Tuesday, April 29, 2014

And Now, Les Macarons!

Firstly, "macaron" is not "macaroon." Do not ever mix up this nomenclature. If you ask for a macaroon you will get a lumpy little cookie made with shredded coconut. This is key for John, as he loathes coconut. Macaron is the French sandwich cookie that is really trendy right now, not only to eat, but in lots of kitchy home decor. This post is about macarons. Shredded coconut need not apply.

This is what happens when I find a new recipe: I make it once, then get slightly obsessed and make it a lot. I am currently in a cycle of making macarons. I had wanted to  make them for a long time, and I'd stare at the pretty macaron recipe books in kitchen stores. But much like yeast and springform pans, macarons were planted firmly on the "Eeeek!" list.

But when the perfect opportunity to give them a whirl presented itself, I simply could not go with the store-bought ones. So I picked up some almond flour, Googled how to make my own superfine sugar, and gave it a whack. Amazingly, that first test batch came out pretty awesomely!

My second batch, though, the ones I needed for the party...oy. Let's call that night one of learning. Come on this delicious journey with me.

Firstly, the recipe itself, much like cheesecake and rainbow cookies, is not difficult. It's the method that can get a little murky. That's what scares me about recipes: I can do all the legwork, have everything measured precisely, and then have the damn pan or oven screw it up. But with a clear mission, I assembled my team and set out.

Le Macaronage.

This picture may look simple: some batter. But to even get to this point, what you don't see is that I first blitzed granulated sugar in my blender to make it superfine--you want to be sure the sugar will dissolve quickly and completely in the other ingredients. I removed the now-superfine sugar to a bowl, and then blitzed powdered sugar in the blender with the almond flour to make sure everything was veerrrry finely grained. So what you're actually looking at above is meringued egg whites, food coloring, some vanilla, and the dry ingredients all folded very carefully and precisely together.

Then you take the batter, which is appropriately called macaronage, and line it up in little circles on baking sheet liners: ideally, silicone mats. The generally-decreed method of doing this is with a pastry bag fitted with a plain tip. I have several pastry bags. And yet I am physically incapable of using them to any successful degree. I have tried with cupcakes. Fail. I have tried with cakes. Fail. I tried here. Fail, fail, fail. So I just used a damned teaspoon (not the measuring device, a literal teaspoon from my silverware drawer) to spoon out little circles of the batter. You know the macaronage has been mixed properly when the little peak from where you drop the batter flattens out on its own. Thanks, gravity! Oh, and here's why you can't make these if someone is napping: once you've filled a baking sheet with macaron shapes, you get to pick up the baking sheet and smash it down against the table top to coax any air bubbles to get outta there.

Once you have your relatively equal-sized circles, the absolute hardest part for me happens: waiting. You must absolutely wait until the soon-to-be-shells form a film on top so they are a bit dull (their shiny gloss will fade) and not tacky when you touch them lightly with your fingertip. (When I made the first batch, the day was rather warm and dry. It took about ten minutes for the film to form.) Once they have a film, you can pop them in the oven for about 15 minutes until they are ever so slightly golden and you seen they have grown feet (the fluffy-looking ring around the bottom of the shell). Below is how they will look when everything goes right.

These macaron shells put their best feet forward.

But you know it's not always that easy! The above picture is actually the THIRD attempt I made the night before I needed the macarons for a party at work. So let's look and see what happens when things don't go right.

Exhibit One: In An Attempt to Overcome Sticking Shells, I Ruined Them Entirely

A problem I encountered with a few of my test batch shells was that they stuck to the parchment paper/silicone mats. I realized after a few more go-rounds that this was because I did not let them cool adequately before trying to remove them to a cooling rack. If you try to nudge them when they are still setting, you'll basically decapitate the poor dears, as below:


By the way, you'll notice some of the cookies are yellow and some are green. The yellows are the very first batch I ever made. The greens are the ones intended for work. Just in case you were wondering about your screen's color settings! Also, I need 3 cookie sheets to make a full batch of macarons, but only have 2 silicone mats, so I use those plus one sheet of parchment, which is why you'll see me say "parchment/silicone" all the time.

Anyway, keeping the aforementioned sticking problem in mind, I was like, "What if I spray the parchment/silicone mats with my floured Pam spray?"  As soon as I did this, I began to doubt myself. But in the name of science, I figured I'd leave it and just see what would happen. Well, my doubts were confirmed as soon as I dropped the macaronage onto the mats and it flattened too much, had pools of the Pam spray, and also failed to form a film. Annoyed, and sure I'd have to start over, I popped the darlings in the oven anyway. After all, they'd still be edible, just not really macaron shells.

I literally sat on the floor and stared into the oven, hoping they'd impress me, and rise and grow feet like the good little macarons I wanted them to be. Nupe. I got flat little discs that indeed tasted as they should, but they looked like they had been steamrolled. I put them aside to cool, then later gobbled more than I should have before storing them in a Rubbermaid to be dessert for the week for me and John.

