Holly Bell and her delicious macarons
It’s fair to say that home baking is enjoying a bit of a renaissance of late. And is there anyone across the land who hasn’t heard of the Great British Bake Off? I recently had the great pleasure of catching up with Holly Bell, who many people will remember as the runner up in last year’s series.
Holly’s life has changed completely since the bake off; hosting a show on BBC Radio Leicester, teaching, hosting classes and writing her blog. I was keen, however, to find out what Holly was up to before entering the bake off.
An English graduate, a qualified midwife and the daughter of two policemen, who was working in advertising in London right after graduation met her husband, who proposed a mere 9 days after they met. It’s fair to say, Holly’s life changed very quickly, as they were married after just four months together, and she moved back to Leicester to be with him. Before GBBO, Holly was a stay at home Mum of two small boys, Charlie (3) and Max (1).
One cold January evening, Holly was reading Edd Kimber’s blog, The Boy Who Bakes, not long after having her son, Max. “Let’s just say that the red wine and being more than a little postnatal made me think I was capable of anything. So, after a consultation with Mr. Bell, I applied” she told me.
A brave move, indeed, going from having two tiny children to look after, to cooking in front of millions of viewers at home. I asked Holly how she felt when she was selected to compete in the Great British Bake Off. At first, she was elated, then completely and utterly scared, as “I knew there were some gaps in my baking knowledge that could be potentially exposed on national television”. I doubt she was alone in feeling this way – I certainly would be!
Once Holly had arrived on the show, she was nervous meeting the baking legend that is Mary Berry. Holly describes both judges as incredibly knowledgeable, and “tough judges, but Mary delivers her feedback with a little more, let’s say ‘bedside manner’!” Paul has been incredibly supportive since the Bake Off ended, and has even appeared as a guest on Holly’s radio show.
Aside from that, Holly describes feeling very nervous at the start of the competition, which quickly turned to elation on getting through week one without being voted off. This turned into Holly’s weekly goal: just to stay in one more week! This strategy clearly worked very well, taking Holly right up to the final, and she describes how she felt when she learnt she had made it this far “as soon as I knew I was on the final I was incredibly relaxed. I still can’t believe I got to the final – it hasn’t quite sunk in.”
So, what does the future hold for Holly? “ I love writing my blog” she told me, “so I’ll continue with that. I’m at home all week with the boys, so having a little creative outlet in the evening is so important to me. I’d dearly love to write a recipe book. I have an outline already. You never know!” You never know indeed. It’s been such a momentous year for Holly, it wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Holly has very kindly agreed for me to share her macaron recipe with you here. These macarons are totally delicious, easier than you think to make, and are gluten free.
Here’s how she does it:
(Disclaimer: this works in my oven, which is a gas fan oven. Temperature is all with macaro(o)ns so please don’t hunt me down if your first batch fail, or your second come to think of it. I made ooh, about 1000 before I could rely on them working everytime. It was all down to getting to know my oven and tweaking the temperature. Dedicated? Yes. A bit nuts and obsessive? Yes. If you can’t be arsed I won’t hold it against you. Just order them from posh shops. Or make friends with me and I’ll hand deliver them on your birthday.)
Another note before starting – you need to invest if you want to make macaro(o)ns the way I make them. I didn’t say this was going to be easy or cheap or even good for your teeth. So here’s a list of special equipment you will need and may not have:
– a jam thermometer
– a small saucepan that won’t topple when the thermometer is placed in it – I use a milk pan
– a freestanding mixer with the whisk attachment
– a food processor with the blade attachment
– the top of a plastic milk bottle
– a piping bag (I use Lakeland disposable ones)
– a 5mm wide plain nozzle
– lots of cheap baking trays. I use 4/5 of these from Sainsburys
– reliable non stick greaseproof paper. I use this from Sainsburys
– a piece of card cut to fit the tray size. Light colour best. I use white.
– digital scales
– a fan oven – I have a regular and fan oven and have much better results in the fan.
For the shells:
- 180g ground almonds (I use Sainsbos as they’re finely ground to start with.)
- 180g icing sugar
- 144g aged egg whites (Separated and left in the fridge for 4 days.)
