Monday, September 22, 2014

Apples and Honey Macarons

I bake a lot.

No, really.

And in all my years of baking, there has never been a recipe that has given me more trouble than this one here. Go ahead, Google "Apple Macarons." See if you find any with apple in the macaron shell, rather than just the filling. I'll wait.

Nothing, right?

The closest I got was one that used powdered apple cider mix. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But Wednesday night is Rosh Hashanah, and everyone knows you have to have apples and honey for the Jewish New Year, so that's what I set out to make. Turns out there's a reason that no one makes apple macarons, even though you can get freeze dried apples in every supermarket. And that reason is pectin.

Pectin is like natural fruit gelatin, binding with the water molecules to thicken a liquid. Which is all well and good when you're trying to thicken apple pie filling. But baking macarons is a delicate dance between heat and moisture. Adding pectin is like inviting an elephant to the party.

But the elephant was on the guest list. So, even after throwing out the first six disastrous batches, I couldn't walk away. Then all those ground almond and egg whites would have been pitched in vain. Oh, noes!

I was just about to concede defeat this morning. Then I decided to do the exact opposite of what I've been doing with my normal macs. Essentially, I beat the meringue for twenty minutes on high speed until it was a sticky mass with almost no water left in it. Then, I laboriously folded the dries in to the thick eggs, taking almost twice as long as the normal, lighter version. These cooked for-flipping-ever: almost thirty minutes on a very low heat. Did I mention that the pectin wants desperately to turn your cookies brown? Funtimes!

In short, I finally did get this recipe to work, but I would not recommend it to a novice macaron maker. If this is your first time, you might well stick to plain ones and fill them with apple butter. This is the recipe I have had the best luck with. Don't start the New Year off crying in your kitchen!

Apples and Honey Macarons
70g blanched almonds or cashews
63g powdered sugar
6g freeze dried apples
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of salt
52g egg whites
2g powdered whites
52g granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 drop gel food coloring (optional)

113g unsalted butter, softened
80g honey
93g powdered sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice

parchment paper or silicon liner
piping bag
round pastry tip

Grind almonds, sugar, and apples in spice grinder, then sift together with cinnamon. Re-grind any lumps, and discard the last half teaspoon of chunks. Beat liquid and powdered eggwhites on low speed, Kitchenaid 4, for four minutes until foamy. Increase speed to level 6 and beat for eight minutes, adding a tablespoon of the granulated sugar every minute or so until it's all incorporated. You should be at the consistency of whipped cream at this point. Beat on KA 8 for four minutes until the meringue is clotting in the middle of the whisk. Add vanilla and coloring, beat another two minutes on 10.

In three portions, fold the nut mixture into the meringue. This will require a fair bit of elbow grease, but just keep working your spatula and you will get pretty close to the "molten" consistency of normal macarons.

I have a double oven, and I turn both on to cook two trays of cookies at once. If you are only using one oven, then don't pipe the second tray until the first is almost ready to go into the oven. The batter will be fine resting in the pastry bag.

Put a round tip (approx. 1cm) in your pastry bag, and pipe circles onto a Silpat- or parchment-lined baking sheet. You can use this template to pipe 3.5cm circles, yielding two trays with about 28 shells each. Take each pan and use your thumbs to anchor the mat or parchment while you bang the daylights out of them. No gentle tapping here! It should sound like hammering and result in your batter spreading noticeably.

You'll want to rest your macarons for about 35 minutes, or until you can touch them without marring the surface. One advantage of this comparatively gummy batter is that you can gently push in any "nipples" that don't settle in after piping. (Please supply your own dirty joke here.)

Preheat the oven to 270˚ convection (285˚ regular, but convection is preferable). Bake for at least 25 minutes, opening the door a few times to release any pent-up humidity. You will know they are done when you touch one and it doesn't wiggle on the base. Let the shells cool for at least 20 minutes on the pan. After that, they should be ready to fill almost immediately.

Beat together butter, honey, and powdered sugar until they are light and fluffy. Finish with the lemon juice to stop it becoming cloyingly sweet. Using a piping bag or just a sandwich bag with one corner snipped off, dollop a teaspoon of filling on half the shells, then sandwich together. Allow the flavors to develop in the fridge for at least a day before serving.

L'Shana Tova! Happy New Year! May it be sweet for all of you.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Strawberry Macarons with White and Dark Chocolate

Baking a cake is like yoga for me. Breathe in, cream the butter and sugar. Breathe out, crack the eggs. I know the sizzling sound a cake makes when it needs another five minutes in the oven. I know how to change up a recipe without ruining it. I can make chocolate cake in my sleep.

Macarons are just the opposite. With macarons in the oven, I feel like a compulsive gambler: Optimistic that this batch will be the one that comes out perfect. Tense with fear that I'll have hollows, no feet, or cracks. And yet...

I. Can't. Stop. Making. Macarons.

After dozens of batches, they're almost to where I want them.  If I could just get them a little bit more smooth and symmetrical... Le sigh.

On the plus side, you can hide those surface imperfections with a little melted chocolate. Seriously, no one's going to complain!

