Thursday, April 16, 2015

Printemps Macarons

If spring were a cookie, it would be a macaron. Pastel hued and perfectly formed, these bite-sized, sandwich cookies are so pretty that it almost seems wrong to sink your teeth into one. Almost.

After the brutal winter we’ve had in the Northeast—and my Southern friends tell me it wasn’t much better down there—I am so ready for Spring, and anything that signifies it. Flowers and green grass. Sandals and sunscreen. Bike rides and readying the garden. Even allergies and insects, bring ‘em on (well, maybe not ticks). And bring on the macarons.

Not to be confused with macaroons—the large, egg white confection or the heavier coconut version—macarons are made by baking almond meringue in the shape of small, flat disks, and then sandwiching a filling between two discs to form a single, perfect cookie. Their color, usually pastel but sometimes more vivid, reflects or at least hints at the flavor combinations contained within. Flavors range from classic chocolate and vanilla to the more exotic jasmine, rose petal, or lychee. Sometimes savory flavors are added, such as white truffle, foie gras, or olive oil, which are hit or miss but always interesting.

A few years ago while I was living in Paris with my family, we couldn’t resist when walking by one of the city’s countless pâtisseries stopping in to try just one macaron. This lack of resistance developed into an informal tasting poll to discover the Best Macaron in Paris. Through our “research” we quickly learned that one macaron—crisp on the outside and tender in the middle—is all that’s needed to satisfy a sweet tooth.  And refuel a couple of teenage girls when they’re weary of doing other research around the city guided by their homeschooling teacher/Mom.

Among the various macarons we sampled over several months, our two top winners were Ladurée, considered by many to be the grandpère of macarons, and Pierre Hermé, a relative newcomer that has a fast following and is renowned for bold flavorings (Pierre Hermé’s olive oil and vanilla macaron was my blue ribbon winner).

Ladurée, which claims to have been the creator of the Parisian macaron, now has shops scattered throughout the globe including two in Manhattan. I’ve been to both New York shops, extending our research, and have concluded that Ladurée macarons are just as good stateside. In classic New York spirit, lots of other competing macaron shops have now popped up all over the city, but I have yet to sample those.

As part of our research in Paris, Faye and I took a class at the cooking school La Cuisine Paris to try to unlock the secrets behind making macarons. Over the course of an afternoon we learned the finer points of making these delicacies, and in the end we turned out some decent, if imperfect, ones ourselves.

The ingredients are pretty common—sugar, egg whites, and almonds—and the flavorings need only be as exotic as you would like them to be. The technique, however, can be a bit tricky, and it may take some practice before they turn out just right: not too flat, or too chewy, or too crispy. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when the tops are smooth and glossy and you see the frilly “foot” at the base of the cookie, a sign that it possesses the essential contrasting textures of crispy and chewy. At home when I’ve made them, it’s taken me a few tries to get them right and I wish I knew the secret. I don’t know what I’ve done differently when a batch turns out successfully, but this mysterious quality is all part of the allure of the elusive, perfect macaron.

Once you’ve mastered the basic recipe for making the cookies, you can experiment with various flavorings, such as adding a ground spice or cocoa powder to the batter, or using a different ground nut from almonds (pistachios and hazelnuts are both popular variations). The part of the cookie that allows for even more possibilities is the filling, which is usually a chocolate ganache, buttercream, fruit jam, or citrus curd. If you don’t make your own jams and curds (and I have to say I don’t personally know anyone who does), an artisanal product will work fine and no one will notice the difference. To make your macarons pastel, use a high quality powdered food coloring. If that’s not available, drops will work, but be careful not to add too many or they’ll make your batter watery.

Whole recipe books devoted to macarons offer myriad flavor combinations, but experimenting with your own is part of the fun. Here, I’ve included a recipe for a verdant green macaron inspired by the arrival of Spring. It’s filled with jam (in this case apricot), which makes for a simple filling that you can change to suit your fancy.

Sink your teeth into a macaron and enjoy April in Paris, or wherever you are.

Printemps Macarons (adapted from La Cuisine Paris)


1 cup confectioners’ sugar
¾ cup almond flour
2 large egg whites (at room temperature)
¼ cup granulated sugar
green food coloring
½ cup apricot jam

Sift the confectioners’ sugar and almond flour into a large bowl and set aside. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites with a mixer on medium speed until they’re foamy, about 2 minutes. Add half the granulated sugar and continue mixing for another minute, then add the rest of the sugar. Increase the speed to high and whisk until the egg whites are glossy and form stiff peaks, about 6 minutes. Add the food coloring and whisk until the color is well blended, about 2 minutes.

Using a rubber spatula, fold the confectioners’ sugar mixture into the egg whites a little at a time until the batter is just smooth and has the consistency of lava. Be careful not to over mix the batter (this seems to be the make or break step and is where you might need to practice your technique a few times).

Line 3 flat baking sheets with parchment paper. Transfer the batter into a piping bag. If you have a ½ to ¾ inch tip for your piping bag, using that will give you more control. (If you don’t have a piping bag, you can improvise by snipping off the corner of a large freezer baggie.) Pipe the batter onto the sheets in one-inch rounds of ¼ inch thickness, spaced 1½ inches apart. Tap the bottom of the sheets to release air bubbles and then let the batter rest 20 to 30 minutes to croûter, or form a crust.

