Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Making macarons like a pro

I am going out on a limb here and declaring that I have eaten the best macarons ever.  Oui, ever, even including the ones I've had in Paris at some very chic and famous shops.
It all started a few weeks ago when a student, LK, brought some in for her classmates.

Her mom, Amy Tornquist, is a local chef and restaurant owner (Hummingbird Bakery, Watts Grocery, Sage and Swift).  (Dad is also a chef and quite an accomplished artist.). LK made these macarons with their pastry chef, Susie.  I asked if Susie would be willing to give me a lesson and LK responded that her mom was thinking about offering a macaron making class.  Just a week or so later, the email popped up in my box and I immediately signed up.
It was a small class.  There were only 8 or so of us.  Arles Lucy signed up, as did Iron Woman.  Two mothers of students and one grandmother were also there.
Introductions were made-

And Susie, in the hat, and crew set about showing us the how-tos.
First, a tamis, also known as a drum sieve, comes in handy for getting all the lumps out of the ground almonds, confectioner's sugar and cocoa.  It was suggested that perhaps on my next trip to Paris I should go to E. Dehillerin or another shop to find one.  And I have to confess that I've never been to that shop even though Julia Child wrote about it often.  (now on the agenda for the January trip)
Then some eggs whites were added to the almond meal mixture-

This mixture should be about the consistency of Play-doh, for those of you who remember getting your hands in that as a kid.  Thick.
Next comes the step that I was curious about.  Would Susie use French meringue or Italian?  Italian. This consists of heating water and sugar to make a syrup, then adding that to egg whites and beating it into stiff, glossy peaks.

This meringue is added to the almond mixture by thirds to make sure not to add too much.  It is hard, if not impossible, to go back and add more almond flour if the batter becomes too thin.  This meringue doesn't have to be folded or handled gently.  The egg whites are very stable.
The batter should now look like melted ice cream, but thicker.

It is now ready for the pastry bag.  It was great to get pastry bag handling tips from pros.  I feel much more confident now.  I am usually a mess after dealing with a pastry bag.  A round tip with a fairly large opening works best.  And it may sound silly to have to say this, but I didn't know so here goes... fold down the top of the pastry bag so that if it gets messy, it's okay because you are going to pull it back up before you pipe!

Now, to pipe.  LK is really good at this and showed us how to do it.

Susie has a sheet of parchment paper that she uses as a template.  She traced around a jar of sprinkles to get the proper size and she puts the template under another sheet of parchment so that she can see the circles and not mess up her template.  Genius, n'est-ce pas?  I had previously tried to pipe in circles.  Nope.  Just put the tip down, squeeze the pastry bag and when the cookie is the right size, staying just inside the circle, lift up the tip.  (In The Kings of Pastry, Jacquy makes little noises as he does this-- LK reminded me of this and said it might help! I showed this movie to my 7th grade classes last year and they loved it and at least one of them remembers it.)
The macarons now need to sit for 15-20 minutes to "dry."  They go from shiny to a matte finish and when they are ready you can touch them without getting dough on your fingers.

Susie's husband showed me a trick to not waste a bit of the macaron dough/batter.  Use a pastry scraper.

Next, in the oven, then allow them to cool before peeling them from the parchment paper.
Fill with whatever you wish-- buttercream, ganache, fruit jam, Nutella.  The sky is the limit here.
LK was filling these with a peanut butter buttercream.

She also made some with buttercream around the edges and then chocolate ganache in the middle. The cookies should now go in the freezer.  Yep, that's right.  That helps bring out the flavor.  I left mine in overnight, but Susie says they should be in for at least an hour.
We were given ganache to take home and fill ours with, but we were asked to sample Susie's creations made the day before.  Sigh.  Someone has to do it, you know.

Crummy photo-- focused on my hand and not the macaron, but who can blame me?  I wanted to get back to my taste test.  Salted caramel, candied peanuts and chocolate were involved here, people.
I ate both of them.

We then tasted one that we had just baked and LK had filled with the peanut butter buttercream.  (Again, sorry for the crummy photo...)

