Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sleepless Nights -- Macarons

My first experience with macarons was a cell-phone charm.

This one, actually, from Q-Pot, Japanese purveyor of exquisitely crafted food as jewelry (the top image). I think all their cell-phone charms are gorgeous, but I found something particularly captivating about macarons with jewels stuck in buttercream. At 3,780 Yen, this is a $40 cell-phone charm.

I saw it, wanted it, and immediately went to Strapya World and bought the $10 knock-off (the image beneath) Not as beautifully crafted, perhaps, but something I could afford.

I’d been seeing macarons (not the coconut-meringue cookies called “macaroons,” but these brightly colored confections) pop up here and there in chicey-poo-poo magazines dedicated to travel and cooking. The articles inevitably waxed poetic about fanciful flavor combinations (wasabi-grapefruit! White truffle-hazelnut!) and a divinely chewy/crunchy texture, but I didn’t really pay them much attention other to think that macarons were another very pretty example of Pastries I Can’t Eat.

Then I found out that they are gluten-free.

Macarons are appealing on several levels. They are beautiful. They come in bright colors and tantalizing, exotic flavors. They are small, delighting the beholder in the same way that doll furniture, sushi rolls, and petit fours delight. They cannot be bought at Wal-Mart or your local grocery; there is a certain amount of exclusivity (dare I say snob appeal?) to finding a baker that actually makes them. You can’t have them everyday because it’s difficult to find them, so who would begrudge you a few calories when you can get them? They are like a tiny wrapped gift, small and lightweight. Macarons make the perfect Treat.

So... Why aren’t we all out there making them?

Because according to the authors of the chicey-poo-poo articles, that these little cookies are the Divas of the Pastry World. They are fiendishly finicky, easily upset by humidity and the temperature of the kitchen. They can be ruined if you overbeat them by one stroke. Only the truly experienced pastry chef should even dare attempt them, and even then they fail sometimes, and—

Oh, hooey. I mean, seriously? It’s a sandwich cookie. It has four ingredients. What’s with all the drama?

I have done a lot of searching. I have baked a lot of macarons. I can tell you definitively that macarons are not a Big Deal... And they are a Big Deal. It depends on the kind of person you are.

When I see an ingredient list this simple, I know that the process used to combine them has got to be important. This is the case with macarons. You need to understand how each of the ingredients is working in the recipe in order to make the best of the recipe. (I’m sure I just lost some of you right there. That’s okay; not everyone gets excited about this stuff. But you should definitely keep looking at the pictures!)

For some, this kind of recipe presents an interesting challenge, and they just want to dive in and see what happens — like Bakerella at SugarComa this past January. Then there are some people who create macarons with a kind of Buddha-like simplicity. That would describe Tartlette. She has several recipes on her blog for macarons, and none of them involve dire warnings, tears, or drama. Look:

Not only does she make fabulous macarons, but she takes beautiful pictures of them: on the left, Powdered Strawberry and Vanilla-Bean Macarons; on the right, Black Tie Macarons

I studied the macarons on her site and the PDF copy of her article Demystifying Macarons from Dessert Magazine. I cross referenced it against other web sources. I gathered my materials, wrote up my instructions, and made my first batch of macarons.

I get it now. From the first shattering bite, I was hooked.

You want to try your hand at macarons? Start here. Her directions are what you need to know. I cannot improve upon these instructions, but I would like to add a few notes from someone who has not had pastry training and who can see where the home baker might get a little nervous:

As I said, macarons are a process. Whatever recipe you choose, you will want to read carefully beforehand, several times, to understand what you’re going to do and when. Measure everything carefully, preferably with a scale, but failing that, use the right measuring techniques for dry ingredients. Get your stuff in order on the countertop – parchment lined pans, spatulas, pastry bags. You do not want to be rooting around in the cupboards in the middle of this.

Believe it or not, baking powder was an invention. Before that, people used baking soda, and before that they either used yeast or whipped egg whites to leaven baked goods. In this day of boxed mixes, we don’t mess much with whipping egg whites, so when a recipe says “soft foam” or “medium stiff meringue,” confusion or uncertainty is understandable. If you’ve never whipped egg whites in your life, you may want to practice with a few just too see what “foamy,” “soft peaks,” “glossy peaks,” and “broken” look like. It isn’t hard, but if you’ve never seen it before it can be rather daunting.

Egg whites smell funny. Not exactly bad, just... not good. And leaving them out in your kitchen for a day or two doesn’t improve them any. This step kind of bothered me, and I couldn’t tell if I smelled an egg smell or the beginning of something sinister. Assuming your kitchen temperature isn’t ninety degrees, just go with it. Egg whites smell funny.

