In the pantheon of classic baking recipes, there are a few that are considered to be among the most challenging to master. Recipes for delicate croissants and airy souffles, for instance, require a mixture of patience, expertise, creativity and talent in order to successfully pull off.
The petite, colorful French macaron — the French confection consisting of two meringue-based cookies composed of nothing but beaten egg whites, sugar and finely ground almonds and a filling of flavored buttercream, ganache or jam — is another one of those recipes.
Macarons, not to be confused with macaroons, a coconut cookie, or Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, are a challenge that 14-year-old John Bapst High School student Jaelin Roberts has mastered. She estimates she made hundreds of macarons before she felt like she’d perfected it.
“It took me a really, really long time to get it right,” said Roberts, a Bangor resident. “I look at pictures of some of the first ones I did and I’m, like, ugh.”
All that practice by budding baker Roberts paid off, however. She and her trusty baker’s assistant — her mother, Joan — two months ago launched Simply Macarons by Jaelin, a line of macarons in 14 different flavors, currently available to order online.
Jaelin Roberts has been baking for a few years. She started out making cupcakes, biscotti and scones, but soon graduated to more challenging recipes. When she saw pictures of macarons on Pinterest last year, she knew she wanted to try her hand at making the cute little cookies, which usually are made in an array of colors and flavors, and are often displayed in elaborate presentations or packaging.
Roberts traveled to Paris last August with her father, Michael, where they took a baking class — ironically, not in order to learn to make macarons — in between visiting museums and other Parisian landmarks. She’s had an affinity for all things French for years.
“I love Paris. I love French things,” she said. “And I already really loved baking, so I definitely wanted to try macarons. I just started baking them for fun.”
She and mother jumped feet first into their new baking project, buying silicon-lined baking pans, installing a sensitive thermometer in their oven so they could make sure the temperature inside was exactly right, and undergoing a huge amount of trial and error in those initial batches.
A chance encounter last year at the Bangor location of the now-closed Coffee Hound Coffee Bar, located in the same building as Vision Care of Maine on Stillwater Avenue, led to Jaelin’s first success: selling her macarons at the coffee shop.
“I told the owner, Chris, that my daughter makes macarons, and he asked if he could try them,’ said Joan Roberts. “She brought some in and he said they were as good as the ones in New York.’ And that was that, pretty much.”
Jaelin made macarons for Coffee Hound from October 2016 until this past April, when she and her mother officially launched Simply Macarons by Jaelin.
The first step in macaron-making is to crack two egg whites into a bowl and beat them with a little bit of confectioner’s sugar until they form tall, soft peaks — the way you’d make meringue. Then, the ground almonds and the rest of the sugar are added, along with a few drops of food coloring, and it’s all stirred together by hand until it reaches just the right consistency.
“There’s actually a word for it. It’s called ‘macaronage,’” said Jaelin Roberts. “It has to be really shiny. They say it’s like the consistency of lava… you just know it’s right when you see it.”
The batter is loaded into a pastry tube, and is painstakingly piped into delicate little circles on the baking pan. At this point, what is perhaps the most crucial step in the process happens: allowing the unbaked cookies to sit at room temperature, until the slightest crust forms on top of the batter.
Joan Roberts said she and her daughter didn’t realize at first that the weather would play such an important role in the success or failure of a batch of macarons.
“We’d make them, and they’d be too flat, or they wouldn’t be crispy, or they would just blow apart in the oven,” said Joan Roberts, who works as a career counselor. “Eventually we realized that the humidity plays a huge part in making sure they turn out right. We had no idea … if there’s too much humidity, the film won’t form right. It throws the whole thing off.”
That’s why Jaelin and her mom only bake on days that the weather promises to be dry. On good baking days, the pair can crank out dozens of macarons — though one batch of 20 takes nearly 90 minutes to complete, and the Roberts only have one oven to work with in their certified home kitchen.
Once the film has formed, it’s into the oven, to bake in carefully timed increments until the cookie attains just the right texture.
The cookies then sit and cool, while the flavored buttercream that will be piped in is prepared. It’s the buttercream that gives the cookie its specific flavor — the cookie itself has a very delicate flavor, while the buttercream is much stronger. Some of the most popular flavors offered by Simply Macarons by Jaelin include raspberry, lemon, mocha, peppermint, salted caramel, pistachio, honey lavender and orange blossom, though the sky’s the limit when it comes to dreaming up new flavors. Each cookie is tinted with food coloring to reflect its filling.
“We’ve had people suggest making a bacon-flavored one,” said Joan Roberts. “We’ll try anything.”
The filling is piped in, the little sandwich is made, et voila: un macaron. It’s best to wait a few hours so the cookie has time to settle and achieve its perfect texture before you take a bite.
And taking a bite is the best part — the layers of complex textures result in three distinct taste sensations. First, the smooth, crispy outer shell, cracked by your teeth. Then, the slightly chewy interior of the cookie; lacy in appearance, tasting a little moist, a little tender. And then, an explosive pop of flavor from the buttercream.
“They’re just totally unique,” said Joan Roberts. “And they are just so cute.”
Since the Roberts operate out of a certified home kitchen, however, they have to take a few extra steps in order to make sure their cookies are safe to sell to consumers. As buttercream is made with heavy cream and butter, each individual flavor must be tested by the University of Maine School of Food and Agriculture’s Product Safety Lab to make sure it’s shelf-stable.
“I drive her up to UMaine, and she gets out of the car and drops off her macarons,” said Joan Roberts. “They’ve really gotten to know her up there.”
Word of Jaelin’s macarons has spread among folks in the Bangor area mostly by word of mouth, either through fellow John Bapst students telling friends and family, or by folks stumbling across her cookies at the Coffee Hound Coffee Bar. Last month, she got her biggest break yet, when Machias Savings Bank asked her to make 800 macarons to give out as gifts at the bank’s Family Business Awards night in Portland.
“It was pretty intense,” said Jaelin Roberts. “That was a lot of macarons. It took hours and hours.”
Jaelin Roberts said that while she’s still not beholden to any particular future career plan — she’s just finished her freshman year in high school, after all — a career in baking or culinary arts is definitely on the table. What money she is making now she plans to sock away for college, or to expand her business in the future.
“I love to bake, and I might want to do that in the future,” she said. “I like biology and science a lot, too … but baking is kind of a science, too.”
Macarons are available to order online via the Simply Macarons by Jaelin Facebook page, or by emailing email@example.com. They are six for $13.50, or a dozen for $27. A portion of the proceeds from each sale benefits Love Without Boundaries, an organization that supports orphaned and impoverished children in a number of countries around the world.