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Macarons are a sweet, fanciful and filling treat

They are the dessert darling of the food world. They adorn the covers of magazines. They are de rigueur on any pastry competition television show. There are new cookbooks out dedicated to their myriad possibilities.

The macaron — just one "o," so as not to be confused with the chewy coconut confection — isn't your typical cookie. In fact, the gamut of pastels notwithstanding, they look a bit like miniature hamburgers.

There's a cookie on top, a cookie on the bottom, and they're held together with a creamy center. But unlike the ubiquitous sandwich cookie, any attempt to separate them is a mistake.

And they are deceptively simple: shells made of almond flour, sugar and egg whites, with a flavorful filling. They are at once crisp, chewy, airy and creamy, with a punch of flavor that the assigned color merely hints at.

When done right.

They are a little temperamental, with any number of factors conspiring against perfection. Room temperature, humidity, the way the eggs are beaten, the alignment of the stars.

"They aren't fussy," says Nel Bringsjord, who with her husband, Norman, owns Cake City in Clearwater, where they've turned macarons from a side job into an obsession. The store does business by appointment for custom-made cakes and is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday for anyone who wants to come in and buy pastries in general, and macarons in specific.

Customers don't need to see beyond the pastel array of options in the bakery's display case, where 10 or more flavors of perfectly shaped sandwich cookies await picking and choosing, but around the back wall is a kitchen that is as pristine as a lab. Before she starts making macarons, Bringsjord checks the temperature of the room, then the humidity. It's a little high on the hot, sweaty day we visit, so she turns on the dehumidifier for a while until the level is more to her liking.

"But they aren't fussy," she repeats, with tongue in cheek.

She keeps her recipe close to the vest, and it's one that would be a challenge for a home cook. She's a professional, with professional tools. She brings ingredients to precise temperatures before incorporating them in an Italian meringue until it has a particular sheen and then piping them perfectly with the aid of a template.

As the meringue develops, she points out changes that are imperceptible to the untrained eye. To her, it's night and day.

"But they aren't fussy," she says yet again, this time with a smirk, finally acknowledging the fussiness.

When they are baked in an oven with rotating racks, there is a bit of celebration when the telltale "feet" form. Though when Bringsjord makes them, the "feet" — the flat base that forms when baking — always seem to be perfect.

The traditional filling for macarons is buttercream.

"Don't use buttercream," Bringsjord says. She uses ganache, a combination of chocolate and cream that is more stable that buttercream. A white chocolate ganache carries the flavors she wants the cookie to deliver, and is easily colored.

Chef Dominique Christini does not control the humidity in his kitchen at Café Largo. And as his kitchen's primary function is that of a fancy French restaurant, it gets hot in there. But he makes macarons, too.

In one of his recent cooking classes on a relatively dry day, he teaches his class of 20 an easy-to-replicate-at-home recipe. He uses a French meringue, and while not uniformly perfect, they have a character of their own. His students alternately oooooohhh and ahhhhhh as he fills his macarons with a combination of dark chocolate ganache and raspberry.

"Don't use buttercream," he says. "This is Florida. You can't take them out of the house. They'll melt before you get them to the car."

So we have a consensus on what not to use as a filling. Christini says he has macarons on the dessert menu when the mood strikes, filling them with ganache, fruit or ice cream.

On another day, a morning downpour thickening the air in the kitchen, Christini makes another batch. There are no feet. With the attitude of a confident chef and serving as a great lesson to home cooks, Christini shrugs.

"Sometimes they don't have feet."

A bite of one of the footless macarons suggests Christini has a point in not being concerned. They have the soft, chewy almond flavor in the cookie, and with the bright, rich chocolate-raspberry filling, the last thing you'll worry about is feet.

Even if they are a little fussy.

Jim Webster can be reached at jwebster@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8746.

>>Moderate

Raspberry Chocolate Macarons

(French meringue method)

Cookies:

6 ounces almond flour (about 1 cups)

6 ounces confectioners' sugar (about 1 cup, packed)

4 ounces egg whites (½ cup, from 3 large eggs)

¾ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

Red or pink food coloring, optional

Ganache filling:

3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

1/16 teaspoon raspberry extract

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Put almond flour in a large bowl, and sift the confectioners' sugar into the bowl. Mix to combine.

In another bowl, beat the egg whites and salt with an electric mixer at medium speed until they hold soft peaks. Add granulated sugar and increase speed to high until peaks are stiff and glossy. If using food coloring, add a drop at a time and beat slowly until the meringue reaches the desired color. Gently fold almond mixture into meringue until incorporated.

Spoon batter into a pastry bag with a ¼-inch tip or opening. Don't overfill bag; it's better to work in small batches. Twist bag firmly above the batter. Holding the bag at a 90-degree angle to the baking sheet, pipe batter, making cookies about 1 ½ inches in diameter. If peaks don't settle, lift baking sheet a couple of inches off counter and drop it straight down. Allow cookies to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. A light crust will form over cookies.

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Bake the cookies for 10 minutes, then rotate the trays and bake for 7 to 10 minutes more. Don't allow to brown. Cool cookies on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes.

While cookies bake, make the ganache. Put chocolate and cream in a metal bowl over simmering water, stirring until smooth. Remove bowl from heat and add butter and extract. Let stand at room temperature until cooled and thickened.

To assemble cookies, gently peel from parchment. Add about ½ teaspoon of ganache to the flat side of a cookie, and top with a second cookie. Repeat until all the cookies are filled.

Makes about 30 filled cookies.