- 6g cocoa powder
- 180g caster sugar
- 45g/mls cold water
For the centres:
- 200mls double cream
- 200g dark chocolate
- a few pieces of crystallised ginger cut into rough squares about 1cm by 1cm. You need 30.
This recipe makes about 30 paired macaro(o)ns, so 60 shells altogether. Though depends how large you make them of course. Why make so many? Well it’s hard to boil sugar syrup with small quantities of sugar and still read the temp with the jam thermometer and frankly, these little things are a pain to make so I always think best to make in a batch large enough to bestow some lucky pal with a gift. However if they do fail the feeling of misery will be worse when making 60 shells than 20. That’s my warning to you as someone who knows that pain.
I am going to write the stages in numbered steps to try and keep things simple.
1.) Take the egg whites out of the fridge. Leave on the side to get to somewhere near room temperature before you start.
2.) Boring bit. Cut greaseproof paper to fit all your baking trays. You will need four or five covered dependent on how large the trays are. Place the paper onto the trays curly side down and stack on top of each other. The place something flat on the very top of the stack. We’re trying to achieve flat greaseproof paper here folks.
3.) Make your template by taking the card you’ve already cut to fit the trays and drawing around a milk top (I use the plastic milk top from a supermarket 4 pinter) with a black pen. Use the milk top as a guide to space the circles out. (So draw one circle, then leave a space the same size, then draw one, etc – I get 16 on my trays in a 4 x 4 formation.) Do not forget to leave a space at the sides too or you will have burnt macaro(o)n edges. And beware, don’t try to cram as many circles onto the card as possible thinking it will save time. You need the space for both spreading and also so that the macs don’t steam each other when baking.
4.) Weigh the icing sugar and place in the food processor. Weigh the almonds and place on top of the icing sugar in the food processor. Do the same with the cocoa. Do it in this order of you may risk making almond butter in the corners of your machine. You don’t want to release almond oil from the nuts. Whizz up for about 90 seconds using the blade attachment. Then have a good dig about with a sharp knife to dislodge any icing sugar, cocoa and almondy bits, pop the lid back on and whizz again for 60 seconds. Set aside.
5.) Weigh out half the egg whites (72g) and place in a large bowl. Must be large as you’ll be adding all sorts later. Put the other half of the egg whites into the very clean bowl of the freestanding mixer. The clean bit is important. If you last made a cake in this mixture give it a good scrub and even think about wiping the sides with a lemon to remove any hint of grease. Grease buggers up your egg white volume.
6.) Sieve the almond, cocoa and icing sugar mixture into the large bowl with half your raw egg whites already in it. I use a medium grain sieve (grain – is that even the right term??) and if you have any large almondy bits left over throw them away. Please don’t use a very fine sieve as you’ll end up throwing away half your nuts. Don’t force them through the sieve either. If you skip this step then you won’t have shiny shelled macaro(o)ns. Up to you. Use a spatula to combine. It might look like there isn’t enough liquid but there is. Keep mixing. You do not need to fold or do anything special at this stage. Just mix until combined and have a good scrape at the bottom of the bowl to ensure no powder left.
7.) Weigh the water into the small saucepan, then weigh the caster sugar onto the top. If you do it this way round you can have an accident with pouring the water without having to throw loads of sugar away. (Speaking from experience of over zealous water pouring.) Place your jam thermometer into the pan and place on your smallest hob ring.
8.) At the same time that you turn the hob onto a medium heat to boil the sugar and water also start to whisk the egg whites in the freestanding mixer. Do the whisking on a medium speed. (NB: I sometimes have to slightly tip my whole mixer to get the whisk to ‘pick up’ the egg whites. Sure this is not recommended by Kenwood but it works for me.) Once the egg whites reach stiff peaks stop whisking.
9.) NB: Remove kids and animals from the kitchen at this point if they haven’t already wandered off in boredom. Now watch your sugar syrup like a hawk. It might have a lump in the middle where the sugar hasn’t dissolved yet. If this has happened, give the pan a little shake from side to side whilst still over the heat to dislodge the sugar, being sure to hold onto the thermometer tight. Boil the sugar and water mixture until it reaches 115C. At this point turn the freestanding mixer back on, whisking your already stiff egg whites on a low speed. They might have broken up a little since you turned the machine off but worry not. Just whisk until they come back together.
