Macaroons have enjoyed a surge in popularity thanks to the innovations of pâtissier Pierre Hermé, whose reputation in Friance rivals that of Gagnaire and Robuchon. But Michael Raffael reports, Hermé insists that making luxury macaroons should be well within the scope of restaurant kitchens
Macaroons, believe it or not, evolved from macaroni. The pasta was brought to France during the Renaissance, and a century later, in about 1600, pastry cooks were already baking "macarons" not unlike the chewy almond cakes that are still sold in traditional English bakers' shops.
The Parisian macaron is a different product. For a start it has a smooth outer skin rather than a cracked one. It comes in every colour of the rainbow and, significantly, it's sold in pairs sandwiched together either with ganache or a butter cream.
They have been dished up as petits fours in smart restaurants for the last 30 years, but have enjoyed a recent surge in popularity. Two names are identified with their fashionable success: Ladurée a classic Paris pâtisserie, and Pierre Hermé, who acted as its technical consultant before setting up his own chain of shops in France and Japan.
The technical name for a pair of macaroons stuck together with a ganache or cream is a "gerbet". Its originator, at the turn of the 20th century, may have been a member of the Ladurée family. However, it was Hermé's arrival on the scene that completely altered their concept.
At one level he added his own creative talents to expand the macaroon flavours. His real invention concerned the filling. Until he began experimenting, pastry cooks had paid little attention to the fill. He treated the macaroon like a sandwich in which the taste of what was in the middle became critical. Instead of old-fashioned ganaches or butter creams he substituted lighter, flavour-packed ones. He also added texture by introducing fruit.
Green, ivory, chocolate, yellow, flecked or marbled, Hermé produces the most exciting range of macaroons in the world. He introduces new ranges of gâteaux every season in the same way that couture houses launch fashions. The rose-petal-pink Ispahan, filled with raspberries and lychees, has become emblematic of his creative style and a modern classic.
Ingredients (Makes about 42 x 55mm shells - roughly 60 smaller petits fours)
For almond paste for macaroon base 390g ground almonds
390g icing sugar
145g fresh egg whites
5g carmine colouring
5g strawberry colouring
For meringue 380g granulated sugar
145g egg whites (older ones are better)
2g powdered egg white
For the rose petal cream 900g butter cream*
50ml rose syrup
Optional: 90g creamed butter with 5ml essence of rose
\* Butter cream recipe incorporates enriched crème anglaise and Italian meringue - see opposite page
For assembly (per Ispahan) 2 x 55mm macaroons (see separate recipe)
20g-25g rose petal cream
1 heaped tsp chopped lychee (see note at end of recipe on opposite page)
2 drops glucose
1 red rose petal
The equal quantities of ground almonds and icing sugar, mixed together, is called a "tant pour tant" by pastry chefs. Beat in the egg whites to form a tacky dough.
For the meringue, put the sugar and water in a pan and boil to 121°C (1). Meanwhile, start whisking the egg whites and powdered egg until they start to rise.
While continuing to whisk the whites, pour the boiling sugar on to them in a steady stream so the sugar cooks the whites (2).
Continue whisking at a moderate speed until the temperature of the meringue drops to between 45°C and 40°C.
Put the almond paste in a mixing bowl and beat in the colouring (3). Beat in about a fifth of the warm meringue. Fold in the rest of the meringue and work it well until it obtains a dropping texture (4).
Prepare a baking sheet. On it place a sheet of baking parchment with 55mm circles marked on it. Leave 1cm gaps between each circle.
Fill a piping bag with a Savoy plain tube (10 or 12 mm) with the mixture. Pipe about 42 macaroon circles (5).
Lift the tray, tap the underside all over with your free hand. Each circle will spread a little and even out.
Leave the mixture in a warm, dry place for 35 to 40 minutes before baking.
The macaroons are ready to bake when their surface is smooth and no longer sticky. If you don't allow them to set their surface will crack during baking.
Preheat a convection oven to 165°C. Put the tray of macaroons in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes. Every oven is different. They are ready when the surface is crisp and the underneath is also set and lifts easily off the baking sheet.
Enriched creme anglaise
Ingredients 180ml milk
140g egg yolks
140g caster sugar
Method Boil the milk. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together till the sugar has dissolved (6 & 7). Pour the milk over the yolks and then pour the mixture back into the pan (8). Heat to 85°C. Take off the heat and pour into a cool bowl. Whisk the mixture until it whitens, thickens and cools.
Ingredients 125g egg whites
15g caster sugar
250g granulated sugar
Method Whisk the egg whites and 15g sugar until well risen and quite firm. Boil the granulated sugar and water to 121°C. while continuing to whisk the whites, pour on the boiling syrup in a steady stream. Whisk until the meringue is cold, shiny and firm.
