Monday, May 28, 2012

MACARONS, or Why I’ll never be a pastry chef

                As you know, I was off the bike for the long weekend which left me with an extra eleven hours to fill. Since, in our family you aren’t allowed to sit down between finishing your morning coffee (breakfast must be eaten standing up) and eating dinner, I couldn’t spend that time in the basement watching the Law and Order Marathon.

                I needed a project.  I have a long list of projects, a list filled with items that get moved from one list to the next:

·          Touch up paint on kitchen cabinets
·          Weed around back patio
·          Train the dogs

                Those items get passed along, like an illiterate but obedient child in our school system, because just the thought of any one of them makes me want to go back to bed. As you know, lying down is not allowed during daylight hours. What to do? What to do?
                Well, it was a million degrees out, air quality: code orange—only safe for the children and pets that you don’t especially like—so it had to be an indoor project. 
                Sure I could do something useful like filing the three year’s worth of mail that is stacked up in the back hallway or organizing a drawer or two. But why should I have anything to show for my time and effort, why not spend whole hours and a week’s worth of concentration creating some perfectly disgusting cookies (Macarons) and then throwing them all away?
                It wasn’t a complete loss. What I have to show for my afternoon is a renewed conviction that I’ll never be a pastry chef. My guess is that pastry chefs could also make needle lace, perform arthroscopic surgery on goldfish or apply eyelash extensions to themselves . When they are drunk, they probably build ships in bottles.
                Good Lord, this was a tedious undertaking!
                I read about the Macarons. Brave Tart’s blog is a very good source. She supplies a list of myths and musts. Add the sugar to the egg whites a tablespoon at a time—MYTH! Grind and sift and grind and sift those nuts with sugar allowing only about 2 TB of nut pieces that won’t go through a fine mesh strainer—MUST! Also, no matter whom you consult, they all insist on measuring by weight. Oy!
                The meringue came together nicely. The sole virtue of an egg white is that it is pretty forgiving. (Probably because they have such low self esteem, having absolutely nothing else to offer.) I folded in the ground hazelnut and sugar mixture. A tad more than two tablespoons might not have made it through a fine mesh strainer. I went with fine-ish mesh. All was well. I got about half of it into a plastic bag (My pastry bag ripped the last time I used it, and I haven’t felt compelled to replace it. If something calls for a pastry bag, I probably don’t want to make it.) and piped mostly uniform discs onto the parchment lined baking sheets.
                Now Brave Tart says, No need to allow the cookies to rest at this stage. So in the oven they went. Kate Zuckerman, whose recipe I was following, wants you to move the cookies from the top shelf to the bottom shelf half way through cooking. I just left them on the middle shelf and they did fine. This first group had the best “feet,” leading me to think that resting is deleterious. Each successive batch had smaller feet, and by the end, no feet at all. Poor little apodal discs. To counteract the thrill of those fabulous feet, the first group was overcooked and crunchy all the way through. A Macaron no-no.
                The second batch I put directly on the hot cookie sheets and this group still had feet, but cracked pretty egregiously. Also they were slightly undercooked so they stuck to the parchment and then ended up with hollow bases. All the better to hold more frosting, you are thinking, and you would be right if the frosting weren’t Swiss Buttercream. But more about that later. The final group had no feet but no cracks, and were not overcooked. Mistakes abound. What a fun cookie!
                For a pastry chef, these variations are invigorating and exhilarating. Experimentation and discovery, opportunities for improvement! I don’t want my cookie to be an Outward Bound experience with trust falls and that exercise where you have to look someone directly in the eye and tell them how you really feel about them. I just want consistently happy, puffy and footy Macarons. The sullen, flat and footless Macarons need to go off for their own Outward Bound experience. I don’t do well with temperamental creatures. I can’t keep an African Violet alive. The last thing I want is an intolerant cookie.
                Also too? I don’t really like meringue, it is too sweet.
                On to the filling. Absolutely everyone insists on Buttercream for the filling. I know, I don’t like buttercream, either. But I had come this far, I may as well stay the course. The cookies were already gross, what difference would it make?