In an oven preheated to 325˚F, but then turned down to 300˚F just before baking, bake the cookies in the lower third of the oven. Bake one sheet at a time, about 12 minutes, or until the tops are just turning golden but not browning. Watch them carefully because they brown quickly. After each batch, increase the temperature to 325˚F for 3 minutes and then turn down to 300˚F to bake. Cool the cookies on the sheet for 3 minutes and then remove them from the parchment paper and transfer to a rack to finish cooling.

Match the cookies up in pairs by size. Spoon 1 teaspoon of jam onto the bottom half of one cookie. Top it with the other half and gently press the two together so the filling reaches just to the edge.

Let the macarons stand a few hours before serving, to blend the flavors. You can store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. They can also be frozen for up to one month. Open the container when you bring them to room temperature so they don’t become soggy.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Bread Beast

Nothing goes better with French press coffee in the morning than a thick slab of homemade bread. For me, anyway. Dense and chewy whole wheat or light and airy ciabatta, I love it all—as long as it’s made with high quality, unadulterated ingredients.

I used to bake bread back before Chris and I had kids, but then it became one of those things that was edited out. Not to mention that we’re fortunate to have five artisanal bakeries within about a 15 mile radius of our house. So I’ve never lacked for good bread. But a few months ago we were over at our friends Pete and Maggie’s house for dinner and she served us her homemade sourdough bread. With its toothsome crust and complex, moist crumb and that distinctive sourdough tang, we both couldn’t get enough of it. 

On our way out the door, Maggie gave us a scoop of her sourdough starter in a jar. The instructions seemed pretty simple: keep it in a big, glass bowl in a warmish place in your kitchen and feed it every day with flour and water. Easy enough. Chris agreed to feed it every morning, and I would be in charge of making the bread. 

With 1¼ cups of flour and water added to it every day, the starter rapidly grew. Bubbles from the fermenting wild yeast erupted on its surface, and the bowl emitted a pungent, yeasty aroma. 

Sourdough bread is, after all, bread that is made with natural yeast drawn from the environment in which the starter resides—bread with terroir. No need to add yeast to the dough, but what you do need is a little more time and patience to get it right.

I set out to make bread once a week, a seemingly reasonable amount of bread for our family of (now) three to consume. I love bread, and would even go so far as to say that it’s one of my three favorite foods. I eat it every day, trying to limit myself to having it only in the morning which, if it’s an excellent bread or bagel, satisfies me for the rest of the day. 

A few years ago, I made a failed attempt to go gluten-free. Why? I really don’t know what possessed me. I lasted a mere few weeks and expended enough bitch points during that time to cover a whole year of marriage. Fortunately I have no medical need to go without gluten and have been happily scarfing it down ever since (no offense intended to the many who successfully live gluten-free due to medical reasons or personal choice; it just didn’t work for me).

Now that we had some live starter and I was back to making bread again, the house filled in the early hours of the morning with that incomparable aroma of freshly baked bread—to me, one of the best smells in all the world. I would pull the bread out of the oven and cut into its golden crust, allowing the bread’s steam to further warm up my wintry kitchen. Slathered with fresh butter or drizzled with a rustic olive oil, a slice or two of this bread was a breakfast fit for a peasant or a queen.

Sometimes I like to mix it up by making an avocado toast, 

or melting some cheese over top. Spring Brook Farm’s Reading Raclette is a favorite for its meltability and meatiness. It stands up especially well to a hearty whole wheat loaf.

Part of the fun of making bread is experimenting with different flours. In addition to white and whole wheat, I tried a seven grain mix, oat flour, and a fine Italian style flour that makes an airy focaccia. My kitchen turned out a lot of bread this past winter. 

But if you do the math, making bread once a week—which entails using one cup of starter—leaves you with a lot of starter sitting on your kitchen counter if you’re feeding it every day as you’re supposed to. Chris was diligent about his job, so the starter grew. It grew and grew, threatening to spill out over the edge of the bowl and creep across the kitchen counter. I began calling it The Beast and gave it away to friends and to my daughter Faye’s friends, spawning Baby Beasts throughout Vermont. I started baking bread twice a week and freezing it. But eventually I threw up my hands. Too much starter! Too much bread!

The Beast had to go. With a mixture of sorrow and relief, Chris and I scraped the starter into the compost bin, its bubbles giving out their last gasps. We reluctantly sucked in our muffin tops and vowed to cut down on bread and hit the gym a few extra times each week.

Only now that we’ve finished up the last of the bread I had frozen am I beginning to feel some regret. I’m considering asking Maggie if she has any more starter she can spare (which I’m guessing she does, remembering the enthusiasm with which she passed on a portion of hers to us). In the meantime, though, Faye has decided to try going gluten-free. So as her mother I couldn’t in good conscience bring another glutenous (or gluttonous?) Beast into our house. At least not before next winter when I may take up the hobby again.

