This week, I decided it was time for a baking challenge - so I decided to jump in at the deep end with that most challenging of biscuits: the macaroon.
Having read a good amount of recipes, blogs and general macroon-related paraphernalia, I discovered not only that there are a huge number of slightly different ways to make macaroons (although I still haven't quite worked out the difference between the French method and the Italian method..!?), but that the general consensus is that they're difficult. And that most people apparently have to throw away several batches before getting them right.
Having made them, I've now discovered one of two things. Either, I've got a gift for macaroons. Or, I've got much lower standards than the rest of the internet population. To be honest, the truth is probably somewhere in between...
Anyway - here are my macaroons - not perfect, I admit - the first batch were slightly overcooked, and therefore a bit more brown than green (these were baked in an Aga, so it took a little time to find the exact temperature), and they're not all quite circular or smooth... but for a first batch, I don't think they're half bad:
So, the recipe. In the end, I adapted a few different ones to come up with a recipe which was somewhere between the two popular extremes of vaguely laid-back and pendantically anal - and here it is:
125g icing sugar
125g ground almonds
3 medium egg whites (around 90g)
2 tbsp water
110g caster sugar
Green food colouring
Preheat the oven to 170 degrees.
First, blend the icing sugar and ground almonds in a food processor to get the mixture as fine as possible - and pick out any stray bits of almond peel. Pour into a large bowl and mix with 40g of the egg whites (which is approximately an egg white and a half) until it forms a thick paste.
Using an electric whisk, whisk up the rest of the egg whites (50g - or thereabouts) until it forms fairly stiff peaks.
Mix the caster sugar with the water in a heavy-based saucepan, and put it over a high heat - melt the sugar, and allow it to boil and heat up to 115 degrees C. Use a baking thermometer for this part - if it's anything like mine, it'll be too bubbly to work out when it's got to the right consistency!
As soon as the sugar syrup is up to temperature, add it to the egg, and whisk at a high speed until the mixture is stiff again, and shiny. Add your food colouring now - drop by drop is safest, but it'll take at least half a teaspoon to get to a decent strength of green.
Finally, use a spatula to gently fold the meringue mixture into the almond paste - it's important to get it as smooth as possible, but avoid losing any of the air and lightness of the mixture. Add any more food colouring as required.
Now, spoon the mixture into 1.5inch circles on a flat baking tray, lined with baking parchment (or even better, one of those non-stick reusable meringue sheet). The circles should be as smooth as possible, and about half an inch high. Alternatively, pipe the circles - this will make them more even and smooth. Allow at least half an inch between circles to allow for spreading.
Slam the baking sheets on a hard surface a few times to smooth out the mixture a little, then leave them to sit for 30 minutes to spread and smooth some more.
Then - at last - they're ready to bake! Into the oven with the door slightly ajar for 12 minutes - but check them (and turn them if the oven has a tendency to cook unevenly) after 8. It's vital that they don't colour at all.
Allow them to cool on the baking paper for a good 15 minutes or so before trying to move them - use a palette knife to remove them smoothly from the sheet.
And finally, stick them together! I used a white chocolate peppermint ganache for this, the recipe for which I found at: http://www.cuisine.com.au/recipe/mint-macarons-white-chocolate-ganache
Pipe the ganache onto one round (I did this using a make-shift piping bag made from a folded cone of greaseproof paper), right up to the edges, then stick the other round on top - pushing gently so that the ganache shows nicely at the join. This ganache recipe has quite a strong flavour, so if you want to taste the almond of the biscuits, try to use the ganache sparingly - while still making sure it looks good, of course!
And finally, stick the macaroons on a baking tray in the fridge for a while - a couple of hours will do. If at all possible, don't cover the tray so as to avoid any condensation forming and dampening the biscuits.
Then, eat! Perfect with a cup of coffee after dinner... yum.