                So I first tried to make the Kate Zuckerman Orange Buttercream. Kate wants you to make a sugar syrup and then drizzle it into an egg yolk and sugar combination, beating all the while, as the whole thing becomes voluminous and doubles in bulk. You are supposed to use a candy thermometer and heat the sugar syrup to 248. Well, it went from 220 to 260 in about 4 seconds so it was too hot when I drizzled it. The syrup congealed and hardened around the beaters and that was that. Except it wasn’t, because I dripped a ball of the syrup on my foot and got an instant blister. As I wiped it off in a frantic scrabble, I also burned my fingers and my upper arm.
                That batch went into the sink and I tried the Brave Tart recipe. This has egg whites beaten with sugar, then the butter is beaten in a piece at a time.  I managed to make a “broken” buttercream, natch. This led me back to the internet where I learned how to fix a broken buttercream. You take about ¼ of the mixture, microwave it for 15 seconds and then drizzle it back into the rest, beating all the while. Worked like a card trick. 
Which was gratifying in the moment, at least something was working! But also a little like finally getting the stain out of that dress you have always hated, the really itchy one that is too tight and gives you the silhouette of one of those heads on Easter Island. But at least it’s not stained! I added some melted chocolate and ended up with a frosting that tasted very much like a frosting from a fancy bakery. You know, the cloying, nasty, slippery kind.
                But soldier on. I piped that frosting and filled those cookies and even ate one. Way too sweet and so uninteresting, or as seven year old Chase said about the breakfast at The Plaza Hotel, “It is not good, you have to admit.”
                Brave Tart says that Macarons are really better the second day. I’m not sure they could be worse.
                So, let’s see, I had to measure by weight, I had to use a candy thermometer, I had to become as intimate with egg whites as Kima is with the frogs in the koi pond but without the final satisfaction of killing them. I burned myself. It took forever and they are not good. Maybe I’ll use them as dog training treats.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Cheese Whizard

Hi Marg,

Westie and I made cheese! We were idly chatting about it and the next day he came home with half a gallon of whole milk. He'd researched recipes on the web, reviewed blogs, weighed the levels of complexity of different varieties, quizzed his friends and decided on Queso Bianco. Chosen bc it's easy and flexible. His friend said Monterey Jack was easy to make but the recipe required holding it at 90 degrees for 10 minutes and then raising the temp 2 degrees a minute for 8 minutes. Right. His friend doesn't know Jack, I'm thinking.

It was easy and tasted great. Here's what you need - milk, vinegar, salt, cheesecloth.

Here's what you do. Heat half a gallon of milk to just below a simmer and add 3T white vinegar.

Stir, bring to a simmer and continue to stir for 2 or 3 minutes. It starts to make curds pretty quickly.

Strain it in a colander lined with cheesecloth.

We strained it into a bowl bc we thought we might want to do something with the whey. The internet suggested that we could feed it to chickens, pigs or dogs, wash our hair with it, make soup with it, replace the liquid in a bread recipe with it, cook pasta in it, water the plants with it, make lemonade with it, or freeze it do any of these things later. Since it tasted like skim milk with vinegar in it we threw it out.

Sprinkle it with salt, gather it up into a ball and hang it for a few hours to drain.

Knock it down and have a taste.

Here's what we learned. You need to add the salt to the pot and mix it in. Imagine cinnamon rolls, but with the cinnamon sugar being a layer of salt. And then imagine putting it on a salty cracker. Parts of it were excellent, in spite of this. If you want to make a drier brick, press the ball under a weight while its still fresh. You can't do it once it's hung for hours. Rigamortis, I suppose. Also, if you want to make something you've never ever thought of making and have fun doing it, you should invite Westie to visit.

Love, Elise

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Gluten Free Baking Mix or It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Vegan

Alison was visiting and I had just read about C4C (the Gluten Free baking mix from Thomas Keller’s kitchen that is rocking the GF world), and I’ve been eyeing the King Arthur Flour Gluten Free Baking Mix for a while.
It was all coming together. 

I made chocolate chip cookies.

I used the David Lebovitz Salted Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe.  I tripled the recipe (it makes a very small batch). 

I had to distinguish the three different types.  In case I got confused, I didn’t want to mistakenly feed a flour cookie to Alison. So the C4C got chocolate chunks with walnuts, the KAF got chocolate chips with walnuts and the flour got coconut. 

