My mother gave me a jar of safflower petals for Christmas, among other things. I had never seen or heard of them before – although they are called ‘poor man’s saffron’ in the product description, they’re beautiful, and have a softer, less brassy flavour than saffron proper. I immediately knew what I wanted to do with them: sprinkle them decadently over little saffron macarons. I say decadently, but actually that was quite a thrifty choice when you consider the price of actual saffron.

I have made macarons several times before, and even written about them on this blog, but I’ve stuck with fairly standard, safe flavour choices. However, the rich, dusky warmth of saffron called for a correspondingly exotic partner, so I’ve gone for a dark chocolate cardamon ganache, spiked with a hefty pinch of sea salt, to match up to the spiced shells. Normally, with macarons, the shells are for colour and the filling is for flavour: you can’t mess with the shell recipe too much as they are quite temperamental, so many of the usual methods of adding flavour in baking are out, and you have to rely on getting a big hit of taste into a small disc of ganache, curd, or gel. However, this is where saffron comes into its own. You only need about a gram of it to flavour the macarons, and because it’s dry it incorporates into the almond mix quite happily. You could even add a touch of orange food colouring to the meringue mix to hint at the saffron flavour within, but I had the safflower petals on hand and I wanted a nice contrast between their sunset colour and the pale shell.

It might give you an indication of how hectic my life is at the moment that I have been intending to make these since Christmas Day and have only gotten around to it in late January.

Notes (my standard macaron notes):

  • For this, you will need at least three baking sheets (I sometimes go onto a fourth) and parchment to line them, a sugar thermometer, a food processor, an electric hand whisk or a stand mixer, and a piping bag fitted with a 1cm plain nozzle, as well as the normal bowls and scales and stuff. Sorry, lots of kit I know, but that’s just how it is for these.
  • This recipe makes around 50 shells, or 25 paired macarons, although this obviously depends on how big you pipe them.
  • I don’t personally think you need to bother ageing your egg whites unless they are stupendously fresh to start with – perhaps you have your own chickens or something, who knows – but I do always make sure mine are room temperature.
  • I am not awesome at piping, and so my personal preference is to line my baking sheets with disposable parchment and, using a cookie cutter, draw circles onto it in black Sharpie as a guide, then flip it over ready to be piped on to. You can also buy templates that are already on silicone mats (which I should do but I am cheap) or print them off the internet, or just pipe freestyle if you are confident. You want to end up with something like this.

Ingredients:

for the shells

200g white caster sugar
75ml hot water (from a hot tap is fine, but boil a kettle if you like)
200g icing sugar
200g ground almonds
1g saffron (this is very annoying to measure unless you have great scales, but it’s basically a large pinch)
160g egg whites (divided into two bowls of 80g each)
Pinch of salt

for the ganache filling

200g good quality 70% dark chocolate
300g double cream
20 cardamom pods
a good pinch of sea salt

to decorate

safflower petals – completely optional

Method:

  1. Get out three baking sheets and line them with parchment (or silicone), and create a template if you need one. Pop your water and caster sugar in a saucepan, stir it gently together with a wooden spoon, and put the pan on a low heat to dissolve the sugar (starting with hot water speeds this up). While that’s happening, pop your almonds, icing sugar, and saffron in a food processor and blitz for 1 minute. Scrape the sides down, then blitz for an additional minute. Pass the sugar, nut, and saffron powder through a sieve into a large bowl. You might be left with some chunkier almond mixture in the sieve. Chuck this away, don’t force it through – you want smooth macarons – but if there are any strands of saffron left in there, pop them into the bowl.
  2. If your sugar has dissolved into your water (the liquid shouldn’t feel gritty), turn up the heat on your syrup, stick your thermometer in it, and start to bubble it up to 115 degrees celsius (which is your target). Meanwhile, mix 80g of egg white into your sieved almond mixture with a spatula to make a thick, stiff paste. It will look like there isn’t enough liquid, but keep working it and it will come together. Pop the other 80g of egg white into a clean glass bowl with the pinch of salt and whisk to stiff peaks.
  3. When the sugar syrup hits 115 degrees, pour it into the whisked egg whites in a thin stream while still whisking them on high speed. The mixture will become shiny. Once all the sugar syrup is in the whites, keep whisking for five minutes or so while the bowl cools until you have your stiff meringue mix. Whack 1/3 of the meringue mix into the almond paste and beat it in any old how to loosen it.
  4. Now gently fold the remaining meringue into your macaron batter with a spatula. You need to make sure it’s well incorporated and there are no streaks, but the more you mix it the more air will be knocked out, and the looser the batter becomes. If you don’t mix enough, there will be unincorporated meringue and the batter won’t smooth out when piped. If you go too far, it will run everywhere when piped. You want to be able to lift the spatula up and draw a trail of batter across the surface of the bowl and leave a line which stays there for around 10 seconds, but then gradually disappears back into the body of the mixture. People say it is supposed to look like lava but that’s totally unhelpful to me as I don’t know what lava looks like. Go slowly, one fold at a time, and keep checking it. If in doubt, go for under rather than over mixing, as the process of piping the batter will knock more air out too.
  5. When you are happy with your batter, put half of it into your piping bag and begin to pipe out your rounds. I find it easier to only use half the mix at once or the weight of it makes it come out of the bag very fast, which is tricky to pipe. Piping these just takes practice. Give yourself space, pipe directly down rather than at an angle, move quickly and get into a rhythm. Your batter will spread a little so aim for batter circles slightly smaller than your template circles. Once you have finished piping, pick up each tray, lift it a good few inches off the surface, and drop it straight down. Do this a couple of times. You need to knock out any air bubbles that have accumulated. After this is done, leave your macarons to rest for around half an hour. Once rested, they should have a slight skin. Leaving them for longer – up to a couple of hours – shouldn’t hurt them.

  6. While they are resting, make ganache. Break your chocolate into small pieces and pop it in a bowl. Crush your cardamom pods to release the flavour, and pop them into your cream. Heat your cream and cardamom in a pan until it’s just steaming and little bubbles are appearing at the edges, then take off the heat, cover, and leave to infuse for fifteen minutes or so. Sieve the cardamom out, and re-weigh your cream – you need 200g, and some of it will have evaporated in the heating process. Reheat the weighed cream until just bubbling. Pour it onto the chocolate, add the salt, and leave it alone to sit for a couple of minutes. Beat the mixture until smooth. Leave to firm up to a pipeable consistency in the fridge
  7. When your macarons have rested, heat your oven to 160C/140C fan/gas 3. Bake your macaron shells for around 20 minutes. This is obviously dependent on your oven and the size of your macarons, so keep an eye on them. Check after 17 minutes. When your shells are cooked, they should lift off your baking parchment without leaving much residue behind. If they are leaving lots of very sticky mixture or not lifting off, give them more time. If they are completely dry and hollow then they are over-baked (but will still be yummy when filled). When they are done, get them on a cooling rack and once they are cool enough to touch, take them off the parchment.
  8. Get your ganache out the fridge – it might need a couple of minutes at room temperature to become pipeable, depending on how long it’s been in there. Match the shells of your macarons into pairs of similar sizes. Pipe a circle of ganache onto the base shell of each pair and gently sandwich on the top shell. If using, sprinkle with safflower petals.

Really, you should store macarons in the fridge in an air-tight container for 24 hours before eating them to let the shells soften into the filling but my willpower isn’t always up to this. Regardless, they keep very well.