Egg whites are the key element in this recipe. Take care to beat them until they are only just firm and still shiny, then don't be concerned when, as you add the dry ingredients, they deflate - they're supposed to. Knocking some of the air out of the whites is what will give these macaroons their characteristic smooth top. Keep the whites too firm and you'll end up with meringue. - PH
5 ounces (1 1/3 cups) finely ground almond powder or 5 ounces blanched almonds (see step 3)
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch cocoa powder, preferably Valrhona, plus more for dusting
1/2 cup egg whites, about 4 large egg whites (see step 3)
Bittersweet Cream and Butter Ganache:
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, preferably Valrhona Guanaja, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons (2 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into 4 pieces
1. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper, put each baking sheet on top of another baking sheet (or use two insulated baking sheets) and fit a large pastry bag with a plain 1/2-inch or 3/8-inch tip; set these aside for the moment.
2. If you've got almond powder, just sift the almond powder with the confectioner's sugar and cocoa. If you're starting with almonds, place the almonds, sugar and cocoa in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until the mixture is as fine as flour, at least 3 minutes. Stop every minute to check your progress and to scrape down the sides of the bowl. This is not a quick on-and-off operation. Although the almonds may look as though they're pulverized after a minute or so, they won't be. The nuts really need 3 to 5 minutes to be ground to a powder or flour. When the mixture is ground, press it through a medium strainer. In all probability, you'll have about 2 tablespoons of solids that won't go through the strainer - discard them.
3. For this recipe to succeed, you need 1/2 cup of egg whites, which may mean using 3 egg whites plus a part of another white. The easiest way to get a portion of a white is to break the white into a cup, beat it lightly with a fork and then measure out what you'll need. (If you put the egg whites in a glass measuring cup, the whites should come just to the 1/2-cup line when the cup is on the counter and you've crouched down to check the measurement at eye level.)
4. Once the eggs are measured, they need to be brought to room temperature so they can be beaten to their fullest volume. You can leave the whites on the counter until they reach room temperature, or you can put them into a microwave-safe bowl and place them in a microwave oven set on lowest power; heat the whites for about 10 seconds. Stir the whites and continue to heat them -still on lowest power - in 5-second spurts until they are about 75 degrees F. If they're a little warmer, that's okay too. To keep the eggs warm, run the mixer bowl under hot water, dry the bowl well, pour the whites into the bowl and fit the mixer with the whisk attachment.
5. Beat the egg whites at low to medium speed until they are white and foamy. Turn the speed up and whip them on high just until they are firm but still glossy and supple - when you lift the whisk the whites should form a peak that droops just a little. Keep the whites in the mixer bowl or transfer them to a large bowl. Working with a rubber spatula, fold the dry ingredients gently into the whites in 3 or 4 additions. There are a lot of dry ingredients to go into a relatively small amount of whites, but keep folding and you'll get everything in. Don't worry if the whites deflate and the batter looks a little runny - that's just what's supposed to happen. When the dry ingredients are incorporated, the mixture will look like a cake batter; if you lift a little with your finger, it should form a gentle, quickly falling peak.
6. Spoon the batter into the pastry bag and pipe it out onto the prepared baking sheets. (To keep the paper steady, "glue" it down by piping a bit of batter at each corner of the baking sheet.) Pipe the batter into rounds about 1 inch in diameter, leaving about an inch between each round. (Because you're going to sandwich the baked cookies, try to keep the rounds the same size.) When you've piped out all the macaroons, lift each baking sheet with both hands and then bang it down on the counter. Don't be afraid - you need to get the air of the batter. Set the baking sheets aside at room temperature for 15 minutes while you preheat the oven.
7. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. You need to bake these one pan at a time, so dust the tops of the macaroons on one pan with cocoa powder and slide one of the sheets into the oven. As soon as the baking sheet is in the oven, turn the temperature down to 350 degrees F and insert the handle of a wooden spoon between the oven and the door to keep the door slightly ajar. Bake the macaroons for 10 to 12 minutes, or until they are smooth and just firm to the touch. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack (see step 8 for information on removing the macaroons from the parchment), close the oven door, turn the heat back up to 425 degrees F and, when the oven is at the right temperature, repeat with the second sheet of macaroons.
8. To remove the macaroons from the parchment - and they should be removed as soon as they come from the oven - you need to create moisture under the cookies. Carefully loosen the parchment at the four corners and, lifting the paper at one corner, pour a little hot water under the parchment paper onto the baking sheet. The water may bubble and steam, so make sure your face and hands are away from the sheet. Move the parchment around or tilt the baking sheet so that the parchment is evenly dampened. Allow the macaroons to remain on the parchment, soaking up the moisture, for about 15 seconds, then peel the macaroons off the paper and place them on a cooling rack.
To finish: For the Bittersweet Cream and Butter Ganache, heat cream and butter until melted, pour over chocolate and mix until smooth. Let the ganache cool keeping a spreadable consistency.
9. When the macaroons are cool, sandwich them with either ganache or ice cream.
For the ganache: Pipe a dollop of ganache about 1/2 inch across on the flat side of one cookie and use the flat side of another to complete the sandwich and to spread the ganache so that it runs to the edge. Transfer the filled macaroons to a covered container and place them in the refrigerator to soften overnight before serving.
Keeping: Baked, unsandwiched macaroons can be kept in an airtight tin at room temperature for 3 days. Once filled, the macaroons should be chilled and served the next day.
Adapted from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme by Dorie Greenspan (Little, Brown and Company, 2001). Copyright 2001 Dorie Greenspan.
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