Welcome to U-PMAT Certification Class EF102-A&B in which you will be Conversant with--nay, Eminently Qualified* for--making Items based on Egg Foam. Qualification: We shan't be covering sponge cakes, genoise, et al, in EF102-A&B as that was covered in EF101, here. Right then. Pencils at the ready? Let's begin, shall we.
Ahem. I got a great question over at my sparsely populated forum. Dr. Fagshah asked if I could show him/her (?) how to make lovely French macarons. The original question asked about macaroons, but the description was of a macaron. That extra o makes quite a bit of difference. The second part of the question--did I mention it was a two-part question?--asks if I can demystify the whole chocolate soufflé deal--how to make the base, how to prepare the soufflé dish (to butter or not to butter; to collar or not to collar, etc) and just generally Break It Down to make it Easier to Understand.
I thought to myself, "Hey--this would make a good corollary to EF101," so here we are.
Eggs are magic. I'm sure I've said that before, but it Bears Repeating. Eggs. Are. Magic. They are one of the most versatile ingredients in the kitchen--pastry or otherwise. Perfect little packages of proteins, water, fat and emulsifiers. Plus lots of nutritional value. You know, for the wee chick who would be living off of the yolk until it peck, peck, pecks its way out of the eggshell. For now, let's just focus on the whites, though. Yolks, you are excused. You're needed in crème brûlée class. Go make yourselves Useful.
Egg whites are made up of a bunch of different proteins and water. The whites act as protection for the embryo, a little avian amniotic sac, if you will. The proteins are all coily until you a)heat them up and/or b)beat the heck out of them.** Both of these actions denature, or uncoil the protein strands. See, the long chains of amino acids (protein building blocks) are all coiled up and held together in a specific ways by Chemical Bonds. When you heat them or beat them (ha!) you break the bonds holding the coil together. Then, the no-longer-coiled chains end up bonding with other no-longer-coiled chains in a sort of a mesh or matrix. Very exciting stuff.
The very Keen Thing that egg whites can do is whip up into pretty stable foam. Plain whipped egg whites can be folded into souffle batters or cakes. Add some sugar, and you have a meringue with which you can make a Pavlova, pie toppings, oeufs à la neige. Fold in some almond flour, and you've got macarons. Fold in some regular flour and you've got angel food cake. See what I mean about eggs being Magic and Versatile?
Now, back to Dr. Fagshah's questions. Item The First: how to make lovely macarons a la Pierre Hermé. There are a Bajillion recipes for macarons on the Hinternet, so I shan't bore you with another one. I will say that macaron shells are made of almond meal (shoved through a fine sieve to get out the Larger Bits) and confectioner's sugar whisked together and folded into a simple meringue of egg white, granulated sugar and a bit of salt. Seriously, that's all there is to them. Ha! Remember my Myriad Traumas with stupid four-ingredient pâte brisée? Often, it's the Simple Things that are Decidedly Difficult to correctly execute.
And here's the thing about macaron batter. It is very wet. If you have visions of peaks of meringue, just get them out of your head now. The texture of the final batter should be kind of like a thick syrup. Or a bit-too-thin pâte à choux. Yes, you'll need to whip your whites to stiff peaks, but by the time you get the almond/sugar mixture folded into the meringue,your batter will be flowy. How come? Well, that extra sugar in the whites will draw some more moisture to it--from the whites, initially, because it's the most convenient water source. When this happens, some of your bubbles are going to pop. That's okay--prolly the biggest bubbles will pop first, and we don't want them anyway. We want wee bubbles. Your final batter will look like a pile of bubbles surrounded by proteiny-nutty sugar syrup. Not to your Naked Eye, mind you, but just take my word for it.
Once you have your flowy batter, you need to pipe it in even circles of roughly the same size. Pipe it onto parchment paper. You'll thank me later. Once they're all piped, let them hang out in a Quiet Place for an hour or so. The outsides will dry out a bit and form a skin over the macaron which will help them to bake/rise evenly and minimize the dreaded Cracking. You'll then want to bake them at 325F until dry and set on their smooth, shiny tops. This takes 10-ish minutes, depending on your oven, how big you piped them, etc. Bake with the door slightly ajar so that the heat will always be coming from the bottom. Since heat is escaping out the door, the oven will always be in heating mode. Since you're baking almost exclusively with Bottom Heat, the entire cookie will lift up and will form a little bubbly foot around the base of the smooth, shiny skin. At any rate, take them out of the oven and let them cool on the sheets. Use a small offset spatula to remove the cookies from the paper. A perfectly baked macaron shell will be crisp on the outside and chewy-but-not-wet on the inside.
