All I knew about macaron-making before last week was that it’s a quite laborious process, that requires a lot of skill and precision. Probably not the kind of thing you’d try on a lazy afternoon, with no prior preparation but a sudden, pressing urge to bake something that can satisfy your dessert cravings!
My addiction to macarons dates back to the four months I spent in France, in 2008. Since then, I have very often found myself fancying these cute little pastries, but never tried baking them at home: the thought of engaging with such an intense process, coupled with the capriciousness of the ovens I’ve dealt with in my former houses, was enough to put me off from trying.
Coming across a Groupon deal for Loretta Liu‘s workshop at On Cookery School felt like a sign that the time to make some practice had come. Ever since I first saw On Patisserie‘s stall at the South Bank Real Food Market (where I took the picture below), I knew I had to find a way to attend one of their cookery classes one day…
Despite the same old fear of facing social occasions alone, I attended the class on my own. I’m now really glad I wandered out of my comfort zone: I had a great time baking my own macarons, and found Loretta’s demonstrations and tips very insightful. Better still, I left with my macaron shells in a nice big box, and a generous helping of chocolate ganache to fill them at home: no goodie bag has ever been more rewarding.
There’s a lot aspirant macaron-makers can learn from Loretta Liu: much more than just how to bake French macarons and make Chocolate Ganache filling. Throughout her demonstrations, she engaged our group in a lot of interesting discussions about the quality of ingredients and kitchen equipment, and the balance of energies you need to make good macarons: an encounter of opposites such as yin and yang, gentle and fast, delicate and strong.
I almost immediately realised that all I had heard about macaron-making was true. The recipe demands all your undivided attention from start to finish, as you need to get every single step exactly right. So much so, that Loretta advised us to only bake macarons when we feel positive and energetic: in her own words, “don’t do it when you’re grumpy, tired, or drunk”.
(She did say that, and I did ask myself who on earth bakes while they’re drunk. I still haven’t got an answer to that, I’m afraid.)
I’ll leave it up to you to retrieve the recipe: in fact, I hope this post inspires you to try the class yourself. For now, I’ll share two of the many things I learnt from my experience, which I hope will help me improve my macaron-making skills with time and (a lot of) practice.
1. Macarons Are Unforgiving
While some baking mistakes are easy to fix (like the cracks in a Swiss Roll), macaron-making mistakes are irreparable. The signs of every little mistake you make throughout the process will show on your macaron shells – and, very often, you’ll only notice that something went wrong when you see the final product.
The step I most struggled with was folding the beaten egg whites with the dry ingredients. This is known as “macaronage” and requires very precise movements and a lot of energy.
Loretta’s hands moved in a fluid and effortless way, gentle and firm at the same time – but repeating her gestures was no easy task for me. I couldn’t handle the spatula as confidently as she did, and ended up with a sore arm and a slightly overfolded mixture: the peaks on the top of my shells disappeared shortly after I finished piping, and the meringue spread out a little while in the oven.
Determining when to stop folding was even trickier. As Loretta said, it’s all up to our baking instinct, which we only develop with practice: there’ll be a lot of underfolding and overfolding until we become able to stop at exactly the right time.
What I got out of it, is that the perfect meringue is a balance of firm and smooth: not too runny, and free from any lumps. Firmness depends on how long you fold the meringue for, and smoothness is a matter of making the right gesture. Your macarons will tell you if you got any of the two wrong.
2. Everyone Makes Mistakes
Once our macarons were ready, Loretta looked at everyone’s trays, giving us feedback on what we had done well and what needed refining.
Her comments made me realise that “everyone makes mistakes” is not just a standard line that my mother throws my way when I’m upset: on the contrary, it’s perfectly normal to err a little the first time round.
Even a perfectionist like yours truly can relent, when she realises that all the other people in the room have made the same mistakes – and that there’s no other way to correct them, but to try again.
I left the class feeling that I had learnt a lot from the lesson, Loretta’s experience, and my own mistakes. I now feel much better equipped to run a macaron-making experiment in my own kitchen, and ready to accept that my macarons may still not be up to a French Patisserie’s standards the second time round (or the third, for that matter!).
Once at home, I filled a couple of macarons with the chocolate ganache I had taken with me, and was amazed by how well its fresh, creamy texture combined with the dry-ish, sugary taste of the macaron shells.
I had always wondered what made macarons so delicious to me: now that I can express it with my own words, I love them even more.