Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Crazy For Macarons!


It has taken me a few months of intensive blog reading to decipher what in the heck the hubbub was all about. So I finally made them.

And made them.

And made them.

And now I know why everyone is crazy for them. They have rendered me almost speechless. Wait. Let me have another bite and I'll try and explain them to you.

Macarons are not to be confused with Macaroons.

These are Macarons.

This is a Macaroon.

Let's break for a brief phonics review. We all know how to pronounce the word Macaroon. It's easy. The sound rhymes with so many words. "Hey! If you're looking for me soon, I'll be in the saloon, singin' a tune, lookin' at the moon, eatin' a Macaroon. (Dang, I feel like a goon.)

Whereas the word Macaron is slightly different. It's pronounced like the word macaroni......only without the "i". Wait, maybe this rhyme will help. "Please leave me alone , I'm on the phone, eating my Macaron.

There seems to be a frenzied craze lately about these lovely little cookies. Trust me when I say that they are simply delicious, but more importantly is the fact that they are technically challenging to make. That was all I needed to hear. After scouring the internet for baking tips, I decided to head for Barnes & Nobles to purchase a book on Macarons. Note that it is named appropriately.

The book provided tips, pointers, recipes and beautiful photography.....and you all know what a pushover I am for a beautiful cookbook. I just couldn't help myself.

I ended up making this Macaron recipe a total of three times over the weekend. They are not easy to make. Everything has to be perfectly measured, in fact, most recipes suggest using a kitchen scale to weigh the ingredients. Macarons have only five ingredients. That's it.

3 egg whites that have been aged for 24 hours

2/3 cup ground almonds

1.5 cups confectioner's sugar

5 Tablespoons of Sugar

1 Teaspoon of Vanilla
Combine ground almonds and powdered sugar, sifted in a bowl. Put egg whites in the mixer and beat until foamy, then add granulated sugar and beat until it is stiff. Add vanilla and beat until just blended. Add almond/sugar to egg whites and fold to blend. Pipe batter onto parchment lined cookie sheets (or just use a Silpat), rap cookie sheet on the counter to settle batter then let sit on the counter for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Put cookie sheet in oven and bake for 12-18 minutes (depending on your oven) Remove and completely cool before filling.

I can hear what you're saying. "What are "aged" egg whites?" They're egg whites that have been sitting in a covered container on your counter for 24 hours. The room temperature increases the elasticity of the protein in the egg whites, so they whip faster and higher.

I don't have a food processor so I ground up the almonds in a coffee grinder. Yes....I cleaned it out completely before I used it.

Combine the ground almonds with the confectioner's sugar.

Blend together gently with a wire whisk.

Then sift the mixture together. I love this old sifter. My Nana had one just like it when I was a child. My sister Kathy bought this one for me several years ago and I use it all the time.

See what's at the bottom? Almond carnage.

Set your sifted bowl aside. Now would be the time to add a powdered food coloring to the almond/sugar mix. I didn't have powdered color, so I used a bit of color food gel mixed with a tiny bit of water and mixed it into the meringue mixture. Sigh. It didn't work quite the way I wanted it to. You'll see what I mean in a second.

Whip the egg whites on high until they are foamy, then gradually add the granulated sugar. Turn the mixer on high and beat the daylights out of it until it's about as thick as shaving cream. When you remove the beater, the meringue should stand up straight.

Isn't this lovely? Now add the almond/sugar mix to the egg whites.

Using a large spatula, first slowly blend the mix together making sure to incorporate the dry with the wet. Once that is done, begin scooping and turning the mix in the bowl about 15 times.

Ahh.....lovely macaronnage.

I put a large metal decorating tip inside of a 14 inch pastry bag and then put it into a medium-sized container...in this case, an 8-cup measuring cup. When you turn the pastry bag outside of the cup, it makes it as easy as pie to fill with Macaron batter.

Using the large end of a decorating tip, I traced 1-inch circles onto paper and slipped it underneath the silpat on the baking sheet.

This was used as a guide for piping the Macarons.

These were actually a tad too big, but that was because this particular batch was too runny. Why?? Because I decided to challenge the recipe and use Color Gels instead of Powdered Food Color as I was directed. They ended up tasting great, but it was back to the drawing board.

Of course that didn't stop me from whipping up a chocolate ganache to sandwich in between those crunchy meringue layers.

For the next batch I used Matcha Powder. These.....came out perfectly.

Don't they look beautiful?? After they were piped, I slapped the bottom of the pan on the counter a couple of times to help settle the batter....not because I'm insane, but because most recipes tell you that this sharp movement is what gives the Macaron it's initial structure to develop "feet'. The piped batter should then sit out on the counter for 30 minutes before baking.

This batch made it all worth the effort. They didn't raise up quite as high as I would have liked, but since this was my third attempt in one day, I wanted to kiss each and every one of them......but don't worry......I didn't.

The ruffled bottom edge on each Macaron shell is called a "foot"....or in Francais, un pied. If you don't get the feet....it's not a Macaron.

Dark Chocolate Ganache. Heat heavy cream in a double boiler until the milk starts to hiss, then turn off the heat. Add semi-sweet chocolate chips and stir until melted. Allow to cool to thicken. Any questions?

