Last night, I tried making Pierre Herme's macaroons (from that most wonderful of books, Chocolate Desserts). As you can tell from my choice of verb, I failed. But this was the tastiest failure I've had in the kitchen.
I separated the eggs, putting the whites in a bowl and then putting that bowl in a bowl of hot water to bring the whites to room temperature more quickly. While they were warming up, I started making my almond flour. Pierre recommends putting the confectioner's sugar and cocoa in the food processor with the almonds. (I didn't have confectioner's sugar, so I just used powdered sugar. And admittedly, I was sloppy about measuring it.) The sugar prevents the almonds from turning to butter from you grind them. You're supposed to grind the almonds for three to five minutes to get them fine enough. Then you push everything through a medium sieve (strainer? can't remember).
Well, it took me closer to half an hour to grind my almonds. The problem is that I simply don't have a big enough food processor to fit all of that in at once and get it to grind the almonds effectively. So after grinding everything in batches, mixing it together, and discovering the almonds were still quite gritty, I sifted the sugar and cocoa back out into a separate bowl, and dumped the almonds in in small batches. They did end up a bit buttery, but I just rubbed the paste through the mesh and it worked well.
As directed, I ran my metal bowl under warm water to heat it up for the egg whites. I whipped them on low until they were quite foamy, then turned up the speed and beat them to not-quite-hard peaks. I stirred in the dry ingredients, and that was where I began to worry. There were an awful lot of dry ingredients. But Pierre's instructions said not to be afraid of this, just to add them all. So I did. But instead of coming out thin and cake batter-like, my macarons were fairly thick. Not quite brownie batter, but much thicker than cake.
I scooped the batter into a pastry bag. Since the directions didn't specify tip size and I had no idea [edit: only, turns out, it is actually included in the recipe--I'm going to be learning a lot about why my baking fails by typing out the recipes], I decided to leave the bag with no tip. This was a bad idea—the batter dripped out one end while I was putting it in the other. I was to pipe 1" circles onto parchment covered insulated baking sheets. Or, lacking insulated baking sheets, I was to stack baking sheets one on top of the other. However, I could only find two of my baking sheets, so I had entirely uninsulated sheets. I tried piping rounds. I think I got at least one that was a circle 1" in diameter. Then there were ovals of 2.5" x 2" and large circles and a bunch of run-together batter. And they were all flat as can be (not unlike the divinity I made as a kid, actually). This did not bode well. The next step was to knock the air out of the macarons to create the feet. There was no air to be knocked out of these, but I figured I might as well follow the directions. Which would have worked much better if I'd finished reading them.
After preheating the oven to 425 while the cookies set up, the cookies go in for 10-12 minutes. You immediately turn the oven down to 350 and prop the door slightly ajar with a wooden spoon. Well, I missed that part. So my first batch of cookies baked for several minutes at 425. They were not only flat but a bit cracked and crunchy, with parchment paper stick to the tops of a few where I'd forgotten to trim it. Fortunately, I had read the directions before baking the second batch, so they turned out softer. But none had feet or little domes. Most of them looked like overbaked homemade oreos. A few were slightly puffy.
The next step is to pour hot water under the parchment paper to loosen the cookies from it and make them a bit soft. This step made me nervous. Shouldn't this result in soggy cookies? Well, I tried it, and except for where I got distracted and poured the water on the parchment instead of under, it resulted in nice, soft cookies that came off the parchment nicely.
I filled my little misfits with milk chocolate coconut-flavored ganache that I had pulled out of the freezer intending to throw out. It had been there since Christmas and I thought it would be freezer burned. Luckily, I tasted it before throwing it out. It went nicely with the cookies, which had a pleasant chewy feel and only a few bits of noticeably gritty almond. I've never eaten macarons, so I don't know how far off mine were in texture. We enjoyed them, though. Only two lasted long enough to get the overnight in the fridge treatment Pierre says they need.
