Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Daring Bakers' October Challenge: French Macarons

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

For once, this month’s Daring Baker’s challenge was something I was familiar with. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a challenge.

It sounds odd that macarons are among the first things I ever baked, once I graduated from Betty Crocker cake mixes. Macarons have a reputation for being extremely difficult, and many people refuse to even consider making them. But I didn’t know that at the time. And, thanks to beginner’s luck, my very first batch of macarons, more than two years ago, was a relative success.

Since then, I have made many batches, following several different recipes. But I still haven’t mastered macarons completely: some batches have come out great, others have been disastrous. I am still fumbling around, tweaking things, trying to find a foolproof recipe.

Macarons are basically just meringue, folded with icing sugar and almond meal. You can make them in pretty much any flavour, with any filling: ganache, jam, buttercream, caramel… There are even a lot of recipes for savoury macaron fillings, though I haven’t tried them yet. It’s actually not hard to make a tasty macaron; the difficulties lie in the details.

Macarons are all about looks. They can’t be flat little domes, they have to have a “foot,” or collerette in French: that’s the crackly little ring surrounding the base of each cookie. Macarons must also have a smooth, shiny surface. In order to obtain both these results, you have to dry the cookies before you bake them, so that a crust forms.

As far as I know, there are no official criteria for texture. The latter depends on your meringue-to-dry-ingredients ratio, and also on how you handle the batter when you combine them. Some macarons are light and crispy, others are thick and chewy, while some practically melt in your mouth. I tend to prefer the chewy ones, but I’ve found that the crispy ones are more likely to look better coming out of the oven, with fewer cracks and imperfections. Furthermore, the shells tend to absorb moisture from the filling and become chewier after a day.

For my first batch, I followed the recipe Ami gave us to a T. The main difference with what I usually do, apart from the proportions, was that this version suggested drying the cookies in the oven at low heat for a few minutes, rather than leaving them out at room temperature for 30 minutes. However, I was disappointed by my result.

As you can see, my first attempt led to overcooked macarons (notice that the bottoms are so browned it shows through the green colouring), which didn’t develop a “foot,” and were full of little craters to boot. The craters were from air bubbles which had risen to the surface; usually, banging the baking sheet on the counter will get rid of most of the bubbles, and help the batter settle. But this time, the batter texture was just all wrong.

Now, Ami told us that this was the best macaron recipes she has tried, and I believe her. But I think that, when it comes to macarons, there isn’t necessarily one perfect recipe. It’s all about finding the recipe that’s perfect for you, and the conditions you work in. And this recipe just wasn’t a good fit for me.

So, for my second batch, I returned to the method I’ve been using recently. My favourite macaron recipe has a lower ratio of dry ingredients, requires drying the shells at room temperature, and baking them for longer at a lower temperature. It’s still not quite perfect: only about half of my shells came out crack-free and smooth. However, I noticed that the last baking sheets (I always bake them one by one) had a lot more nice-looking macarons than the first one. So it seems that letting the macarons out to dry for long enough is key. At any rate, my second attempt was clearly much more successful.

Now, about the filling. For the first attempt, I did a white chocolate ganache, flavoured with green tea (I’ve always wanted to try this). I also put some green tea in the shells themselves, as well as food colouring.

It is recommended to use powdered colouring for macarons, as too much liquid can kill your batter. However, having never found powdered colouring, I’ve always used this paste-like coloured gel. It’s very powerful, and so far using 1/4 tsp per batch doesn’t seem to have ruined my macarons. I admit I may have put a little too much “bergamot green” in this batch.

I didn’t put any colouring in my second batch, because I couldn’t find a colour that would fit the flavour I was using: speculoos. “Specu-what?” I’ve used this word on this blog before. Speculoos are typical Belgian cookies, made with brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and ground cloves. You can find them fairly easily in Montreal, in fancy grocery stores. However, when I went to Belgium last month, I found that they now make speculoos-flavoured spread.

Obviously, I brought home a huge jar. It looks like peanut butter, but it tastes just like the cookies. I actually have a recipe specifically for “Speculoos Macarons,” which was where I got the idea for this in the first place. As indicated, I added some spices (cinnamon, cloves and ginger) directly in the batter. The texture of macarons + the taste of speculoos = Pure Deliciousness.

Please head on to the Daring Kitchen to see the recipe we were given – and do yourself a favour and check out the Daring Bakers’ Blogroll to see what everyone else came up with. Below is the recipe I used for green tea ganache, as well as the standard macaron recipe I used the second time around. Even though I ended up with an initial failure, I’m still really glad this challenge forced me to try a new macaron method, and further hone my technique.

