custom cakes/cookies

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

French Macarons: trend predictions and ego maintenance

Trend ALERT: Have cupcakes met their match with the French macaron? The macaron may not be mainstream quite yet, but it's been speculated that it's coming. Ask most people (and I have) if they know what a macaron is, and they say “sure!”. Confirm by stating it doesn’t contain sweetened condensed milk or coconut; a bit puzzled, they say “oh?”. Compared to its American namesake, French macarons are a much more sophisticated meringue-style cookie traditionally made with ground almonds. Sandwiched together with a ganache or buttercream or jam or curd, these confections are infinitely customizable by flavor and color combinations. I first read about them a few years back in a foodie magazine article about Christmas gift suggestions. Intrigued, I looked into ordering some as a treat for myself but was shocked to find the shipping price as expensive as the cookies. Determined to have a taste, my next instinct was to figure out how to make them on my own. That’s when I stumbled across the blog of the lovely and talented Tartelette and read every tip and trick I could gather from her. With a great virtual mentor and perhaps beginners luck my first batch ever (tinted purple and filled with a lavender ganache) was perfect! And then I never made them again…

Fast forward to this month where 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. I was extremely excited to be reacquainted with macarons—I’ve already done this!

Unfortunately my first batch (cocoa flavored with spooky Halloween decorations) was disappointing. They tasted fine, but looked like sad little cracked and deflated disks, almost too soft and flimsy to hold a filling. I had read much about the finicky nature of the meringue batter, especially the careful attention needed during the macronage process (the technique of incorporating the dry ingredients into the whipped egg whites), but had yet to experience it firsthand. Things worked fine for me the last time. What was I doing wrong this time? Needless to say my kitchen ego was a little bruised, so I regrouped ingredients, pulled out the Tartelette recipe I was comfortable using (sorry Claudia Fleming) and started over. Round two (still cocoa flavored but with fall leaf and pumpkin sugar decorations) turned out so much better. I achieved the much sought after "feet"—that little ruffled edge at the base of the cookie. Complete success!

For the filling I wanted something that evoked the flavors of fall, so I chose a spiced pumpkin, dark chocolate ganache. I adapted it from a recipe shared with me by my favorite local chocolatier, Nancy Biehn of Sweet Gem Confections. I shouldn’t have strayed as far away from her recipe as I did, as the ganache turned out to be a mini disaster of its own—major, inexplicable cocoa butter seepage from the fancy chocolate in which I invested quite a fair penny! I couldn’t get it to pull together to be cohesive with the rest of the mixture. Having run out of ingredients and time to start fresh, I decided to drain off the liquidy cocoa butter and use the remaining spread as is to fill my perfectly-footed macarons. In doing so, I duly noted the additional opportunity for an ego check—making a ganache is usually foolproof.

Understandably, if this hasn’t enticed you to try making these yourself and you want to check if any bakeries near you sell French macarons, here’s a good place to start.

Will the French macaron supplant the cupcake as the next sweet trend? Hmm, perhaps not all regions of the country will readily take to the frillier dessert. If you ask me, I think pie might need to be thrown in the mix for good Midwestern measure. This is just my humble prediction, but it may be quite likely if the amount of flaky pastry dough coming out of my kitchen this year is any sort of barometer.

Chocolate Macarons

3 egg whites (separated from yolks 3 days before baking and kept at a cool room temp)
50 grams granulated sugar
200 grams powdered sugar
110 grams blanched almonds
2 TBS cocoa powder

1. Combine the cocoa powder, powdered sugar and almonds in the bowl of a food processor and grind until nuts are very fine and powdery. Sift into a large bowl. Regrind any large leftover bits of nuts in a coffee grinder and add to bowl.
2. Beat the egg whites in the clean dry bowl of a stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment to a foam. Slowly add the granulated sugar and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks and you achieve a glossy meringue.
3. Add sifted almond flour mixture into the meringue and fold gently with a rubber spatula to combine. Be gentle! Don’t overfold, but fully incorporate your ingredients. The whole process should not take more than 50 strokes.
4. Spoon the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a plain half-inch tip (Ateco #806). You can also use a Ziploc bag with a corner cut off. It’s easiest to fill your bag if you stand it up in a tall glass and fold the top down before spooning in the batter.
5. Pipe one-inch-sized rounds of batter onto baking sheets lined with nonstick liners (or parchment paper). Let the macarons sit on the counter for an hour to harden their shells a bit.
6. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 300°F. Bake the macaron for 10-12 minutes.
7. Cool completely on a rack before filling.

Makes 2 dozen filled cookies

Spiced Pumpkin, Dark Chocolate Ganache
(this definitely needs tweaking)

1 cup heavy whipping cream
½ cup half and half
1 cup pumpkin puree
4 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ginger
1 tsp fresh ground nutmeg
1 tsp cloves
2 lbs chocolate, finely chopped and set aside in a large bowl

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, bring all ingredients except for chocolate to a boil. Remove from heat and pour over chocolate. Let stand for a minute or so and then stir to incorporate. Ganache should be cooled slightly until firm enough to spread onto macarons.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pho Ga – Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup

The October 2009 Daring Cooks’ challenge was brought to us by Jaden of the blog Steamy Kitchen. This recipe is from her new cookbook, The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook.

