The Anatomy of a Macaron with Duc Liao of Scratch Pastries

See also: Tastemakers 2012: Duc Liao See also: Heavenly: Salted Caramel Macarons at Scratch Pastries

When you're cooking, it's all about a dash of this and a splash of that. But baking is another matter, an exact science. In this series, we're going behind the bakery case and into the kitchens of some of Phoenix's finest purveyors of sweets (and some savories). Fresh out of culinary school, Chow Bella contributor Mabel Suen will work with local chefs to learn their tricks for making perfect pastries, baked goods and desserts. Stay tuned for findings once the flour settles.

The Baked Good: The Macaron The Chef: Duc Liao The Place: Scratch Pastries

At Scratch Pastries, as far as macarons go, it's what's on the inside that counts. To pastry chef Duc Liao, who grew up in France and knows a thing or two about art both in and out of the kitchen, a simple shell made with just egg whites, almond flour and sugar can go far with the right kind of filling.

Check out the entire Baker's Lab series in photos.

Getting that "simple" shell just right to begin with, however, isn't as easy as it sounds -- especially when dealing with something as moody as egg whites in meringue. In the quaint yet contemporary bistro-style storefront that is Scratch Pastries, Liao takes a break from kneading some sort of dough in an industrial sized mixer to explain the philosophy behind his baked goods.

"On a professional level, you have a very high expectation for everything that you do," he says, explaining that consistency in technique is how he aims to perfect his own pastries. Past that, it's about learning how to deal with exterior factors, such as humidity, and most importantly, adding that personal touch.

"The exception is what you put inside your macaron," he says. "After you get the shells perfect, the inside becomes your signature."

To Liao, the macaron is something that can be learned in a day but can take years to perfect. Since the opening of Scratch Pastries, he says he's changed the recipe at least four times. His ideal macaron is slightly dry -- almost flaky -- on the outside and moist, soft, and fresh on the inside. The Tools: A mixer, a scale, a pastry bag with a tip, sheet trays, parchment paper, a bench scraper, a sifter, an oven, and a timer.

Terminology: The base of a macaron is a meringue made with whipped egg whites. French macarons are often confused with macaroons, which include the denser, coconut-based confections that come to mind when the term is heard.

Technique/s: Here's a quick breakdown of the steps involved in making macaron shells:

Tips & Tricks: Dry almond flour at room temperature on top of newspaper for weeks to help remove extra moisture. Then, mix that with powdered sugar and let it sit for a few days. The extra fat transfers to the sugar. Also, age egg whites by leaving them slightly uncovered for a day or two on the counter so there is a smaller ratio of water inside your egg albumen. All of these things help the macaron shells dry accordingly.

Troubleshooting: Watch out for any number of factors that could result in an undesirable final product. These can include overmixing, over drying, undercooking or overcooking. Try different quality ingredients from different sources to see how they affect the consistency.

Recommended reads: Liao recommends reading up on everything from simple home cookbooks to textbooks put together by culinary organizations. Or, why not get the best of both worlds by trying something like Baking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America?

Try this at home: Parisian Macarons from Martha Stewart, Basic French Macarons from Yum Sugar, Macarons from A La Cuisine.

See what else The Baker's Lab has examined: Anatomy of Baklava with Rocio Gutierrez and Hussein Chahin of Middle Eastern Bakery Anatomy of a Cheesecake with Beth Goldwater of Bertha's Cafe Anatomy of a Marshmallow with Tracy Dempsey of Tracy Dempsey Originals Anatomy of a Chocolate Chip Cookie with Brady Breese of Urban Cookies Anatomy of a Polvorón with Minerva Orduño Rincón of Muñeca Mexicana Anatomy of a Vegan Cupcake with the Sizemore Sisters of Treehouse Bakery Anatomy of a Brownie with Eileen Spitalny of Fairytale Brownies Anatomy of a Scone with Candy Lesher of Baci d'Amore Truffles and Scones

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