French macarons. (Amelia Clute / Sun Staff Writer)

July 16, 2020

Measurement Experiment: By Weight or Volume — Which is Better?

Print More

Part 1 — Amelia Clute and French Macarons

French macarons are only scary if you actually care about doing it well. Let me elaborate — you would have to try extremely hard to produce a legitimately inedible macaron. Almost any combination of almond flour, sugar and meringue will give you an extremely tasty pastry. So why are macarons touted as one of the most difficult, fussy and intimidating challenges in the culinary world? Simply put, it is because we place too much emphasis on aesthetics without asking ourselves if we actually enjoy what we’ve created.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve made upwards of thirty batches of macarons, each time painstakingly taking steps to achieve a technically perfect end product. Yet out of my numerous attempts, only one or two have come out without obvious flaws. A quick Google search will pull up millions of articles and blog posts about what qualifies a perfect macarons: It must have a smooth — but not flat — top, with ruffled “feet” that rise straight up from the bottom of the shell without flaring out. A perfect macaron never has a hollow shell. It must be crisp, but not too browned. If this list of requirements seems excessive or difficult to recreate, that’s because it is. Macarons are notoriously arduous for a reason. It requires a tremendous amount of work, dedication and attention to detail to consistently achieve this level of perfection. Thus, distinguishing great pastry chefs from good ones.

Macaron "feet" explained. (Amelia Clute / Sun Staff Writer)

Macaron “feet” explained. (Amelia Clute / Sun Staff Writer)

But many of us don’t have the time or desire to dedicate years of our lives to the pursuit of macaron perfection. Does this mean that we should give up on ever creating a delicious macaron at home? Some on the internet might say yes. But a second look at the criterion listed above reveals that most of these demands are completely based on appearances; the size of the macaron’s “feet,” for example, has virtually no impact on its taste.

I’m here to prove that you can and should be baking up macarons in your home kitchen, even without a kitchen scale or perfect knowledge of pastry. If you’re entranced by the thought of creating a flawless macaron like I often am, then great! We also have something for you. But more than anything, I wish to prove that no matter your goal or culinary experience, you can make wonderful macarons.

Many preface macaron recipes by urging you to go out and buy a kitchen scale because macarons are supposedly impossible to make without one. If you were a professional pastry chef who needed flawless results every time, then yes, you would need to weigh your ingredients. However, what would macarons look like in a home kitchen using just cups and teaspoons?

I have made two batches of macarons: The purple have been made using weight measurements, while I used volume measurements for the white shells. My recipe is adapted from Marcela Arias because she has provided measurements in both grams and cups. The recipe goes as follows:

120 grams of room temperature egg whites, or 3 egg whites

100 grams, or ½ C granulated sugar

130 grams, or 1 ½ C blanched almond flour

130 grams, or 1 C powdered sugar

1 gram, or ¼ tsp cream of tartar

1 gram, or ¼ tsp salt

The basic process of making macarons includes whipping a meringue until it reaches stiff peaks and then folding in the almond flour and powdered sugar for the macaronage stage until the batter flows like lava. It’s a simple process with a lot of places to go wrong — but only if you’re striving for perfection, which I encourage you not to!

The two trials which I made ended up vastly different. In the name of science, I weighed my ingredients after measuring them in volume to see how much of a discrepancy existed between both batches. Predictably, the volume measurements were quite varied and much less controllable. According to the recipe provided by Marcela Arias, for example, one cup of granulated sugar should have weighed 200 grams. When I measured my sugar with a cup, however, I found it actually weighed 252 grams — that’s about a 25 percent increase! Looking at it this way, it’s easy to see why pastry chefs need to weigh their ingredients in order to be successful.

Regardless of all this, the most important part is the finished final product — how did they taste compared to each other? The purple batch using grams clearly looks like a very classic French macaron, but their dainty shells are slightly hollow on the inside — a very common problem for me that I’ve been trying to remedy for months. The batch I made using volume measurements, however, does not include a single hollow macaron. Despite their wrinkled tops, they are dense, chewy cookies that I would be happy to bite into any day. They have less crunch than a traditional macaron “should,” but I still find myself vastly preferring the white cookies because of their full-bodied texture. The purple macarons may be crackly and light, but they lack the soft interior that I loved so much about the white shells.

