I Have Measured Out My Life With Macaroons
I sometimes think almost any food would be easier to make for a living than macaroons. That’s probably as much to do with my own shortcomings as the intrinsic difficulty of macaroon making, but there’s no denying they represent a kind of nemesis for many keen bakers.
Even though I now bake macaroons every week, a certain gnawing anxiety accompanies each batch. Complacency is the enemy: if I ever congratulate myself on having arrived at a foolproof formula, that’s when the cracks begin to appear – sometimes literally. There is a hair’s-breadth margin of error. Whisk the egg whites a little too long; give one too many turns of the spatula during the notoriously sensitive macaronage; have the oven temperature a shade too high; remove the macaroon shells from the baking parchment a minute too soon – I’m having palpitations just thinking about it.
That perfect macaroon is so elusive, and the requirements for success seem to be constantly shifting. I used to bake all my macaroons in a fan oven with pretty satisfactory results. Then a pale brown shadow started to appear across a good third of each trayful. After lengthy experimentation with temperature, position, baking sheets and batter consistency, I discovered that simply turning the fan off was the key to success. For a month I baked away happily – but pride comes before a fall and I found my macaroons cursed with the infamous ‘sticky bottom’. I would open the oven door and there they were, perfect in every respect, with immaculate pastel colouring and cute little ‘feet’. But when I came to lift them off the tray, they had no base, just a sticky, unsealed interior.
I could go on. Suffice to say I’ve sorted out sticky bottom and I’m now cautiously optimistic that this winning streak will last some time. And there is no greater happiness – yes, tell me to get a life – than opening the fridge to see row upon row of plump, pastel macaroons, frilly feet encasing a perfect stripe of butter cream or ganache.
Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t make things easier for myself by baking brownies instead. But, like the bad boy we know we shouldn’t fall for but we just can’t help ourselves, macaroons are so much more captivating than the safe option. They are unreliable, infuriating, temperamental and extravagant – but also dazzling, mysterious and never, ever dull. It’s a heady feeling just thinking about all the possibilities; I’ve barely begun to experiment with spices, teas and alcohols as flavourings, or with textured or multi-layered fillings. I’ve yet to pipe them out in different shapes (hearts? swans?) or pair shells in contrasting colours, or combine two coloured batters.
It’s slightly shaming to admit to past mistakes. Everything food related is supposed to look easy nowadays – it’s not done to argue that baking is a skill, acquired with hard work and a certain amount of failure along the way. But macaroons are a prime example of the adage that there’s no substitute for experience. Once you’ve worked that batter dozens of times, then you begin to get a feel for the perfect consistency – the key to successful macaroons. And then a lifetime of happy (if occasionally headache-inducing) macaroon making beckons.