But, honestly, as a grown up, what could be a better sweet gift than a box of French macarons. They're sweet, but not too sweet, and crunchy and gooey. They make you feel très elegant even as the bite you take utterly ravages them.
Funny, though, I'd never actually tried to make them. So when the folks at Le Parfait Paris offered to teach me, I was all in. Guillaume Ryon, who with his wife Ludivine Mas owns the bakery, met with me last week at their massive kitchen in Mission Valley. The Gaslamp bakery prepares their products offsite so that they can devote their downtown space to table service and point of sale and make their wholesale deliveries more efficient.
Ryon and macaron specialist Hayder Jasim spent a couple of hours showing me the ins and outs of macaron production.
It begins with a blend of almond flour and powdered sugar that Jasim weighs and then sifts together. He then whips egg whites in a stand mixture and prepares a simple syrup that he slowly incorporates into the egg whites as he continues to whip them.
Next Jasim adds natural food coloring to the almond flour/powdered sugar mixture. Then, using a scraper, he gently incorporates the egg white mixture into the flour mixture. Jasim explained and demonstrated that the texture should be soft and thick so that it flows like a ribbon. He warned against over mixing.
Now you're ready for piping. Here, technique is again important. As you can see below in the video, you don't swirl as you pipe. You gently press it out and with a flick of the wrist twist it off. Here Jasim made small macaron shells of about an inch and a half. You can also make them larger and there are sheet templates you can use to be accurate and consistent.
Then Jasim slams the cookie sheet on the counter a couple of times to remove that tail at the top and create a smooth top. He sprinkled these cookies with coarse sanding sugar that he had mixed with food coloring.
What happens next is the key to getting a crisp macaron. You let the cookies sit and dry. Depending on the weather and humidity, it takes between 20 to 30 minutes for the macarons to go from glossy to matte. Feel free to use a fan if you're impatient.
Then you'll bake the cookies in a 300˚ F oven. While the cookies bake, make the filling. This is pretty easy. Just dice the berries and mix them in a pot with water and agar agar--a vegetarian gelatin substitute--to cook for about 10 minutes. Then puree.
Finally, you're going assemble your macarons. Ryon showed me how they make a small indentation on one cookie with a thumb to be able to add a bit more filling. Pipe the filling into that cookie, then cover with another, gently twisting to secure it.
If you want to elevate them even more, you can dip them in chocolate.
That's it. To make them tastier, Ryon suggests putting them in the freezer for two days so that the flavor from the filling is infused into the shell.
Le Parfait Paris Strawberry Macarons
Yield: 20 to 30 macarons, depending on how large you make them
210 grams powdered sugar
125 grams almond flour
3 eggs, separated (save the yolks for another use)
30 grams sugar
Water--enough to just wet the sugar
1 teaspoon natural red food coloring
10 grams coarse finishing sugar
1 drop of red food coloring
225 grams fresh strawberries
3 teaspoons water
1 gram agar agar
50 grams Valrhonna Dark chocolate or other high-quality chocolate
Pre-heat the oven to 300˚ F.
Mix and sift the powdered sugar and almond flour.
In a stand mixer, begin whipping the egg whites. While the whites are being beaten, combine the sugar and water in a pan and place over heat to make a simple syrup. When the syrup starts boiling, remove from heat and slowly incorporate it into the beating egg whites. When the mixture is fully incorporated, stop the mixer and set the egg white mixture aside.
Add the food coloring to the almond flour/powdered sugar mixture. Now gently mix in the egg white mixture, a little at a time, using a bench scraper. Don't over-mix. The texture should be soft and thick and pour like a ribbon. Combine the coarse finishing sugar with the food coloring and set aside.
Gently place the cookie mixture into a piping bag with a #2 tip. Pipe into small round discs on a sheet pan covered with either silpat or parchment paper. Sprinkle with the coarse finishing sugar. Let the cookie shells rest for 20 to 30 minutes until the surface goes from shiny and glossy to matte.
Put them in the oven and bake for 16 minutes if small, 20 minutes if large.
While the shells bake, make the filling. Dice the strawberries and place them in a pot with the water and agar agar. Cook for 10 minutes on high. Use an immersion blender to puree. Let cool.
Remove the shells from the oven and let cool.
When ready to assemble, use a thumb to gently press into the flat side of half the shells to create an indentation. Fill a piping bag, using a #2 tip, with the strawberry filling. Pipe about a teaspoon of the filling onto the indented shells. Then cover with the flat side of a non-indented shell.
At this point you can melt chocolate in a double boiler. Then dip half the cookie into the chocolate and place on a sheet topped with wax paper. Let rest until the chocolate has cooled and set.
Freeze cookies for two days before serving.
Le Parfait Paris is located at 555 G. Street in the Gaslamp.