The number of strokes is important. Lock up the cat and send the kids outside, because you need to concentrate and count. If you have never folded egg whites into something before, you will definitely want to practice on a pancake or muffin batter. When I began my “macaronage,” my internal dialogue went something like:

5 strokes: “She’s nuts. This will never work.”
10 strokes: “What have I gotten myself into?”
15 strokes: “Well, at least it will make a good story.”
20 strokes: “You know... This might actually work.”

I found 20 strokes a good place to stop and add any add-ins (cocoa powder, food coloring, etc.). This is also where I began to be much more careful and thorough, turning and scraping the bowl.

But if you should use 51 strokes, the macarons will not be ruined! The point is, pay attention. Watch the batter, not the television.

Tartelette specifically states that powdered food coloring is better than the liquid food coloring we all have in our pantries, because the powdered coloring does not add moisture to the meringue. This makes sense; if the egg whites are left lingering on the countertop for 24 hours, why would you want to add liquid back in?

Naturally, I had to try the liquid food coloring. I'm like that.

I divided the batter at 20 strokes and adding 5 drops liquid food coloring with 1 teaspoon powdered egg whites to each half of the batter. I also tried another divided batch with 3 drops liquid food coloring and no egg white.

Yes, it made a difference. Instead of the impressive shatter/chewy combination, the texture was much more subdued. Actually, I never felt like I got any of the batches baked all the way through; I baked them for the full 12 minutes and then a bit longer until they started to brown. They stuck to the parchment. They weren’t bad, they just weren’t that magical transcendent texture that all the articles raved about. They went from, “This is amazing!” to “Well, these are pretty tasty.”

Can you use liquid food coloring? Yes. But you will never achieve the intense colors you can achieve with powdered coloring and the texture will suffer. I personally will not be using the liquid drops again, and I think for your first batch, you shouldn’t either. If you take the time to make macarons, then you should have them as they should be and experiment later! (That is to say, I haven’t tried gel food coloring yet, and I certainly will...)

I am a terrible judge of size, so I drew 1 1/4 inch circles on the undersides of the parchment paper and used them as a template. It wasn’t until I had actually loaded a plastic bag full of batter and cut off 1/4 inch at the corner that I realized I had no clue how to use a pastry bag. None. But with the pre-drawn circles as a guideline and a few macarons as practice, I did just fine.

After the first batch, I got the Ateco tips Tartelette mentioned in her article; unfortunately, having no clue about pastry bags, I ordered the wrong size coupler. That was okay – the guys at set me straight. As a matter of fact, he said “Just promise to order from us again!” and dropped the right sized coupler in the mail, for free. (Unfortunately, I’m not really sure what size he dropped in the mail... If you’re as pastry-bag-challenged as I am, call and ask. They’re nice.)


Using real pastry tips was quite exciting. I spent more time trying to keep macaron batter in the bag than trying to pipe it out. But like whipping and folding egg whites, it takes practice and patience. As you can see, I didn’t manage too badly.

Three of the four macaron ingredients—confectioner’s sugar, egg whites, and plain sugar—are also the same ingredients in royal icing. Royal icing is the mortar of the pastry world, used to make a particularly hard, shiny icing for cookies or to glue the pieces of a gingerbread house together. You should not leave the mixing bowl in the sink and wait to do cleanup, or you will have to chisel dried macaron batter off your utensils. If the batter should dry, running hot water in the bowl and letting everything soak will get everything unglued... eventually.

My favorite combination so far is chocolate mint. Using the recipe outlined in Demystifying Macarons, I came up with:

3 egg whites
30 g sugar
200 g powdered sugar
110 g almond flour
and after 20 strokes, 2 TB of natural cocoa powder

And for the filling, a basic ganache:
1/4 c heavy cream
3.5 oz dark chocolate (70% cacao), chopped
3-5 drops peppermint oil (which is not the same as extract)

I used 5 drops of peppermint oil. MP informed me that the peppermint level of the macarons about blew the top of his head off. I like things minty, but you need to know your audience.

You can never make too many macarons; they freeze great. I layer them, unfilled, with parchment paper and put in a few of those “DO NOT EAT” desiccant pillow-paks I save from vitamin jars, and let them thaw on the counter for 15 minutes to a half hour before eating. They’re good plain, with jam, with ganache, with ice cream... Sometimes, I just lie awake at night thinking of what to put in macarons...

There are worse ways to spend sleepless nights.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Snacks: The Drama Llama Strikes

My taxes are being held hostage by an accountant who tells me her son is sick with H1N1 and refuses to answer my email and calls. The local grocery is closed for remodeling and I have to drive to a different store, which is always irritating because the shelves are arranged differently. Contractors with pneumatic nails guns are crawling over the back of my house putting up a new deck. And there's one or two other things I could mention, but nobody needs those images -- trust me.

