Monday, 19 May 2014

The Devil in Pastel Clothing...

Crisp, shiny shells, cracking as you bite to reveal a mallow soft, chewy centre and a rich, tooth-numbingly sweet hit of the richest buttercream- Macarons may look innocent as they line up like pastel hued polka dots jumped off a Mini Boden party dress, but don’t be fooled- They are the devil.

A little while ago, during the first few nervy weeks of foraying into the world of product development, I was given the unenviable task of rustling up a big old batch of these little horrors for a (rather important) customer presentation. No pressure then...

No exaggeration, a batch of about 6 macarons took me around 8 hours. As my frustration reached fever pitch, many of the cracked, burnt and unrisen met their fate in the deep dark hollows of the bin, many more were hovered up by my less fussy colleagues as they prowled through the kitchen looking for an afternoon sugar boost (a daily occurrence, and this was a very good day for the more human-hover inclined of the office...) My life started to pass in a blur of food colouring stained fingers, bowls of stiff-peaked egg whites held over my head, and, high on sugar, wondering if I had finally, spectacularly, gone mad.

Overmixed, undermixed, enough to make you want to never look at a bag of ground almonds again; I finally and quite triumphantly, cracked the recipe at about 5.15pm. And here ensued an obsession. Determined to get these little buggers looking like they have jumped from across the channel from a candy striped boulangerie in Paris, I spent the next few weeks churning out perfectly round macarons like a sugar obsessed geometrician (real word, I promise).

Spiced rum and caramelised pineapple, Clementine and dark chocolate, coffee bean, white chocolate and vanilla, sour cherry and pistachio; the flavours were the easy part. The downfall was almost always the mixing. Macarons are without a doubt one of the most sensitive, needy delights to ever grace a cake stand. The key is to finding the optimum moment, where the almonds are folded into to the fluffy pillows of whisked egg just enough, but most definitely not too much. As Mary Berry says, the mixture should be the consistency of ‘shaving foam’. And it would be madness not to listen to her...

But really, the most important thing is practice. And a very large portion of patience. Keep having a  go; any that go wrong can just be put down as flavour testing, and you are sure to find many a willing helper to assist you on that front. Just keep thinking of that wondrous moment when you take a tray of perfect, crisp, shiny disks of delicate almond treats out of the oven. I imagine it is very much like lifting the winning an Olympic gold. Or maybe having your first child...

But the most exciting part, once you have mastered the mixing, are the endless flavour combinations you can conjure up with macarons as your canvas. Orange zest, vanilla, coffee, dark chocolate; filled with passionfruit curd, white chocolate ganache or bitter Seville marmalade- There are no limits to what you can create. Maybe just leave the bacon and egg combo at the kitchen door...

On this occasion, after many un-photogenic attempts, I went for delicately fragranced pistachio and rose water combination, and a zingy lemon number, bursting with lemon zest and curd. Sweet, soft, crisp, creamy and drop-dead delicious all at once; don’t let what I have made sound like an unnerving difficulty level put you off. Follow this recipe, remember Queen Berry’s word of wisdom (just chant shaving foam, shaving foam, shaving foam as you fold) and you will be on to a winner. Smug smiles at the ready...

Macarons, makes about 12

For the Macarons
135g ground almonds (or 75g almonds and 50g ground pistachios/hazelnuts)
3 egg whites
2 tbsp caster sugar
Pinch of salt
Your preffered flavouring (lemon zest, orange zest, almond essence, vanilla extract etc.)
A pinch of your chosen powdered food colouring
For the butter cream
150g butter, softened
300g icing  sugar
Your preferred flavouring (lemon zest, rose water, vanilla extract, cocoa powder, crushed raspberries or strawberries..Go mad!)
Preheat the oven to 180oc
Blend the ground almonds and icing sugar briefly in a food processor until fine and well combined
In a large, clean bowl, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form. Add the caster sugar and whisk again until the mixture forms stiff peaks
Gently fold in the almonds, icing sugar, colour and your chosen flavouring, until the mixture is the texture of shaving foam- Be careful not to over-mix, but make sure everything is properly blended!
Pipe evenly sized rounds of the macaron mixture onto lined baking sheets and leave the macarons to form a skin (essential for a shiny top!) for at least an hour.
Bake in the preheated oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the top of the macarons are crisp and dry.
Leave to cool while you make the buttercream. In a large bowl whisk together the softened butter and sugar until light and fluffy, before beating in your chosen flavour and colour.

When the macarons are cool, sandwich with the buttercream and any other extras you fancy- Think lemon curd, jam, chocolate ganache!

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