It was delicious, but I could indeed tell the difference.  The flavors hadn't had time to meld and the cookie was crunchier than the first two that had spent some time in the freezer.  (Allowed to thaw, of course.)
Susie's husband was in my group.  He is a great piper.  Very steady hands.

My little macarons were given out to a few good friends who seemed to truly enjoy them.  That's the joy of baking... making people happy with little bites of deliciousness.

I got a little sloppy with the ganache.  Must do better next time.
(I have a bowl of egg whites in my refrigerator this very minute liquifying so that I can give it a try again, this time with Italian meringue.  I am thinking pink ones with a buttercream/raspberry jam filling.)

Susie's Chocolate Macarons
(if you do not want to make chocolate cookies, leave out the cocoa; if you want to color them, use gel coloring added to the egg whites so that you are not adding too much liquid)

212 g almond flour
212 g confectioner's sugar
2 Tbsp Dutch processed cocoa powder

Sift these ingredients in order to remove lumps.

82 g egg whites (separate them and let them sit for at least 24 hours-- you need 172 g total for the macarons)

Add the egg whites to the almond-sugar mixture and mash it in until it is the consistency of Play-doh.  Don't add too much- it's hard to go back and add more almond flour at this point without making the batter lumpy.

236 g granulated sugar
158 g water

Heat the water and sugar to 238˚F.  Use a candy thermometer to get the precise temperature.  Do not let the thermometer touch the bottom of the pot, though, or you will get a false reading.

In the bowl of a mixer, beat 90 g of egg whites with a pinch of sugar until soft peaks form.  After 5 minutes, add the syrup and mix until stiff peaks form.  Err on the side of too stiff, if in doubt.

Add about one-third of the meringue to the almond-sugar-egg mixture and mix well with a spatula. You do not have to be gentle.  Add another third and keep mixing until the mixture looks kind of like melted ice cream, but still rather thick.  Better too thick than too thin.  (If you have leftover meringue, you can bake them into meringue cookies later!)

Fit your pastry bag with a round tip (#806) and pipe onto parchment paper.  Allow the macarons to sit until the finish goes from shiny to matte, about 15-20 minutes.

Bake at 325˚F for 13+ minutes, according to your oven's temperature.

Take them out, let them cool on the parchment paper and then peel them off.  Fill them and place in the freezer overnight or for at least an hour.

For chocolate ganache:

300 grams (12 oz) superior quality dark chocolate
225 grams (9 oz) heavy cream
90 grams (4 oz) butter, cut in small pieces

Chop the chocolate into very small pieces. Put into bowl. In a saucepan, heat the cream to boiling point. Remove from heat and pour slowly over the chocolate. Stir gently until the chocolate melts, then add the bits of butter, one at a time, stirring gently and continually until the chocolate starts to thicken. Pour into the shells. Let cool before eating.

Bon appétit et merci Susie, Amy and LK!  I sincerely hope that I got this right.  Happy Macaron-Making!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday Morning

Sunday is my favorite day of the week.  I was born on a Sunday.  According to the old English nursery rhyme--

Monday's child is fair of face. 
Tuesday's child is full of grace. 
Wednesday's child is full of woe. 
Thursday's child has far to go. 
Friday's child is loving and giving. 
Saturday's child works hard for a living, 
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day 
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.

I especially love Sunday mornings.  The Ex-Ex finds it a bit insane that on the one day I could sleep in, I don't.  Of course, he reaps the benefits of my early rising because it is when I bake.  This morning, though, it is not my usual muffins or scones.  Today it's lasagna.  Son #2 and the Most Adorable Puppy in the World are home.  They are home for a quick visit so that Son #2 can get some warm clothes. Yesterday afternoon he asked me if I would mind making a pan of lasagna for him to take back to Tennessee with him.  Mind?  Are you kidding me?  A request like that makes me jump right up and run to the grocery store to get supplies.  So I did, but I waited until this morning to bake it.

I call my recipe Grant's Lasagna.  It is basically from the back of a Barilla lasagna noodle box, but I always make a few changes.  
I had some leftover meat (I combined pork sausage and ground beef).  I couldn't let that go to waste, so I made savory muffins.