The drama llama has struck and I'm starving and I don't have time to be fixing special snowflake food.

Having appropriate snacks in a crisis is important. Stress can make us hungry as well as give us the urge to gnaw on a fencepost out of frustration. Without having provisions, you're liable to end up eating crap that doesn't fill you up and only makes the stress that much worse. The psychological aspect of an appropriate snack is also key. In the history of the world, no woman has ever had her heart broken and said, "I just want to sit on the couch and eat carrot sticks!"

Healthful, filling, psychologically satisfying. You can do this.

Avocados: They contain fiber, potassium, Vitamin E, B-vitamins and folic acid. Their healthy fats make them deliciously creamy. More importantly, if you mash them up with cocoa powder, soaked dates, and a few other ingredients, you get chocolate mousse.

But if that seems like too much trouble, then go light: slice the avocado in half, remove the pit, squeeze a bit of lemon or lime on each half, and sprinkle lightly with sea salt.

Turkey roll-ups: Forget about the tortilla wraps and wrap your fillings in a slice of turkey -- a teaspoon of salad dressing and lettuce leaves, a bit of hummus and a green onion, or just plain spicy brown mustard and a bit of cheese. Turkey is is low in fat and high in protein, a great source of iron, zinc, phosphorus, potassium and B vitamins. Just make sure your source is gluten-free (YES they put wheat in deli meat. Usually as part of a cheap spice blend) and doesn't have a lot of weird chemicals and sweeteners.

Boiled eggs: The Incredible Edible Egg -- The ultimate in portable snacks! A good source of riboflavin, Vitamin B12 and phosphorus, and a very good source of protein and selenium, if you're worried about saturated fat and cholesterol, don't eat the yolk. Dip them in salt-free herb blends.

Have you seen the cute bento egg shapers? Smacking an egg and peeling it is a great tension reliever!

Nuts: Plain, raw nuts. Almonds, specifically, but also pecans, walnuts, and Brazil nuts from the shell (the ones you buy in bulk are old and rancid. If you think you hate Brazil nuts, that's probably why)Nuts are a higher-fat food,but it's mostly heart-healthy unsaturated fat, and they have protein. Two tablespoons of almond butter with a drizzle of honey and cinnamon feels like a very decadent treat.

There is a difference between stress eating (OMG CHEEZY POUFS!) and having a snack because the activity of your day has worn you down and you need fuel.Some might say that these are (*gasp*) high-fat foods and you will gain weight! But when you are really stressy and hungry, you need more than a carrot stick. I keep my portion sizes small on all these snacks -- one avocado, one slice of turkey, one egg, or 1/4 cup of nuts.

Food doesn't solve anything except hunger, and more is not necessarily better. When things are stressy, you need to stop and take breaks. Sometimes creative visualization can calm your nerves... like imagining how you'll shave the drama llama and knit a sweater.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

More of Spring (and some Peachy Drama)

Because Spring happens fast, and you don't want to miss it!

This is Persian speedwell, sometimes called Bird's Eye. They're weeds. Each one is no bigger than your pinky nail, but a whole carpet of them is truly spectacular.

Hyacinths, in an in-your-face pink!

Bradford pears. A whole street full of them looks like snowfall. The "pears" are more like crabapples; they taste terrible, but the birds love them.

Star magnolias don't get nearly as big as the great magnolia trees of the South. They make me think of water lilies.

This is also a kind of magnolia called a tulip tree.

A flowering plum. In Japan these flower so early that they're often flowering in the snow. If you see a painted scroll with a gnarled, flowering tree covered in snow, it's either an almond or a plum -- not a cherry tree.

And speaking of flowering fruit trees...

Of course it wouldn't be Spring without a little Peach Drama. The tree was looking really good -- really good -- and then the temperature dropped. MP and I managed to get the plastic over it for a night, much as I did during last year's cold snap, but this time I am so glad MP was around. The tree has grown significantly, and there's no way I could have done it along. As it was, we had to attach another piece of plastic just to get the thing covered to the ground.

But... I can't tell how well it worked. The weather got so rainy and nasty, the tree stopped blooming. The flowers out now look kind of ratty and spent, but there are still buds waiting to pop. Did I lose many flowers? Did I hurt the tree? No clue until it sets peaches. I cannot imagine doing this for my livelihood -- the suspense would kill me.

I keep thinking of a quote or a line from something: "There's a madman in the garden murmuring bits of truth, but if you would hear him you must first get down on your knees." An allusion to the Agony in the Garden? I don't recall. But I do think Spring is like that -- little quiet bits of glory everywhere, but if you want to see them, you must get down on your knees on the wet earth and look.

It's worth it.