And, so, we try again...

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

-Macarons: Batches 1 through 3.-

I figured that the last time my knees were scuffed up this badly was probably in grade school. It was a guess. Honestly, I couldn't remember when I had last injured my knees like this, but it felt like the right guess. After all, grade school is the age kids scrape their knees and take sob starting falls into crab grass-covered soccer fields or blazing hot blacktop playgrounds, right?

My rear hurt just as much, though rather than scratched and bleeding it was heavily bruised. When I finally had a chance to admire it in the mirror I saw that it was swollen and mottled in various shades of indigo and brown. It felt as tender as a hammered ribeye.

Of course, I knew ahead of time that this was what would happen when I joined the gymnastics club. Then again, realizing and feeling are two different things. This is especially true when you realize that every position is uncomfortable to sleep in at night.

I had joined the gymnastics club in my freshman year of college. I had also joined the fencing club, which, incidentally, had led to its own injuries; those being a sore wrist and multiple whip like welts across my arms and torso. Both left me looking and feeling like I had joined the rugby or street kickboxing clubs instead, but I was determined to see through two of my life long goals: learn to sword fight and learn to do a standing back flip.

The former was going quite well as I had a natural knack for it and picked it up at an astounding pace. Within the year I was the second best fencer on campus bested only by a tiny girl raised in a former British colony in India who seemed neurally connected to her foil and was faster than thought. In four years I never won a match with her, but I could trounce any of the others.

-Progress is measured in smaller victories and new discoveries.-

Gymnastics, however, wasn't going so well. This is probably to be expected though as - with the exception of a tiny tots class my mother enrolled me in when I was six - I had never done gymnastics at any point in my life. I was also six feet tall and towered above everyone else in the club. (Gymnastics, I've learned, is a sport for short people. I assume all that jumping and landing on their feet for years stunts their growth.)

My first week in I was treated as an oddity but welcomed for the most part. While the more experienced members in the club usually spent their practicing pikes and layouts a few of them took turns coaching me on the first two basics: walking on my hands and the proper technique for falling down in every conceivable manner.

The hand walking was to help me find my center of balance with the ultimate goal to be able to walk a perfect square without rotating my body. Essentially this meant facing the same direction while making a box, which required skill walking on your hands frontwards, backwards, and sideways all while staying perfectly straight and pointed. It was quite difficult and more often than not I ended up tumbling down halfway through.

This then leads to the importance in learning to fall down properly. When doing anything complex in the air, any sort of mishap can lead to a fall that may result in serious injury or death. Considering the fact that I'm so accident prone that it's a wonder BF hasn't simple strapped a pillow to my head and padded all the sharp corners in our apartment I considered learning to properly fall down and gently roll out of it in order to protect my porcelain-delicate self a top priority.

For a month I walked on my hands and fell down for three hours a day, four days a week. My hands were bruised, elbows torn up, and my tuckus felt like a pincushion. However, my face and neck were unscathed. I had begun to master falling.

-Earl Grey macarons with vanilla bean buttercream. Ethereal; like tasting only the most heavenly of clouds.-

Many times, after a particularly rough tumble, I would simply lay down where ever I was and observe from the floor the people I was happy to call my fellow club members. I would watch the guys hop on the rings where they would twirl and tuck like a piece of ribbon in the air. Sometimes the girls would line up at one corner to tumble on the mat where, after a short run and a jump, execute a series of back-handsprings and whips that were powered by seemingly inexhaustible momentum until they petered out into a well-coiled aerial that left me breathless. I especially enjoyed the more experienced members' power tumbling as their hands and feet repeatedly stuck the spring-loaded floor with such force that it sounded like an artillery gun. On the floor I could feel the vibrations of each impact pass through me and I was excited by it.

Eventually, I stopped falling down. I was able to walk around with ease, and even gained the confidence to hand-walk over balance beams and stair rails. It was like I had discovered a long dormant super power and had to demonstrate it to everyone. A few time I hand-walked through the Student Union. At this time in college I had pink hair and usually wore a dog collar which probably made it seem like the all-punk circus was in town.

As time went by I gained more skills. I crashed, tumbled, and burned out more times than I could count; and each week I came home with bruises as fresh as summer strawberries and cuts the color of them. Still, I learned to do more and more. By graduation, I could not only do a standing backflip but had perfected my pikes, become skilled at the trampoline, and could do the splits.

I still generally shied away from the giant bar and rings as after my first experience where I ripped open the skin and flesh on my palms -something I was told would happen frequently. This, however, left me more time to round-offs and jumps; something I eventually gained a reputation for. My height was still a problem and I wasn't as flexible in my back as the others, but my height gave me the lift and leverage the others couldn't achieve and I could easily and literally jump over each and every one of fellow club members and while I knew they would always be years ahead of me I knew that this skill was mine alone.

I've lost these skills now. Years of no access to a gymnastic gym have tightened my tendons and rusted my limbs. If I try to do the splits, hell, if I even try to reach my toes it takes a concentrated effort, assuming I can make it at all. These days I usually get bored halfway there and go to the kitchen to make pie instead.

Or, more recently, macarons.