I didn’t want to have to mix up three separate batches, so I made one big batch up through the vanilla. I then measured this and divided it in 3 parts with my truly awesome combination measuring cup scale. 

The dough was better from the C4C and the flour. (Can we just stipulate that the flour was good?) 
The KAF mix was gritty in dough form. Here is a point to ponder—the DL recipe wants you to let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 24 hours. I didn’t bother with this step. The grittiness in many gluten free mixes comes from the rice flour. Now I wonder if a 24 hour rest would help that, since the rice flour would have an opportunity to absorb some liquid and soften?

The results were mixed. Alison liked the KAF. Jamie liked the C4C. The boys just wanted more than one. I thought that when baked up, the three were pretty indistinguishable. 

I’ll stick with flour, but it is reassuring to know that my gluten free friends and family can have something other than those peanut butter cookies.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012



Ab’s yoga teacher likes to say, “More isn’t necessarily better, it’s just more.” This is true if you are talking about the angle of your downward dog. If you are talking about whipped cream, it makes no sense at all.

Occasionally, I send someone a recipe that I have made and loved. I send it with stars and exclamation points scribbled in the margins. And occasionally, I hear back that it was bland, uninteresting, am I sure I sent the right recipe? I think this happened when I sent you the recipe for winter vegetable cobbler.

As I pondered this, bewildered by the failure, and questioning my taste, I realized that I don’t follow recipes. And I stray from the ingredient list, measurements, proportions, final instructions, so unconsciously that it doesn’t occur to me to add those addendums to the recipe before I mail it off. I assume everyone adds extra raisins and substitutes black olives for green. Who likes green olives?!

(I’m not as bad as the reviewer on Epicurious who, in writing about Turkey Apricot Meat Loaf with a Tamari Glaze, said, “Wonderful, I substituted lamb for the turkey and left out the apricots. Also didn’t bother with the glaze. A real keeper!” )

 Here’s what I did to that recipe. I used more turkey and more onions than called for. I added mushrooms and chopped kale because they are super immunity foods. And I doubled the glaze. But I didn’t review it. (I called this Super Immunity Loaf and while it wasn’t great, for as healthy as it was, it was NOT bad.)

There is a trend to my recipe alterations and it can be summed up as MORE. A teaspoon of cinnamon becomes a heaping teaspoon; a teaspoon of vanilla is a healthy splash. A cup and a half of chocolate chips? Use the whole bag! I am somewhat circumspect with baking. I leave the important ingredients (flour, baking soda) alone. But I never make a spice cake without at least doubling the spices. As written, can anyone even detect the cloves?? More lemon zest, more dried cherries, more pie filling. And always always always, more frosting!!

For savory dishes, MORE can be an attempt to make the dish healthier (Super Immunity Loaf) or more to my liking, sweet potatoes and raisins are a welcome addition to just about any soup or stew. Or it can be an effort to clean out the refrigerator. Two tablespoons of mashed potatoes and the left over Brussels sprouts will go great in the wilted spinach salad! That braised cabbage isn’t going to last another day, so toss it in with the scrambled eggs. (This may be what evolves from cooking-for-one.)

Frequently but with less dramatic results, recipe alterations involve a subtraction, again this is nearly unconscious. I don’t even see Parsley on an ingredient list. I haven’t added parsley to anything but dog food for as long as I can remember. Celery is slowly joining parsley and garlic isn’t far behind. Parsley, celery and garlic are commonly called for and rarely missed. If you are making garlic bread, OK, add the garlic, but two cloves in a Bolognese sauce are immaterial.

As for that whipped cream—it improves just about anything. If it is called for, add more. If it isn’t called for, serve it on the side. Sweetened, it enhances any dessert, hides flaws (cake too dry, pie too bland), helps healthy foods to pass as dessert (plain berries, poached fruit, jello made from juice), and the leftovers are agreeable in coffee the next morning. Savory whipped cream can take a tomato soup from just OK, to ethereal. Flavored with basil, it is a startling and delightful addition to corn and crab aspic.

I guess the take-away is, add more of what’s called for, except for the waste-of-time-three; more of what you want, super immunity foods; and more of what you like, whipped cream.