Thursday, April 24, 2008

Macarons



I feel ready to post about macarons. Several years after the craze hit the blogging world, I can finally say I have made some myself.


My first really successful macarons were the lemon ones on the left, using chef Pang's recipe. The chocolate ones were the funny baseball cap ones I mentioned earlier, and the caramel-hazelnut ones on the right were too wet and their feet spread out too much.

Tricky little things
These little treats are often annoying and unpredictable, as I described in an earlier post. Three ingredients go into the cookies: egg whites, confectioner's sugar and ground almonds. But simple they are not. Egg whites must be aged, nuts must be ground with sugar and sifted, batter must be mixed just so, shapes piped and left to crust (or not), cookie pans doubled to produce "feet" (lacy stuff around the edges), water squirted under parchment paper to facilitate removal of cookies, etc.

I am not yet ready to give "Astrid's secrets to macarons," as I do not have consistently good or predictable results (but I can point you toward one recent and excellent tutorial by Hélène at Tartelette). I will however tell you about my experiences with two recipes I tried multiple times: those by Pierre Hermé (of course) and Chef Pang Kok Keong.

Finding a recipe that's not too sweet
Pierre Hermé does not add any sugar to his egg whites, and chef Pang uses the French meringue method (a small amount of sugar is whisked into the egg whites). I have not tried the Italian meringue method (a hot syrup is whisked into the egg whites). It is my understanding that this latter version is much more consistent in its results, but also that it is sweeter and more like meringue. I find macarons are plenty sweet enough as it is, and if I wanted to make meringue, I would!

I really, really wanted to succeed with the Hermé recipe. His seems to have the lowest amount of sugar of any I have come across. And honestly, I find macarons are in general a little too sweet. But I simply could not get consistent results, and most of the time the ones I made using his recipe came out limp and too fragile. Except for the chocolate ones, in which perhaps the cocoa acts as a stabilizing force.

I then tried chef Pang Kok Keong’s recipe and had much better results. Yes there is a little more sugar, but not as much as many other recipes out there, and it seems to make the batter more cooperative. Also I suspect the higher baking temperature and longer baking time makes these easier to handle. Though they do tend to brown a little too much.

Flavor experiments: hazelnut-caramel, coffee, lemon, and chocolate


Hazelnut macarons with salted caramel filling. Recipe below.

The combination of hazelnut macaron and salted caramel filling came from Veronica's Test Kitchen, and it is delicious. Recipe follows. Several of my tasters said it was the best I made.


Coffee macarons: the cookies are flavored with coffee extract, and the filling is coffee buttercream.

My husband prefers the coffee flavored ones, and I feel they're a tie with the caramel ones. I won't go into my struggles with the filling (I had never made buttercream before, and every time it failed to coalesce into something smooth). But being sandwiched between two shells, the cream's lumpiness is not too apparent. And it tastes good.


Lemon macarons. See what I mean about unpredictable results? I think these were left to dry for several hours longer than necessary, which may have made them lop-sided. A more successful batch is pictured at the bottom of this post.

Another good flavor is lemon. I used Hermé's recipe for lemon cream, available here. It's very buttery, but has a lovely texture and works well in a macaron. And the immersion blender trick -- also used by chef Pang for his caramel filling --worked well for me as a way to produce a satiny filling.


These chocolate macarons were good, but a bit soggy for some reason.

The chocolate ones are good, but they lack a little zip. I find the sweetness of the macaron really needs to be contrasted with either bitterness (dark caramel or coffee), saltiness (salted caramel), or tartness (lemon cream). I tried a little candied ginger in the center of the chocolate ones but wasn't too pleased with the result. Still, spiciness might be something to explore.


These are all hazelnut-caramel macarons, but some were overbaked. They were darker and crunchier but good too. And a lot easier to pry off the parchment paper.

Why make your own macarons?
As always, the question that begs to be asked is why bother? They're tricky, and they're not my favorite sweet (though if I consider them candy as opposed to cookies I find I really enjoy them in small quantities, with coffee for instance.)

Yes, the challenge is fun. But there are a few other great things about them:
1. They make good gifts, as many people seem to love them
2. They use up left-over egg whites: freeze your egg whites, and when you are ready to make macarons, defrost them either overnight in the fridge or for a few hours on your counter. The egg whites will then be properly "aged" and even better than freshly separated ones. (I wouldn't use frozen egg whites if they were to be served raw).
3. The flavor possibilities seem endless, and encourage the baker to tinker around.
4. They actually improve in flavor and texture a day or two after making them. And they freeze beautifully. That is fabulous to me. Most of the things I love need to be baked freshly to be enjoyed: croissants, brioche, financiers, chouquettes, you name it, are best fresh from the oven, which is not always convenient. Macarons are the perfect make-ahead treat.



