Sunday, March 8, 2015

On making macarons....

I found myself needing a project.  Not a short-term, done in a few hours type of work.  I wanted something that would build on itself, a skill.  Hmm.... French cooking!  (How do I come up with this stuff?)

In researching and planning my vacation to Europe, I came across several mentions of this delightful French cookie called a macaron.  Not a macaroon, mind you, which is a delightfully chewy coconut cookie.  Non!  These are light-as-air creations, pretty as can be.  And I have never (until a few weeks ago) had one, yet knew I had to make them!  So I hustled down to the local Central Market, and purchased two from the patisserie.  They were scrumptious!  At $1.89 each, and no bigger than a half-dollar, they had better be... and that's where the challenge began.

Macarons have a bad reputation.

They get their bad rep because it's been said they are very difficult, temperamental - caprecieux, if you will.  Recipes conflict each other across the board - let the egg whites rest for 24 hours, it doesn't matter.  Don't make them on a rainy/hot/cold day, it doesn't matter.  It's enough to make you throw your hands up in the air and exclaim Mon Dieu!  What have I gotten myself into?

All my research led me to a delightful blog called Brave Tart - a talented young baker named Stella created this blog, and it is famous for its section on macarons.  See the recipe HERE.  She has several pages on just how to create this fanastique French favorite.

I gave it a whirl myself, and now I'm hooked.  Let me tell you my story about how I made macarons...

First, the ingredients!

Don't mind the orange, I thought I would be able to make two different batches.  I made one kind, almond cookie with raspberry jam filling.

Measure carefully!  I found a nifty little kitchen scale at the thrift store for $2.  Go by weight, not volume.  Factors such as humidity, or how a product was stored, can affect volume.  This is the almond flour (also called almond meal).  I found this little gravy ladle is perfect for scooping stuff out of a bag and into the measuring cup.

Same with the sugar - weight, not volume.

The instructions said to blend the sugar and almond together with a rubber spatula.  Ok, I had a big one... somewhere... but I could only find this little one!  I have since remedied that problem!

More measuring... I want to find a piece of plastic to glue to the top of the scale, the little base is just not big enough!  I have to be very careful, or it will tip over.  Don't ask how I know this.

This is why you add eggs to a bowl first, not the batch of ingredients!

Set a timer!  A lot of recipes call for a stand mixer, but I don't have one (yet).  Hand-held electric beaters work fine.  You will do this for quite some time, at least 9 minutes.  Just when you think the egg whites and sugar won't come together, they do!  Be patient!

This is after 9 minutes of beating on high, and adding the gel color.  Don't use the liquid, it'll just not work.  Gel colors are $1.79 at WalMart, and a little goes a long, long way!

Finally!  Very stiff peaks is the goal!

Folding in the almond/sugar mixture.  Keep folding, not beating.  You want it to be lava-like, where it will hold a shape, and not run all over.  I think I didn't fold enough, and that was a problem later on.

Ok, so my piping technique needs work.  Next time I'm going to use a cheat-sheet - a sheet of parchment with circles drawn on it underneath, so each cookie is the same size.  Also, see the tops?  My meringue was just a little too stiff.  A few more folds would have corrected this.

Not bad for a first-time try.  The cracks could have been solved by letting the pan rest for 20 minutes before baking.

With a schmear of raspberry preserves!

They may not have looked perfect, but they sure tasted good!  And they're even better the next day!

So much for my first try at macarons.  I'm going to try again, and this time I want to try blood orange, with blood orange buttercream filling.  

What is the most challenging recipe you've ever attempted?

Friday, January 9, 2015

It's cold outside.

No, really.  To us Texans, 35 is cold.  Anything below freezing, and we hunker down inside by the fire.  My son is in Minnesota.  Right now, anything above freezing is shorts and t-shirt weather.

Then again, along about August, if it falls below 90, we throw an extra blanket on the bed, and get out a jacket!

Winter weather means winter food.  And winter food, to me, is easy food.  Stew, soup, chili - dump it in a pot, and in an hour or so, you have a hearty and delicious meal.  And because all that stewing can tenderize a not-so-tender cut of meat, it can be very economical as well. So I thought I'd post some photos and - well, not a recipe per se, but more of a "how-I-did-it" in case anyone wants to try their hand at making these yummy concoctions!

Recently I had a nasty cold.  That calls for the old standby, chicken soup.  Jewish penicillin if you will.  Chicken breast, corn, green beans, carrots, a bay leaf or two, and broth, with some parsley, salt, and pepper.  Let it cook.

Sometimes I get a hankering for beef stew, but even stew beef is pricey these days.  Nothing wrong with burger stew!  Brown the burger, add carrots, potatoes, onions, whatever other veggies, bay, and seasoning.  Not the best photo, but you get the idea.

Tonight's creation is turkey chowder.  The local grocer had turkeys for $,49 an pound - such a steal!  So the wings, thighs, and legs went to simmer with bay, onion, garlic, salt and pepper.  Once the meat was falling off the bone, I scooped it out, and separated it, being sure to save some for the pups, and I drained the stock into a large bowl.  Chop up about a half pound of lean bacon, potatoes, carrots, onion... whatever else you like, I added corn and green beans - then 1.5 cups of half and half, and enough stock to cover.  A little parsley and pepper, then let that pot of goodness simmer until the potatoes are done.  Winter goodness!  

Sometimes if it seems a little thin, I'll add a slurry of cornstarch and water, and let that bubble up for a few minutes,  Not much - just enough to give it a little extra "body."

Finally, you can't talk about hearty winter food without mentioning a big bowl of red.  Good ol' chili.  Whether you make it from scratch, or cheat a little and doctor up a can of Wolf Brand (more ground beef, cumin, garlic, onion, and spicy to your taste), there's nothing like it on a cold evening.  Add shredded cheddar and a big dollop of sour cream, and let your saltine cracker dive in!

What's your favorite winter meal?