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.

1 comment:

Elise said...

oy, what a nightmare, a long nightmare. That's why I like knitting. It gets you around the family edict. I AM doing something.