Thursday, March 17, 2011

Miscellaneous Food: March Macaron Madness Part 2

So many people ask me about the process of making macarons and before you walk away with a physcologically disturbed idea of the process, I should say that if I sounded a bit dark before, it's becuase I've had a Black Swan week, or month, really.

Macaron baking is a really beautiful and rewarding process, for which the delicious end-product is just icing on the cake. When done right, it's usually about morning sunshine and flowers in the kitchen.

Just ask my macaron serf. I always tell people that macarons are not that hard but in truth, her job makes macaron making a cinch. She does a lovely job of sifting almond meal and icing sugar and look, she even smiles on demand! This is her best "i-get-paid-in-macarons-sad-look". From time to time, I have to replace my over-qualified and highly competent macaron serf, as in this case. L. has gone back to her day job as a hard-nosed, alpha corporate lawyer and is no longer available to sift my almond meal. I miss her.

After you sift for what seems like hours, you mix up a beautiful meringue of egg white and sugar, fresh and cut through in its smooth, glossy thickness and do the hokey-pokey of macronage. That is, you stand at the table and do a dance while folding all the nut, meringue and sugar together. I'm serious about a little wiggle, it produces airier macarons.

I snapped these pictures one Saturday morning because I thought they'd show that the process really is quite stress-free and relatively clean (although Z. gets major brownie points for living with me, my kitchen escapades do from time-to-time, spill over into the living room and migrate yes, even into the bedroom). Thanks to his help and tolerance, I usually have the privilege of listening to music or catching up with girlfriends while going about macaron-making.

The best thing about it for me, as I hope these pictures also show, is how beautiful and tactile this process is. While some people find it tedious, I actually like that it takes as long as it does, it is very consuming and really gives you time to relax and think.

After the macronage, you gather your wits and piping bag and pipe rows of what are hopefully, beautiful, consistent and risen macarons, like so. I've had a lot of friends over for the odd session of baking and somehow, piping, whether it be macarons or cupcakes, always stumps everyone and it's probably because I interject with what I think are helpful, but are probably just overwhelming statements of advice.

Like, place your hands over the bulge of the bag, not the twist-top! Squeeze down in a long, deliberate stream! Keep the piping tip parallel to the tray and keep the tip high enough to let the batter flow out like magma but low enough so that you have control over the spout and the speed. Stand over the tray while you pipe, so that you can see the pencil outlines of the round shapes.

It sounds really complex, but I always think that if you played with your toothpaste as a kid, this is probably the most intrinsic and instinctive part of the process. Piping swiftly, evenly and confidently is the best feeling in the world. At some point, you will get to feeling like the world turns on a jazz tune and a tray of perfection.

Macaron shells are very temperamental creatures, I find that they really suck energy from you so if you make them while in a calm but contemplative and unharried mood, they tend to take their bearing from the unrushed environment. These slightly deflated shells, for example, were the result of distractedly mixing the colouring gel into the beaten, rather than the raw egg white.

They are also very susceptible to oven temperatures, so 11 minutes at 170 degrees C, or 13 minutes at 160 degrees C, that's really something that you work out on a tray by tray basis and that's really the most frustrating (for me, at least but I'm not a scientist-type) part of the process.

Then whisk them out to cool and to be matched. L. was a champion at this game, she would sit, limbering her fingers, like a diamond dealer in Antwerp and rapidly shuffle shells within a grid pattern, like a carbohydrate game of Puzzle Bubble until she had two identical strings of Cortillion candidates.

If I was making chocolate shells, they would then be piped with a fat snail of dark, pure Arugani chocolate ganache, or perhaps they would be flavoured and coloured (like the pastel pink shells), then filled with salted caramel buttercream and stacked high on a cake plate for a little girl's birthday tea party.

This past weekend, faced with a leftover mound of home-made pineapple jam, I fulfilled a long-held curiousity of mine and stewed some rosemary into the jam, then made the pineapple tart macarons that Macaron Mentor Karen had objected to.

She was right, while still delicious and decidedly unique, they aren't entirely macaron-like. The chewy shells and jam have too similar a texture but the taste was good and they went down well, particularly with the older folk.