Maggie’s Sourdough Bread
This recipe creates one large round loaf of white sourdough bread. You can substitute different flour or use a combination of flours (such as half whole wheat, half white), or shape the dough into rolls or smaller loaves, for variety.

5 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups water
1 cup starter (see below for instructions on how to create your own)

Mix ingredients together and let sit in a large bowl covered with a cloth for 12 to 24 hours. Turn the bread out on a board and fold it into the center (do not over-handle the dough). Let the dough rest 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 475˚F. Place the dough in a cast iron Dutch oven and bake 20 minutes, covered. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.

To make sourdough starter:

¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup water

Combine flour and water in a large glass or ceramic bowl. Stir with a wooden spoon until the consistency is smooth and sticky. Cover loosely (I find that a plate placed on top of the bowl, but slightly askew to allow air to circulate, works well). Place the bowl in a location with a temperature of 70–75˚F and let rest 24 hours.

After 24 hours, you hopefully will start to see bubbles starting to form, indicating that the wild yeast is active. Feed the starter with the same amount of flour and water, stir well, and let rest another 24 hours.

By now, you should be seeing bubbles and the starter should have a tangy, yeasty aroma. Feed the starter again, stir well, and let rest another 24 hours. Repeat the next day, and by day five the starter should be very bubbly and tangy, and the consistency should be thicker. It is now ready to use. Continue feeding it every day, discarding half of it if you can’t give it away or use it up fast enough!

Monday, March 9, 2015

French Press Morning

Life tweaks— I recently made two to my day, in an effort to break up the monotony of winter.  Both happen to involve the morning. The first is that I’ve left behind our old, plastic drip coffee maker and moved on to a shiny 100% stainless steel French press. I have no idea why I’ve waited so long to make this change to something that gives me so much pleasure. I was stuck in a rut, I guess. Sure, it takes a bit more time, but oh is that cup of coffee with the froth on top and the dense mouthfeel and the bit of sludge in the bottom ever worth it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ottawa Calling: Canal Skating, Beavertails, and a Cold North Wind (guest post by Chris)

Our first evening in Ottawa we found ourselves in front of a goofy photo of President Obama in the Byward Market before dinner. Obama had just purchased a maple leaf cookie and stood surrounded by employees at the Le Moulin de Provence bakery as he proclaimed, “I love this country!”

Like Obama, I too love Canada. Growing up in Williamsville, outside of Buffalo, Canada was a constant presence—from the trips to the beaches and amusement park at Sherkston, to the occasional forays to Niagara Falls, to the television stations streaming in different shows and lots of hockey. And, of course, when I became of legal age, the Canadian beers that were a mainstay of our local bars—Labatt, Molson, O’Keefe. Since we’ve lived in Vermont, our family has made many trips to Canada—usually the short trip to Montreal, sometimes just Sheila and me, other times with Faye and Isabel. We enjoyed a wonderful two week vacation to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and Sheila joined me for several days at a conference in Vancouver. But I had never been to Ottawa—nor had Sheila or Faye. (Isabel went with her 6th grade class from Bristol Elementary, before everyone needed passports.) 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Crossing Cultures in Marrakech

“Hello, you remember me?” the man asked, with a wide smile. “I carry your bags this morning, remember?”

Chris and I nodded blankly and smiled back at the man as we walked out the front gate of La Mamounia in Marrakech. We weren’t, in truth, staying at this renowned hotel. We had simply wanted to stroll its magnificent gardens, usually reserved for guests. But we were dressed for dinner at a nearby restaurant and thought we’d try to sneak in, striding past the uniformed doormen just thirty minutes earlier like we owned the place.

Monday, January 5, 2015

On Montreal, Music, and Memory

It’s a new year, not only in the larger sense but, since Chris and I got married on December 29th, we’re also beginning a new year of marriage. We celebrated our anniversary in Montreal this year, taking in the Francophone culture, the art scene, and some excellent food, bien sûr.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Essential Ingredients

Now that the dust has settled in my kitchen after the Thanksgiving frenzy, and the leftovers have dwindled to a pot of soup in the fridge, it’s time to think about December cooking and baking. I’ve written about some holiday favorites before, but lately I’ve been thinking about essential ingredients—what goes into those favorites, what I cannot do without. They break down naturally into the five sensations our tongue’s taste receptors respond to: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. For those not familiar with umami, a more recent addition, it’s the Japanese word for “savory deliciousness” and is associated with foods high in glutamate, such as fish, meat, specific vegetables, and fermented and aged foods. Although difficult to define, it’s glaringly obvious when umami is missing. I found it challenging to come up with a list of just ten essentials, but have narrowed it down by limiting it to ingredients I never eat on their own.

Sea salt, preferably coarse: Salt of the earth, grain of salt, worth one’s salt—there’s a reason so many common expressions involve salt and that “salary” is derived from the word. It’s a necessary mineral in the human body, not just an ingredient, and offers sensual satisfaction as well. Unfortunately it’s often applied with an indiscriminate hand, but a judicious amount of salt enhances the flavor of just about anything, and can even be transformative. Think of the difference between plain potatoes and potatoes with a sprinkling of salt…no comparison.