Vanilla Macarons with French Buttercream

Vanilla is probably the most versatile flavour in the whole world. Vanilla extract or vanilla beans are added to pretty much every dessert and baked good, even if the overall flavour is something like pumpkin, chocolate, or strawberry. It just makes every other flavour taste better.

And yet, vanilla gets a bad rap. It's 'boring', 'plain', and 'average' to some people. The fact that it is such a widely used flavour makes it nothing special. I'm here to tell you that that is wrong! Vanilla is a delicious, intense, and wonderful flavour. Have you ever smelled a vanilla bean? It's like sniffing those smelly markers back in elementary school, you couldn't get enough. You just keep on sniffing until eventually you get marker on your nose.

Vanilla is a strong, independent flavour that don't need no other flavours! Vanilla is classic, simple, and elegant, not boring. It's about time that vanilla is recognized for the amazing flavour it is and these macarons are the perfect way to do that. 

If I'm being honest here, I had my first macaron last week. I've been dying to make macarons for months but I figured that if I didn't know what a really good one tasted like, how will I know if I made bad ones? And I couldn't have just any macaron. It had to be one of the best.

So, last week, on a miserable, rainy day, I went to one of the nicest bakeries I know of and bought myself six macarons - three vanilla and three chocolate. I didn't want to go crazy on the flavours on my first time. I ate one on the way to the book store and was enthralled. The crunchy exterior, chewy interior, and creamy filling was unexpected in the best way possible. Despite the rain and the fact that my hood was making my forehead itchy, I was incredibly happy. 

I restrained myself and waited until I was out of the rain to eat the rest, but it was mostly so my macarons wouldn't get wet. I sat on the ground at the bookstore, reading baking books, and eating macarons.  I'm not a 6 year old, I promise.

I found an amazing baking book that day, Bouchon Bakery. Everything about it seems wonderful - the layout, the recipes, the photos, the notes! Beautiful. It has everyday recipes - cookies and muffins - but also more complex and challenging recipes - croissants, various types of bread, puff pastry, etc. I tend to be intimidated by those recipes, but the notes and tips that Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel give demystify them. There's adorable personal notes of childhood memories or visiting local farmers.

I may have only made one recipe from the book so far (this recipe), but I'm in love. Another thing that I really like about it is that everything is given in both measurements and weight, including eggs. In this recipe, they don't give the typical '4 eggs', it's a weight or a measurement, which doesn't always add up to a whole number of eggs. This makes everything more precise and controlled, as eggs can come in a variety of sizes. When you think about it, weighing ingredients is a much more efficient and precise way of baking.

Macarons are notoriously temperamental, but please don't let that put you off. When I was mixing the ingredients before piping them, I was sure that I had added too much meringue and it was going to be a massive macaron failure. But, lo and behold, they worked! They were not exactly perfect in appearance, but for my first time, I think I did a pretty good job. Even if you think you've done something wrong, keep on going because they might still turn out great.

Ugh, the buttercream. I'm usually not a big fan of American buttercream. I find it too sweet and the texture is just not right. But this. This buttercream. I mean, the French are the masters of butter and cream, so it's no surprise that they make a mean buttercream. It's like creme anglaise, but as a frosting. It's velvety, smooth, creamy, and rich. I can only imagine what a cake frosted with this would taste like. Oh my.

The recipes from this book are very detailed and long. It's intimidating to look at a recipe and see paragraphs and paragraphs of instructions, I know, but it's just minor details and tips for making the best macarons possible. Give it a read through and you'll see it's not that bad.

Vanilla Macarons with French Buttercream
Recipe from Bouchon Bakery

French Buttercream
38 g (3 tablespoons + 1/2 teaspoon) granulated sugar
38 g (3 tablespoons + 1/2 teaspoon) granulated sugar
63 g (1/4 cup + 1/2 teaspoon) egg yolks
75 g (1/4 cup + 2 1/4 teaspoons) whole milk
250 g (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces, at room temperature
1/2 vanilla bean

Vanilla Macarons
212 g (1 3/4 cups + 2 1/2 tabespoons) almond flour/meal
212 g (1 3/4 cups + 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons) powdered sugar
82 g (1/4 cup + 1 1/2 tablespoons) egg whites
90 g (1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) egg whites
1 vanilla bean
236 g (1 cup + 3 tablespoons) granulated sugar
158 g (2/3 cup) water

First, make the buttercream. If you wish, the buttercream can be made in advance and stored in the fridge for up to 5 days. Take the buttercream out of the fridge thirty minutes before you need to use it and place it in the bowl of a stand mixer. Allow it to soften and then mix on low speed until it is the proper consistency.