Recipe: Chef Pang Kok Keong’s Macaron Caramel Fleur de Sel
From Chubby Hubby

For the macaron cookie
- 500g ground almond
[For the caramel macarons I used all toasted hazelnut instead of almonds. I think I toasted the ground hazelnuts for about 10 or 15 minutes at 150°C in the oven, until I could smell them.]
- 900g icing sugar
- 440g egg white
- 120g sugar

Sieve your ground almond and icing sugar into a mixing bowl. Make sure the mixture is lump-free. Beat the egg whites using an electrical mixer with a whisk attachment at high speed until you can see a line made by the whisk going round. Then add in the sugar while the mixer is at medium speed. Make a stiff meringue. Fold the meringue into the dry sieved ingredients until you get a homogeneous mix, taking care not to overfold it, as normal meringue are very delicate.

Pipe the mixture onto a silpat with a no. 5 plain tube into 3cm balls (The cookies will spread to approximately 5cm). If the mixture is too thick, you’ll see a tip sticking up from the balls (from where you piped them) even after you finish piping the last row. If this happens, give the tray a little tap so that you’ll get a nice smooth surface.

Leave the piped macaron cookies out to form a skin before baking them at 160 degrees Celsius in a fan oven for approximately 14-16 minutes. When totally cooled, sandwich two cookies together with either buttercream, firm mamarlade, or a caramel filling.

Caramel fleur de sel
- 200g sugar
- 1 vanilla pod
- 200g cream
- 3.75g fleur de sel
- 140g butter, chilled

In a 1 litre heavy based pot, cook the sugar, stirring all the time to get an even caramel.
[I think I let it cook until 190°C, to get an almost bitter caramel, which I like as a contrast to the macaron, but sadly I forgot to make note of the exact temperature].

Then add in the vanilla pod, scraped. Add in the warm cream a bit at a time as it will bubble up and splatter. Then add in the fleur de sel. Stir to make sure all the caramel has dissolved. Cool the mixture to approximately 40 degrees Celsius. Add in the well chilled butter, cut into cubes. Using an immersion blender, blend in the butter till you achieve a smooth glossy paste. Line the surface of the caramel with plastic wrap or greaseproof paper to prevent a skin from forming and chill in the fridge until needed.


An aside on food coloring and macarons

I don't understand why suddenly it's OK to use loads of food coloring in home-baked foods. Yes many of the macarons out there are adorable in their peppy colors. And color is a good way to indicate what's inside the macaron. My macarons all tend to look the same (unless I overbake them), and definitely not very zippy. But really, when I went into Pierre Hermé's shop a few days ago on my last visit to Paris (yes I know I'm fortunate), I nearly gagged at the brightly colored, metallic paint jobs on his latest "collection." I would love those colors on my finger nails (uhm, no, not really) or on my car, but not on my food.

If food coloring were used only on macarons, fine, I could live with it. But now it seems like it's cropping up all over the place, and I don't trust what I see in the patisserie window any more. That lovely raspberry coulis, does it owe its color to the ripeness of the fruit or to chemistry? Am I too naive? I guess ice cream often has food coloring in it (orange melon color? green pistachio color?), but I don't want to know about it!


Lemon macarons. Tinted yellow using turmeric.

In an attempt to find a natural alternative, I followed a suggestion posted here and used turmeric to tint these lemon macarons yellow. The trick is apparently to eliminate the flavor of the turmeric by toasting it along with the almonds in the oven. They came out pretty, but unfortunately I could taste the turmeric. It was a brand new bottle, maybe stale turmeric would work better. It didn't really spoil the macarons though.

But maybe using turmeric is cheating also. Shape, color and flavor should be a product of the major ingredients used in the recipe, not of trickery. Ah, but what about the magic of baking? OK, I'll live with trickery, as long as it's all natural.

For pink macarons, some use beet juice, but I find once it's baked the color loses its freshness. I tried grinding up some dehydrated strawberries (from my Special K cereal!) but there too, the color faded in the oven. Anyway, who needs red-fruit flavored macarons? Luckily my favorite flavors -- coffee, hazelnut-caramel and chocolate -- all are colored naturally. And lemon, well, it can just stay white.

Even so, many recipes suggest enhancing the chocolate macaron color with a few drops of red food coloring. Seriously, I find that disturbing. There's cocoa in those macarons, isn't that brown enough?