Sausage Muffins
makes 12
Whisk together and set aside:
1/2 c. baking mix
2 eggs
1/2 c. milk

Mix cooked, crumbled sausage with shredded cheddar cheese (I used a mixture of parmesan, provolone and mozzarella.  Add sage or herbs, if you wish,  and salt and pepper.  You could throw in some hot sauce.  Spray 12 muffin cups with non-stick spray.  Put about a tablespoon of the batter in each cup.  Spoon the sausage mixture on top of the batter.  Then put another tablespoon of batter on top of the sausage mixture.  Bake for about 25 minutes at 375˚F.

On this Sunday morning, I am also reflecting on the things (and people) I am crushing on right now.

Let's see...

My camera.  I was going to save my tutoring money and invest in an SLR camera and learn to use it. But I came to my senses and realized that I am a point and shoot kind of photographer.  I take loads of pictures and just don't have the patience to mess with dials and all that.  (They are also heavy and more difficult to just throw in one's already heavy and overcrowded purse.)  Therefore, I am in love with my Powershot SX 700 HS.  It is supposed to have Wi-Fi capability, but I am not there yet.  Nor am I sure it works very well from what I've read.

Cook's Illustrated magazine.  A student gave me a subscription for Christmas a few years back and I am totally in love with it.  The recipes are tested and tested and tested, so the kinks are worked out for me.  Friday night, in anticipation of Son #2's arrival, I made sugar cookies from the All-Time Best Recipes edition.

Chewy Sugar Cookies
makes 24 cookies

2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. sugar plus 1/3 c. for rolling
2 ounces cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1/3 c. vegetable oil (I used coconut oil- not liquid but the same measure- it worked well)
1 large egg
1 Tbsp. whole milk
2 Tbsp. vanilla extract

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350˚F.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.  Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in medium bowl.  Set aside.
Place 1 1/2 cups sugar and cream cheese in large bowl.  Place remaining sugar in shallow dish and set aside.  Pour melted butter over sugar and cream cheese and whisk to combine (some small lumps of cream cheese will remain but will smooth out later).  Whisk in oil until incorporated.  Add egg, milk, and vanilla; continue to whisk until smooth.  Add flour mixture and mix with rubber spatula until soft, homogeneous dough forms.
Working with 2 tablespoons of dough at time, roll into balls.  Working in batches, roll half of dough balls in sugar to coat and space evenly on prepared sheet; repeat with remaining dough balls.  Using bottom of greased measuring cup, flatten dough balls until 2-inches in diameter.  Sprinkle tops of cookies evenly with remaining sugar.
Bake cookies 1 sheet at a time, until edges are set and just beginning to brown, 11-13 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through baking.  Let cookies cool on sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack.  Let cookies cool completely before serving.  (The baker can try a warm one just to be sure that they taste okay!)

Next on the list.  Ron Rash.  I recently read Serena.  Mr. Rash teaches at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC.  My niece-in-law is now a freshman there and Serena was her required reading book.  I couldn't put it down.  The movie version will be released soon.  The book is set in the Appalachian Mountains, but the movie was shot in Europe instead of NC.  I will go see it, though.  A short dialogue between Rachel and Widow Jenkins struck a chord with me--

"...But your father loved you.  I never doubted that and you shouldn't either.  I'll tell you something else I think.  It would have been wrong to take you away from these mountains, because if you're born here they're a part of you.  No other place will ever feel right."
Widow Jenkins put her glasses back on.  She turned to Rachel and smiled.
"Maybe that's just an old woman's silly notion-- about the mountains, I mean.  What do you think?"
"I don't know.  How can I if I've never been away from them?"
"Well, I never have either, but you're young and young folks these days get restless,"  Widow Jenkins said, slowly lifting herself from the steps, "so if you ever do find out you'll have to let me know."

I am now reading Rash's book The Cove, also set in the mountains.  I just discovered he will be in Chapel Hill at Flyleaf Books in early November.  Mark the calendar.

