My daughter Alexia (age 14) and I have fallen in love with macarons, especially the ones made by Pierre Herme' in Paris. We purchased his Macaron cookbook and have spent many hours in the kitchen trying to perfect his delicious concoctions.
Making Macarons by Pierre Herme
They say that macarons are the most difficult pastry in the world to make, so I prepared for the challenge as my father did on pre-flight checks for F-104's and husband Philippe before a heart transplant. I was going to do it right! Studied Herme's book carefully, from listing the recommended utensils to visiting his sources in Paris for the best chocolate and ingredients.
We carefully calculated ingredients, equivalents and translated instructions for making Pierre Herme's Macarons
We bought our first digital thermometer, a digital scale and a new sieve. Wow, love digital thermometers and digital scales! Where have they been all my life? If I never bake another macaron they are fantastic basics for a kitchen.
I visited the main store he recommended for ingredients: La Grande Epicerie de Paris in Paris’ 7th arrondissement. The list included:
1.) Special butter, beurre de la Viette 2.) 3 types chocolate : Cacao pate, Chocolate Jivara Valrhona with 40% cocoa, Chcolat Araguani and 3.) Almond powder
Chocolate and Butter Crises Almost Halt Macaron-Making
I struck out on almost every front.
La Grande E doesn't sell beurre de la Viette and no one in the store had heard of it. Panic. I called my mother-in-law at their home in Normandy. Normandy is the Wisconsin of France. Check any milk carton in France; you'll find contented cows grazing on Normandy grass. ‘Quoi? Je n'ai jamais entendu parle' de beurre de la Viette. C’est une beurre sale’ ou non sale’? Est ce que c'est une beurre de la Bretagne?? ‘ (“What? I've never heard of beurre de la Viette. Is it a salted or unsalted butter? Or is it a butter that comes from…horror of horrors… Brittany??”‘)
M. Herme', I admit my ignorance about fine pastry- making, but when a person from Normandy who has cooked for 92 years has not heard of Beurre de la Viette, you need to come down a level. How about a a hypermarche'-equivalent?
I checked our emergency butter stocks at home and fretted. No, not the Beurre au sel de guerande, our secret ingredient for chocolate chip cookies. Not the Flora for my pseudo diets. I settled on the European Walmarts of butters, Lurpak from Denmark and Le President from France. My inlaws scoff at Le President camembert and butter, but what else could I do? M. Herme' may throw me out of his shop if he hears of this sacrilege.
Yes La Grande E sold almond powder, but it was expensive, an ordinary brand sold everywhere in France and… processed in Germany! Please. I can find equally good almond powder in the French supermarkets or at Sainsbury's in London for a third less. My apologies to British readers, but if Sainsbury's sells good almond powder, it isn't exclusive.
Chocolate: La Grande E didn’t carry any 40% milk chocolate by Valhrona or anyone else for that matter. No Jivara, no Araguani. Found 30% milk chocolate, 32%, but if Pierre wants it to be 40% milk chocolate I was out of luck.
On the other hand, I bought some delicious fresh pasta and sauce for dinner – La GE is a treasure trove for gourmet meals and nibblies — and headed home.
Returned to London with almond powder, but no chocolate and no butter. Disaster loomed. I know chocolate, from swiping icing off my mom’s chocolate cakes from age 8, to buying tons of chocolate bars in my former life as a banker on trips to Switzerland, Belgium and France. Good chocolate will make a recipe. Bad chocolate will ruin it.
England didn't make the chocolate grade and I fretted. Cadbury’s – horrible! Too much sugar and tastes like wax. Mars Bars? the same! No wonder Austin Powers makes fun of the English and their teeth. You can't find a dentist on National Health, but eating chocolate comprised of 10% cocoa and 90% sugar doesn't help.
I was in luck: stopped at the local Waitrose and found a wide selection of quality brands. To my surprise, I discovered an English brand, Green and Black’s Organic chocolate and it was excellent! OK, only 34% but that was close enough. Melt in a little 70% and we're in business.
Saturday morning and our macaron-making began! It seemed almost too easy, but that was just the beginning.
First discovery, Herme's recipes are complicated! As 14 year old Alexia commented, ‘I think he makes these hard so you'll go to his store and buy them.' Too right. We began to mark up the book and take notes on post-its to clarify the process. A venn diagram was called for.
We had prepared the ingredients and utensils carefully but missed the part where he told us to separate and store the egg whties for a full week in the refrigerator. He feels it's one of the secrets of great macarons. How much could that matter? After all, the whites were resting calmly in their eggshells all week anyway. We continued merrily on.