These Strawberry Macarons are filled with a White Chocolate ganache. If you want to temper the sweetness (or hide a flaw), dip them in dark chocolate. But they are delicious without, too.

Forgive my noting quantities only by weight. But making macarons by volume just will not work. Trust me - it's for your own good!

Strawberry Macaron Shells
90g blanched almonds
120g powdered sugar
4g freeze dried strawberries
70g egg whites at room temperature, preferably aged
2g powdered egg whites (optional)
pinch of salt
40g granulated sugar
1 drop red gel color (optional)

White Chocolate Ganache
110g real white chocolate
60g heavy whipping cream

Bitter Chocolate Dip
100g bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Pastry Bags, preferably disposable
Round pastry tip, approximately 1 centimeter in diameter
Parchment Paper

For the Macaron Shells:
  • Weigh almonds, powdered sugar and strawberries into a fine sieve. If you're using a spice grinder (my preference), work in batches to grind everything to a fine meal, sifting as you go. If you're using a food processor, pour all three ingredients in and grind for two minutes. Decant to the sieve, and push through. Process any remaining chunks until almost all passes through the sieve. Discard remainder.
  • With the mixer on medium-low (Kitchenaid 4), whip the eggs, optional egg powder and salt for 4 minutes. Add the granulated sugar and beat on medium (KA 5) for another 4 minutes. Scrape down the sides and beat for another 4 minutes on medium (KA 5 or 6). Add the optional food coloring and beat for an additional minute at the same level.
  • While the mixture is running, line two baking sheets with parchment and prep the pastry bag.
  • Fold the almond mixture into the whites 1/3 at a time, incorporating fully after each addition. Work the batter ONLY until it just stops coming off the spatula in blobs. If it runs back into the bowl, mounds up and then settles down in about 20 seconds, you're there.
  • Fill the pastry bag with the macaron batter and pipe 1.5" circles on the parchment. Rap pan on the counter several times to release air bubbles, then pipe and bang second pan. Leave macarons to rest for at least 30 minutes. If they haven't formed a skin in 30 minutes, rest for 15 minutes longer.
  • Preheat the oven to 290˚. Bake macarons for approximately 14 minutes, until the bubbles in the little cookie feet go from looking wet and shiny to dry and dull.
  • Remove from oven and rest on the baking sheet for 20 minutes before peeling off of parchment.

For White Ganache:
Break up white chocolate into a small bowl. In a separate measuring cup, microwave the cream just until it starts to steam. Pour hot cream over the white chocolate, then whisk it until it's smooth. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes, whisking again every 10 minutes, until the ganache is firm enough to be piped. Using the same tip as you did for piping the macarons (washed, of course!), pipe about 2 teaspoons of ganache onto half of the macaron shells. Sandwich shells together and, if you have time, refrigerate for an hour before dipping in chocolate.

For Dark Chocolate:
Chop chocolate and microwave it in a glass bowl on 50% power for thirty seconds. Stir and repeat until it is almost melted. Stir and allow the residual heat of the bowl to complete the melting process. Dip tops of macaron cookies into the chocolate, swirling to keep the chocolate from developing a tail.

Refrigerate macarons for a day to develop the flavor and texture.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Pear Tart with Chocolate and Almonds

Thank goodness it's finally September! Those last two weeks of August are a sweaty, interminable slog. Don't mistake me - I think my kids are the coolest people in the world. But enough already!

After ten weeks, I ran out of energy to throw my body between them and their beloved xBox. I confess, I hid in the kitchen baking batch after batch of macarons, flinging sandwiches through the door when the noise got too loud.

The children survived, and my macaron skills are getting pretty good, if I do say so.

And, hooray! We won't even hit 80˚ today. Heck, I may just bushwhack out there and yank some of the weeds that took over while I was cowering in the air-conditioning. Yeah, I'm kind of the Indoor Type.

So, time for fall fruits and football. Bye bye, popsicles, and hello, pie. We made it through Labor Day, so it must be time for pears. Or apples, if that's your thing. I'll probably make an apple-honey version for Rosh Hashanah, so stay tuned...

Pear Tart with Chocolate and Almonds

Chocolate Crust
1 cup all-purpose flour (140g)
2/3 cup powdered sugar (80g)
3 tablespoons dutch processed cocoa powder (20g)
pinch of table salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (90g)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg yolks, 1 egg white

Almond-Pear Filling
7 oz almond paste (198g)
1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus 2 teaspoons (108g)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour (32g)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (67g)
2 whole eggs, plus one extra yolk, room temperature if possible
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3-4 small, firm pears
1 tablespoon sliced almonds

For the crust:
Preheat oven to 350˚ (325˚ convection) and use baking spray to coat a 9-10" tart pan with removable bottom. In food processor, pulse flour, sugar, cocoa, salt and butter for 20 seconds. Add vanilla and yolks, then turn the machine back on. (Stop thinking about all those recipes that urged you to handle pie crust gently. They are not the boss of you.) Process for at least a minute, listening for the sound to change from whining to thumping. (Yes, I'm serious!) When it starts to come together in clumps, gather the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 20 minutes. When it has firmed up a bit, roll the dough out onto a piece of wax paper and fit to tart pan. Prick the bottom of the crust several times with a fork, and place in the freezer for at least an hour. Spray a piece of tinfoil and fit it snugly into the crust, making sure to push it into the corners and up the sides to prevent shrinking. Bake for 20 minutes at 350˚, then remove from the oven and use a pastry brush to coat the inside of the crust with egg white. Return the crust to the oven for 5 more minutes before filling.