Standard Macaron Recipe
(Mostly based on Sébastien Serveau’s Macarons Faciles)

Yields about 70 individual shells, or 35 garnished macarons (small)

110g (3.8 oz, 3/4 cup) almond meal
225g (8 oz, 1 5/8 cup) icing sugar
4 egg whites, room temperature
50g (1.75 oz, ¼ cup) granulated sugar
Food colouring (powder or gel) (optional)

Line four baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, sift together the almond meal and icing sugar.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites into soft peaks. Gradually add the granulated sugar, and continue whisking into stiff peaks. At the end of the process, you should be able to turn your bowl upside down, without having the meringue fall out.

Sprinkle about a third of the almond-sugar mixture over the meringue. Using a flexible spatula, carefully fold the dry ingredients into the meringue, making vertical circular motions. Avoid crushing the egg whites. When the dry ingredients are more or less incorporated (but not completely), add another third of the almond-sugar mixture. Continue until all the mixture has been folded in.

Keep folding until you end up with a smooth, shiny batter, that ribbons off your spatula, but is not too liquid. You want to be able to make shells that will not spread too much on your baking sheet. On the other hand, you want the batter to be just liquid enough that any imperfections you wind up with while piping your shells will settle down and vanish. (It’s a question of habit and experimenting.

If you are using food colouring: If using powdered colouring, add it towards the end of the folding process. If you are using gel, wait until you have folded in all the dry ingredients, but your batter is still rather gritty, and transfer a couple of spoonfuls of batter into a small bowl. Add the colouring to the bowl and mix. Return the coloured batter to the large bowl and continue folding. By the time you are finished, the colour should be uniform.

Spoon the batter in a pastry bag fitted with a 1 cm (1/2 inch) round tip, and pipe domes of around 3 cm (1 1/2 inch) in diameter on the prepared baking sheets. Alternately (if, like me, you suck at piping), you can simply use a small spoon: the batter should be liquid enough to slowly drop from the spoon onto the sheet (you can also use a second spoon to gently scrape it off). Try to pipe the domes in staggered rows.

When you have filled a baking sheet, bang it firmly on the counter a few times, so as to remove any air bubbles. However, don’t overdo it, or your batter will spread too much, and your shells will be too thin, which increases the risk of crackling.

Let the domes rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or as long as it takes for a crust to form on the surface (this depends on how humid your kitchen is). You need to be able to touch the domes without having them stick to your finger. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 150°C (300°F).

Bake your macarons, one sheet at a time, for 9-11 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway. Do not let them brown too much on the bottom. When done, immediately remove the parchment paper from the baking sheet and let cool completely.

If you want to sandwich your macarons with a filling, you may do so as soon as they are cool. The macarons will be chewier the next day, having absorbed moisture from the filling. Store in an airtight container, and refrigerate if your filling requires it (for example, if it contains cream or butter).

Green Tea White Chocolate Ganache
(From Myriam Darmoni’s Macarons)

Fills about 20 macarons (40 individual shells)

100g (3.5 oz) white chocolate chips
50 ml (1/4 cup) heavy cream
20g (3/4 oz, 1 tbsp) butter
1 tbsp green tea powder

In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in white chocolate, butter, and green tea powder. Whisk until smooth, returning to heat if necessary, if your chocolate has trouble melting properly. Transfer to a bowl, let cool, and refrigerate if necessary to obtain a spreadable mixture.

When ready, pipe or spread the filling over the bottom of a macaron shell, and sandwich with another shell.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Autumn in Europe - Austria and Croatia

OK, time to reveal where I disappeared to for three weeks! For those of you who took a guess on my last post, I can now answer: the nature and ocean photographs were taken in Croatia, while the castle is Schönbrunn Palace, in Vienna – that’s right, Sissi’s castle! (Simone guessed Versailles, which was pretty close in a way: Marie-Antoinette lived in both places!)

Schönbrunn Palace

Schönbrunn gardens

Vienna State Opera

But all in all, we went through 9 countries and 19 cities. I’m not saying we thoroughly visited every single one of them, but we passed through them – and most of them were given adequate time and attention.

A few years ago, some of my relatives from Europe came here to Canada, for a visit. Their plan was to visit Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Gaspésie, New York and Vancouver – all in under two weeks. They were surprised when we told them how far all these places were from one another: they were barely halfway between their home in France and Vancouver, for instance. But this is because everything in Europe is so comparatively close to the rest, and the borders are so open: after 11 years in Canada, I get surprised too, when I go back.

