Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The 12 Days of Macarons

“On the first day of macaron making, the baking gods gave to me a tray of burnt meringues and two trays of super sweet cookies…” I wanted to try my hand at French Macarons (the sandwich cookies made with almond flour, not to be confused with their coconut cousins, the macaroons), over Thanksgiving vacation. I had even purchased sliced almonds and a set of pastry tips. But for some reason, it never happened. So on December 14th, a Sunday, my last Sunday in New York City before the holidays, I dragged everything out and made the first attempt. I knew the cards were stacked against me. I am hardly what you would call a baker, and everyone and their brother says macarons are all about technique. Plus, my equipment sucked. Lacking a large food processor (to both pulverize the almonds and then combine with the powered sugar), I had to use my one cup Black & Decker mini chopper -- which, wonder of wonders, did not really turn the almonds into almond flour after all. Despite sifting out the larger chunks, I basically resorted to using ground almonds in the batter. Undaunted, I combined the dry ingredients with my whipped egg whites (with no counter space for a KitchenAid stand mixer, I used a KitchenAid hand mixer to make the meringue). And not owning any Silpat mats, piped the batter onto parchment. I put the first batch in my gas oven at 375 degrees. Despite the troubles I had with the batter, the cookies looked damn good. They even developed a small foot, a mark all macaron makers strive for. But about halfway in, I smelled burning. So while the view from the top was perfect, the bottoms were black, the cookies were totally dried out and tasted more like meringues than macarons. Pulling from one of the tips I had read, I put the next batch on top of two stacked cookie sheets. Again, a small foot developed. The tops looked a little worse given I had tried to smooth them over after piping the batter (note to self: do not pipe in a spiral). The third batch was virtually the same as the second, although I baked them on top of a silicone liner instead of parchment. While these two trays did not look great, they were a bit softer, but with one cup of powdered sugar and 5 tablespoons of granulated sugar, were so sweet, I had to toss them out. “On the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth days of macaron making, the baking gods gave to me too many blogs with tips and tricks to read…” I take comfort in the fact that many are infected with the desire to make macarons and that we’re all an obsessed bunch. After the first failed attempt, I read, a lot, about how to improve my technique. From Syrup & Tang to David Lebovitz (whose chocolate macaron recipe I tried the first time), about aging egg whites and what the consistency of the egg whites should look like when whipped (although I am still not sure what exactly egg white “magma” looks like). I bought almond meal, a coffee bean grinder and more parchment. And was ready for the second attempt. On December 20, I tried again, using the same recipe with three [disastrous] modifications: 1. I cut the granulated sugar to 2 T. in hopes of cutting some of the sweetness 2. I upped the amount of unsweetened cocoa powder by 1 T. in hopes of the same 3. I used my parents’ crappy electric stove, which has minimal ventilation to let steam escape Despite using the coffee bean grinder, and a large food processor, and sifting the dry ingredients twice, the end result were dense, fudgy cookies, much like those used in moon pies. Tasty, but with no feet, or lightness. “On the eighth day of macaron making, the baking gods gave to me three egg whites which I left out on the counter and aged 48 hours…” I was a woman obsessed. It was baking season but I did not attempt any other kind of cookie that week. I was focused on making a perfect (or at least passable) macaron. I studied the merits of the Italian meringue technique and even ran out to buy a candy thermometer. I compared the number of people who age egg whites in the fridge vs. the counter top. And then I tried again. “On the 11th day of macaron making, the baking gods gave to me two trays of flimsy white cookies…” For the third attempt, I consulted a recipe from Tartelette, converted grams to ounces and used my aged-on-the-counter-for-48-hours egg whites. Things were looking good, until I slipped the pans into the oven. The batter spread into thin disks and did not pouf at all. While the cookies from the second attempt had at least been eatable, the third time was definitely not a charm. I had lost the battle, but not the war. “On the 12th day of macaron making, the baking gods gave to me a chance to redeem myself and use up seven egg yolks...” I’ve temporarily admitted defeat and have retired from macaron making, but not cooking or baking in general. In fact, I used up my leftover egg yolks in two dishes: Ina Garten’s jam thumb prints (turned out divine!) and a creamy batch of cinnamon ice cream. Make your New Year be filled with better dishes!
Cinnamon Ice Cream Based on a recipe from David Lebovitz (thanks to Cynthia and Matt for getting me my own copy of The Perfect Scoop for Christmas) Ingredients 1 cup skim milk Pinch of salt 1/2 cup sugar 5 egg yolks 2 cups whipping cream, divided 2-3 T. of Penzey’s Vietnamese Cinnamon, depending on taste Method Wisk together milk, salt, sugar, cinnamon and half of the cream in a small pot and warm through. In the meantime, beat egg yolks in a small bowl; add a small amount of the warmed dairy mixture, whisking gently. Add the egg mixture to the pot and heat until custard thickens. Strain mixture into covered container and chill completely. Add custard to your ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacture’s directions. Enjoy as is, over some
Panettone bread pudding or drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Yea for the fingerling

Between the holidays, my social calendar and long hours at work, most of my recent dishes (and farmers market buys) have been old standards rather than new experiments. Perhaps the most versatile veg I've been consuming is the fingerling potato. I've seen them at the market for years, but only started buying them a few months ago. It's the lazy woman's potato -- thin skinned so no need for peeling, perfectly sized when cooking a frittata for one, equally good diced and boiled in soup, sliced and roasted as pseudo french fries or just eaten with cheese, as I did over Thanksgiving week upstate. Fingerlings can be stored for months, but they say the taste does change slightly. These had been stored under my parents' sink (I know, I know) for over two months, which may explain why the potatoes seemed a little dried out. But let's be real -- in this dish, the fingerling is the mere supporting actor and the star is the raclette cheese. So why this may not have been as tasty as my first taste of raclette in Switzerland, or the version available from Neal's Yard Dairy in Borough Market, London, to use the words of Ina Garten, potatoes and cheese,"how bad could that be?"
Easy Raclette


Fingerling potatoes, halved

Raclette cheese

Assorted condiments such as pearl or sliced onion, cornichons, etc. Method (for those without a Raclette grill)

Boil or roast fingerlings until fork tender, liberally salt and pepper

Place in in shallow baking dish, cut side up

Slice cheese an place over each potato, melt under broiler and serve