I peeled this little guy off of the Silpat too quickly and he left some of his guts behind. I hate when that happens. Poor little dude. Tragic......but nothing a little Chocolate Ganache can't hide.

I was so embarrassed about showing you my "unmanicured blacksmith man-hands" all the time, so I Photoshopped myself a hotpink manicure. Sigh. If only all things in life were this easy. Isn't technology grand?
Now if only if I could Photoshop myself into a Size 2.

Aren't they pretty?

Matcha Macarons with Cocoa Ganache filling.

I used bright yellow food coloring for this batch. Um. I wouldn't advise it. The liquid food coloring upsets the balance of the recipe. The batter is too runny and the Macaron didn't rise. It still tasted great but it really didn't have very good Macaron characteristics.

But I filled them up with lemon buttercream and brought them into work anyway.
One, two, three.......GONE!

The Cocoa Macarons were my favorite.
They all puffed up perfectly and they all had "feet".
I filled them with a nice rich peanut butter cream.

Then I put all the batches out on the table together so they could mingle.
And secretly whisper in French to each other.
And so I could sit for just a moment and stare at them....and bask in their glory.........and photograph them........and stare at them again while humming the French National Anthem and really just felt pretty darn smug about my first French pastry accomplishment.
Class dismissed.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ides of March

Our family celebrates two birthdays in March, and my brother-in-law owns one of them. Remember his cake last year? It is no surprise to hear that he is a lover of chocolate. In our family, who isn't?

I used my favorite chocolate cake recipe (psssssst! The same one I used for my niece Brenna's birthday last month) This was the first time I used it in a cake recipe. It turned out to be rich, dense and delicious. You might want to have a giant gallon glass of cold milk ready when you eat this one. I'm just sayin'.......

After the cake had baked and was cooling, I made some yummy marshmallow cream to fill the layers of the cake. Try it! The directions are easy!

1 3/4 cups sugar

1/4 cup water

3 large egg whites

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Put the sugar, water, egg whites, and cream of tartar in heatproof container or the top of a double boiler with at least a 2-quart capacity and beat with a handheld electric mixer on high speed about 1 minute. Put the bowl over, but not touching, a saucepan of barely simmering water or the bottom of the double boiler. Beat on high speed until the mixture forms a stiff peak that stands straight up if you stop the beaters and lift them out of the mixture, about 12 minutes (be sure to keep the cord of the mixer away from the burner). The frosting should register 160°F on a thermometer. Remove the container from the water, add the vanilla extract, and continue beating for 2 minutes to further thicken the filling.

Oh....the times when you wish you had a jar of peanut butter! Fluffernutter anyone??

This is my decorating wheel. My cake carousel. My assistant. Anyone who decorates cakes should have one. I purchased this from a wholesale bakery supply and it is a good one. The base is cast iron which makes the whole thing extremely heavy and very durable. So if anyone tells me to go "sit and spin"...........
I can.

Put a good sized dollop of icing under the first layer to secure it to the cake board.

Then I started filling the layers with the Marshmallow.

Pressing lightly!

Once the layers had been filled, I refrigerated the cake for about an hour.
Note to Self: Do not use Marshmallow filling for this cake again unless you plan on serving it the same day. The Marshmallow seems to dissolve inside the layers overnight and tends to leave the areas inside the layers a tad gooey. Of course, if you like goo.........please........use it again.
Now......on to the strawberries!

Make sure the strawberries have been washed and completely dried. I usually melt a 12 oz. bag of semi-sweet morsels with 1/3 cup vegetable oil in a double boiler. Then holding the stem, carefully dunk 2/3 of the strawberry and place it on waxed paper to set.
Now for the good part. The frosting.
(Dear Lord, help me).
This is actually Martha Stewart's recipe for Dark Chocolate Frosting. It is as wicked as she is.........and I do mean that in a good way.
Dark Chocolate Frosting

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon boiling water
2 1/4 cups (4 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds best-quality semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled
Directions: Combine cocoa and the boiling water, stirring until cocoa has dissolved. With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter, confectioners' sugar, and salt until pale and fluffy. Reduce speed to low. Add melted and cooled chocolate, beating until combined and scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Beat in the cocoa mixture. If not using immediately, frosting can be refrigerated up to 5 days, or frozen up to 1 month, in an airtight container. Before using, bring to room temperature, and beat on low speed until smooth again.
Frost. Lick. Frost. Lick. Oops, I mean I frosted it smoothly along the top and down the sides, then I put it back in the fridge to firm up.

I piped a nice fat (hey, who are you calling fat?) border around the top of the cake and then sunk some chocolate covered strawberries around the edge. Um.......(swallow) yeah.

If this isn't a chocolate overload, I don't know what is.

I served John his birthday cake along with some Matcha and Cocoa cupcakes . It was one of the quietest birthdays on record. For about 10 minutes all you could hear at the table was the sound of forks scraping the plates and the occasional sigh.

But then again, I sometimes think that my family (including myself) would eat shoe leather if it were dipped in chocolate, so maybe we're not the best judge.

You are going to have to try it for yourself.

...and if you're even able to speak after eating this, let me know what you think, okay?