Still, there are places in Europe I wouldn’t have spontaneously considered visiting. Like Slovakia. The only reason I started going there, a couple of years ago, is because my parents now live there. However, not only is it a surprisingly pretty country, it’s also a gateway to many even prettier places. Thus, over the past couple of years, I’ve been able to visit parts of Austria, Hungary, Germany, and the Czech Republic.

Plitvice National Park (Croatia)

So, this year, it was Croatia. We went there by car, with my parents, which meant that we got to pass through a couple of countries on the way (Austria, Slovenia, and Bosnia). But Croatia was our main focus. We had heard many good things about this country, and it did not disappoint.

The main attraction was simply the landscape. Croatia has truly been blessed by the Gods of Geography: it has awe-inspiring, wild mountains, stunning national parks, and a beautiful coast, surrounded by islands. I am the first to admit that I am a through-and-through city girl, and that I could never live completely surrounded by nature. But even I was tempted to just buy a tent and pitch it in the middle of Plitvice Park (nevermind the bears).

The cities were also worth the trip. The cool thing was, they got better as we travelled along. First, Varasdin, which was charming, but not quite mind-blowing (although, apparently, we failed to visit the historic core of the city). Then, Zadar, where we caught our first glimpse of the Adriatic Sea, and heard the sound of underwater pipe organs, whose music was created by the movement of the waves. Then, Split, which had some stunning old buildings, and a lovely promenade alongside the sea. Then, Dubrovnik, at the Southern tip of the country, which was surrounded by islands, and was full of tiny, steep streets. And finally, Zagreb, which was quite larger and a lot more urban, but still had a lot more charm than many big cities I’ve visited.

City walls of Dubrovnik

Streets of Dubrovnik

But what about the food? Unfortunately, I don’t have any decent photographs of it. For one thing, we mostly ate on outside terraces, with very little lighting, which was far from ideal for taking pictures. And second of all, none of the food was very photogenic.

Croatian cuisine, at least from what I’ve sampled, appears to be very simple. Since the country is surrounded by the sea, there is no shortage of fresh fish and seafood, especially in the South. I tried to make the most of the trip by eating mostly fish that are hard to get here in Canada, such as sea bass and bream. I also binged on grilled calamari, because I will eat calamari in any country. The dishes were always very simple: the fish was always grilled whole, with salt and olive oil, and served with one’s choice of vegetable; I often went for Dalmatian-style chard, which are sautéed with boiled potatoes in oil and garlic. It was good, but it got a little repetitive after a few days. There were also basic meat dishes, such as roast lamb, steak, and veal scallops, always very simply prepared. Maybe it was because we tended to stick to tourist-type restaurants, but all the menus appeared to be similar, with very little variety. I know that Croatia does have some more elaborate preparations, such as salt-crusted sea bass, and lamb slow-roasted in ash; unfortunately, the only place we dined at that offered these specialties required one to order them 24 hours in advance.

Promenade in Split

Seaside in Zadar

Now, I don’t need a complicated dish to be happy. I am a firm believer that a good, fresh ingredient shouldn’t be messed around with too much. When I pan-grill a really good cut of steak, I typically use butter, salt, pepper, and a side of mustard – that’s all. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t experiment at all. A little flavour contrast can go a long way. I mean, it’s telling that the most delicious fish soup I had throughout the entire trip did not hail from a Croatian kitchen: it was served to me in a village near Vienna – in Austria, a landlocked country!

Still, there was one Croatian restaurant that stood out from the rest. It was a discreet (but apparently very well-known) little place called Rozarij, in Dubrovnik. The owner was an older gentleman who seemed to be able to make small talk (at least, restaurant-related small talk) in just about all the European languages. The menu was a bit more varied than the others we had come across, with more kinds of fish, and some dishes we hadn’t come across yet. But it was the owner who made this place special. He brought out our fish (grilled whole, as usual, but seasoned with more care than the others I had eaten), and made a huge deal of deboning them for us (the first and only time anyone had offered to do that). He really put on a show, making dramatic gestures and elaborate flourishes. Truly, that alone was worth the bill (or, should I say, the price of admission). And before we left, he treated us to a homemade local liqueur, which I think was called travarica, and is basically grappa with herbs. I’m a whisky lover myself – but I have to say, that stuff was not for the faint of heart.


Still, maybe it’s a good thing that Croatia has not yet capitalized on its gastronomy. Because with everything that country has going for it, the day its chefs decide to advertise their skills and make full use of all the different fish and seafood they have on hand – well, I’m guessing there will be even more tourists than there already are. And that would be bad, because then I couldn’t afford to go back, let alone eat there.


We also travelled to Belgium, during the second part of our trip. But I'll post about that next time!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Daring Cooks' October Challenge: Vietnamese Pho and Dessert Wontons

I’m back from my vacation!

