The biggest problem was that my egg whites didn't seem to gloss as much as I wanted them to, as I remembered they did -- which was problematic because I couldn't even be sure that I wasn't overexaggerating their glossiness in my mind, which caused me to overbeat the whites. Then I got paranoid about how I was overbeating the whites, and made a batch in which I underbeat them. I also realized that they were probably glossier when I made David Lebovitz's macarons, because his ratio of sugar to egg white was much higher than the other recipes I'd been trying (and prefer, because I don't want them to be overly sweet). So I was probably overbeating the whites while trying to obtain the same amount of glossiness with less sugar.
My fourth attempt yielded two batches of failed macarons on opposite ends of the spectrum. I can't be sure now that the meringue had come out right in the first place (I had a couple of accidents in which a tiny bit of egg yolk might possibly have gotten into the whites, which would have kept them from whipping up properly, and also 'cooking' the whites by trying to warm them in the microwave, as I had read could be done), but regardless, the batter was not correct.
The first batch was one where I had incorporated the dry ingredients into the meringue, and folded until just combined. I was paranoid about overworking the batter, which had been the problem the very first time I tried to make macarons (and which DL had cautioned in his macaron post). You can see, they domed and were too 'wet' inside:
The second batch was from the same batter, but I added a couple drops of red food coloring to make it pink. I then had to fold the food coloring in, and doing so made the batter much thinner. That yielded extremely flat macarons that stuck to the parchment (which has NEVER happened before), had no feet, and were extremely fragile, with a 'wet' center again:
I tried again last night. I used egg whites that had been left out at room temperature for 2 days. I decided to try DL's recipe again, except without the cocoa powder, since his method was the closest I had come to making the macarons look like macarons and the meringue look glossy. His method also makes less batter, which would be less of a waste when I failed again. One change I made was that I had not liked how sweet his macarons were, so I used half the granulated sugar he calls for to make the meringue glossy. I whipped the whites to soft peaks, then slowly added the sugar as the machine was still running. I stopped it for a few seconds to scrape down sugar from the sides, then whipped them for 2 minutes. They seemed glossy-ish, but not as glossy has they had been the first time -- I figured that was OK, since I used less sugar.
The powdered sugar and almond meal had been blended in a food processor for a few seconds, and I folded the dry mixture into the meringue in two batches. I folded until everything was just incorporated. The batter was thick and did not "flow like magma," but again I was very paranoid about overworking the batter. I put half of the batter into a decorating bag (using DL's trick of putting the bag inside a tall drinking glass to make it easier). When I piped them onto the parchment my heart sank -- they were very stiff and held peaks, just like the last batch. As I did with the last batch, I put a drop of red food coloring into the second half of the batter and folded it in. However, the batter wasn't as thin as it was the last time I did this -- it fell in a thick ribbon when it slid off the spatula, and when I piped it onto the parchment, it flattened into lovely perfect circles, just as I've seen in pictures and "making macarons" online videos. I dared to let myself hope. I baked them immediately as per DL's method rather than waiting the 30 min to an hour suggested by the other recipes.
DL's recipe bakes the macarons for a longer time at a higher temperature than the other recipes I've been trying to follow, but since mine had always come out "wet" when following those recipes I figured I would give this method another shot. When I took them out of the oven I was thrilled -- the macarons from the second batch looked perfect! They were smooth and rounded, and had feet.
The macarons from the first batch didn't look so good -- they were peaked and in fact seemed to have risen so that their peaks were even more exaggerated. The one problem I saw immediately was that even though the first batter had been a nearly pure white batter, and the second had been pink, once out of the oven they both looked the same color. I think the high temperature of the oven browned the tops. :/
Once the macarons had cooled (in the sheet pan on a rack), I removed them. The first batch of macarons had taken up the prime property on the sheet pan, so the second batch had had to make do with the rest (I couldn't space them properly so some of them ended up touching). The ones that were on the parchment came off easily, as almost all the batches have. As a trial I took two of the less attractive macarons from the second batch, spread one with Nutella, and sandwiched them. I took a bite and was overwhelmed with joy -- it was perfect. The texture was everything I had read about. Even though I've never had a full-sized, real macaron, I knew immediately that this was correct, this was the right macaron. The outside was thin and delicate like an eggshell, and it gave way to a pillowy, slightly chewy but soft middle.
Even the macarons from the first batch tasted right -- they just didn't look right. The high heat and/or additional time, even though it had been bad in the sense that it had browned the outsides of the macarons too much (which isn't that surprising, since DL's recipe was for chocolate macarons, so the browning would not have been obvious in the end result), had been a good thing because it had cooked the insides of the macarons, when they had been too wet in nearly all the other batches.
Even though the successful macarons had been somewhat of a fluke, I think -- I hope -- I know what to do now to duplicate the results, and hopefully also tackle the problem of the browning, since I know I won't like chocolate macarons as much as the plain kind.
- Start with room temperature egg whites, 1-2 days old
- Don't be afraid to fold the batter as much as it needs to reach a consistency that should fall in a thick ribbon (that said, don't overwork it to the point where it becomes so thin that it falls in a thin batter or in drips)
- Try using a lower temperature but longer cooking time so that the insides of the macarons get cooked without browning the outsides
- The amount of sugar used in the meringue will determine how glossy it is -- best process seems to be to whip the whites to soft peaks, slowly add the sugar, then whip for another 2 minutes (for 2 egg whites)