Whisk 38 grams sugar and the yolks together in a medium bowl and set aside.

Combine the milk and remaining 38 grams of sugar in a medium saucepan, set over medium heat, and stir to dissolve the sugar. When the milk is just below a simmer, remove the pan from the heat and, whisking constantly, pour it into the egg mixture. Return the mixture to the pan and place over medium heat. Whisking constantly, bring to a gentle simmer and simmer for 1 minute, lowering the heat if necessary to prevent the mixture from curdling. It should be very thick.

Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into the bowl of a stand mixer. fit the mixer with a whisk attachment, turn the mixture to medium, and whisk for about 8 minutes, until the mixture is completely cool.

Add the butter, a few pieces at a time, to the egg yolk mixture. If at any point the mixture looks broken, increase the speed to re-emulsify it, then reduce the speed and continue adding the butter. Check the consistency: if the buttercream is too loose to hod its shape, it should be refrigerated for a few hours to harden, then beaten again to return it to the proper consistency.

Scrape the seeds from half a vanilla bean into the buttercream and fold in. 

The macarons need to be as close in size as possible and a template is the easiest way to ensure that. Lay a sheet of parchment paper on a work surface with the long side facing you. Trace four evenly spaced 2 1/4 inch circles along the top edge (these make large macarons, modify the size if you wish, but keep in mind, the baking time will be shorter). Make sure to leave 1 inch of space between them. Trace three circles below each of those four, to make 3 x 4 macarons. Turn the parchment over and lay it on a sheet pan. Lift up each corner of the parchment and spray with non-stick spray to keep it from blowing up while the cookies are baking. Repeat with a second sheet.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Sift the almond flour and powdered sugar into a large bowl and whisk together. Make a well in the center, leaving a layer of flour at the bottom. Pour in the 82 grams egg whites and combine with a spatula. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add them to the mixture, stirring until evenly distributed. Set aside.

Place the remaining 90 grams egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Combine the 236 grams sugar and water in a small saucepan and heat over medium-high heat until the syrup reaches 203 F/110 C.

Letting the syrup continue to cook, add a pinch of sugar to the egg whites, turn the mixer to medium speed, and whip to soft peaks. If the whites reach soft peaks before the syrup reaches 248 F/120 C, reduce the speed to the lowest setting, just to keep them moving.

When the syrup reaches 248 F/120 C, remove the pan from the heat. Turn the mixer to medium-low speed and slowly add the syrup, pouring it between the side of the bowl and the whisk. The meringue will deflate. Increase the speed to medium and whip for 5 minutes, or until the whites hold stiff, glossy peaks. Although the bowl will still be warm, the meringue should have cooled. If not, continue to whip until it is cool.

Fold one-third of the meringue into the almond mixture, then continue adding the whites a little at  time (you may not use them all) until when you fold a portion of the batter over on itself, the "ribbon" slowly moves. The mixture shouldn't be so stiff that it holds its shape without moving at all, but it shouldn't be so loose that it dissolves into itself and does not maintain the ribbon; it is better for the mixture to be sightly stiff than too loose.

Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag with a 1/2 inch tip. Hold the bag upright 1/2 inch above the center of one of the traced circles and pipe out enough to fill in the circle. Lift away the pastry bag and fill the remaining circles on the first pan. Lift up the sheet pan and tap the bottom of the pan to spread the batter evenly and smooth any peaks left by the bag.

Place the sheet pan in the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and bake for 9 to 12 minutes, until the tops are shiny and crisp. Set the pan on a cooling rack and cool completely. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees again.

Pipe the remaining meringue mixture into the circles of the second sheet pan and bake as directed above. Let cool completely.

Transfer the buttercream to the pastry bag with the 3/8 inch tip. Remove the macarons from the parchment paper. Turn half of them over. Starting in the center, pipe 15 g/1 tablespoon of buttercream in a spiral pattern on one upside down macaron, not quite reaching the edges. Top with a second macaron and gently press to spread the buttercream to the edges. Repeat with remaining macarons and filling.

The macarons are best if wrapped individually in a few layers of plastic wrap and frozen for at least 24 hours or up to 2 weeks. Defrost in the refrigerator for 3 hours, then bring to room temperature before seving. They can be served the day they are made or stored in a covered container in the refrigerator up to 2 days.