nor worrying – required. But that feels a lot like cheating.

The finicky cookies can be quite intimidating for both beginners and professional pastry chefs. Online recipes deem them “tempermental” and offer varying instructions and advice. Some measure by weight; others, by volume.

Some add cream of tartar; some don’t. Baking temperatures run across the board – from 275 to 375.

And then there are other decisions to make. French or Italian meringue?

Age the egg whites for one, two or three days? At room temperature? In this heat we’ve been having here in the Inland Northwest? Vraiment?

Macaron master

French pastry chef Pierre Hermé provides no fewer than 32 illustrated steps for making successful shells at the start of his simply titled “Macarons.”

Lynette Pflueger, one of 50 considered for People’s Best New Pastry Chef in a recent Food & Wine magazine competition, has read them all.

The Spokane native serves as executive pastry chef at Common Crumb and Santé Restaurant & Charcuterie.

She agreed to help demystify the delicate dessert in time for Bastille Day, spending four hours on a recent morning explaining the steps.

“It’s a difficult recipe, for sure,” she said. “It takes a lot of skill, and it takes a lot of time. When they come out bad, it ruins my whole week.”

At Common Crumb and other commercial bakeries, health codes prevent chefs from aging egg whites at room temperature.

But, at home, “Overnight is fine,” Pflueger said. “I’ve had success both ways. I’ve also had failures both ways. When I have a macaron failure, I change my recipe.”

She’s made macarons with both French and Italian meringue.

And she’s had good and bad results with both.

Lately, she’s been opting for Italian meringue, which uses simple syrup instead of sugar.

Pflueger weighs all of her ingredients, doesn’t use cream of tartar, and preheats the oven to 300 degrees, then lowers the temperature to 280 once the shells are inside.

“I think one of the most important ingredients is the oven,” she said. “Convection is best.”

Mixing the meringue and folding it into the almond flour are the toughest parts of the process.

“It takes a lot of practice to see what the consistency should be like,” Pflueger said. “If they’re a little lopsided, that’s OK.”

She typically makes two batches of French macarons per week, diligently recording grams, temperatures and any other variations she tries.

In her recent batch of 160 shells, only one cracked.

The rest were round and smooth and perfectly uniform.

“I don’t know what it is that people like about them,” Pflueger said. “I like them because they’re a simple, plain thing that you can change or decorate any way you want.”

Plus, she said, “They’re cute.”

Basic French Macaron Shells

From Lynette Pflueger of Common Crumb and Santé Restaurant and Charcuterie

250 grams powdered sugar

250 grams almond flour

250 grams granulated sugar

185 grams egg whites (about 5), room temperature, divided

92.5 grams water

Make the template: Trace a 1-inch diameter biscuit or cookie cutter on 3 or 4 sheets of parchment paper and spacing circles 1 ½ inches apart. Line 3 or 4 baking sheets with parchment paper templates. Place transparent, nonstick baking liners, such as Silpat, over templates, and set aside.

Make the cookies: Combine powdered sugar and almond flour in a food processor, and process to make the mixture as fine as possible without making it into almond paste. Sift processed mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl. Discard larger bits that don’t make it through the mesh.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine half of the egg white (92.5 grams) together with the almond flour mixture until egg whites are fully incorporated, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides. Transfer batter to large bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out, and set aside.

Thoroughly wash bowl of stand mixer with hot soapy water, making sure to remove all traces of fat.

Combine sugar and water in a medium-size, heavy-bottom saucepan.

Heat until temperature on a candy thermometer reaches 244 degrees.

Meantime, in the bowl of the stand mixer, beat remaining egg whites on low until frothy. While still whipping, pour simple syrup down the side of the bowl of the stand mixer, taking care to not let it touch the whisk attachment. Increase speed to high, and whip until stiff peaks form.

Fold meringue into almond-flour batter by hand in three batches. Start with one large scoop and stir until well incorporated, then repeat.

Then mix in the remaining meringue.

Fill pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch round tip, such as Ateco No. 806, and pipe batter onto the prepared sheets in rounds that are about ¼- to ½-inch thick. Be sure to hold the pastry bag straight up and down and apply even pressure, giving a little twist at the end to minimize peaks.

Rap each baking sheet on the counter a couple of time to flatten the mounds and get rid of air bubbles.

Let rounds rest until batter no longer feels tacky, about 10 to 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Once baking sheets are inside, lower temperature to 280 degrees and bake for 12 minutes. (In a conventional oven, they might take a longer.)

Cool cookies completely on baking sheets on racks.

Fill the cookies: Using a pastry bag with a ¼-inch round tip, such as Ateco No. 802, pipe a ring of buttercream around the edge of half of the cookies. Then, using the same size tip, pipe about 1 teaspoon of filling inside the butter cream-rimmed cookies. Use just enough so it spreads to the butter cream edge but doesn’t squish out when topped. Top the filled halves with unfilled shells.

Yield: 80 shells for 40 cookies

Italian Meringue Buttercream

From Lynette Pflueger of Common Crumb and Santé Restaurant and Charcuterie

238 grams sugar

119 grams water

150 grams egg whites

317.4 grams butter, softened

2 grams salt

2 grams vanilla

Cook sugar and water in medium-size, heavy-bottom saucepan to 257 degrees.

Meantime, beat egg whites until frothy in a stand mixer.

Pour syrup down side of bowl of stand mixer, taking care not to let the syrup touch the beater. Whip on high until stiff peaks form and the temperature has cooled to 50 degrees or lower. Mix in butter, little by little, until well combined. Add salt and vanilla, and continue mixing until well combined.

Blueberry Filling

From Lynette Pflueger of Common Crumb and Santé Restaurant and Charcuterie

4 cups blueberries

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

3 1/2 cups sugar

In a heavy-bottom saucepan, combine berries, water and lemon juice; simmer over medium heat and stir occasionally to break up the berries, 6 to 8 minutes. Add sugar slowly into simmering saucepan, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium-low, and continue cooking until mixture has thickened, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Cool completely. Use an immersion blender to make the mixture smooth.