No worship required
Macarons carry the stigma of mystique for bakers, and many folks go to great lengths and take extreme measures to get them right. The truth is, the macaron is still just a cookie, and by applying sound technique and some practice, they are not as complicated as the lore that surrounds them.
Grind the almonds (or almond flour) and confectioner's sugar
Combine ground almonds (almond flour) or blanched, skinned almonds, with confectioner's sugar in the bowl of a food processor. If starting with whole almonds, run the processor until the large chunks are pulverized, and then begin to pulse. If starting with ground almonds, pulse the mixture for 30 seconds to even out the size of the ground almonds. If you are using cocoa powder for chocolate macs, add it to the mixture and pulse to incorporate.
Sift the mixture
Using a tamis or another large strainer, sift the mixture onto a piece of parchment or a sheet tray. Make sure that the strainer is completely dry; any moisture will cause clumping.
Use a flexible scraper
Force as much of the mixture as you can through the tamis or strainer using a flexible scraper. You will be left with some large pieces. Return them to the food processor, pulse them, and sift for a second time. This will ensure that the almonds are finely ground and help avoid macarons with bumpy tops.
Make the meringue
Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Begin whisking the egg whites on medium speed, until they begin to look frothy. Reduce the speed to low and stream the superfine sugar into the bowl with the mixer running. When the sugar has been added, turn the speed up to high and whisk the meringue until it holds firm, shiny peaks.
Whisk until the meringue holds firm peaks
Test for firm peaks by pulling the whisk straight out of the bowl and flipping it over. The whisk should have a big clump of meringue sitting in the middle and the meringue tip on the end of the whisk should stand up straight. The meringue should be smooth and glossy. If the meringue starts to look dull and cotton-y, you've gone too far and will need to start over.
Add color (if desired) to the meringue
Once the meringue holds stiff peaks, add your coloring a little at a time. Gel or powdered color is best for this, because it imparts color without adding additional moisture.
Fold in the almond mixture, macaronage
You're now at the step that may refer to as macaronage—which I'm pretty sure means the combining of the dry mixture with the meringue. Carefully fold to incorporate one intp the other, taking care not to deflate the meringue. It helps to turn the bowl as you work, scraping along the sides and then up and under the middle to avoid overworking the same spots over and over again. It's very important that you avoid leaving streaks of meringue in the batter or on the edge of the bowl, because streaks lead to cracking later on.
Test the consistency
Pause in folding once the ingredients are combined and check the consistency by dropping a tablespoon-sized dollop of the batter back into the bowl and waiting for 30 seconds for it to reabsorb into the mixture, leaving only a slight trace of the dollop. This is a good way to test that the batter will smooth out on top once it is piped.
Pipe the macarons
Using a piping bag fitted with a small, round tip, pipe the macarons in small circles, about 1.25 inches in diameter. (You may have noticed that the color has changed in a few of these photos, I was having some camera issues and had to re-do the batch.)
Double up sheet pans
When you bake the macarons, do so on doubled sheet pans. This will insulate the bottoms of the macarons, allowing the crispy shell to form first, and will help create the perfect "foot" at the bottom of the cookies.
Rap against the counter
Once the macarons are piped, rap the tray hard against the counter repeatedly, for four or five blows. Hold the sheet trays flat and even, and be sure to hold the edges of the parchment or silicone mat at the same time to keep them from jumping around. This will help flatten out the tops, while simultaneously helping extraneous air bubbles to escape. This will help even out any blemishes left from piping, and getting the bubbles out help prevent cracking in the oven.
A few oven pointers
There are a few things to remember when making macarons. First, if you have a convection fan in your oven, be sure to turn it off, as air from the fan can wrinkle the delicate shells. If baking more than one sheet at a time, be sure to leave a good four inches between trays, which will help the shells properly develop. Once the macarons are in the oven, resist the urge to turn them. They will be more successful if they remain still.
Complete with feet
Macarons bake in a 300°F (150°C) oven for 18-20 minutes, or until a tester cookie completely releases from the silicone/parchment lining the pan. If the bottom sticks then give them more time and test again. It is important that the macarons are fully baked, which means they release cleanly and are not too gooey on the inside, to prevent the shells from hollowing out when cooling. Allow the macarons to cool completely, on the sheet pan, before filling.
Pair the macarons up for filling
Line up matching tops and bottoms with one half flipped down and one half flipped up for filling.
Pipe and sandwich
Pipe a generous amount of filling in the center of the down-turned cookies (generally you should aim for a 2:1 ratio of cookie shells to filling), and then top them with their mates.
Age the macarons
Macarons are at their best when they've had a few days to age in the fridge, which eliminates slightly crisp edges and allows the three parts to fuse into one super-yummy cookie. Place the macarons inside a container and wrap them tightly with plastic and try to resist snacking on them for a few days. Then, summon your already weakened willpower to allow them to come to room temp before serving, especially if they are filled with buttercream or ganache.