It's been a while since my pastry school days, and oftentimes I feel the itch to get back into class to keep up with the newest trends, brush up on old skills, or just to be around some nice shiny professional equipment again.
After talking to chef Nicole Plue about her role as the instructor for SF Cooking School's professional pastry program, I was eager to have the chance to see her in action. My opportunity came with the pastry workshops for enthusiasts she's also teaching. These intensive classes are usually three days long and focus on specific topics like laminated doughs or breakfast pastries. One came up on the schedule that really caught my eye: macarons Pierre Hermé style, using recipes from his gorgeous cookbook MACARONS. You can never get too much macaron making practice, so thanks to Jodi, the head of the SF Cooking School, I was in!
Although the workshops are geared towards home bakers, they are also appropriate for professionals who are looking to sharpen their skills. Mainly this is because Chef Plue is such a dedicated and knowledgable instructor. I found her to be very patient and encouraging while embodying the precision that is the hallmark of the pastry profession. While she was demonstrating techniques, she would continually describe what to look for and how to tell when something was done whipping or emulsifying, etc, while also giving pointers about why things might go wrong and possible remedies. For example, what to do if your cooking sugar crystallizes, what to do if your meringue is overwhipped - basically all the pitfalls and hazards that anyone who's made macarons have encountered. Essentially if you have any questions about anything, she will do her best to answer it.
Since I've made macarons before, I brought some of my questions about various problems I've had, and she took the time to give me thoughtful answers and suggestions. This is probably one of the key tips I can give about going to pastry school or any class in general: the more you put in, the more you'll get out of it. Especially with an instructor like Plue who's so generous with her help - that's an invaluable resource!
Chef Plue's macaron method and basic troubleshooting. Pierre Hermé uses the Italian meringue method for his macarons, which I also prefer. I've gone into detail about the method in my own macaron post, so head on over if you want to see some more discussion. Some of the tips that Chef Plue passed on in the class:
- She firmly believes in aging the egg whites, which will dry them out and help them whip up better. Take them out of the refrigerator a few hours before making macarons to let them come to room temperature.
- She prefers using almonds to make macarons, because they are the driest of all nuts. I've used other nuts to make macarons before - it's possible, obviously, but I think the idea is that using other nuts may affect the outcome because of the different moisture/oil content, so just be aware when you're experimenting.
- She is a stickler for consistency. I'll come back to this a little later, but she emphasized the need to use a scale and thermometer for proper measurements, and to use the same baking sheets and oven if possible for consistent results.
Here's the brand of ground almonds that the school used. I like my macaron shells smooth, which means a lot of painstaking work grinding and sifting almonds (even using pre-ground almonds like this, we still gave them a quick spin in the Vitamix). The better the quality, the easier it will be to get a nice fine grind. You can order this brand directly from their website.
For each day of class we got to make a batch of macarons and then fill and decorate them as we liked. Chef Plue had already made all the fillings beforehand, but we had time to make one or two of them ourselves for practice. The fillings ranged from traditional favorites like lemon curd and chocolate ganache to some of Hermé's signature ones like salted butter caramel cream (dreamy), lychee rose (Ispahan, I can't quit you), and olive oil vanilla (might be a new favorite). There was plenty of room and equipment for everyone to have the space and time to make what they wanted. Some of the especially ambitious students even brought in their own ingredients to customize their macarons, like the guy who made his own s'mores macs.
Here is chef Plue demonstrating how the Italian meringue should look after whipping. Going back to the consistency thing, one of the things I noticed after making macarons three times in a row was how much the little differences in making the batter could affect the outcome. On day 2, my macarons had really big, fluffy feet, which Plue attributed to me perhaps over whipping the meringue a bit. On day 3, one tray of macarons baked much faster than another one, because they were in different ovens.
The thing is, as I'm sure most of you who have made macarons know, is that they can be devilishly confounding. Even chef Plue admitted that sometimes she was stumped when a batch came out not quite right. There are so many different factors at play that the only way to get really good macarons is to keep making them, again and again. Which makes sense, like any other skill. I appreciated that we had three days to practice making macarons (I don't often have a reason to make that many at home!) so I could really get my technique refined by the end of the workshop.
I asked her about some of the tips and tricks offered up in various cookbooks and the internet, like double panning, propping open the oven door while baking, using silicone baking mats. Her response was that most of these were probably developed in response to different baking conditions, like a conventional oven where the heat coming from the bottom element was too hot so double panning prevented the bottoms of the macarons from burning. So it's not that they tips are wrong, but they may or may not be useful for your particular setup. You can try them and see if they improve your macarons, but if they don't, there's no need. Conclusion: don't believe the one-size-fits-all "foolproof" methods flogged elsewhere - you still need to use your own baking judgment.
She did mention that if that recipe is sound, like the Hermé one, it should generally work out. If the macarons are constantly turning out wrong, it might be a bad recipe. So again, find a recipe and method that works for you and stick with it!
Freshly piped macarons ready for decorating and "curing". Chef Plue mentioned that she wasn't a big fan of coloring her macarons (although Hermé is famous for his brightly colored ones) but she loves decorating with all sorts of toppings.
Of course that didn't stop people from playing with the huge range of colorings laid out for us to try. Here are everyone's macarons drying away on the speed rack.
Bee pollen adorning the tops of these macarons. One of the nice luxuries of taking class at this school is all the wonderful, top-flight ingredients available for us to use. While I might not be able to use Valrhona every day in my kitchen, or be so profligate with the gold leaf, it was lovely to be able to play around freely with decorating powders, Valrhona chocolate, cocoa nibs, and glitter.
