Friday, May 7, 2010

Macarons and Chaos Theory

Why are some people so scared of baking?…and why is it that the people who I know that don’t like baking are generally guys, but they like cooking…

Baking is often viewed as a science and it can be a tricky business. 

Macarons are meringue-based cookies that have a smooth, light and crispy dome shaped shell which have a frilly foot. They are soft and chewy on the inside and sandwich some sort of cream or ganache filling. 

My recent endeavours into baking macarons, revealed to me, the chaotic nature of baking.

Chaos Theory studies the behaviour of dynamic systems and reveals that small differences in initial conditions can lead to large variations in the ending conditions. 

This chaotic behaviour is observed even though dynamic systems are deterministic, meaning that their future state is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. However, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable. This is because we cannot exactly recreate its starting position or measure it perfectly.

Edward Lorenz, a meterorologist, discovered chaos theory accidentally through his work on weather predictions in 1961. Lorenz was running a computer program to theoretically model and predict weather conditions. One day, he wanted to see a particular sequence of data again and to save time he started the simulation in the middle of its course, instead of the beginning. The weather that the computer began to predict was completely different from the weather calculated before, the sequence evolved differently. Eventually Lorenz figured out what had happened. The computer worked with 6-digit precision, but the printout rounded variables off to a 3-digit number, so a value like 0.506127 was printed as 0.506. 

This difference was tiny and it should have had practically no effect, and a sequence very close to the original sequence should have been printed. After repeated experimentation, Lorenz concluded that small changes in the initial conditions can produce large variations in long-term outcomes, this made prediction of future outcomes impossible, in general, an idea that violated the basic conventions of physics at the time! (This is why we can’t predict the weather accurately for next week).

I feel that the ideas behind chaos theory can be used to explain the difficulties that I experienced with baking macarons and my disastrous first attempt.

My macarons actually exploded - it looked like a natural disaster has occurred on the baking tray. 

(I think these two are trying to mate with each other!)
(Erupting volcano!)

What happened? Before baking the macarons, I did my research and read up on the art of making macarons by reading some cookbooks, internet recipes and blogs.

Picture-perfect macarons are not easy to make. Macarons are all about exactitude and technique, rather than about just following a recipe. Almost anyone can bake a decent cake by following a recipe – you just mix the ingredients together, pour into a cake tin and bake. If you can follow a macaron recipe, it does not necessarily mean that you will get a successful result. For this reason, it is a notoriously difficult recipe to master and a frustrating endeavor for the amateur baker.  

A basic maracon consists of four ingredients.
Almond meal
Icing sugar
Egg whites
Caster sugar

There is much to take into account when baking macarons and there is also a lot of debate over what you should or shouldn’t do – there is no consensus as to best practices!