End of rant. My apologies if I offended anyone of the wonderful bloggers out there who produce lovely jewel-colored macarons. I would be delighted to eat any you make, and who knows, I may also eat my words one day for the simple joy of making artful-looking food.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pretzels



Different people have different ideas of what makes a perfect pretzel. I don't know much about pretzels in the US, or in particular at ball games. The pretzels I wanted to recreate are the kind that you can find all over Southern Germany, Alsace and Switzerland. I'm sure there's variations among these too, but I am not well-informed enough to know them.

Lye?
What I was after was a dark, shiny pretzel with an elegant shape. Reading different recipes on the web, I discovered that if I really want to be authentic, I need to dip the pretzels in a lye solution (hence the "laugen" in "Laugenbrezel", which I never understood until now). In theory I could have purchased the necessary substance ("Natriumhydroxid" or NaOH) in a pharmacy, but given it is quite toxic, can produce rashes or burns, and requires special handling, I decided to start with something simpler, if not as authentic: a baking soda solution. You can find a whole debate on the merits of different kinds of bathing or glazing solutions on The Fresh Loaf.

Shaping
One point I didn't want to compromise on was shaping. In the link above, there are photos of some tasty looking bread, but not, to my mind, pretzels: the chubby rope of dough was simply crossed over once, without the characteristic knot of the pretzel. Then through one of the comments on this post I found a lovely website with video demonstrations on shaping. The original link in German is here, and a translated one is here. While I have yet to master one of the different toss and fling techniques demonstrated, the videos showed me what I should aim for. I hope one day to be able to replicate the elegant moves and beautiful bretzel shapes.

Ingredients
Then came the question of ingredients. I first wanted to try a Sherry Yard recipe, but found it a little complicated (dark ale and buttermilk, for instance, and egg glaze, if my memory serves). I decided to try one of the recipes posted on the German site mentioned above (the one with the videos). It's simple, the dough is easy to make, and it rolls out quite easily. They taste good and pretty authentic to my non-expert palate.

Why?
One final word before I give you the recipe. Why would I choose to make these myself when I can buy delicious fresh pretzels here in Switzerland? To begin with, I don't have a pretzel stand literally near my home, and also they're quite expensive (think three children who do not want to share a pretzel among them.) But most of all... they're fun to make!

Recipe: Pretzels
Adapted from a recipe for "Laugenbrezel"

Ingredients

Pretzels
- 500g all-purpose flour.
(type 450 or 550 in Germany, ie type 45 or 55 in France.)
- 2 teaspoons salt (10g)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 liter (250g) lukewarm water
- 1 cube fresh yeast (42g).
This I believe is equivalent to 14g instant yeast. I was suprised by this quantity, but the pretzels didn't taste too yeasty.
- 40g margarine (hunh?) or butter (definitely butter!)
- Coarse salt for sprinkling

Dipping solution
- 100g baking soda
- 1 liter (1000g) water
This is a lot of baking soda. You can probably get away with less, though I really like the tangy flavor the soda gives the pretzel's crust. I keep the dipping solution for a while in the fridge for the next time I make pretzels, but I don't know if I can recommend that or not.

Preparation
Dissolve yeast in water. Mix flour and salt. Form a well, add the sugar and the yeast + water. Let it rest for 15 minutes before mixing.

Add the soft butter and knead everything to a smooth dough (I kneaded for 5 or 6 minutes on 2 in my Kitchenaid). Let the dough rest for 30 minutes.

From this dough you can make about 12 pretzels. Cut the dough into twelve equal parts, then roll each piece on the table (unfloured in my case, and I even had to dampen the table a little to generate some friction) to about 50 cm (20 inches?), tapered toward the ends. Don't make it smaller than 50cm, as it's impossible to get a good shape with a short, thick rope of dough. The dough should not get too warm or "locker" (loose? slack?) as you roll it out, or it might tear. (I didn't have any problem with this though, even after my kids' hot hands worked way longer than necessary on the dough ropes.)

Place the pretzels without covering them in the fridge for about an hour. This helps build a skin that will absorb the dipping solution better and make a beautiful shiny crust.

Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F)

Dipping the pretzels: (this is where I didn't follow the original recipe with its lye solution...) Add the baking soda to the water, and bring to a boil. Then dip each pretzel for 10 seconds into the simmering solution, and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. (I would recommend dipping for no longer than 10 seconds. I left some in longer, and believe this caused them to develop too many cracks).

You're supposed to score the dough once like for a baguette with a razor blade or sharp knife. I tried with a knife on one or two without much success, so my pretzles cracked in random places.

Sprinkle with salt. (Notice you don't need to brush the pretzels with egg wash or anything).

Bake the pretzels at 200°C (390°F) for about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how dark you like them.



I let the girls have fun with shaping. I probably let the heart simmer for too long in the baking soda solution, as it has too many cracks. At least I assume that's what the problem was.