Tatiana de Rosnay.  I discovered Sarah's Key a few years ago while just hanging out in Barnes and Noble.  Another must read.  About the Vel d'Hiv round-up of Jewish families in Paris during WWII. I now show this movie to my 8th graders and we visit the site of the former vélodrome when we are in Paris during our spring break trip.  Two years ago, during the spring break trip, we were wandering the streets of Paris and came upon a motorcycle rally at the Hôtel de Ville.  My Favorite Parisien was paying more attention to the dignitaries and speeches than I was and all of a sudden, he grabbed my arm and said Mme de Rosnay is here!  We have to find her.  We chased her down so that I could meet her.  She was getting ready to get on her moto.  I quickly introduced myself and MFP snapped a photo and we let her go.

At the end of the school year, my 8th graders have to write a thank you letter in French as part of their final exam.  They can prepare it in advance and write to whomever they wish.  I hunt down the addresses and mail the letters.  Sometimes they/we get responses.  This past week, my phone pinged with a message.  I looked down and let out a yelp.  I had a message from Tatiana.  Oui, en français.  I sent three thank you letters and a note of explanation to her in care of her editor.  She had just received the letters.  She sent an email to one of the girls (who did as I suggested and included her email address) and just wanted me to know how much she enjoyed les lettres merveilleuses.  How cool is that?   I recently read A Secret Kept.  A movie version of that is in the works, too.  I plan to get her latest novels when I am in Paris in January.  She mostly writes in French but also in English. 

The Phantom of the Opera.  The play is at the DPAC and we are going to see it today.  The Ex-Ex's best friend from middle and high school (who is Brother-in-Law's brother... and they aren't even from the mountains!) and his wife invited us to go with them this evening.  

I am very excited.  I love this story.  The 1943 black and white film version explains why he wears the mask.  I showed part of it to the kiddies last week in class since some of them would be going to see the play.  I have been inside the Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera where the play is set, several times.  If only I could find the door that leads down to the lake...  I admit that I have tried.  No such luck.  This door leads to the Phantom's box.

And last but certainly not least, gay marriage is now legal in North Carolina as of Friday afternoon. Finally.  We will still have to listen to people rant and rave because they are against it, but whatever.
It's about time is all I have to say.

Time to get back to my baking.  Cook's Illustrated's carrot cake is next.  We have Monday off for fall break and the Ex-Ex and I are headed down to the In-Laws' house to visit with Aunt B who is visiting from Missouri.  I shouldn't go empty-handed!  I also need to check on the cats.  They refuse to make friends with Adorable Dog.  They are hiding.  Yesterday, I found them in the bathroom.

Cat 1 in the sink.

Cat 2 beside the toilet.

Bon appétit et bon dimanche à tous et à toutes!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Coconut Cream Dreams: Part Deux

Just a couple of weeks after I returned home from my adventures in Nebraska with the In-Laws, the Ex-Ex packed his duffle bag and headed for the mountains of North Carolina, my mountains, the Appalachians.  He chaperones Senior Challenge, a program our seniors participate in at the beginning of each school year. Sort of an Outward Bound-type experience.  The Ex-Ex does not do the tent camping thing, though. He does visit the rappelling and rock climbing sites and he does a fair amount of hiking.  He came home with a few photos on his iPhone.  Here's one of AT, one of my favorite kids.

Back in my early 20's, I participated in a program like this a couple of times and backing off the edge of a mountain is not my thing.  AT loved it, though.  I am quite proud of him.

Anyway, the Ex-Ex was gone for five days and he texted me a couple of times to let me know he was doing okay.  One night, the text messaging started with pie.  He was eating some.  I figured he had gone to visit his sister who lives near where they had hiked.  Logical assumption since she was in on my coconut cream pie eating adventures in Nebraska and South Dakota  (see Part Un). I thought that maybe she had decided to try her hand at making a coconut cream pie and was going to share it with her younger brother who had been "roughing it" for four days.  But no.  Silly me.  Seems the Ex-Ex and his band of Mountain Men had been to eat at Louise's Rock House Restaurant in Linville Falls. More than once.  The first time they were there, their waitress struck up a conversation with the Ex-Ex.  He expressed his desire for pie (my Grandma Christine fell in love with him when she found out he loved pie).  Not just any old pie would do for him, though.  Not even Louise's speciality, the "legendary strawberry-rhubarb" pie, according to the October 2014 issue of Our State magazine.  Oh no.  He wanted coconut cream.  Seriously?  Wonder where he got that idea??  Louise made him a pie. A whole pie just for him.  I asked for a photo.  Maybe the story would be better told if you read the text messages...