Miscellaneous Food: March Macaron Madness Part 1

I always joke that when I get stressed, I bake and the more stressed I get, the more I bake but in this past week, that joke's really caught up to me. I was feeling so in limbo, so neither here nor there that I looked desperately around for something to make me feel more grounded, more alive, more joyful. Of course, I could have gone for a super healthy 10-mile run but where's the fun in that? I decided to fall back on an old love, or else known as, baking macarons to surfeited collapse. I couldn't even bear the thought of emotional baking, so I baked in monotone. Literally.

Part of the macaron therapy is that it's such a tactile process, turning eggs, so gooey and fragile that you can pop them with the slightest pressure, into turgid crumbly shells with the smoothest, dryest skins. I love how you can run your finger gently over them, feeling every ripple and seed of almond or hazlenut meal. Other people like to pet dogs, I just like to stroke my little macaron shells. Go figure.

And I can't even begin to explain the pleasure and gratification I derived, watching the butter beat fiercely round the bowl and the meringue whip into cream, then feverishly piping lines of evenly sized macaron rounds. I always think creating these interlocking armies gives me a innate sense of control and order but I think it's really the consuming focus and reassurance of the repetitive motion that soothes.

This sudden burst of activity was also a good opportunity to de-stock some of my pantry. I'm such a food trafficker- everywhere I go, I look for unusual or artisan produce and in the last year, I've been particularly attracted to "things that would be interesting in a macaron filling". I think it drives my Karen my Macaron Mentor, crazy because from time to time, I message her late at night with "pineapple tart jam in macarons" and she messages back "yuck!".

That hasn't stopped me from amassing a veritable collection of intriging locavore products, from left to right, single-origin chocolate covered cocoa beans that my cousin bought me from Columbia, chocolate covered figs and chilli lime chocolate from Australia, marron (chestnut) paste from Cafe Angelina in Paris, passionfruit mango puree from Sadaharu Aoki and hand-milled raspberry jam. The item that I was most excited about was a recent purchase from a fresh growers market, a brown bag of cinnamon muesli with dried figs, coconut and pumpkin seeds.

I made just the pale almond hazlenut shells and concentrated on concocting three flavours. One was an old favourite, the pale tan, salted caramel filling and the two were new flavours, darjeeling tea and vanilla yoghurt with fig, coconut and cinammon muesli, which are the darker taupe and bright white fillings respectively.

During my recent trip to Australia, I discovered Adriano Zumbo's macarons, one particularly spectacular yoghurt, apricot and pistachio macaron (and one that I found seriously underwhelming was his verdant green and too-wet rosemary and apricot). I wanted to do something similar using the muesli, so I decanted a large scoop of thick greek yoghurt and tipped the scrapings from a vanilla pod into swiss meringue buttercream to produce the distinctive sourish creaminess of yoghurt, flecked with resplendent black little vanilla seeds. It was surprisingly easy and stable to work with, the only flaw was that the initially strong sourness faded rapidly overnight.

I packed two of each new flavour and four salted caramel macarons into parchment wrapped boxes and delivered them over the next day. From the feedback received, I wasn't the only one who loved the way the muesli filling slowly released the flavours of coconut and cinnamon into the yoghurt buttercream, it was the unanimous new favourite from even picky customers like my mom!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Recipe: Red Stewed Pork

We are featured on the wildly popular and delicious blog, Chubby Hubby! A. was kind enough to feature our submission for his braised and stewed contest. This dish is a sure-win, with a deep fragrance and smooth, savoury taste. Click hereto see the full contest article.

Our prize-winning recipe was taught to me by one of my Shanghainese colleagues. He and his wife grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in China, when meat was a scarce commodity and a big treat. This was the dish that his wife cooked for him, when they were still friends, that impressed him into thinking she was a really fantastic catch. Maybe it'll work some magic for you too.

