Fig & Anise French Macaroons

Monday, September 17, 2007

These cookies are my submission for Sugar High Fridays #35: The Beautiful Fig.

Anise & Fig Macarons

I remember the first time I had a French macaron, which I suppose should be "macaroon," but most people hear "macaroon" and think of a dense, moist mound of coconut, perhaps half-dipped in chocolate. Those are good, too, but the French macaroon? Divine.

I was at the French Laundry with my sister and aunt. It was late. We'd already eaten probably 9 courses, but they just wouldn't stop bringing food. I felt like I was going to burst. And then they brought a plate of these perfect, glossy little sandwich cookies, pale yellow with golden filling. I bit through it, and my teeth first broke the crispy outer shell, then sunk into the chewy-but-fluffy, caramelized center of the meringues, and then through the milk caramel buttercream filling. I was in heaven. I closed my eyes and savored the cookie as it melted slowly in my mouth. The next day we went to Bouchon and bought a whole bunch more. My sister intended to bring them home to share, but confessed later that she ate almost all of them herself.

No other cookie I've had provides the same textural depth and perfect balance of richness, fluffiness, and crispness. They're elusive, too; in San Francisco you really just had to go to Miette in the Ferry building to get good ones, and then they were several dollars apiece. And so I thought, all this time, that they must be impossibly difficult to make and full of prohibitively expensive ingredients.

Well, they are a fair amount of work, and they do require more technical skill than any other cookie I've ever made, but like anything, it just takes practice. When I spotted SHF #35 I'd already been practicing my macaroon-making, and so I decided to take the opportunity to try another batch.

As for the flavor combination, I once made the fig, roasted pepper, and fennel salad from the French Laundry Cookbook, and it was fairly easy and delicious, the figs and peppers marinated in balsamic vinaigrette and served with a variety of fennel: shaved, powdered, and infused in oil. The flavors worked well there, in a savory dish, so I thought, I bet anise and fig would go well together.

I've based all my macaroon-making so far off of David Lebovitz's extraordinarily useful post on the subject. So go read that first, if you haven't already, and then come back. Back? Good.

Oh, and before you try to make meringue, it's worth reading Heidi's excerpt from Madam E. Saint-Ange's detailed notes on whisking egg whites.

And, last but not at all least, Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking contains an exceptionally detailed chapter on eggs, including a big section on egg white foams. Reading that will take your understanding of eggs to a whole new level. If I could only have one book on cooking, that would be it. No question.

OK, enough with the preamble. On to the recipe! I started with the recipe from David's post, modifying it a bit to make the dacquoise shells taste of anise instead of chocolate. (Dacquoise is a nut meringue; macaroon shells are always meringue with nut flour of some kind.) Cocoa powder is somewhat starch and somewhat fat, so I compensated for it by adding ground star anise and boosting the volume of nuts. Because the recipe calls for dutch cocoa powder, which is treated with alkali to neutralize its acid, I didn't need to compensate for that (I almost missed that and added some cream of tartar, which I suppose wouldn't have been the end of the world.)

For the filling, I wanted a very thick fig jam. I bought some black mission figs, and at Lulu's suggestion, diced them very small:

Anise & Fig Macarons

This took a bit of time. Here's a hint: no matter how sharp you think you keep your knife, go ahead and sharpen it right before doing this. It really speeds things up.

I mixed the diced figs together with sugar in a saucepan over medium-low heat. My figs weren't as ripe as I would have liked, so I mixed 8oz figs with a little over 1/4c of sugar. With very ripe figs I would have used a bit less.

Anise & Fig Macarons

I let them cook for a while, and when they started to release their juices, I added a splash of red wine vinegar, several generous coarse grinds of black pepper, and the flesh from a quarter of a navel orange, minced fine to break up the starchy membrane.

Anise & Fig Macarons

I turned the heat down to low, covered the pan, and let it cook while I made the shells.