Use old or aged egg whites 
Using old or aged egg whites are better as they have lost some of their water content which will make the macaron batter more stable. Although some recipes don’t even mention this or say it doesn’t matter.
Dry ingredients need to be very fine
The icing sugar and almond meal needs to be very fine so that the macarons will have a smooth surface. Most recipes suggest finely grinding in a food processor and then sifting it a few times to obtain a fine powder. 
There are two types of meringues you can use which will result in minor variations in the density and flavour – French or Italian. A French meringue is made by simply whisking egg whites with sugar until stiff peaks form, and are firm and shiny. An Italian meringue is made with a hot sugar syrup which is beaten into the whisked egg whites until stiff peaks form. 
Mixing the batter
The goal is to incorporate everything together quickly without excessive mixing when combining the meringue and icing sugar/almond meal together. You don’t want to be gently folding the mixture (like you would with a cake as you will end up with air bubbles in your macarons) but you don’t want to be beating it quickly either (because you will end up overmixing and the batter will become too runny). You need to make sure that you don’t overbeat it but don’t underbeat it either. The mixture should be smooth, shiny and ‘flow like magma’ which means a ribbon of batter dropped from a spoon onto the top of the remaining batter should take about 30 seconds to disappear. 
Tapping the baking tray
Once the macaron batter has been piped onto baking trays, tap the underside of the baking tray on the kitchen benchtop to settle the mixture and knock any air bubbles out.
Resting the batter to form a crust
The trick to obtaining the signature gloss and crust of the macaron is the resting time, which allows a thin skin to form before baking. Let the piped batter sit at room temperature to allow a crust to form, the stated standing times for macarons varies between 30 minutes to 5 hours! Exactly how long this should take depends on atmospheric conditions such as the temperature and humidity of the room. Some say it is essential to rest the batter but others say resting the batter makes no difference to the final product.
Baking the macarons
For even heat distribution underneath the macarons, some recipes recommend using two or even three baking trays stacked on top of each other. The oven temperature needs to be carefully monitored so that the macarons will lift and develop a frilly foot when baking and don’t burn. Some advise to start baking the macarons at a higher temperature and then drop it (as higher temperature at the beginning will help the macarons to pop and rise), while others keep the oven temperature level and recommend that the oven door be kept slightly ajar for the entire baking period or halfway through the baking period. Macarons are generally baked for around 10 minutes and at the 5 minute mark, the macarons should have lifted and developed little ‘feet’, otherwise it is unlikely a foot will develop at all (this means a fail!).
Removing the macarons
Sometimes the baked macarons will stick to the baking paper. If you try to forcefully remove them, you will end up breaking the shell because they are quite fragile. Some recipes recommend brushing a little water under the baking paper to moisten the paper and soften any stuck bits, and others will tell you to let the macarons sit for a few hours and you should be able to peel them off once they have cooled and their bases have dried a little. 

And another thing - you should let the macarons stand for at least one day in the refrigerator to meld the flavours and then bring the macarons to room temperature before eating them. The macaron shells are not at their best when fresh, they will be slightly chewier around the edges. 

However, even if you take into account every little tip and trick, it does guarantee that you will make a perfect macaron (as I have demonstrated).

(It's an orgy central here!)

I used this basic macaron batter recipe from aLa Cuisine. Many things could have lead to my disaster:
I think I overmixed the batter, it was probably a bit too runny.
There were too many air bubbles in the batter? - a result of the way I was incorporating the batter and overmixing.
I forgot to tap the baking trays on the table to remove the air bubbles
I think I let them sit out for too long (I let them sit for 3 hours and I didn’t think it would be too much of a problem as the resting time varies so much between recipes. This wasn’t intentional either as I was just going to quickly pop out and do my grocery shopping but the Cookbook kitchenware and cookbook store on Beautfort street was having a closing down sale – so instead of being out for around an hour I came back 3 hours later!)
The macarons came out quite brown so the oven temperature was probably too high or I needed to kept the oven door slightly ajar earlier in the baking process.

(A distraction from baking - keep me away from kitchenware and cookbook sales!)

Anyway, I tried making macarons again and my second batch was a success!

I used the same recipe but altered my technique.
I incorporated the mixture together differently being careful not to overmix and reduce the amount of air bubbles (after piping the batter, I even used a toothpick to poke out any air bubbles I could see).
I remembered to tap the baking tray to settle the mixture and knock out any air bubbles.
I let the piped batter stand for 30 minutes to develop a crust instead of 3 hours. I noticed that the crust which developed for the second batch was not as hard at the first batch.
I closely monitored the oven and kept the door ajar earlier on in the baking process.

What are the differences between cooking and baking?

With cooking, you have a lot more leeway, there is flexibility in the ingredients and the proportions used. You can be quite spontaneous and make up something based on what you have in the fridge and tweak recipes as you wish. When you are cooking, you can always keep adding ingredients and seasoning to a dish until you are happy with final result. For example, if you are making a pot of soup, it doesn’t really matter if a little less celery is added or an extra onion is included – you will still get a pot of soup and if the flavour is off, you can make adjustments can be made along the way.