Ingredients 450ml crème anglaise*
750g softened unsalted butter
350g Italian meringue*
\* See two previous recipes
Method Combine the ingredients together either by beating or whisking. They may appear to separate, but will always come back to form a smooth emulsion.
• Note: there's enough of the mixture for about 1.5 recipes.
To make the rose petal cream, beat the butter cream and rose syrup with optional creamed essence (9).
Put one macaroon shell on the work surface, flat side up. Pipe a circle of rose petal cream around the inside of its circumference and lay seven raspberries on the cream (10).
Spoon the chopped lychee into the centre of the ring (11). Pipe a small blob of rose petal cream on the lychee (12).
Fit the second macaroon shell on top (13). Refrigerate for 24 hours for the best result. Pipe two small drops of glucose on the top macaroon and use to fix the garnish of a raspberry and a rose petal (14).
Photography by Lisa Barber (www.lisabarber.co.uk)
• Note on lychees. Pierre Hermé uses tinned lychees. Whether using these or fresh ones, they need to be dried out before use, otherwise their moisture will leech into the macaroons and ruin the texture. Cut the lychees coarsely. Put them in a colander or sieve. Leave to dry out for 24 hours before using them.
Macaroon fashion statements
- White truffle and hazelnut
- Caramel and fleur de sel
- Chocolate and passion fruit
- Blackcurrant and violet
- Lime and basil
- Pistachio sour cherry
- Chocolate and green matcha tea
If ever a pastry chef was born with sugar in his genes, it was Pierre Hermé. His pâtissier father owned a shop in the Alsace town of Colmar, and his grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather all made cakes for a living.
At 14, young Pierre started an apprenticeship. Now in his 40s, he enjoys a reputation in France on a par with Pierre Gagnaire and Joël Robuchon. He spent his first seven years learning his craft under Gaston Lenôtre, in the era of nouvelle cuisine. His tutor, with a chain of Parisian shops, enjoyed the same fashionable media success as restaurant chefs. He wrote books, appeared on TV shows and ran a school for professional pâtissiers. His special skill lay in updating and reinterpreting pastry classics so they seemed lighter, brighter and more imaginative.
At 24, Hermé headed a team of 35 chefs at the Paris food emporium Fauchon. Although world famous, the shop in Place de la Madeleine was viewed as jaded and living off its past. The young pastry cook set about changing its image by modernising its chocolates, pâtisserie and confiserie (candied and preserved fruits).
It was about this time that he started playing with recipes for the Parisian gerbet macaroons. There are, according to Hermé, three distinct ways of making them. "Each method gives a different texture and each gives excellent results, so long as they're carried out properly," he says.
One was the way he'd learnt from Lenôtre, in which almond paste and sometimes purée is mixed with French meringue. In the second, ground almonds are mixed with meringue. The third way is to fold a "tant pour tant" (equal amounts of ground almonds and icing sugar into a cooked Italian meringue.
Until then, chefs had never looked beyond the basic favourites like chocolate, vanilla and raspberry. Hermé brought in lemon, pistachio and praline, flavours that seem standard now, but were new in their day.
His real innovation lay in the "garnish", the filling that joined the pairs of macaroons. "Most of the time it was a simple ganache or butter cream that stuck them together. What was interesting for me was developing the relationship between the filling and the biscuit," says Hermé. Like the jam in a sandwich, it had, he believed, to have its own taste.
One simple way was to play with the taste or texture of the butter cream, as in the Ispahan. Another trick he developed was to revamp the ganache. "I added, for instance, a white chocolate as a support for an apricot or peach purée filling. White chocolate has the advantage of being neutral. It doesn't have an aroma but it fixes the flavour of the fruit," Hermé explains.
After leaving Fauchon he acted as consultant to another venerable French institution, Ladurée, a pâtisserie that claims to have invented the gerbet around the turn of the 20th century. Here, he created signature ranges designed to capture public attention: avocado, banana and chocolate white truffle and hazelnuts essence of rose olive, apricot and saffron, green tea.
Hermé points out an interesting aspect of his macaroons that seems to challenge the basics of most pastry teaching - freshness. "As soon as they're made they're not ready to eat, but they're really at their best after 24 or even 48 hours," he says. "An osmosis takes place between the garnish and the biscuit. When freshly baked this is hard and crisp, but it absorbs some humidity from the filling and its inside becomes more tender while the crust on the surface stays intact."
Hermé's high profile encouraged him to develop a brand around his name. With a business partner and publicist, Charles Znaty, he opened his first Latin Quarter shop in 2002, followed by a second last year, and he already owns a mini-empire of five stores in Japan.
To maintain consistency across his growing chain he employs a full-time "co-ordinating chef", whose role is to ensure that the products throughout the group are consistent.
Is his manufacturing approach to luxury pâtisserie beyond the scope of restaurant kitchens? "Not at all," he insists. "It simply demands the same rigour."