Chocolate Macaroons (Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme, Dorie Greenspan)
1 1/3 C finely ground almond powder
2 C + 2 TB confectioner's sugar
1/4 C Dutch-processed cocoa powder, preferably Valrhona, plus more for dusting
1/2 C egg whites
1. Line two large insulated baking sheets with parchment paper, or line two regular baking sheets and put each one on top of another baking sheet. Fit a large pastry bag with a plain 3/8-in. or 1/2-in. tip. Set these aside for the moment.
2. If you've got almond powder, just sift it with the confectioners' sugar and cocoad. If you're starting with almonds, place the almonds, sugar, and cocoa in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until the mixture is as fine as flour, at least 3 minutes. Stop after every minute to check your progress and to scrape down the sides of the bowl. This is not a quick on-and-off operation. Although the almonds may look as though they're pulverized after a minute or so, they won't be: The nuts really need 3 to 5 minutes to be ground to a powder or flour. When the almonds are ground, using a wooden spoon, press the mixture through a medium strainer.
3. For this recipe to succeed, you need 1/2 of egg whites, which means using 3 large egg whites plus part of a fourth white. The easiest way to get a portion of a white is to put the white into a cup, beat it lightly with a fork, and then measure out what you need. once the eggs are measured, they need to be brought to room temperature so they can be beaten to their fullest volume. You can leave the whites on the counter until they reach room temperature, or you can put them into a microwave-safe bowl and place them in a microwave oven set on lowest power; heat the whites for about 10 seconds. Stir the whites and continue to heat them--still on lowest power--in 5-second spurts until they are about 75 F. If they're a little warmer, that's okay. To keep the eggs warm, run the mixer bowl under hot water. Dry the bowl well, pour the whites into the bowl, and fit the mixer with the whisk attachment.
4. Beat the egg whites at low to medium speed until they are white and foamy. Turn the speed up to high and whip them just until they are firm but still glossy and supple--when you lift the whisk, the whites should form a peak that droops just a little. Leave the whites in the mixer bowl or transfer them to a large bowl and, working with a rubber spatula, fold the dry ingredients gently into the whites in three or four additions. It will seem like a lot of dry ingredients to go into a relatively small amount of whites, but keep folding and you'll get everything in. Don't worry if the whites deflate and the batter looks a little runny--that's just what's supposed to happen. When all the dry ingredients are incorporated, the mixture will look like a cake batter; if you lift a little with your finger, it should form a gentle, quickly falling peak.
5. Spoon the batter into the pastry bag and pipe it out onto the prepared baking sheets (to keep each sheet of paper steady, "glue" it down by piping a bit of batter at each corner of the baking sheet): Pipe the batter into rounds about 1 in. in diameter, leaving about an inch between each round. (Because you're going to sandwich the baked cookies, try to keep the rounds the same size.) When you've piped out all the macaroons, lift each baking sheet with both hands and then bang it down on the counter. Don't be afraid--you need to get the air out of the batter. Set the baking sheets aside at room temperature for 15 minutes while you preheat the oven.
6. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 425 F.
7. You should bake these one pan at a time, so dust the tops of the macaroons on one pan with cocoa powder and slide one of the sheets into the oven. As soon as the baking sheet is in the oven, turn the temperature down to 350 F and insert the handle of a wooden spoon into the oven to keep the door slightly ajar. Bake the macaroons for 10 to 12 minutes, or until they are smooth and just firm to the touch. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and turn the oven heat back up to 425 F.
To remove the macaroons from the parchment--they should be removed as soon as they come from the oven--you will need to create moisture under the cookies. Carefully loosen the parchment at the four corners and, lifting the paper at one corner, pour a little hot water under the paper onto the baking sheet. The water may bubble and steam, so make sure your face and hands are out of the way. Move the parchment around or tilt the baking sheet so that the parchment is evenly dampened. Allow the macaroons to remain on the parchment, soaking up the moisture, for about 15 seconds, then peel the macaroons off the paper and place them on a cooling rack.
8. When the oven is at the right temperature, repeat with the second sheet of macaroons. Remove from the parchment as directed above.
[edit: As my husband so helpfully demonstrated, you can bring this recipe to a whole new level by reading the egg white section in a seductive voice.]