Exhibit Two: When Weather is Not on Your Side and You Are Impatient and It Is Getting Late

As the flat batch was cooling, I was already whipping up another batch of fresh macaronage. Again, everything came together just perfectly (whew!), and I spooned them out, and left them to form films on parchment and silicone mats that I had not lubricated (lesson learned!). On this particular night, it was humid from rain earlier in the day, and the temperatures were much cooler. That translated into waiting much longer for the macaronage to film over. In fact, I got so impatient as I watched the clock tick forward (I still had to make the buttercream filling and and then sandwich and package them, after all!), I shoved the first tray in.

So what happens, you ask, when an insubstantial film has formed? You get pretty, puffy meringues!

Again, perfectly delicious, perfectly edible, but perfectly wrong for macarons. This was just one sheet, though, and though it was an utter failure, it still taught me a few things, and sure didn't go to waste. Yes, I stress-ate some of those, too, before packing them away with the frisbees.

I now had two sheets left, and if these failed, too, I was prepared to suck it up, and buy fresh ones from the bakery in town to bring into the office. But I would not be able to live with myself if it came to that. So, no pressure or anything, but a LOT was riding on these two sheets of macaronage.

After what felt like an eternity, they had filmed over. I popped them into the oven, and again sat on the floor, staring into the oven. HOLY CRAP THEY WERE GROWING FEET! (I realize that sounds weird, but when you make macarons, you totally want to cheer them on to grown appendages.) Whew. Now I could relax a little. Well, not really. By "relax" I mean throw more powdered sugar around and make frigging buttercream.

These particular lovelies were destined to have chocolate chai buttercream filling. I made the base by whipping the bejeepers out of powdered sugar and butter. Then I added unsweetened cocoa powder, a hint of cinnamon and some cardamom. Whew! It was yummy!

Because I absolutely forced myself to be patient, these last sheets of macarons baked up, set, and removed from the parchment and silicone mats like a dream. They cooled, I frosted and sandwiched them. I stress/victory-ate a few with John. I photographed them. I shoved them in the fridge, and I went to bed, damn it.

They say macarons are actually tastier if you pop them in the fridge for a few hours before serving them. I guess it sort of lets all the flavors marinate a bit or something. They should be stored in an airtight container, and will stay fresh that way for at least a week. You can put them in an airtight container and freeze them for even longer. BUT! Much like the filming is critical to success, once you take them out of the fridge to serve, VENT THEM. Better yet, arrange them on a plate or serving tray and let them come up to room temp. If you leave them tightly sealed, they will get soggy as they warm up.

If you take good care of them, you'll get to do pretty things like this:

Of course, the ultimate goal and celebration of all your hard work is to eat them. And the piece de resistance is to serve them to your friends and watch them coo with delight and mild shock that you made these with your own hands in your own kitchen. Like a boss. Drop the mic. I'm out.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

As Usual, It's Feast or Famine Keeping Up This Here Blog-a-ma-jig

I've got three things to catch you up on, but tonight I'll just focus in on one: I've filled a blank wall in the bedroom that had been bugging me. It's now functional and definitely more visually pleasing! But first where it all began...

Here's the blank-ish state I started with.
I first got the idea when I realized I needed a better way to store my long and delicate necklaces. I would coil them into neat little rounds like a garden hose, but still...they'd get tangled and my poor jewelry box just couldn't accommodate them.

So I was like: Bingo! Hang them! I found a lovely shelf with hooks already on it at Target, which also meant I could raise some of the items on my bureau up and clear the clutter on the tabletop. Yes, this was feeling good. I'd of course need another shelf on the other side to balance things out, though hooks would be useless over there because the TV takes up a lot of wall real estate. But a second floating shelf would give me a place to nestle a clock, which I so direly need to keep on track while getting ready in the morning.

I started phase one a few weeks ago, and just today got the second shelf to complete the project (the size and color I needed were sold out when I bought the supplies for phase one).

Phase One.

Dear me, this just just makes me so happy with its loveliness. : )

I hope you like the finished product as much as I do! Form. Function. Zen. Ohm.

Here's the completed wall. I got two small robe hooks for my pashmina scarves (over there on the right).

You may also have noticed I ditched the 1990s Caboodle that previously housed my makeup. I did some spring cleaning of makeup supplies over the weekend, and pared down enough so I could use a nice basket instead of a clunky plastic piece of my childhood. Ah, growing up...

The shelf with the clock is still a bit bare for my taste, but there are some lovely cottagey accents at Micheal's I may go and pick up to make it a bit more festive. But for now it performs its most essential function: holding a cute little clock so I can keep my bum moving along in the mornings!

Later this week I'll be back to write about the beginnings of my spring garden (I've got bulbs coming up, I did some container gardening over the weekend, and am super eager to start digging out the ugly bushes and shrubs the sellers left). I also have to tell you about my latest baking adventure: macarons! I baked a test batch over the weekend with general success, but the pressure it truly on tomorrow, as I'm baking them for a Paris-themed party for a friend at work. Have merci! (See what I did there...?)

So until next time, cheers!