To make the shells, I took about 10 grams of star anise and ground it up in a mortar & pestle (10g comes to about a heaping tablespoon when ground)

Anise & Fig Macarons

It's not necessary to get it completely powdered in the mortar & pestle, because the blender will finish some of that. The key is to get it broken down enough for the blender; it'll be in the blender with the nuts, and if you put the star anise in the blender whole, it'll mostly just get flung around. In the time it would take the blender to grind it to powder, the nuts would have gone past "nut flour" to "nut butter."

I asked a pastry chef over at the new (and awesome) Oakville Grocery Austin if he had any tips for making these shells, and he said, "Throw a pinch of flour in with the nuts to help absorb the oil when you grind them." It really helps a lot. I put the ground star anise in a canning jar with 65g of nuts (which is maybe 1/2c or so of whole almonds) and a generous pinch of all-purpose flour. The threads on canning jars fit on most blender bases, which is handy for things like this where quantities aren't large enough to use the full blender jar.

Anise & Fig Macarons

I ground that down in the blender until it was a relatively coarse meal. You don't want to overdo it or the oils in the nuts will take over and it'll get really goopy.

Then, as per David's recipe, I mixed the powdered sugar in with that, being grateful that it all (barely) fit in the jar I picked:

Anise & Fig Macarons

Then I blended it all together. This time I ground it further, so it was the texture of a flour. The powdered sugar and especially the cornstarch in it (an anti-caking agent) absorb some of the oil, making it possible to grind the nuts down further while keeping things dry.

I sifted the resulting dry mix through a coarse wire-mesh sieve into a bowl. A lot of home cooks I know treat sifting of dry ingredients as some kind of joke, like an absurd detail to be skipped. But there's nothing funny about it.

The oils in the nuts, even with the sugar and cornstarch and flour and all that, will still cause clumping in this dry mix, and when you mix this stuff into the meringue, every spatula-stroke counts. By sifting this, you break up those clumps, filter out any debris that didn't get ground fine enough, and aerate it all so it's nice and fluffy and easy to mix into the meringue.

Anise & Fig Macarons

Nerdy-but-important detail: When left with little clumped pebbles, instead of pressing them down against the mesh to break them up, I grab a pinch of them at a time, lift them off the mesh, and roll them around in my fingers to break them up. Pushing them against the mesh risks pushing through other stuff you don't want, like coarse splinters of star anise. Don't be afraid to throw stuff like that away (there shouldn't be very much of it, if you ground it all properly.)

After that, all that remained was the meringue. I took the 2 egg whites at room temperature (that's critical: cold egg whites won't whip as well) and whipped them in my Kitchenaid mixer at top speed for maybe 1 minute, until the mass was solid white, glossy, but still soft. Without stopping the mixer I poured in the 65g sugar -- I used baker's sugar, so it's granular but extra-fine -- and continued whipping until the meringue was as stiff as possible without losing its gloss.

Anise & Fig Macarons

Meringue is kind of like whipped cream when it comes to folding things into it. The more you whip it, the fluffier it is, but also the harder it is to mix with other things. This makes sense, intuitively: the more you whip either foam, the more air bubbles and the thinner the liquid membrane encasing all the bubbles, and hence the harder it is to get it all in contact with whatever you're adding.

Nonetheless, you want the meringue for the dacquoise as fluffy as possible. It just means that when you fold the dry ingredients in, you have to be extremely patient and very careful not to crush the meringue. I took my meringue, sifted half the dry ingredients over it, and folded them in very gently. The technique is this: slide the spatula down through the center of the meringue, sideways, so the blade edge goes in and you're not mashing the meringue. Then, draw it back towards you, scoop up as much of the meringue off the bottom as you can, and flip it so you deposit it on top of the rest of the mix in the bowl. Then, rotate the bowl a quarter-turn or so, and repeat.

Anise & Fig Macarons

It will seem at first like nothing is happening, and the meringue and dry ingredients are just getting piled on top of each other. It will be very tempting to press the broad side of the spatula down through the meringue to smash it and mix the dry ingredients in. Resist the temptation. Doing that will crush the air out of the meringue and your cookies will lose some of their lightness with every bubble that bursts. Keep on folding, trusting that eventually it will start to genuinely combine.