For the Filling:
You can wash the food processor between the crust and the filling - there's a sucker born every minute, right? I'm just going to throw in the almond paste and sugar and let it run for a bit to break up the chunks. Follow up with the flour and butter, running the machine until almond paste is the consistency of cornmeal. Finish up with the eggs and extracts, processing until there are no visible lumps and then pouring gently into the prepared crust. Peel and slice pears into slivers, arranging them in two concentric circles. Bake for 20 minutes, then sprinkle almonds on top and return to the oven. This should take approximately 20 minutes longer, but you'll know it's done when the top starts to brown and the center stops jiggling when you move it. Let the pie cool completely before removing from the pan.

Refrigerate any leftovers. If you skip the whipped cream, you can call it breakfast the next day with a straight face.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Apricot Buttercream

This post is supposed to be about the Apricot Buttercream. And I will get there. But ...

These butterflies are just about the prettiest thing I've ever made, so let me give credit upfront to Ann Reardon of the amazing How To Cook That blog and YouTube channel. This post tells you how to make these butterflies from craft store candy melts. And it's easy, so don't be surprised if you see color coordinated butterflies on every cake I make from here on out. Reardon's videos are the best - there's a link to this one at the bottom of the post.

Now, back to that buttercream.

Originally, I made as a version of my own Baltimore Buttercream Frosting, i.e. I added a sugar syrup to a meringue of beaten egg whites, before beating in the butter, apricot puree and powdered sugar. But this was a bit, ummm ... squelchy. You know how salad bars in the 80s all had a vat of Jell-O mixed with Cool Whip? I actually put that stuff in my mouth once and lived to tell the tale. But only one time in 1984, since the novelty of a substance that is simultaneously wet and greasy wears off fast.

That's a long way of saying that this recipe is an American Buttercream, which is ridiculously simple. Yay!

Unfortunately, the apricot puree takes a little extra time. Boo!

I used a vanilla-buttermilk cake to support this apricot frosting. Use any three-layer cake you like, chocolate or vanilla. We loved the vanilla cake, but I sandwiched some of the extra frosting between chocolate macaron shells with great results, too. Sadly, the macarons were one of many footless batches I made before realizing that they needed to cook five minutes longer or they'd collapse outside the oven, so no pictures. Live and learn. (Also, cry and stomp your feet like a toddler.)

Apricot Puree
adapted from The Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum
1 cup dried apricots (170g)
1 cup water
juice from half a lemon

Apricot Buttercream
2 sticks butter, softened (230g)
6 cups powdered sugar (960g)
3 tablespoons apricot puree (75g)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-4 tablespoons milk or cream

For the Puree:
In a small saucepan with a lid, soak apricots in the water for two to four hours. On the stove, bring the liquid to a boil, cover the pot, and simmer for twenty to thirty minutes. When most of the water has been absorbed, allow the apricots to rest, covered for half an hour. Using a stick blender or in the food processor, puree the apricots, lemon juice, and any liquid left unabsorbed. You should have a very thick, orange paste. Refrigerate before using in the frosting. Keeps for three weeks in the fridge.

For the Frosting:
Beat the butter on medium speed in the stand mixer for a minute to soften, then add three cups of powdered sugar. Beat slowly to incorporate, then add the apricot puree and the vanilla extract. Beating this in will cause your icing to look curdled. You should panic! No, not really. Just beat in the rest of the powdered sugar, and it will come back together in no time. Add enough milk or cream to get to a spreading consistency, and get to frosting.

Crumb coat.

Second coat, unsmoothed.

Assembling the Cake:
Some days you just want to get cake in your belly. Glop it on, grab a fork, good enough. But if you've put in the effort to make the butterflies, or if you're having company, you might as well spend a little more time polishing it up. Trim your layers level, then spread a few tablespoons of frosting between them. Apply a thin crumb coat to the top and sides of your cake, smoothing out the space between layers. Refrigerate for twenty minutes to form a crust, then apply the rest of your frosting as evenly as possible. Return cake to the refrigerator for two hours to firm up. The tiny apricot chunks in this icing make it difficult to achieve a perfect finish on the first pass, but this is easily solved. Pour hot water into a tall glass, then dip your frosting spatula into the water. Dry the warm spatula on paper towels, smooth a section of the frosting, then repeat until your cake is where you want it. (Not recommended for persons with OCD! If my husband hadn't threatened to eat all the butterflies, I'd still be there smoothing.)

Here's that video by Ann Reardon. It's her world - we're just living in it.