The less aesthetic but still delicious white macarons. (Amelia Clute / Sun Staff Writer)

The less “perfect” but still delicious white macarons. (Amelia Clute / Sun Staff Writer)

I feel slightly defeated knowing I’ve spent countless hours trying to create the perfect macaron, only to discover through this project that the least “perfect” macarons I’ve ever made are my favorites. I’m definitely surprised, that’s for sure. But I also feel slightly liberated. I am free to dismiss any elitist claims about how macarons must look or be made.

As someone who sells cakes and other pastries, I’m keenly aware of the fact that we all eat with our eyes first. The presentation is all that a future client can see when viewing my website; though I am constantly working to improve my food’s flavor, as well, I cannot ignore how important appearances are to most customers. Beyond just being important for the buyer, I also take great pride in creating something beautiful to look at! But this project has forced me to take a step back and go easier on myself when I’m baking for fun. When I sell a cake to someone, I have the obligation to make it both delicious and visually appealing. Yet, at home, when I am making a batch of macarons just for my family, I might learn even more by letting go of stringent rules that dictate how my food must look — because wonderful food is never a failure, no matter how it may look.

Amelia Clute is a rising junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].

Part 2 — Benjamin Velani and Lemon Sugar Cookies

“Your cookies look flat and raw — put them back in the oven for another few minutes.”

You know what Mom? No — these are my God damn cookies, and they’re going to be as flat and as raw as I like — until I figure out what the fuck I’m doing.

So, what the fuck am I doing? I agreed to collaborate on an article with Amelia Clute, exploring the differences that arise when baking with a food scale or your standard cups, tablespoons, teaspoons and so forth. Going into this project, I honestly expected no difference. Like most people, I generally trust in the power of mathematics to make accurate conversions, so I did a quick Google search to find a cups to grams measurement converter. I punched in the quantities of my necessary ingredients, even chose the type of flour I was using, and wrote out a new list. Here I was, set to make two identical batches of lemon sugar cookies, but I’ve since learned you can’t always trust the math — a startling epiphany, and a blow to my faith in these so-called “hard” sciences.

Hard or not — I needed answers. First, I started with the traditional method. I measured out my sugar, flour, baking powder and soda and salt, and I followed the instructions to a tee. The cookie dough was softer than I expected, easily sticking to my fingers, but firm enough to roll into little one inch UFOs. While the oven was pre-heating, I stuck the dough in the fridge to let it chill and firm up. Then the baking began. As I rotated two trays in and out of the oven every 12 minutes, stacks of perfectly round lemon cookies began to pile up on my counter. Once cooled, they were firm but still chewy, thin but still rich and light but not underwhelming — one left me perfectly satisfied. These cookies had integrity.

First batch of volume measured lemon sugar cookies. (Benjamin Velani / Sun Dining Editor)

First batch of volume measured lemon sugar cookies. (Benjamin Velani / Sun Dining Editor)

After a short recess, I started with the metric method. I got out my digital food scale — accurate to a tenth of a gram — and measured out the same slew of ingredients. Like before, I followed the instructions to a tee, but something happened. My dough was way softer than before — almost a sweet and sticky goo. I had to stick it in the fridge for five or so minutes before even considering to roll out my little flying saucers. Oven set back to 350 degrees, I got my trays filled with soon-to-be cookies and got to baking. After the first batch, I knew these cookies were spineless. As they cooled on the rack after being decorated with yellow sugar sprinkles, they fell flat. Literally. They were as flat as my faith in Cornell’s administration to make a non-profit oriented re-activation plan for fall 2020 — still going ahead with that 3.6 percent tuition increase while our country is facing economic disaster and the highest unemployment levels since the Great Depression, huh?

But, even with all of this, at first, depressing flatness, I have to admit they still tasted delicious. Just like Amelia said about her less-than-perfect white macarons, my flat cookies were just as sweet and lemony as the other aesthetically pleasing ones, but more of a crinkle cookie than a proper sugar cookie. There is no such thing as wasted time or failure — just new opportunities and character building. Buddha and Mr. Edison are currently my academic advisors. That being said, I would still stick with your trusty volume measurements if you want a cookie with some backbone.

Benjamin Velani is a rising junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].