From left to right, the three fillings we did for day 1: Lemon curd, Valrhona 64% chocolate ganache with dried raspberry bits and pistachio bits, and coffee white chocolate ganache. All the fillings were from the cookbook; although I'm familiar with his lemon curd and chocolate ganache recipes, the coffee white chocolate was a revelation.
The importance of mise. One nice thing about this class is that since it's an enthusiast class and not a professional class (this is not to say that the level of instruction was any less), we had such niceties as having our ingredients pre-weighed and prepared for us, and we didn't have to clean up the kitchen afterwards. I actually felt really guilty about that, after working in professional kitchens!
The setup at each of our stations. Note the two mixer bowls, one for the almond meal mixture and one for whipping egg whites, and the stack of prepared sheet trays. In general I found the kitchen well stocked, the equipment clean and modern, and chef Plue and her assistants were quick to bring us anything we needed. Nicely done.
Chef Plue on day two, demonstrating how she creates the chocolate "shards" to be used in the macaron filling. Another concept she drew out of Hermé's book was inclusions: adding something to the filling for flavor and textural contrast, such as pate de fruit, fresh or dried fruit pieces, chocolate bits, etc. She mentioned that now when she makes her own macarons she always adds one of these "third elements".
The chocolate layer, sprinkled with sea salt and ready to be placed in the refrigerator to set. Afterwards you can break off small pieces to place on the macaron filling.
A pan of blood orange curd. Chef Plue was a big fan of Hermé's fruit-and-white chocolate ganaches. After tasting this one, I could see why: tart, fruity, and creamy, and the perfect consistency for sandwiching between macarons.
An example of the "inclusions" theme for day two. This is salted butter caramel cream with some chocolate feuilletine.
Here's the blood orange curd with pieces of the chocolate sheet on top. Although it's extra work to add to the already not-inconsiderable number of steps in making macarons, I agree with chef Plue that it's totally worth it to create some really interesting and memorable combinations.
Decorating inspiration. Colors, powders, glitter galore.
Some of my macarons from the second day: milk chocolate coconut ganache, blood orange curd with salted chocolate shards, and salted caramel buttercream with chocolate feuilletine.
For the final day, we were encouraged to get creative and make up our own combinations or try some of the ones from Pierre Hermé's book. Some of the fillings we made included: rose and lychee, lime and basil cream, olive oil and vanilla, and milk chocolate and passionfruit.
For the macaron beginner, this would be a great introduction to get over your fear of making these little guys. There's plenty of time to practice, a great kitchen setup, good recipes, and a passionate instructor to guide you along. For the veteran, this is a good place to brush up on your skills and get a little inspiration. (One of the students in the class was a graduate of the professional culinary program who had only learned to make macarons with the French meringue method, and wanted to try out the Italian meringue method). The atmosphere is relaxed (I especially enjoyed the 70s soundtrack in the background) and I got to meet some other pastry lovers, both amateur and professional.
Thanks to Jodi, Nicole, and the SF Cooking School for letting me be part of this class. I had a great time honing my macaron-making skills and I was really impressed by the organization of the class and the school. Check out the schedule for future classes both sweet and savory. Also, if you want another review of chef Plue's workshops, my good bud Irvin attended her laminated doughs class.
Some of my final macarons. The macaron on the right is actually a real Pierre Hermé macaron from one of his Hong Kong boutiques - my parents came into town to visit at just the right time for me to do a little taste comparison!
I was invited to be a guest for the macaron workshop at SF Cooking School. I was not compensated for this post and all opinions are my own.
Lychee and Rose Ganache
- 400 g lychees
- 410 g white chocolate
- 60 g heavy cream
- 3 rose essence
- 300 g powdered sugar
- 300 g almond meal
- 110 g egg whites
- 300 g granulated sugar
- 75 g water
- 110 g egg whites
For the ganache:
- Drain lychees. Blend with immersion blender to achieve a fine puree. Strain and measure out 240 g of puree.
- Melt chocolate over a pot of simmering water. Take off heat.
- Combine cream and lychee puree in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour over the melted chocolate 1/3 at a time, mixing well with each addition to form a shiny emulsified mixture.
- Add the rose flavoring to taste and stir well. Pour ganache into a gratin dish and press plastic against the surface. Refrigerate to thicken.
For the macarons:
- Preheat oven to 160 degrees C/320 degrees F. Grind together powdered sugar and almonds. Place in a bowl of stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
- Add 110 g of the egg whites. Mix to obtain a firm consistency. Color may be added at this stage.
- Place remaining 110 g of egg whites in a clean mixer bowl. Fit mixer with whip attachment.
- Combine granulated sugar and water in a saucepan. Cook to 118 degrees C/244 degrees F. When mixture reaches 104 degrees C/220 degrees F start whipping the egg whites to soft peak.
- Pour sugar syrup over egg whites while mixer is still whipping. Whip until meringue cools to 40 degrees C/104 degrees F.
- Add 20% of the meringue mixture into the almond meal mixture and beat with paddle attachment until incorporated. Fold in remaining meringue.
- Pipe onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Let sit uncovered until surface of each macaron is dry to the touch, about 15-20 minutes.
- Bake for 18 minutes until done. Let cool before removing and filling with ganache. Let filled macarons rest for 24 hours before eating.