So, where did I go? Here are some hints:

Ok, I guess that could be anywhere that has huge national parks and gorgeous coasts. Here’s another hint; but beware, it's not the same country as above (in fact, this country has no coastline):

Points to whoever recognizes the castle! But I’ll post about my trip some other day, let’s move on. Today is Daring Cooks’ Day!

I didn’t have a lot of time to get this challenge done, since I only came home a few days ago. But there was no way I was missing this one, because this month’s challenge was special to me: Vietnamese pho. Our hostess was Jaden Hair, from Steamy Kitchen, and author of the recently published cookbook of the same name.

As I’ve mentioned before, my mother is Vietnamese. However, although I’ve eaten more than my share of pho, I never had the homemade variety growing up: pho was something we always went out for. As I found out, this was because making really good pho takes a while. However, it’s totally worth it.

Our hostess offered us a range of options for this challenge, including variations on flavour and cooking time. There was a quickie version, using ready-made broth. And then there was a much longer version, which required making our own broth. I immediately went for the long recipe. You see, I had made a previous attempt at pho a few months back, with broth from a can, and it tasted nothing like real pho. Granted, perhaps I had simply used a bad recipe: all the Daring Cooks who used Jaden’s quick recipe seemed very happy with the results. Still, I felt like doing this the way my grandmother did it.

We also had a choice between chicken or beef. Again, I didn’t hesitate: I went straight for the beef. This is because my mother, who knows her pho even though she doesn’t make it, has always told me that beef pho is the more authentic one, as well as the one with the most flavour. I’m as Western as they come, at this point in my life, but I figured that, as long I was pretending to be my grandmother, I might as well go all the way. Plus, I like beef.

The first step was to char the onions and ginger. I had read about this trick before, on Andrea Nguyen’s website Viet World Kitchen: burning the vegetables gives more flavour to your broth. It was a rather counter-intuitive experience for me, however, as I spend so much of my time trying not to burn things in the oven. I kept wanting to snatch the veggies out from under the broiler.

Ok, with my onions nice and black (or at least as black as I was prepared to let them get), it was time to make the broth. I bought a ton of marrow bones (I literally emptied the supermarket section), along with a nice piece of chuck meat. I parboiled the bones to remove all the yucky stuff, then threw in the meat, burnt vegetables, spices, and let everything simmer for… 3 hours. I think this is why my mother decided it wasn’t worth making pho at home, when there was a perfectly good Vietnamese restaurant two blocks away.

Anyways, 3 hours later, I had a nice, dark and, thanks to frequent skimming, clear beef broth. However, because I had used so many marrow bones, it was quite fatty. I’m comfortable with a little bit of fat, but when the broth leaves a greasy film on your lips, that’s just too much. Fortunately, I had made the broth a day ahead; so I left it in the fridge overnight, so that in the morning all the fat had congealed at the surface, and I was able to spoon it out. A little trick I stumbled upon while making stew last year.

The rest was pretty straightforward. I boiled and drained my noodles, added some slices of both raw and simmered beef, poured the broth over and garnished with coriander, spring onions, soy sprouts and mint leaves. I like raw meat, so I didn’t let mine cook too long in the broth.

I didn’t add any hoisin or chili sauce, because I wanted to taste the broth itself. I was very pleased with the result: it tasted almost exactly like good restaurant pho! I couldn’t have hoped for better. And the simmered meat was really tender and tasty.

The second part of the challenge was deep-fried dessert wontons. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any wonton wrappers around here (and I had no time to get to Chinatown), so I used Chinese egg roll wrappers. They were rather difficult to work with, so I kept my shapes pretty simple. For the filling, I wanted to use mascarpone, and made two variations: one chocolate-pistachio, and one lemon.

The chocolate version came out fine, but the lemon one was a disaster. The filling was too wet, because of the lemon juice, and as a result the wrapper burst while frying. Burnt lemony mascarpone in the frying oil. Not pretty. But at least both fillings were good. I’ll probably make them again, but maybe not wonton style… Definitely not egg roll style. I think I prefer good ol’ phylo dough.

Ok, so the wontons weren’t a revelation, but I definitely feel like I learnt something worthwhile by making my own pho. I’m hoping my mother will be proud – though I don’t think I’d dare serve it to her. It was good, but I’m sure it wasn’t perfect by some obscure criteria I haven’t figured out yet.

Check here for the DC blogroll, to see the amazing soups everyone else made, and here for the basic challenge. If you want to try the 3-hour long beef pho recipe (and you really should), you’ll find it here, on Jaden’s website.