The pressure started to rise. Alexia accused me of getting too stressed out, but in my defense the instructions went like this:
Herme' divides macaron-making into three separate parts, but combines ingredients and instructions into a single paragraph. And two important parts require the exact same quantities of the exact same ingredient: 2 x 110 grams of egg whites.
Why not: 110 grams for one and 111 grams for the other? How much could one gram hurt? Mais non! Or Blancs d'oeufs A and blancs d'oeufs B? The instructions are unclear even if you speak fluent French. I know, I've shown it to my French ‘copines' or pals who shake their heads in confusion.
Oh and M. Herme', my French friends didn't know what ‘pate de chocolat' means either. Isabelle thought it was like Nutella but without the hazelnuts. Anne thought it was like chocolate chips. I never did find out, but was relieved I wasn't alone.
“Boil the water and sugar to exactly 118 degrees Centigrade. As soon as it reaches 115 degrees Centigrade, simultaneously start to whip at a mid speed until it reaches a snowy mixture … the egg whites that are liquified.”
What?? What has to be whipped at medium speed to a snowy mixture?? Oh, the egg whites! Who writes a sentence where the subject appears at the end so you don't know what you're supposed to whip at medium speed — assuming it's still the sugar water — until you’ve stuck the beaters in the wrong bowl??
And which egg whites, the 110 grams in the middle of your list of ingredients or the other 110 grams that appear later in the same paragraph??
Wait, that second 110 grams of egg whites was to be mixed with the food coloring and poured onto the sugar/almond mixture. It was the first batch of 110 grams! Oh no, the sugar water temperature has risen to 135 degrees, what do we do now???
The French instructions continue, one process running into the other. “…snowy mixture… the egg whites that are liquified. Pour the the cooked sugar at 118 degrees Centigrade onto the whites. Whip and let cool to 50 degrees centigrade before incorporating into the preparation of sugar/icing/almond, and make sure it falls as a paste.”
To be fair, there are ten pages of instructions with excellent, detailed photos of the 32 step macaron-making process at the beginning of his book. But it's impossible to flip back and forth while you're sugar water rises above 118 degrees Centigrade!
Yes, I panicked! Just like the program ”I Want to Become a Millionaire' I used the friend card to call a copine for help. Question: Exactly what is the consistency of snowy egg whites and how can you tell when a heavy, somewhat lumpy Pâte has started to glisten? She was a little surprised by my call, especially because she was boarding a flight to Nice. She’s a great cook but had never attempted macarons. “Sorry, I always buy them at Ladurée in Paris”.
We did our best as we whipped, stirred and folded towards completion. I didn’t follow his tip to create a macaron template from a shot glass for the perfect size.
We arrived at the batter which some recipes say will look like magma. I could only guess. Half was colored pink for Macarons Framboise and the other half pale yellow for the famous Mogador Macarons.
We banged the trays on the counter per his instructions to release air and waited half an hour. Into the oven … so exhausted we forgot to follow his careful instructions: “Let cook 12 minutes opening the door twice to make the vapor exit. The first time after 8 minutes of cooking and a second time after 10 minutes.” But they looked beautiful! Until we discovered that the macarons cooked onto the parchment. Tip: use teflon or silicon sheets and wait til the macarons cool.
Here they are coming out of the oven!
A delicate process trying to remove the macarons from the parchment paper they were baked onto. But nothing would deter us now!
Onto the best part, the ganache filling:
The first ganache or filling we tried remains our favorite: Mogador.It’s passion fruit and milk chocolate (34% milk chocolate and a few squares of 70% melted in. Sorry Pierre, 40% n'existait pas).
Making the ganache was a piece of gateau compared to the macarons, but my friend M. Herme' missed the mark on quantities. He said to buy 12 passion fruits, but it required 24. Two trips to Sainsbury‘s and we were back in business. Nightmare to press each one, then rub the seeds and juice against a strainer with a wooden spoon. But…so good! We love it so much that we buy dozens, squeeze out the juice and freeze for our next batch.
I made corrections in the margins. I’m going to email Herme’ and volunteer to re-write the instructions if he’ll offer a special macaron making class for me and our Paris Perfect guests. Or open a shop on rue St. Dominique.
Here is our first batch of macarons! Not perfect but delicious all the same.
Well, the recipe book will never be the same. I've considered mailing it back with the corrections and post-it notes to help M. Herme' for the next edition.
M. Hermé on adore vos macarons, mais comme dit Alexia, on a réalisé qu’il faut les acheter dans vos magasins!
In the meantime, I have researched macarons and found an easier recipe, to follow shortly. Not as ‘raffine' but done in 20 minutes!
Pierre's macarons set the gold standard for taste, texture and originality. But we'll buy them in his shop whenever we can.