To make the traditional sandwich cookie, simply sandwich two cookies together with a bit of filling. Refrigerate them for at least a few hours before returning them to room temperature and serving them.
And now, onto the soufflé. At its heart, a soufflé is a starch-thickened custard--sweet or savory--with egg whites folded in. If you didn't fold in the whites and baked them at 275F in a water bath, you'd pretty much have crème brûlée, or at least a baked custard. Baking at a relatively high temperature--375F--using dry heat allows all sorts of steam to form within the soufflé itself (not to mention a bunch of expanding hot air in the bubbles of your egg foam), pushing it up, up, up to Crazy Heights. Yup, a soufflé is a mechanically leavened (some would say overleavened) egg rich, flourless (or low flour) cake.
There really are a Ton of different base recipes. Some contain flour and some don't. When it comes to soufflés, as with macarons, it's really more about the technique than it is about the recipe. You want your base to be warmish. Then, you'll gently but thoroughly fold your beaten egg whites in. You can refrigerate them for a day or two before baking, but they won't poof quite as Impressively if you do. At any rate, bake them, and they'll rise, rise, rise. Easy and Spectacular. An excellent combination.
Now, about the collars. Egg whites want to go Up. They don't really need a collar. Fill the soufflé dish (individual or large) to the top, swipe any excess off cleanly, and run your thumb around the inside edge of the dish, making a sort of Soufflé Trench about 1/4" deep all around the outside of the batter. This helps promote Upward as opposed to Sideways. And up is what we want. Most of the soufflé recipes which employ a collar are of the frozen variety, or are made by Timid Bakers who don't trust egg white foams to Do What They Do. Collar a ramekin; then pour in some mousse or semifreddo mixture until it rises above the rim of the ramekin by a 1/2" or so. Freeze, and then remove the collar. Voila: your frozen soufflé has "risen." Sneaky.
To butter and sugar the dish? Most sweet soufflé recipes call for this step. My thought is that the reason is a bit of sugary crunch on the outside of the soufflé. As I said before, egg foams Do What They Do, which is to climb when heated, so I'm not sure you're gaining any mechanical advantage by buttering and sugaring. If anyone knows for sure, please let me know in the comments section.
Now, about the egg foam itself. It's not hard to make an egg foam, but there are a few Rules to Follow to ensure success.
- Make sure your bowl and beaters/whisks are Free of Fat. Wash everything in hot water and then wipe off everything with a bit of lemon juice or vinegar. Even a bit of fat can inhibit Maximum Foamage, so be diligent. I saw crazy Emeril try to whip up some egg whites with the same beaters he used to whip cream. It was Awesome. He said something along the lines of "What the hell? How bad could it be?" and just dunked those fatty beaters right down in those whites and Commenced to Whipping. The audience eventually left, and he was still whipping. Well, okay, he had to call someone from The Back to bring him new whites and new beaters. Live and learn, Emeril. Live and learn.
- Use a metal or glass bowl. Don't use a plastic bowl. Plastic holds onto fat. And Emeril can tell you what that means.
- Older whites whip faster than fresher whites, but fresher whites make a more stable foam. Stick with fresh whites for soufflés. You can use older whites for your macarons since you'll be folding in almond flour and knocking the foam back some anyway.
- Room temperature whites whip more quickly than cold whites. Separate the eggs when they're still cold, and then let the whites sit for 45 minutes to an hour before whipping.
- While not strictly necessary, you can start whipping your whites and sugar over simmering water to heat up the whites and help the sugar dissolve more quickly. If you do this, you're making a Swiss Meringue. Congratulations.
- As with whipped cream, you don't have to let the whites whip on Eleven. Whipping on medium to medium-high will get you where you want to go soon enough, and your foam will be more stable because you Took Your Time.
Okay, 1700 words and two of three cats on the keyboard later, I think this class is finally winding down. If you have any questions or need clarification on anything, or if you just want to leave a Witty Comment, please do so. Don't forget your Egg White Foam Certification.
*A guy I worked with gave me a letter to proofread when he was angling for a promotion at work. The letter said he was "imminently qualified." This struck me as hilarious. I said, "So, Ron, you're going to be qualified any minute now?!" If you find this funny, too, we might be soul mates.
**There is a third way, the Acid way. If you lower the pH of the protein enough by adding vinegar or citrus juice, the proteins denature and "cook" chemically. Hence, citrus cures for sashimi.
PS When we made macarons in culinary school, nobody told us it would be hard, so we just forged ahead. They turned out great. So fear not, just go for it.