Dear meringue shell crazy people,
It's time for fillings, flavours and frippery!
This article will be shorter than the others. I feel that the filling is where the cook has the opportunity to show their initiative and creativity and I want to communicate general principles rather than fine detail.
There are probably five main types of filling:
- jam (probably the original filling) — confiture
- butter cream — crème au beurre
- thickened creams
I won't say anything about jam, but will comment on the other types below.
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A cream, chocolate and butter mixture, ganache can provide a strongly flavoured counter to the sweetness of the macaron shell. It can also act as a milder carrier for other flavours. White chocolate ganache is often combined with acid fruits such as berries — a nifty way of getting popular fruit flavours while countering the tang of the fruit, but can sometimes end up too sweet and cloying.
Simplest of all is a mock cream, made by whipping butter and adding icing sugar. Almond meal is frequently added as it improves stability and absorbs some moisture. Mock cream can sometimes be a little gritty.
More flexible than a ganache, a butter cream is a fairly neutral canvas for flavouring and colouring as you please. A basic rich butter cream (egg yolks, sugar syrup, butter) is simple but easily too rich. When cold it can be too firm for immediate eating, and when at warm room temperature it can begin to feel greasy when eating the macaron.
Another option is a lighter butter cream, where Italian meringue (yet more sugar syrup!) is added to the basic butter cream. This is a popular option amongst some bakers.
And finally, another simple butter cream: with whole eggs and sugar heated in a bain marie, beaten until thick and then with butter added. Also popular and less inclined to seem greasy.
All butter creams tend to be disappointing in a macaron which is served cold. The textures don't match and the flavours are muted.
Pink and yellow shells, filled with rose and apricot butter creams.
Thickened cream preparations
Many of the classic French creams are given some structural reinforcement by adding some gelatine. Most of these (chiboust, bavaroise, etc) are suitable if prepared to a consistency which can be happily piped when cool. These thickened creams, and also standard crème pâtissière, are often used in larger macarons and macaron cakes, probably because they hold their shape better at a range of temperatures and under different loads.
And this is where this article series sort of started! The response to my salted caramel macarons provided the impetus for a comprehensive look at macarons. I make a simple sugar-cream-butter caramel and add salt. It's inspired by the salted butter caramel popular in the north of France (Brittany and Normandy), but rather than using salted butter, I like the sensation and variation in flavour experience created by crystals of salt.
Other caramels are fine too, of course, though the sweetness can be overdone. Flavoured caramels are probably more interesting.
Uncoloured macarons filled with salted caramel (a little too fresh and runny!).
- 50 g sugar
- 23 g cream
- 35 g butter, cold, in cubes
- Place one third of the sugar in a small saucepan and heat very gently. After some time it will suddenly start to melt and go brown.
- As soon as the sugar is liquid, add another third of the dry sugar and melt, stirring gently.
- Repeat with the remaining sugar.
- When the liquid sugar has reached a rich caramel colour (perhaps very soon after melting),add the cream in a thin stream. The caramel will bubble vigorously, so be careful.
- Stir and measure the temperature promptly. When the caramel reaches 108-110 C (this can happen very quickly!), remove from the heat and immediately add the butter.
- Stir well (or use a handmixer) until the caramel is smooth and has cooled somewhat.
- Refrigerate the caramel. It will firm up after an hour or two.
There are many other things you could make to fill macarons, but I'll leave that to your imagination!
Colours and flavours
Beyond the basic creams and other fillings, it pays to think about how you can enhance the flavour sensation of these pâtisserie divas. Coarse nut pieces and other textural elements can be fun, as can an interplay between the flavour of the shell and the flavour of the cream inside. Most pâtissiers don't play with the shells' flavour because it makes it harder to deploy the batter for a range of macarons. I love flavouring my shells with citrus zest and then using a filling with a complementary flavour. Some of the better producers spray the inside of the shell with an aroma (such as a flower water or flavoured syrup) and then use a differently flavoured cream.
Liquid colourings are the most obvious choice for home cooks, but professional powder colourings are often used and I've read of some bakers using powdered fruit which is a fun idea. Whatever the colour, I feel the shell should entice. Too often when trying to not overdo it, my shells have been the faintest pastel colour, barely here or there. You need to be bolder! On the other hand, some disappointing producers go for maxi-colour, beyond bold and into lurid. If the colour evokes, say, the fruit in the filling, that's great; if it looks like an accident with rotten raspberries or an ageing banana, well, no.
Chocolate shell with chocolate-cinnamon ganache. Lemon shell with ganache. Chocolate shell with lemon-basil cream.
Part of the allure of these divas is that they're a visual treat. They can be beautiful in their naked simplicity, or they can be a painter's canvas.
Think about what you want to achieve. Experiment. Enjoy!
You can also read La Macaronicité 1: an introduction to the macaron.
La Macaronicité 2: basic technique and simple macaron recipe.
La Macaronicité 3: the more reliable macaron recipe and a few tips.
La Macaronicité 5: Macawrongs and macarights, macarons day and night.