After about half of that mix was integrated with the meringue, I sifted the rest in and finished folding it together. I still get a minor reduction in meringue volume from doing this, but every time I make it, it's better and better.

Anise & Fig Macarons

I scooped that batter into a pastry bag -- David's recipe calls for a broad tip, I just leave it tipless, with about a 1/2" hole at the top -- and piped them onto baking sheets lined with parchment. They ought to be about 1" around. They won't settle, rise, or change shape much at all while cooking, so whatever size you pipe them is the size you'll get in the finished cookie.

I've made these shells on a number of different surfaces now. On a Silpat, thanks to silicone's non-stick property, they're certainly easy to remove, but thanks to its heat-insulating property, they end up a bit too chewy because the bottoms don't get enough heat for my liking. On parchment on an insulated baking sheet (one of the ones with the double layer of metal with air in between) I find they're just about perfect. On parchment on a single-layer baking sheet, the bottoms get a touch too brown.

Anise & Fig Macarons

My piping, as Lulu gently observed, could use some work. The reward for a perfectly-folded batter with a very lofty meringue is that it doesn't settle at all, but the downside is that it will reveal all the imperfections of your piping work. If you screw up and flatten the meringue a bit as you mix, it'll settle more during cooking and the shells will, aesthetically speaking, be more forgiving of your poor piping, but then of course the texture of the cookies suffers. This time I kept the batter loftier than ever before, but unfortunately it does show up my mediocre piping skills. It's something to work on for next time!

David mentions rapping the sheet firmly on the counter before baking them to help flatten them out, but I found that my batter was too stiff, and that had no effect at all.

I popped those in a 375F oven for 15 minutes. I find that any less than 15 minutes and they are a bit too chewy; more than 15 and they brown too much. 15 is the magic number, for me. I also have had poor results trying to bake multiple sheets at once on different-level oven racks. I strongly suggest baking them one sheet at a time with the oven rack in the center.

When the shells were done, I took them out of the oven and lamented my poor piping skills, but celebrated the perfect development of the little, crispy "foot" a good macaroon cookie has at the bottom:

Anise & Fig Macarons

Something I've found in my macaroons that surprised me -- I hadn't read it anywhere else -- is that the shells will not have the proper texture after cooking (or, at least, mine never do.) When you let them cool, the bottoms and interiors will seem too crisp, the insides too full. A finished macaroon should have the crispy outer shell, but then a big air pocket and a softer, moister meringue towards the filling. I worried at first that my cookies were overcooked, the bottoms were so crispy, the insides so solid.

Not to fear. After filling the macaroons and letting them sit in an airtight container on the counter overnight, their texture dramatically changes. The meringues absorb some of the moisture from the filling and the insides of the meringue fall towards the filling. It's surprising how significant that change is, even with a relatively viscous filling like this one.

Speaking of the filling, where did we leave that? Yes, I'd set it on the stove to cook. I checked on it periodically, stirring it, and it was very low in moisture so I generally left it covered while cooking, and just as I put the meringues in the oven I checked and it seemed about perfectly done. The skins didn't quite break down as much as I'd hoped, though, so I pureed it just a little with a hand blender to smooth it out without destroying the crunchy fig seeds. Then I mixed in some chopped orange zest to taste, and the result was a very thick, sweet, sticky, perfect fig jam:

Anise & Fig Macarons

I smeared some jam on a cookie, pressed another cookie on top of it, and repeated until I had a nice little pile of macaroons.

Like I said, it takes several hours of sitting for them to develop the right texture. Resist the urge to bite into one as soon as you've filled them. The cookies will be too solid and crisp and it'll just squeeze them together and squirt filling out the sides. Instead, take a deep breath, put them in a tupperware container, leave them on the counter overnight, and then bite into one in the morning, and claim your reward:

Anise & Fig Macarons

Result? These are delicious. The flavors combine exceptionally well. As for what I'd do differently, well, I'd certainly work on piping them into perfect little domes next time. I'd also probably cut the anise by a little bit, maybe to only 6 or 7 grams, adding almonds to compensate, and also put more fig jam in each one (I was worried I'd run out, but in fact I had some left over.) The fig is a noticeable flavor in these, but the anise is a bit bossier than I expected.