Source: Adapted from chef Dominique Christini of Café Largo

>>Difficult

Salted Caramel Macarons

(Italian meringue method)

Caramel filling:

14 ounces granulated sugar (2 cups)

1 teaspoon lemon juice

½ cup heavy cream, warmed

Sea salt

Cookies:

6 ounces almond flour (about 1 cups)

6 ounces confectioners' sugar (about 1 cup, packed)

5 ounces granulated sugar (about ¾ cup)

4 ounces egg whites (½ cup, from 3 large eggs)

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

Make the caramel filling the day before you plan to fill the cookies. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat sugar and lemon juice. Gently stir with a heatproof spatula until mixture resembles wet sand. Cook until sugar melts and reaches an amber color, about 10 minutes. Do not stir.

Remove from heat and carefully pour in cream. Mixture will boil violently for a few seconds. Whisk in a large pinch of salt and put caramel in a heatproof container. Allow to cool at room temperature for 2 hours, then refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours before filling cookies.

To make the cookies, mix the almond flour, confectioners' sugar and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the granulated sugar and ¼ cup of water. Stir to dissolve, then brush any sugar granules off the edge with a wet brush. Monitor the temperature of the mixture and cook until

the sugar reaches 235 degrees.

While the sugar heats, in an electric mixer, whisk egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed until soft peaks form, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed of mixer to low until sugar reaches temperature. When it does, quickly and steadily pour the sugar down the side of the mixer bowl, with the mixer still running. Continue whisking until the meringue is warm and glossy, about 4 minutes. The meringue is ready when the bowl can be held upside down without the meringue slipping. Do not overwhip.

Put the flour mixture in a large bowl and create a well in the center of the flour. Pour the meringue into the well. With a rubber spatula, gently fold the flour into the meringue until just incorporated.

Spoon batter into a pastry bag with a ¼-inch tip or opening. Don't overfill bag; it's better to work in small batches. Twist bag firmly above the batter. Holding the bag at a 90-degree angle to the baking sheet, pipe batter, making cookies about 1 ½ inches in diameter. If peaks don't settle, lift baking sheet a couple of inches off counter and drop it straight down. Allow cookies to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. A light crust will form over cookies.

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Bake the cookies for 10 minutes, then rotate the

trays and bake for 7 to 10 minutes more. Don't allow

to brown. Cool cookies on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes.

To assemble cookies, gently peel from parchment. Add about ½ teaspoon of caramel to the flat side of a cookie, and top with a second cookie.

Repeat until all the cookies are filled.

Makes about 30 filled cookies.

Source: Adapted from Les Petits Macarons by Kathryn Gordon and Anne E. McBride

Tips for making macarons

Flour

. Buy almond flour. Some recipes instruct on how to make your own. Don't. You're unlikely to get it fine enough, and if you do, you run the risk of turning it into almond butter. Bob's Red Mill is a good commercial brand available at natural food stores and some supermarkets for about $10 per pound.

Measurement

. If you don't have a kitchen scale, get one. Measuring dry ingredients by weight is more accurate than measuring by volume.

Don't touch!

. After piping macaron shells, don't knock the pointy tips down with a wet finger, as some recipes suggest. If the mixture is the right consistency, they will flatten out naturally during the resting period.

Extras

. When making macarons, you'll need many egg whites. Have a plan to make something else with the yolks to avoid wasting them. Think pasta, or pastry cream.

Color

. If coloring your shells, try to find oil-based colors and use as little as possible. Alcohol-based colors can compromise the texture of the cookie and cause wrinkling.

Piping

. When piping cookies, hold bag straight up from the sheet, with the tip close to the parchment. The batter will push itself out in a perfect circle.

Filling

. If you've added a bit too much filling to a cookie, use your thumb to depress the underside of the cookie you'll use on top. This creates a little more room for the filling.

Finishing touch

. As you marry two cookies, do so with a slight twist. This pushes the filling to the edge evenly.

What about the coconut? The macaroon is a similar cookie based on coconut rather than almonds. It isn't a sandwich cookie, but it has a meringue base with shredded coconut folded in. While the macaron is definitely French, most food historians believe the macaroon has Italian roots.

Where to get them

Cake City, open noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. 2454 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. (727) 216-6720; cakecity.com.

Cassis Bakery, open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily (until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday). 170 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 827-2927; cassisab.com.

Datz, open daily, hours vary. 2616 S MacDill Ave., Tampa. (813) 831-7000; datztampa.com.

Sophie's French Bakery, open daily at 8 a.m. Closing hours vary. 1633 W Snow Ave., Tampa. (813) 254-5257; sophiesbakerycafe.com.

Meringues

There are three classic kinds of meringue, and any can be used to make macarons. All have the same ingredients: egg whites and sugar. The difference is in how they're combined and cooked.

Italian meringue

. Egg whites are beaten while sugar is heated. The hot sugar is then slowly added to the whites with the beater running. The result is marshmallowlike and can be eaten without further cooking.

French meringue

. Egg whites are beaten while granulated sugar is added. The whites are still raw, so they must be cooked.

Swiss meringue

. Egg whites and sugar are whisked together over boiling water until the mixture reaches 130 degrees, then beaten until peaks form. This is the base of a classic frosting.

Anatomy

of a macaron

Shell: The crust of the cookie. Allowing the batter to dry on the tray before baking helps form a skin that, if all goes well, will create a smooth, domelike shape.

Filling: Traditionally a buttercream, but macarons can be filled with anything. Ganache, a spreadable mix of chocolate and cream, holds up well. Ganache made of white chocolate is easily flavored and colored. Other filling options include ice cream, jams, peanut butter and caramel.

Foot: The bottom of the individual cookies. The batter of the cookie is made of an airy meringue. If the shell has properly skinned over, the skin uniformly lifts as the cookie bakes. As it lifts, it breaks away from the batter that has contact with the tray liner. The fissure that is created at the break is a definitive characteristic of the cookie.

Macarons are a sweet, fanciful and filling treat 09/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 5:30am]

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