With baking, you can’t just make it up or make adjustments along the way, baking requires a formula (the right ratios for different ingredients ie: flour to eggs to sugar etc.) and you have to follow a certain method in order to yield an end result. 

Each ingredient serves an important purpose, for example:
Flour gives baked goods their structure and form.
Sugar tenderizes, moistens and helps baked goods brown.
Eggs provide structure and volume where the protein helps bind flour particles together and coagulate during baking to add solidity. Eggs whites are a leavening agent, while egg yolks provide richness and moisture to baked goods.
Fat such as butter contributes to a baked goods tenderness and fluffyness.
Baking soda reacts with acids to produce carbon dioxide which in turn puffs the batter. 
Thus, baking is like a science in that you are trying to process all the ingredients according to their chemistry with each other. You have to understand all the elements of baking and how they react together in order to get a successful outcome. 

Baking requires more care and attention to detail. 

You need to measure ingredients accurately, a little more or less than the correct amounts will affect the outcome. I have been reading How Baking Works by Paula Rigoni and apparently adding extra eggs will make brownies more cake-like, brownies should be dense and fudgy, eggs provide aeration and also add more moisture which converts to steam when heated and will make the texture of brownies more lighter and cake-like than fudgy. 

There isn’t much room for error, if you stuff something up, you have to start again. For example, with tempering chocolate, you heat and cool chocolate in order to form chocolate which has a smooth and glossy finish and you get a crisp ‘snap’. You need to carefully control the temperature of the chocolate so that when it heats up, it does not exceed 45C and when it cools down it needs to be about 26C. Failure to properly temper chocolate can result in dull-looking pieces with poor texture. 

You also need to have the baked good all prepared at the start because once you put it into the oven, there is no room to make alterations, you can’t pull out a cake halfway through baking and add a little more flour or another egg. 

Thus, in many ways baking exhibits a sensitive dependence on initial conditions like dynamic systems in chaos theory. The initial conditions of a baked good that you make will determine the outcome and small differences in the method and the proportion of ingredients can have a large effect on the quality of the baked good (as I found out when I baked macarons for the first time!). Baking is a lot more unpredictable than cooking and for an amateur the rate of success with baking is lower than cooking. 

Why do some people prefer cooking over baking? Maybe because cooking is less chaotic than baking! (ie: it is less susceptible to small variations leading to large variations in the final outcome).


  1. Well done on the eventual success, they look pretty perfect! I am sad to see that cook/book is closing down though :(

  2. Thanks :) Cook/book is a neat little shop and I always loved to go in for a browse but I never actually bought anything until they were closing down and had 50% off all stock and 30% off all cookbooks. Now I have spent over $200 and have new cookbooks, gadgets and more cupcake paper cups! I keep collecting cupcake paper cups with interesting/cute designs and I have hundreds at home now....need to use them... I overheard that it was closing because the lady who runs the store is retiring.

  3. sure dudes like baking. my dads trade was a baker and my grandfather was a pastry chef in italy and freo..i know guys in paris that bake well...a little too well if you ask me.

    i like that you put in the disaster macarons, shows everyone that anyone can make mistakes and they're macarons so they are tricky. your second patch are very good!

  4. well done on your successful batch of macarons! i actually really liked the aesthetic of the exploding ones too :)

    p.s i don't know if you read the sunday times, but one of today's features is on masterchef and dodgy cooking practices. it was mainly about callum's dessert that we watched on tuesday night and that he was able to "re-plate" and fix up how it looked before it went to the judges. hmmm...

  5. Hey Janelle, looks like your family has a rich history in baking. A lot of the art of baking has come from France so I'm not surprised that there would be heaps of people who know how to bake well, including guys. I'm yet to meet a guy who is really into baking though...

    I like how the retarded macarons looked too Danica :) I won't be able to create it either now that I know how to make macarons properly.

    I don't read the Sunday Times but now that I think about it, it doesn't surprise me because the spoons of mousse on top of the dessert looked perfect...