This recipe is, like I said, a modification of David Lebovitz's, here.

Fig & Anise Macarons

For the batter
1 cup (100g) powdered sugar
1/2c (65g) whole almonds
1T heaping (10g) pulverized star anise
generous pinch all-purpose flour
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
5 tablespoons (65g) granulated sugar

For the filling
8oz black mission figs
1/4c sugar (more or less depending on fig ripeness)
generous splash red wine vinegar
flesh of 1/4 of a navel orange, minced
2t fresh, coarsely-ground black pepper
orange zest, to taste

Preheat the oven to 375F (180C).

Cut the figs into small dice. Combine the figs and sugar in a saucepan and heat on medium-low until the figs begin to release juices and the sugar is dissolved. Add the red wine vinegar, orange flesh, and pepper, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the figs break down. Depending on the ripeness of the figs, this will take roughly 30-45 minutes.

In the meantime, put the almonds, star anise, and flour in a blender and chop it, pulsing the blender, to a coarse meal. Add the powdered sugar and continue pulsing until fully combined and ground finer, nearly the consistency of flour. Sift the mixture into a bowl.

In a mixer, whip the egg whites until they are glossy and form soft peaks. Add the
granulated sugar and continue whipping until the whites are very stiff and firm, but still glossy, 2 minutes or so.

Sift half the dry mixture over the whites in the mixer bowl and fold carefully with a spatula until mostly combined. Sift in the remaining dry mixture and continue folding until barely combined, when no streaks of pure white are visible and all the dry ingredients are integrated.

Scrape the batter into a pastry bag with a 1/2" circular tip and pipe onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Each cookie should be about 1" in diameter, roughly 1T of batter, and cookies should be 1" apart.

Bake for 15 minutes on the center rack, 1 baking sheet at a time.

When the jam is fully reduced and thick, puree it with a hand-blender until the skins are broken up but the seeds are still intact. Mix in the orange zest to taste.

When the cookies have cooled for a few minutes, remove them from the parchment and fill them, spreading a bit of the jam on one with a butter knife and sandwiching another on top.

Seal the cookies in an air-tight container and leave at room temperature for several hours, preferably overnight.

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At September 18, 2007 4:26 PM , Anonymous Ivonne said...

I envy your dinner at The French Laundry. I was in SF two years ago but couldn't get a reservation.

Your macarons are just gorgeous and making them with fig is very creative!

Thanks so much for taking part in SHF #35!

At September 23, 2007 6:44 PM , Blogger the pastry princess said...

yum! i will most definitely have to try that recipe. the flavor combination is absolutely wonderful...i added a star anise to my fig jam!

At October 19, 2007 6:22 AM , Blogger Amy said...

That fig jam looks amazing!

I'm not a piping pro by a long shot, but it looks like you need to use a slightly larger tip (or, if you aren't using a tip, just a larger hole in your bag). Then hold your bag perpendicular to your pan. Release the pressure when the macaroon is the diameter that you want it to be.

At October 31, 2007 3:07 PM , Blogger 70% cocoa said...

Beautiful photos, mouth watering macaroons - aniseed and fig is a classic. I made a Spanish,'Pan de Higo' to accompany some Serrano Jamon - which uses dried figs, almonds and aniseeds with a touch of cinnamon. It's definately not as refined looking as those dainty macaroons though!

At December 5, 2008 2:21 PM , Blogger Tammy said...

I made the macaroons today (minus the fig filling) and the recipe worked flawlessly. Anise cookies are my husband favorite. Thanks for sharing!

At March 3, 2009 2:42 PM , Anonymous Tammy said...

I wrote a post on Chocolate Macarons and pointed back to your site and included the picture of your macs (giving you full credit of course) let me know if I need to change/remove it. Thanks. Tammy


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