Shoot for the Maca"roon"
I never thought I could learn to bake; let alone learn to love doing it.
Baking requires patience, precision, and organization...none of which come to me naturally. Whatsoever.
So why I thought it was a good idea to try to bake macarons - widely accepted as one of the most difficult home baked treats - is a bit of a chin scratcher. I never used to bake; before the pandemic, I rarely cooked a meal, let alone bake desserts from scratch. If I was feeling fancy I would maybe pop open a box of brownie mix, but I certainly never dreamed of trying to make anything on my own. Ironically, I do love watching cooking shows; but I’ve always found everything to be so intimidating. I always told myself I didn’t have the time or the skill level to even bother trying.
But like most people, I suddenly found myself with a lot of extra freetime on my hands when the pandemic hit in 2020. I quickly ran out of Netflix shows and crafting supplies, and even the homebody in me got sick of having nothing to do. In all my downtime I could only think about the things that were stressing me out...adapting to work at home, being several states away from my family and unable to see them, and worried that my then-boyfriend (now fiance) would get sick of being stuck in the same apartment as me for months on end. It was overwhelming at times.
So maybe it was the boredom that possessed me to attempt making such a challenging confection at home, having zero baking experience and very little equipment on hand to do it properly. It certainly fit my M.O. of trying something difficult so I have an excuse when it goes poorly (something I need to work on, I know). Or maybe it was in an attempt to bring a little other-worldliness to my home in a time where I wasn’t allowed to leave it. Macarons are certainly an exotic treat, at least where I live; there aren’t too terribly many French patisseries in middle Tennessee. It’s always a surprise to find them “in the wild”; to see rows and rows of different colored shells in any flavor you can imagine.
There’s an important clarification I feel I should make. At the risk of sounding pretentious, there is actually a difference between a macaroon (maca-ROON) and a macaron (maca-ROHN). A macaroon is a relatively simple coconut based confection, though it is typically what people mistakenly call macarons, which are heavenly sandwiched cookies with a jam or buttercream filling in the middle. The biggest difference, besides being entirely different desserts altogether, is that macarons are extremely labor intensive, super temperamental, and use some pricy ingredients. That’s why you’d be hard pressed to find them at a bakery for less than $2.50 a pop, and rightfully so.
But with that comes the real reason I ultimately decided to teach myself to make macarons from scratch - I’m cheap. I could never bring myself to spend that much money on a sleeve of cookies that I know I would demolish by myself in a single sitting. So, after I got the idea in my head that I was going to learn how to make them, I spent hours watching Youtube videos, comparing recipes, and reading articles on how to troubleshoot bad batches. Amazon was a lifesaver in getting me all the supplies I needed, and I was fortunate enough to find all the ingredients at my local grocery store.
Now, I didn’t expect this to be a long term thing. I have the attention span of a goldfish, and I get frustrated easily when something I’m working on doesn’t go right. There was little doubt in my mind that this experiment of mine was going to go terribly; I fully expected to fail spectacularly, laugh it off, and move on. Don’t get me wrong, my first few batches were not great, to nobody’s surprise. But what I found to be so shocking was how much I actually enjoyed the process.
I found quickly that it’s really hard to think about all the stressors in your life when you’re making macarons. For such a simple looking cookie, they really are such a pain to bake; it’s like they are just looking for a reason to not turn out. The recipe on its own is really not that difficult to make, but there is absolutely no wiggle room. If you don’t follow the instructions to a T, your macaron shells won’t bake properly.
It all starts with making a meringue - whipping egg whites, salt, and granulated sugar until it turns into a fluffy white cloud that holds its shape in stiff peaks. It’s so satisfying to watch a small pool of liquid grow three times in size and go from clear to white. This part is simple enough, except your meringue can easily be under or over whipped, both of which can ruin your batch. One way to know if it’s firm enough is by holding the bowl upside down over your head...if it stays in, you’re done whipping, and if it doesn’t, well...you have bigger, stickier problems to worry about.
In addition to the meringue, you have to mix together the dry ingredients. Except you can’t just mix them together, you have to grind them in a food processor to get them as fine as possible, then mill them through a flour sifter. It all feels very extra and a little pointless, but speaking from experience this is a vital step in getting a nice smooth top. Plus, the sifting is one of my favorite parts; I have a manual sifter with a hand crank, and it’s nice to have a step where I can zone out for a few minutes.
The fun and creative parts come next, adding in flavoring and coloring. There’s nothing more satisfying than mixing in different colors of food gel to get just the perfect hue. Sometimes I try to match the flavor I’m going for, and sometimes I make them bright purple, for no other reason than it’s just fun. Once the flavor extract is added and the color is just right, the dry ingredients are ready to be added - slowly, and folded in gently but quickly. This is one of the trickier parts; the dry ingredients must be incorporated fully, but without knocking out too much air from the meringue.
When the batter is finally complete, it gets added to a piping bag and piped into perfectly symmetrical circles on a baking sheet. Or at least it would if you were a professional; in my case, I just do the best I can. The macarons rest for at least half an hour before going in the oven, during which I typically whip up whatever filling I want to use (buttercream is the crowd favorite, but jam or peanut butter work great when I’ve had enough baking for a day!). Finally, after baking for about 17 minutes, they can cool and be stacked into little sandwiches. When done correctly, they are adorable; round, smooth domes with a ribbon around the edge called a “foot”.
Unlike other activities I've dabbled in, I really tried my best to improve at baking macarons despite my early struggles. The time and effort that went into each batch got me really invested in how they turned out, and I was determined to keep trying until I got them right. Whenever I’m baking, I just get in the zone...none of my other problems matter in the moment, since all my head space has to be focused on the task at hand. I love getting to be creative and experiment with colors, flavors, and decorations.
The best part (besides getting to eat them, of course) is getting to share them with other people. Now that things are somewhat getting back to normal, I finally get to see friends, coworkers, and relatives with more regularity. Nothing beats the smile on someone’s face when they take a bite of something I’ve worked so hard on. I love how excited people get when they see my container full of my newest batch, and I’m thankful and proud to have stuck with the hobby. My stressors certainly have not gone away; but for a couple hours while I’m baking, and with every bite once they’re done, I can enjoy a blissful moment of happiness.