The fascination with Parisian-style macarons just won’t quit. They have a beautiful aesthetic appeal but also have a reputation for being difficult to make. Years ago, I was chatting with Dorie Greenspan after she had been working with Pierre Hermé on his chocolate book and she said that the chocolate macaron recipe was the fussiest of all. I figured if this was problematic for them, what chance do most of us have? Well, luckily for us, we got to chat with Cecile Cannone, who not only trained with Hermé but also owns the two Macaron Cafés in New York City. She is also the author of Macarons: Authentic French Cookie Recipes from the Macaron Café. Speaking in her strong French accent, she let me in on all her secrets.
Dédé Wilson: Cecile, thank you so much for this opportunity to talk about macarons. They are a baking obsession and yet can be troublesome for bakers, even experienced ones.
Cecile Cannone: Yes, yes, they can be and I want everyone to know that when I wrote this book, I really did use the recipes that I use in the bakery. I want bakers to have success at home. There are no missing ingredients or techniques.
How did you come to specialize in macarons?
My husband had restaurants in France and I was making all the desserts; this has always been my passion. I never went to baking school, but I learned with my family, with my mom and grandmother, how to bake. For macarons, I took lessons with Pierre Hermé.
So you were making desserts and macarons professionally, but how does that translate to the home baker?
The oven is very important. There are two very important things: you must check the oven temperature and you must use a convection oven, [it] will give you the best results. Ninety percent of the issues people have with their macarons are due to the oven, too much heat on the bottom or too much on the top, the heat isn’t even. A convection oven will give you those nice feet!
(Ed. Note: The “feet” she is referring to are the nice rings around the bottom of the macaron’s domes. They are part of what characterize a well-made and good-textured macaron.)
Beyond the oven, what is the first thing to know?
Hermé does Italian meringue. Before training with him, I did a French meringue and I do the French at the cafés. The book gives you both, but I like the French-meringue approach. It is very simple. I don’t feel comfortable to have big pots of boiling sugar. I am too small and too short to pour correctly and am afraid of being burned with the Italian meringue [because you have to pour the hot sugar syrup]. I also think the French-meringue approach gives more brilliant color and texture is better. Of course, this is my personal judgment, but we make 8,000 a day so I have experience!
How about almond flour? I have found that no matter how finely I grind almonds at home, it is never as fine as commercially prepared almond flour. I have gotten better results when I buy the almond flour.
Exactly! Use the almond flour that you can buy. At home, you don’t have the strong motors or the good cutters with your food processor, or you end up with almond paste.
And you recommend almond flour from blanched almonds, right?
From blanched almonds, yes, but it is not a necessity. If you like the taste of the whole almond, that is okay. It won’t affect the feet, but it will affect the other visual effects and the texture a little bit. Your almond flour should be dry and not humid. I use almond flour from California orchards. Get the freshest that you can. Check the dates and look at the color. If you buy at same place and there are three different qualities, I would try each and then stick to that one. Once you find the one that works for you, stick with it. It will give you consistent results and you will know how it works. I take my hand and see if it is dry [fluid] or humid [clumps]. I constantly check the flour.
You have a very helpful section in the book where you address trouble-shooting, like what to do if you have cracks in the shells or stains on the shells or no feet, but you don’t talk about what to do if your shell ends up hollow. Why does that happen?
Usually, it is because the oven temperature is not correct. If it is too high, the macaron raises too quick and that can create an air bubble. Two pieces of advice: use a convection oven and have additional way of checking oven temperature, [not just the dial].
How about aging the egg whites? This is something you see mentioned a lot in macaron recipes; that allowing the egg whites to sit for a while before whipping is helpful.
We can’t do this due to New York City law, but at home I do, and I recommend it. It’s better because the egg whites rise differently. You won’t get as many cracks and there are other problems that you will not have to deal with that you do when the egg whites are young. Aging is better, but if you don’t want to you don’t have to. The other thing is pipe the macarons and let them sit for 15 to 20 minutes before baking. Pipe, then preheat the oven, but don’t let them sit for hours.
How about coloring? The shells are often colored, but not necessarily flavored. The fillings are loaded with chocolate and nuts and fruit.
Yes, this is the case with the macaron. The shells are colored and a lot of flavor comes from the fillings, the ganache and buttercreams. I like gel colors. I tried natural colors and they don’t work. They fade and are not attractive. You can use cocoa and matcha, but for pink, violet, you cannot get it with natural. I like the Chefmaster colors.
I think one of your tips that I found most fascinating was the explanation about spacing the macarons out on the pan to prevent too much moisture accumulating.
Space them out, yes! Too much humidity will create problems. Also, I can put many, many trays in my professional ovens, but at home do not do more than two trays at a time. If you put too many on the same tray or have too many trays in the oven, humidity will be inside your oven. Some commercial ovens are vented and allow moisture to escape. This doesn’t happen at home. And again, a convection oven helps!
Is size a factor in how they bake?
Yes. Don’t change the size; they don’t bake the same – too soft in the middle – start with the size I recommend. Once you are good at it, you can try other sizes and even other shapes, but this gets more complicated.
I notice you recommend high-fat European butter for your buttercreams.
I don’t like to use anything else in my buttercream. There are many calories but they make them the best. You must use very high-quality ingredients.
Cecile, I feel ready for my next batch of macarons; Merci beaucoup!
Pas de problèm, Dédé!
You can read much more about the art and science of making macaron in Cecile’s book Macarons: Authentic French Cookie Recipes from the Macaron Cafe (Ulysses Press, 2011).