As a broth-based soup, Pho (pronounced Fuh? as if you were asking a question) is only as good as the stock used for its foundation. Sure you can create a quick meal with a store-bought version veiled with spice additions, but it will never achieve the depth of flavor and overall satisfaction that comes from slow simmering in the DIY vein. The provenance of the stock I used kindly came from an earnestly adventurous and slightly River Cottage-obsessed friend. He learned to butcher and process a pasture-raised broiler chicken at Back Forty Acres, a farm just in the next town over. If you are familiar with the writing of Michael Pollan or the philosophy of Joel Salatin, than this is the stuff of which Polyface Farms is made: sustainable, pasture-based, local farming. Ironically, I used to live a short distance from Polyface, but never knew of its existence until I moved to Michigan, and the sustainable farming notion resurged with national press.

That very evening of the kill I was invited to dinner. AT LAST! This was my chance to taste fresh chicken, the chicken of the past, chicken that wasn’t raised in a CAFO and actually dined on grass: a chicken that genuinely tastes like, well, chicken. I gladly partook in the family-style roasted chicken feast and then knowing Pho was in my cooking queue promptly inquired as to the intentions for the stock. This particular stock was made from the carcass simmering for over half a day with carrots and kale and leeks and onion and garlic and thyme and bay leaf. It had the familiar aroma of Thanksgiving. Lucky for me plenty was available for this comforting soup, making it that much more special or, if you will, in more colorfully descriptive terms: pho-king amazing!

Pho Ga Recipe
Serves 4

For Broth:

1 onion, unpeeled and cut in half

1 3-inch piece of ginger, unpeeled

2 TBS whole coriander seeds

4 whole cloves

2 whole star anise

2 quarts chicken stock

1 whole chicken breast (bone in or boneless)

1 to 2 TBS sugar

1 to 2 TBS fish sauce

1 lb. dried rice noodles (¼-inch wide)

2 cups bean sprouts
Fresh cilantro
½ cup sliced red onions

1 lime, cut into wedges

Sliced fresh chili peppers

Place ginger and onion on a small baking sheet. The top of the onion should be about 4-inches from the heating element. Set to broil on high for 15 minutes. Turn the onion and ginger occasionally, to get an even char. The skin should get dark and both should get soft. After cooling, rub the onion to get the charred skin off; peel the ginger and cut into thick slices.

Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add the coriander seeds, cloves and star anise. Toast until fragrant, about 3-4 minutes. Transfer to a small dish to prevent burning.

In a large pot combine broth, charred onion, ginger, toasted spices, chicken, sugar and fish sauce; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer for 20 minutes, skimming the surface if necessary. Meanwhile, prepare rice noodles as directed on the package.

Once chicken breasts are cooked, use tongs to remove. Shred the meat with your fingers, discarding the bone if applicable. Strain broth and discard solids.

To serve, ladle the broth into bowls, add shredded chicken breast and noodles. Allow each person to customize their own bowl with additional accompaniments.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Apples All Dressed Up: Polish Apple Fritters

Apples for me are a true harbinger for fall. Sure vendors at my farmer’s market proffered apples all summer, but no, no I whisked straight past towards berries and peaches half-believing those apples were even grown locally. Yes, I know there are early-ripening varietals, but for me, apple season coincides with days shortening, temperatures dropping, and leaves changing. They conjure warm scents of spice and longings for hot cider and doughnuts. Well, the season is certainly upon us now! I've been taking advantage by making cider and filled pastries and dumplings and preserves and sauce and pie...

Recently, a sweet, sweet grandfather-type co-worker shared with me a bag of fresh-picked apples and described his favorite way to eat them: Jabtusska w mundu kadi. This is a traditional Polish recipe that he said roughly translates as “apples all dressed up”. Essentially, these are apple fritters in that apple rings are dipped in a pancake-like batter and fried into deliciousness. By the look in his eyes when he talked about it, I could tell how special this recipe was to my co-worker. This made me that much more eager to try it. When I showed my him the picture of my results, he told me with much enthusiasm that I would “make a great European wife”. Well, I don’t know about that, but I am excited to be preserving a Polish tradition. Next he wants to teach me potato pancakes. I can’t wait!

Jabtusska w Mundu Kadi

2 eggs, separated
3 TBS superfine sugar
5 TBS milk
⅔ cup all-purpose flour
1TBS masa harina
1 lb apples
½ cup butter
powdered sugar

Beat egg yolks with sugar and milk in a medium-sized bowl. In a separate bowl, whip egg whites with a hand mixer until stiff peaks form. Gently fold whites into yolk mixture. Sift the flours over this egg mixture and fold in lightly. This should make a rather thick batter.

Peel, core and slice apples into ¼-inch thick rings. Melt butter in frying pan over medium heat. Dip apple rings in batter, turning to coat both sides. Slip apples into hot butter, frying until golden and puffed; then flip to cook other side. Repeat with remaining rings. Dust with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Serve immediately.

Serves 2-4