10.) When the sugar reaches 118C turn the hob off and pour the boiling sugar in a steady stream into the egg whites with the machine still running. I find the best way to do this is to start off holding the pan low, just above the bowl of the mixer, make sure the stream is going to hit the egg whites, (not the side of the bowl) then pull upwards as I pour to achieve a thin and long stream of boiling sugar. This is clearly not for the faint hearted. You must get the sugar to flow straight onto the whisking eggs and not down the side of the mixing bowl. If it all hits the bowl first then it will solidify on contact with the cold bowl and you won’t end up making meringue. Your egg whites will essentially be without enough sugar. Worry not if it does leave some blobs of molten sugar on the bowl. They look like they’ll never come off but they will. Very hot water and Fairy does the trick. Turn the mixer onto a medium speed at this point and leave to whizz until the mixer bowl feels cool. Takes about 7 minutes.
11.) Once your Italian meringue (for that is what we’ve been making in the mixer) looks all white and glossy and holds peaks and is cool enough for you to touch the bowl you’re ready to start the hard bit. Now please don’t despair if you can see little grains of sugar that look like specks in the meringue. This is not a problem at all though it’s a bit upsetting I know. Turn the mixer off and scrape the meringue into the large bowl holding your raw egg white and almondy mixture. Then take a spatula (I use a silicone one) and start to gently mix and beat the contents together. Don’t fold the mixture; you’re trying to remove air, not add it. The aim here is to have a mass of macaro(o)n batter that’s glossy and homogeneous. Search the bottom of the bowl for bits that aren’t combined. They hide there.
12.) Now you need to press the spatula against the side of the bowl, keep the end on the bottom of the bowl and sweep to the other side of the bowl in a firm, steady movement. You should see a parting of the macaro(o)n batter sea. Now start counting. After 30 seconds the ‘sea’ should disappear back into a mound of batter. If this does not happen, stir the batter again. Don’t be shy. It needs firm handling. Give it 3 more turns and then part the sea again. If you still have a stiff batter then give it one turn and try again. Keep going. It can take a while. Don’t be tempting to beat the hell out of it in desperation. If you do then it’s curtains. I know as I’ve done it. (Temper? Me? Well yes.)
13.) Find a pint glass or measuring jug. Put the nozzle into the bottom of the icing bag, cut the bottom of it off to expose just the end of the nozzle, then twist the bag above the nozzle and place the whole thing into the pint glass nozzle end down. Curl the open end of the piping bag over the pint glass edges. This is the easiest way I know to fill a piping bag. Add a spoonful or two of batter. Take a plate and pipe one macaro(o)n shell onto it. The way I pipe is to hold the bag at a right angle to the surface, place the nozzle over the middle of where I want the macaro(o)n to be, about 4mm from the tray/plate and push the batter out with the other hand at the top of the piping bag. I stop piping when I’m 2mm from where I want the edge of the circle of batter to be. This allows for spreading. But please do it how you like. Youtube is full of examples of piping wizardry. One tip I’ve found useful is to keep the nozzle at the same point throughout, even though some of the batter will then splurge up the sides of the nozzle. If you pull it upwards in a flourish as you finish off you will have a nipple effect that’s hard to sort out.
14.) Now wait 30 seconds. Have a good look at the shell you have just piped. It should have no nipple effect or a very tiny one that is easily smoothed with your finger. (Don’t dip your finger in water – this has made my macs explode in the oven – not sure why!) If you have a huge nipple effect then pipe the rest of the batter back into the bowl and go back to stage 12. Repeat this and stages 13 and 14 until you have a batter where the nipple disappears after 30 seconds. Sorry for banging on about nipples in an unsavoury fashion but this bit’s important if you want perfectly smooth shells. And ALWAYS better to under turn the mixture than over turn. You can’t un-turn the batter and what tends to happen with over turned batter are macaro(o)ns that spread into odd shapes and ‘feet’ that are very very short. If you’re not obsessed by macaro(o)n feet and want to know more just google it. People write tomes on feet.
