Back when I was working at the bakery, I would make macarons about two or three times a week. It felt really good that my boss trusted me with them – they have a reputation as a fussy, technical cookie that requires attention to detail, and, at the time, I was still just the intern. Which is not to say things went well all the time – I had batches crack, rise weirdly sideways, brown too much, come out too wet, and, at least once, land on the floor. Honestly, I lost about one batch in five.
But I loved making them. They felt like a challenge – for a cookie with only four ingredients, there were so many places where things could (and did) go wrong. No matter how many batches I made, it was always a little nerve-wracking, and when I succeeded it felt like a victory. Besides, there has always been something compelling about seeing those tiny, identical, pastel-hued sandwich cookies lined up on a tray. I have made thousands at this point, and it never stops feeling special.
I have no idea what they taste like.
Macarons are made with finely ground almond flour – and I’m allergic to almonds. I’ve wanted to experiment with a nut-free version for a long time (the FOMO is so, so real) – but they are buried so deep in tradition and mythos of the French culinary establishment that I just assumed that any other flour base was probably doomed to failure.
I guess having a bunch of egg whites leftover from last week’s lemon curd was the push I needed to get started.
Which is not to say things have gone well.
First round – a good proof of concept
After I left the bakery and started working at the culinary school, I spent some time talking about the problem with the baking and pastry instructor (a brilliant pastry chef, and a genius with substitutions), and she suggested I try tiger nut flour in place of the almond. It has a similar flavor and texture and has a high enough fat content that it would work substituted 1:1. I bought a small bag the last time I went to my favorite specialty store, so I figured that would be the best place to start.
They came out…ok. The batter came together beautifully, flowing off the spatula and forming a slowly-dissolving figure-eight in the bowl, and piping into mounds that settled softly into smooth rounds. They came out of the oven well, too, with delicate, lacy feet and a crisp, well-formed shell on top – although the skins in the tiger nut flour did leave them with an unattractive brown-speckled appearance. Things really fell apart in the taste-test- they had an earthy-sweet, medicinal aftertaste that reminded me of the way certain kinds of health-food stores smell.
Also, despite a longer-than-normal cook time, I underbaked them and they stuck horribly to my silicone baking mat – so I decided to try again, this time with coconut flour.
An unsuccessful second effort
Fun fact about coconut flour: it has had almost all of its fat removed, and is therefore highly absorbent. I didn’t know this until halfway through my second batch, when I went to look up the substitution because my macaron batter looked like the crumb topping on a coffee cake. The batter should have been sticky and thick, with a flowing, lava-like texture. There is no way I should have been able to pick it up, much less sculpt it into balls like play-doh.
Needless to say, that batch was not salvageable.
Third time’s the charm?
Based on some very brief research, you can substitute coconut flour for almond at a 1:4 ratio, that is, you need one quarter the amount of coconut flour as almond to achieve the same result. As best as I can tell it’s an absorbancy thing – because coconut flour is technically a by-product of coconut oil production, it has been dehydrated, had all the oil squeezed out, and been milled into flour. By contrast, almond flour is just ground-up blanched almonds – it still has all of its original water and fat content, so it’s not very “thirsty.”
So, armed with more knowledge, I made a third batch, this time with one-quarter the amount of coconut flour.
This batch worked much better – honestly it might have been a bit too wet. It definitely flowed from the spatula a bit more quickly than I would have liked, and spread freely on the pan when I tapped it down. All that said, though, they baked into beautiful, smooth-shelled cookies with delicate, lacy feet.
Despite browning on top, the cookies were still wet enough inside that they stuck firmly to the parchment paper (which I switched to after the silpat disaster from earlier), and the ones I could pry off were almost completely hollow.
(This has not stopped Jackson and me from nearly decimating the tray between us)
I’m not sure if this is a recipe problem or a technique problem. Macarons are frustrating because there is often no clear answer when troubleshooting – for example, the hollow shells could have been caused by the slightly runnier batter, which in turn could have been caused by both under- or over-whipping the egg whites, or under- or over-folding the batter. The cookies could be sticking because there isn’t enough coconut flour in the mix and the sugar is melting into the parchment paper, or they could be sticking because they were just underbaked and still wet inside.
As a result, I’m not entirely sure what to try next. For now, I’m going to assume it is a technique problem and not a coconut flour-to-egg-whites ratio problem, and try again – folding my batter a bit less so it ends up stiffer, whipping my egg whites a bit less so they’re a little less dry, and baking the cookies just a bit longer to make sure they’re totally cooked through.
And even then, I’m not sure coconut flour is the best choice for substitution. Classically, almond flour is a brilliant choice for these cookies because the flavor is subtle and goes with almost anything. You can make any flavor macaron you want, without worrying that the cookie will clash with the filling.
Coconut isn’t like that.
The cookies taste strongly of coconut, even with such a small amount of flour. And while they are delicious (seriously, I didn’t even fill these, and after a day and a half I only have two cookies left), I’m not sure they have the flexibility of the original – and I want to be able to make whatever flavors I want without having to worry about it. Again, the coconut flavor isn’t a bad thing, and certainly opens up possibilities of its own (pina colada macarons, anyone?), but I, personally, would prefer not to have to work around it.
Either way, I’m not giving up. I think next time I have a go at this recipe, I’ll pick up some regular macarons so Jackson can do some comparative taste-tests.
He has a hard life.