500 Days of Baking: Red Velvet Macarons

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This is a story of Girl Meets Macarons. But you should know up front – this is not a love story.

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French Macarons are the Summer Finn of the food-blogosphere. In the film 500 Days of Summer, Boy head over heels for Girl (Summer), who doesn’t return his desire to commit. Oh no! Some viewers don’t see further than that, but I would argue that it’s not really about how Summer broke Tom’s heart. It’s about how Tom set himself up to fall, with his misguided notions about happiness and “soulmates,” his checklist of things that made Summer the perfect woman, his obsession over the mere idea of Summer – when it turned out she wasn’t who he wanted her to be all along. She wasn’t perfect, but she was always honest with him. He was the one who got entangled between his hasty desire to find “the one” and his fear of being alone, his expectations of love and the reality.

Where am I going with all this? Well, according to the world of food blogging, making macarons is the hardest thing ever. Every food blogger warns of overmixing batter and cracking shells, provides page-long lists of tips and tricks, speaks bracingly of “practice making perfect,” cautions that it’s pretty common to screw up the first or second time. But once you get it right, the macaron is beautiful, with a perfectly smooth, crispy exterior, soft interior and delicate “footing” at the base of each shell.

The food blog gurus aren’t wrong. Just like there’s nothing wrong with believing in “the one,” there’s nothing wrong with trying to figure out how to make the perfect macaron. But as first-time macaron baker, I stressed out over getting every detail, convincing myself that my first batch had to be perfect but subliminally believing I wouldn’t succeed. That’s when things started to go wrong, when I fell into unrealistic expectations and self-doubt – a combination that I call the Tom-Hansen Syndrome.

If making macarons scares you, don’t sweat it. It might be a complete disaster the first time. It might be perfect. Most likely, it’ll be somewhere in between.

Anyway, now that I’m done philosophizing – time to make these macarons.

Red-Velvet Macarons

(Recipe from An Edible Mosaic and Pass the Cocoa)

Ingredients

Macaron Shells

2 1/2 oz.* egg whites (about 2 large eggs’ worth)

4 oz. powdered sugar

2 oz. (1/2 cup) finely ground almonds/almond meal

1/4 oz. (1 tbsp.) unsweetened cocoa powder

Pinch fine salt

1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

Red food color (preferably powder or gel)

1 1/2 oz (3 tbsp.) castor sugar

Filling

2 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature

2 oz. cream cheese, room temperature

1/4 tsp. pure vanilla extract

4 oz. powdered sugar

*Pro-tip: Measure your ingredients by weight, as much as possible (including the egg whites).

Directions

*Pro-tip: Have your ingredients measured out and at the ready. It’s not necessary, but it gave me some peace of mind.

If you’re not using almond meal or pre-ground almonds, toss your whole/sliced almonds into the food processor and grind until they’re almost fine. You don’t want to grind the almonds alone for too long, or they’ll turn into almond butter.

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Add in about half your powdered sugar and grind for another few minutes. Stop every 30 seconds or so and stir the mixture. Then add in the rest, and grind until you get a fine, smooth powder.

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Throw in the cocoa powder and the salt, and grind for another minute or so. Set this mixture aside.

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To make the meringue, whip the egg whites on medium speed with an electric beater until they’re frothy. (*Pro-tip: when in doubt, don’t overbeat).

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Gradually add in the castor sugar while beating continuously on medium speed. If you don’t have castor sugar, or know what it is, it’s basically fine sugar, in between granulated and powdered sugar (see below).

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Continue to beat on medium speed for 2 minutes, and then beat on high speed for about 5-6 minutes, or until the meringue is beginning to form stiff peaks (Again, don’t overbeat). If you’re feeling daring, you can flip the bowl upside down – if the meringue doesn’t start to slide out, you’re done.

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Add in the vanilla and the red food coloring, and beat for another 30 seconds. Make the color darker than you want the macarons to be, because the color will fade as you bake.

*Pro-tip: If you’re using liquid food coloring, don’t add more than 1/2 tsp. because it will dilute your mixture. Powder or gel coloring is best because you don’t need as much to get a strong tint. I used as much liquid coloring as I dared, and I still didn’t get a true red color.

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So this is when things started breaking down for me. In my desperate attempts to change the color from radioactive-orange-pink to red, I kept a few drops of food coloring and beating the mixture and adding some more and beating again – basically, I committed the cardinal sin of meringue-making and overbeat my egg whites. For all my precautions, I was to be foiled by weak food coloring. I began to despair.

But I kept going, because what else are you going to do with cocoa-almond meal and pink egg whites? The next step is to sift in your dry ingredients with a strainer, and fold to combine. This is called the “macaronage” (Yes, there’s a word for it. Oh, those French). The proper macaronage technique is to slide your spatula from the side of the bowl to the bottom, lift the mixture at the bottom up to the top and repeat, turning the bowl as you go. Most importantly, don’t overmix. When you can’t see any more dry almond meal, stop.

(Disclaimer: Because I overmixed the aforementioned meringue, this is not what your batter should end up looking like. It should be smoother, and fall back from a lifted spatula in a thick ribbon).

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Pour your batter into a large pastry bag (or, just use a large Ziploc bag with the tip cut off). The opening should be about 1/2 inch in diameter. Line a baking tray with parchment paper, and pipe 1-inch rounds onto the tray about 1 inch apart. Do not attempt to swirl the batter into shape; instead, hold the pastry bag vertically (at a 90 degree angle from the tray) and slowly pipe out the circle. (I kind of messed this part up too, because I’d already given up on this batch). The little peak that forms in the center should sink into the batter as it sets. Tap the tray lightly against the counter a couple times, to get rid of bubbles.

*Pro-tip: Leave the uncooked macarons out to dry for 30 to 90 minutes, or until they form a dry skin on the outside. You should be able to touch them lightly without getting any batter on you.

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Bake the macarons at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 to 20 minutes. They’ll be done when they have risen and peel easily off the parchment paper. They shouldn’t be browned.

At this point, I had given up my macarons as lost. I threw the tray in the oven and went off to mope. Well, they turned out better than I could have imagined, and I was so surprised, I forgot to take photos of the baked macaron shells.

Once your macaron shells are done, you can leave them to cool and make the filling. I’ve included a recipe for cream cheese filling below. Pair up similar-sized shells, and add a dab of filling onto one, and press the two shells together gently.

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And then the macarons are done. Make sure to store them in an airtight container in the fridge. Apparently, they taste better after a day of this treatment.

I won’t lie; this was an exhausting experience. But honestly, it didn’t have to be. Were some of my shells bumpy? Were the insides of the shells a little too chewy? Was my red velvet actually radioactive-pink velvet? Was there a tiny hint of chemically food-coloring flavor intermixed with the sweetness? Absolutely. And you know what else? They looked great! They tasted fine! (Actually, it turns out I’m not a huge macaron fan. Oops). They aren’t perfect; but they never had to be.

So maybe this is a love story. But not the kind I expected it to be. Baking isn’t about perfection; it’s about having fun and growing as a person and a cook, even when the recipe’s complicated or the souffle blows up in your face. It’s about love. This Valentines Day, food adventurers, I challenge you to love your partners, love your friends, love your family, love your food – but most importantly, love yourself. You’re capable of more than you believe possible.

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<3

Hafsa Razi

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