NB: I know this stage is dull, dull, dull but please stick with it. If you get this bit wrong all your hard work will have been for nothing. I have lost my patience and temper many a time at this point and ended up throwing huge bowls of batter in the bin whilst swearing and crying. Most undignified.
15.) Once the batter is perfect, pop the template under the greaseproof paper on the first tray and, with a half full icing bag, pipe those macaro(o)n shells! Keep going (and refilling the bag and repositioning the template on new trays) until you have no batter left. Slam the macaro(o)n covered trays onto your work surface with a good ‘bash’ to bring any air bubbles to the top. I do this about 3 times with each tray. I used to take a toothpick to my macs to burst bubbles but have found leaving them for 30 mins minimum to produce a shell means this step is redundant. Then simply leave the shells to form a skin. You need somewhere coolish, though not the fridge and not steamy. So for me that’s on top of the stereo and speakers in the dining room. Just don’t tell Mr. B. Wait for 30 minutes. I often number my trays in the order they were piped to make sure they each get their 30 minute rest. Don’t worry if they get longer than 30 minutes though. An hour won’t hurt them at all. Or longer even.
16.) Remove all racks from the oven other than one left in the middle. Preheat the fan oven to Gas 3/160C and once it’s preheated (15 minutes in my book) place one tray of macs into the oven. I always place mine towards the front and away from the back left hand side as I have a massive hot spot there. If you know you have hot spots then do the same. Do not be tempted to save time by whacking a load of trays in at a time. The air needs to circulate. Plus the top and bottom of the oven are hotter and colder than the temp you want. Set your timer/phone for 12 minutes.
17.) After 12 minutes open the oven door. You should have a line of macaro(o)ns with perfect feet that have risen at right angles with flat tops to the shells. Push the top of the macaro(o)n nearest to you very gently. It should not ‘wobble’ – ie/ it should feel firmly attached to the feet. If you are able to gently push it a little to the side then close the door and leave 2 more mins. Then check again. Once the ‘wobble’ has gone then take them out. Place on a wire rack and put the next batch in.
18.) Let the macs cool for 5 minutes. Please don’t try and peel them off the paper before then or they’re liable to break up. Carefully peel one of the central macs (central important here as middle ones are last to bake) off the paper. If it won’t come off then it’s undercooked and you need to pop it back in the oven for a few minutes. No harm done.
19.) Make the ganache for the filling. Chop the dark chocolate. Put the cream into a small pan. Place on a medium heat until it just starts to boil. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate and then stir using a metal spoon until completely combined and smooth. It must be smooth otherwise you will have problems pushing lumps of choc through the nozzle when piping. Set aside and leave to cool at room temperature. You can speed it up by thickening in the fridge if you’re short of time but you risk the ganache near the edges of the pan solidifying before the middle does. Voila – lumps! If you leave at room temperature it will thicken as it cools – give it a stir every 5 mins of so to stop lumps forming. (NB: If it thickens too much pre filling the macs worry not – just gently, very gently, reheat on the hob until slightly molten again. Stir and let thicken to piping consistency again.)
20.) Once all the macaro(o)n shells are cooked and peeled start to pair them up into matching sizes. Despite using the template there will still be lots of different sizes. Then when the ganache is thick to the point where it’s almost set (but not so thick it won’t pipe – think cream cheese consistency) place it in a piping bag (as before) and pipe circles of ganache around the outside of one half of each pair of shells. Leave a hole in the middle and place a square of crystallised ginger in it. Then place the matching shell on top of the one with the filling on it and press down gently. Place on a plate and leave in the fridge for 2 days before eating them. The almond meringue melts into the filling and makes for an altogether more dreamy macaro(o)n eating experience.
You might have some ganache left over. If you do simply let it solidify then roll into balls and dip in crushed hazelnuts/popping candy/crushed pistachios for some homemade truffles. Yum.
You can find out more about what Holly is up to on her blog, which can be found here http://www.recipesfromanormalmum.com/meet-holly-bell/
Holly is also on Twitter as @HollyBellMummy
You can also find out more about what I am up to on my personal blog: http://charlotteskitchendiary.wordpress.com/