I recently called over Trina, BF's sister, who is a pastry chef here in Sacramento to help me make them. Neither of us had before and we figured between our combined pastry knowledge and armed with a copy of Hisako Ogita's, I ♥ Macarons, we felt pretty confident that we would be able to figure it out.

-Pistachio macarons with cherry blossom buttercream. Fresh egg yolks caused the batter to spread. We knew this would happen but wanted to test it anyways.-

The thing about Macarons is that they aren't necessarily difficult to make. The basic methods and techniques are simple enough. However, it takes mastery acquired through years of experience and skill to make them perfect.

Needless to say ours were not. On some the feet flopped, others were wearing smart, pointy caps when we wanted to see their shiny bald heads instead, and one batch spread out so wide we worried that they would be mistaken for pancakes. Only a few actually turned out looking like something out of the cookbook, and certainly none of them were cookbook cover material. A few were just goddamn fugly.

"But they're beautiful on the inside!" I told myself.

Looks aside they tasted amazing. Better, in fact, than most I've had at many fine bakeries. We made three different flavors: Earl Grey with vanilla bean buttercream, pistachio with cherry blossom buttercream, and chocolate with nutella. Each tasted as complex and sweet as a bell choir, and their delicate texture and barely toothsome shells seemed to strike all the right chords as if someone began plucking a harp strings in your chest.

They still need a bit of work to make them perfect and I picture many more batches will be made in the future. There are no bruises involved; just too many leftover egg yolks which isn't so bad. After all when it comes to baking and failing all you can do is get up and try it again.

-No recipe this time. I don't want to give one until I can get the recipe perfect and be able to answer any questions you might have.-


  1. I think they look stunning. If the texture and flavor are spot on, I could care less about the "feet" and the rest of the ideal shape, though I know that is the ultimate goal. I say bravo.

  2. I think they look pretty good. I haven't had the guts to try making them yet, so I applaud you for trying. It's a notoriously difficult cookie! Maybe you can reshape the "feet" with a moistened finger before baking. As for the leftover egg yolks, perhaps you can try making the other trendy dessert, Crack Pie from Milk Bar.

  3. Did you find that the baking times in "I <3 Macarons" were a bit off? The basic recipes are great, as are the tips, but I found that my macarons were actually starting to brown only slightly more than halfway through baking. :S Or is it just me?

  4. They looks really beautiful, I am afraid of making them thinking that they won't turned out good as I wish. I need to venture into making them.

  5. I've been following your blog for a bit as I am also from NCal. I made these for a french restaurant I worked at and it took me about 5 times to really understand Macarons. Once I did, they have become one of my most prized techniques as a chef. The flavors you have here sound so delicious. My name is Mariel from OriginalCinn and I am very pleased to meet you. Bravo!

  6. The turning point for me (not that mine are consistently perfect!) was weighing everything and maintaining the proportions. (Example: if recipe is for 90g of egg whites, and you have 99g, increase all other weights by 10%.) Good luck with it!
    I know you're not ready to share recipes, but can you tell me what flavor cherry blossom is? Thank you!

  7. My first macaron attempts were guided by "I <3 Macarons" and they did not go well at all. I honestly think she gives too much direction, too many extra steps, and the ingredient proportions and cooking times are a bit off. The recipe I've established consistent success with is Tartelette's. Some tips that really helped me out were:
    Use silpats & single pan
    Don't used recipes that add water
    Use powdered colorings & flavorings

  8. Charlene: Cherry blossom flavor is just that. I got the cherry blossom extract from Japan. A fine fellow blogger sent it to me. =)

  9. Oddly enough, my last name is McCarron.

    All of the cakes look amazing and are making me feel very hungry!

  10. As a pastry chef, in school we always let our piped macarons sit out and get a crust on them before we baked them. The ones that you said spread because of the egg yolks were perfect :)

  11. Crap... I was looking forward to read your recipe, to try it this week end! I guess I'll just have to wait then!
    Beautiful pictures; I'll even pin one on "Pinterest" :)

  12. Oh. My god. These look amazing. Please perfect your recipes so I can make them the instant they're posted.

  13. Hi Garrett:

    I make macarons quite often in the bakery I work at. It wasn't till after about a dozen terrible batches that I found a method and a variation of a recipe that worked for me.

    Things that have helped me:

    Italian meringue is annoying and I personally hate using it, so I don't.

    Stiff eggwhites are too stiff so I am for just just before that point.

    Natural food colorings make the meringue fall, striping the pastry bag gives them color without this problem.

    Parchment paper on a sheet pan works just as well as parchment paper on a double pan.

    Adding weights to the corners of the sheet pans is very helpful if you're using a rotating oven.

    Letting them sit for approx half an hour before baking has helped with some cracking on the tops issues.

    Turning the oven down to 285 F and baking for approx 18 mins. Cooking at 350 left the sugar to burn before the macaron cooked.

    - I hope this helps!

  14. Wow, great tips, Elizabeth!
    Garrett: for the egg yolks problem... have you thought of using egg whites in a carton? Do you have any cons for this one? Just curious, because it would be almost cheaper to use that than to throw away the yolks, if you have too many or don't use them soon enough (no, no, not a personal story at all! ;)


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