Did he really think I wanted a picture of the waitress (who, as it turns out, is Louise's daughter and was just in helping out)?

He brought it home.  The pie.  Not the waitress.  I didn't taste it until I was offered some.  A man can get attached to his pie.

So, of course, not to be outdone, I waited until his pie was all gone.  I actually waited until a month later, and made my own.  I searched the internet for recipes and sent an email to The Pie Lady at the Cookshack in Nebraska but haven't received a reply yet.  I decided to check out my copy of Sara Foster's Southern Kitchen.  I love this cookbook.  Foster's Market is one of my favorite places.  Great food.  The best coffee in Durham, in my humble opinion.  And Sara didn't let me down.  I found just the recipe I was looking for.

There isn't much prettier or better smelling than toasted coconut.

Sara's recipe calls for a chocolate cookie crust.  I decided not to do that and go traditional.  I bought one from The Immaculate Baking Company.  The Ex-Ex doesn't like thick pie crusts so I rolled it out thinly and pre-baked it, following the package directions.  (Yes, I admit that I was competing with Louise's pie.  Homemade or store bought crust? When I was living in France and working with Chef Érick, we bought the rolled crusts, so I opted for that.)

black bottom coconut cream pie
Sara Foster's Southern Kitchen

black bottom cookie crust
1 1/2 c. Oreo cookie crumbs (from 6 ounces cookies)
(Sara's advice:  Place cookies in a food processor and pulse eight or ten times; then leave the motor running for about 10 seconds, until the crumbs are finely ground.)
2 Tbsp. sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
Combine the cookie crumbs, sugar, and salt in a large bowl and stir to mix.  Pour in the butter and stir to combine and moisten all the crumbs.  Spread the mixture in a pie pan, evenly pressing it over the bottom and up the sides of the pan to create a crust.
Bake for 8-10 minutes, until golden brown and slightly firm.  Remove from the oven and let cool; the crust will firm as it cools.

2 1/2 c. half and half
3 Tbsp. cornstarch
4 large eggs
3/4 c. sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped and reserved (you can use regular vanilla extract; I used some vanilla sugar I bought this summer at The Spice House in Milwaukee this summer-- I cannot say enough wonderful things about this place; check out their website.)
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
2 1/3 c. sweetened flaked coconut
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1 c. heavy cream
1/4 c. sugar
1/3 c. sweetened flaked coconut, toasted

Combine 1/2 cup of the half and half and the cornstarch in a large bowl and whisk to blend.  Add the eggs and mix thoroughly.
Place the remaining 2 cups half and half, the sugar, vanilla bean and reserved seeds, and salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a low boil, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. Remove and discard the vanilla bean and reduce the heat to low.
Whisk 1 cup of the half and half mixture into the egg mixture to temper the eggs.  Whisking constantly, pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan with the half and half mixture and cook, continuing to whisk constantly, until thick, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the coconut and the butter.  Let cool slightly.
Pour the filling into the crust and refrigerate for about 4 hours, until firm.
When the filling is completely firm, place the cream in a large bowl and whip with an electric mixer to soft peaks.  Add the sugar and whip to incorporate.
Using a spatula or pastry bag, spread or pipe the whipped cream evenly over the pie.  Sprinkle with the toasted coconut and refrigerate until ready to serve.

I had too much filling for my crust and served coconut cream pudding to the Ex-Ex.  I like it warm. He likes it cold.  Amazing either way.

We went to Foster's today for lunch and the Ex-Ex couldn't resist Sara's peanut butter chocolate pie.  He offered me a bite.  It was really good.

Bon appétit to all pie bakers and lovers!  Merci, Louise!  Merci, Sara!