Chef Matthew Griffin's knowledge of the pastry arts was just enough "to be dangerous."
That was before the partner in Capers served up a traditional sweet that proved dangerous to other restaurant competitors in April's Smudge Pot Stroll. Griffin's airy, yet chewy, macaron that won the annual event has since become a special offer at his downtown Medford establishment.
A tamis (pronounced TAM-mee) is a very fine sieve with a flat bottom and can be much wider than the typical strainer. Press as much of the almond meal and sugar mixture through the tamis as possible so the batter doesn't come out too thin.
Clean the metal bowl of a stand mixer with distilled white vinegar, which acidulates egg whites so they don't yellow and allows them to rise. It also removes detergent and soap residue from the bowl.
You can't always trust temperature settings on an oven. Put an oven thermometer inside for best results.
If working alone, stand the pastry bag in a tall beer glass to free both hands for pouring the batter.
If you get small peaks on the tops of the shells when squeezing the batter onto the parchment, wet your finger with water, then smooth it over.
Bob's Red Mill brand of almond meal passes the easiest through a tamis.
— Source: Chicago Tribune
"I wanted something that could let us stand out," says the 32-year-old executive chef.
Standing apart from subtler sweets, brightly colored macarons are meringue sandwich cookies that, in recent years, have achieved a near-cult following outside their native France. Griffin's macarons have more muted hues, only because he hasn't found a satisfactory natural food dye for them. But the flavor and texture, say experts, are spot-on.
"It was exactly the right crunch that yielded to a nice, soft chew," says Constance Jesser, a Smudge Pot Stroll judge and graduate of Chicago's Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. "It was exactly the way I was trained."
Trained at the former Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Griffin says he previously preferred the imperfections of rustic baking. But perfection, he knew, was the only way to defend his Smudge Pot Stroll title.
So Griffin chose a simple macaron recipe from thousands available online and started practicing, troubleshooting techniques for meringue with the chef's "bible," Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking." Refining the process took months.
"I kind of made my own recipe after trial and error, trial and error, trial and error," says Griffin. "There's like 101 things that can go wrong with macarons and only one thing that can go right."
Most chefs know to guard the batter's egg whites against intrusion from any fat residue on bowls or utensils. But Griffin says cracking the egg whites up to a week ahead of time allows the proteins to relax, making a "night and day difference" in the end product.
"You want 'em to be like an airy pillow," he says.
It took numerous tries for Griffin to fine-tune the baking temperature, as well. He found that at 310 F, the egg whites puff up but the sugar doesn't caramelize.
"A true macaron has no browning on it whatsoever," says Griffin.
And although infused with any number of flavors — from chocolate and vanilla, to fruits and nuts, even green tea and lavender — a true macaron contains no coconut. The defining ingredient of macaroons — note the extra "o" — coconut overshadows the cookie's likely origin of ground almonds and egg whites. But the French macaron has remained true to the almond-egg formula since the 16th century, when Catherine de' Medici, an Italian noblewoman and queen to King Henry II, is said to have introduced it.
"I spelled it right," says Griffin. "That was one reason I think I won the competition."
He also had the support of a Frenchwoman, the friend of a regular customer at Capers, who ordered some authentic macarons directly from France for Griffin to compare against his own. But the cookie ultimately tested Griffin's patience, rather than skill.
"You devote all of your time to the macaron when you're making it," he says. "You don't walk away; you don't multitask."
The chef baked 800 macarons until 3 a.m. the day before the April 11 Smudge Pot Stroll, then spent hours the day of the event sandwiching the vanilla-flavored discs with dark-chocolate ganache. Jesser says she was impressed they were all the same size and didn't ooze any filling, making for the best macaron she's had locally.
"The execution was perfect," she says. "Everything worked in his favor."
Still a two-day endeavor, Capers macarons are available with 48 hours' notice for single-flavor orders of at least a dozen. Call 541-499-6655.
Capers also sells macarons individually, for $2.50 apiece, as long as Griffin's weekly batch lasts. Customers can look for lemon-meringue, raspberry-cream cheese and dark chocolate-raspberry macarons.
Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at firstname.lastname@example.org.