600 grams streaky pork
2 Tablespoons of oil for frying
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 inch of ginger, sliced
1 spring onion, sliced
1 star anise
1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorn
1 cinnamon stick
2 Tablespoons light soy sauce
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
1 Tablespoon Chinese cooking wine
2-3 Tablespoons rock sugar

1. Plunge the pork into a wok of cold water, then slowly bring the water and meat to a boil and boil the meat for 1-2 minutes. Remove the pork and let it cool, then slice into 1/2 inch thick pieces.
2. Heat the cooking oil in a cleaned wok, add the garlic, ginger, spring onion, star anise, Szechuan peppercorn and cinnamon stick, then stir for a few seconds until the garlic becomes golden.
3. Put the pork slices into the wok and fry for half a minute
4. Pour water into the wok to cover the meat well, add the light soy sauce, oyster sauce, cooking wine and 2/3 of the rock sugar, then turn up the heat until the water boils.
5. Cover the wok, turn down the flame and simmer slowly for at least 1.5 hours
6. Before serving, turn up the heat again to reduce the sauce and season with the dark soy sauce and remaining rock sugar to taste.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Recipe: Yuzu Tarts

I Was intending to rest this weekend, having travelled in spats for most of the month but Colin easily convinced us that a trip to TOTT was long overdue. The place is a wonderland of kitchen appliances, steamers, knives, pots and all manner of culinary goodness, including some gourmet ingredients for tarts and savouries. I was immediately reminded of the Japanese yuzus that I had from a recent trip, still sitting in my fridge. Between yuzu tarts and taking a break, what's a girl to do?

I filled half of the sweet tart dough with chocolate ganache and then the other half with yuzu cream, made from the Pierre Herme lemon cream recipe, also found here on this blog. In place of lemon juice and rind, I used yuzu rind and juice and topped up with a bit of orange juice.

1/2 cup sugar
Finely grated zest of 2 yuzus
2 large eggs
1/4 cup fresh yuzu juice, topped up with orange juice
180 grams unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Put the sugar and zest in a metal bowl set over the pan of simmering water. Rub the sugar and zest together until the sugar is moist, grainy and very aromatic. Whisk in the eggs, followed by the yuzu juice. Keep whisking to stop the eggs from scrambling. The bubbles will get bigger, and then, as it gets closer to 180 degrees F, it will start to thicken and the whisk will leave tracks. As soon as it reaches 180 degrees F, remove the cream from the heat and let it cool. Strain it into the container of the blender and discard the zest.

Turn the blender to high (or turn on the processor) and, with the machine going, add the butter about 5 pieces at a time. Scrape down the sides of the container as needed as you incorporate the butter. Once the butter is in, keep the machine going—to get the perfect dreamy, airy texture, you must continue to blend the cream for another 3 minutes. I kept the machine going till the cream thickened up into a spreadable consistency but you can also leave it to harden in the fridge.

Later, when they had set, I topped each yuzu tart with a raspberry and the chocolate tarts with melted, smooth ganache and then flecks of goldleaf. There's something about tarts that makes me so happy on a sunny Saturday! These little cases are a real treat too, I'm thinking of filling them with darjeeling cream (like mini darjeeling tea tarts) for future tea parties.

Recipe: Pecan Butter Cookies

If you are looking for an easy-peasy snack, this is one of those brilliant cookie dough recipes that you can make ahead of time (like Dorie Greenspan's World Peace Cookies) and freeze for later use. The dough is rolled into spherical logs and then cut into rounds for baking.

This quintessential "Cookies with Milk" recipe is great to use with children who like to help with baking and really helps when you need some quick kid dessert in a pinch or for bringing to school or birthday parties. You can also add some chocolate chunks as a treat or to replace part of the sugar; I've adapted the recipe from the Williams-Sonoma cookbook and have already cut the proportion of sugar in half as I find American cookie recipes in particular a little too sweet.

200 grams unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
A pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup pecans, chopped

1. Cream the butter, sugar, salt and vanilla with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy.
2. Add the flour and pecans and continue mixing.
3. Roll the dough into 2 cylindrical logs and wrap in cling wrap. Refrigerate until firm, at least four hours.
4. Pre-heat the oven to 175 degrees Celsius.
5. Cut the log into slices of about ¼-inch thick and place on baking trays lined with parchment paper.
6. Bake for 14-16 minutes until edges are golden brown.
7. Cool completely on wire racks.