Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Treatise on the Macaron

I can say with a lot of confidence that upon reading the word "macaron" you thought of Paris and its wonderful pastries. Maybe you're really imaginative and you pictured a rainy day on the Place de la Concorde, with the Eiffel Tower in distant view and cars driving around the cobbled streets. Maybe (if you're a woman) you were wearing a wonderful trench coat in a sublime shade of raspberry, and maybe you were nibbling on a macaron that you had just picked up from Pierre Herme, Laduree, Gerard Mulot, or some other amazing bakery.

But apart from that, I can also predict fairly certainly that if you're one of those people who have tried making macarons or who have wanted to your heart skipped a beat or you made an inward groan upon reading its name.

Macarons, wonderfully indulgent as they may be, are also notorious little devils. I've lost count of the numerous blog posts or articles I've read about the art of macaron-making, and how disastrous it can be.

I for one, tried macarons once in late 2009/early 2010. It ended up looking like soup. Admittedly, the recipe was a very basic one which didn't talk about technique or anything at all. Then, I took a macaron making class at Ateliers des Chefs Dubai in May 2010. Then, I tried making them in September of that year and they turned out pretty good! The next two tries were a disaster. And then two months ago, I researched, and researched, and researched.

The nerd in me came up with a sheet full of notes I had gathered from various books, different websites, talking to other people, and pure trial and error. I studied that sheet so religiously and then began making my macarons *drumroll*

The entire process I was extremely nervous- constantly checking to see if my macarons had developed feet or if they were smooth-topped. The entire process took me three hours and drained me. I made raspberry macarons that day and they turned out reaaally good.

Last night, I decided to attempt to try them again- I thought that maybe it would take less time but it took three hours again. I manage to get about 60 shells or 30 macarons from the batch that I make which is pretty good!

I'm posting the version of a macaron recipe I'm most comfortable with below and I'm going to follow that up with a list of explanations.

Note: I prefer using Italian meringue instead of French meringue as I find it makes the shell a lot smoother and the texture better. The recipe below uses Italian meringue.

How to make classic macarons! 
200g ground almonds (plus extra to make up for residue- around 100g)
200g icing sugar
180g caster sugar
55ml water
130g egg white
Gel food coloring of your choice
-for the buttercream filling
40g butter
150g icing sugar
2 tbsp milk

-With a bottlecap, draw circles on three sheets of baking paper spacing them around 1.5 inches apart. Turn the baking paper over and place each on one baking sheet. Make sure that the side that you drew on is on the underside.
-Process together the ground almonds and the icing sugar until fine and well combined. Then sift the mixture into a large bowl. You will end up with residue of the ground almonds- pieces that are too coarse or too big to be sifted. Weigh them out and then sift the same quantity of new ground almonds. Repeat the process until you have made up for all the ground almond residue.
-In a saucepan over low heat, place the water and sugar and allow for the mixture to boil. Make sure the temperature doesn't go above 115C.
-Meanwhile, whisk 50g of the egg whites till soft peaks form. Then, slowly pour in the hot sugar mixture and beat on high speed for 15 minutes or until the mixture is stiff and forms a beak like shape on the tip of the whisk.
-Take the remaining egg white and with a rubber spatula, mix together the egg white with the almond and icing sugar mixture. At this stage, also add your coloring.
-Take four tablespoons of the egg white mixture and mix into the almond mixture. Then add the rest of the egg whites and start the macaronage process by incorporating them with an alternating cutting and folding motion.
-Once all the egg white has been incorporated, lift your spatula with some of the macaron mixture and analyze how it falls from the spatula. You want the mixture to fall into the bowl in a smooth ribbon-like motion.
-Preheat the oven to 150C and place the macaron mixture into a piping bag fitted with a 2-3cm round tip. Pipe circles onto the already drawn rounds.
-Lightly tap the baking sheet on the surface of a counter and allow to form a crust for around 30 minutes.
-Place in an oven for around 20 minutes.
-Remove and allow to cool before spreading with buttercream.
-For the buttercream, mix everything together and whisk really well until mixture is as white as possible.

Macaron Cheat Sheet:
-age the egg whites by keeping them at room temperature for 6 hours prior to using.
-make sure that your kitchen is well ventilated. If it has a door that leads directly outside, keep that door shut. If your kitchen has air conditioning of any sort then switch that on!
-do NOT underestimate the importance of EXACT measurements. Even one or two grams here or there might alter your final result. 
-If you don't have a candy thermometer (like me), then take tiny teaspoons of the water and caster sugar mixture (while it's boiling) and place in a bowl of cold water. Quickly attempt to touch the sugar mixture with your fingers. The mixture is done boiling if the tiny sample you put in the water forms a pliable round structure in your fingers. 
-it is crucial that you get the macaronage process correct. Keep checking every few seconds to see whether the mixture is falling in a ribbon like form or not. 
-while incorporating the egg whites, and macaronaging, use firm, steady motions with a flexible spatula. 
- it is very, very important to allow your macarons to form a crust. They should not be sticky when you touch them before putting them in the oven. 
-it's better to bake macarons in a low-heated oven for a longer period of time than in a hot oven for a shorter period of time and risk spoiling it.
-that's why: temperatures above 150C (non fan forced) might be dangerous
- once you've piped the macarons, tap the tray to break up the air- this reduces the risk of air pockets in macarons.
- when baking, make sure that the top of the baking sheet reaches the middle of the oven. 
-open the oven door every two minutes to let the humidity of the oven out. 
- right before removing the macarons from the oven, spray a countertop with water and as soon as the sheet is out, pull out the baking paper with the macarons on it and immediately place over the damp countertop. This makes it easier to remove the macarons. 
-do not eat the macarons on the same day that they're made. store in the fridge for 24 hours in order for the flavors to develop.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Almond Butter Loaves

Just one more week left to take part in my giveaway: click here for details!

So it was Sunday evening, and I was having a supposedly therapeutic baking session. I wanted to make a cinnamon teacake and frost it with rainbow sprinkles and baby pink icing. I forgot to add the egg to the mixture until the very end but figured that the little glitch wouldn't have an effect.

BUT IT DID. The cake didn't come out of the tin.. only the top half did, leaving a crater in the cake tin the size of the moon. I'm guessing that was because of the adding-egg-at-the-end-thing but maybe it wasn't. Either way. I turned the cake into dark chocolate cinnamon cake pops and decided to make something else which would turn out successful. So I decided to make almond butter loaves. Sounds great, doesn't it?

Except that the recipe called for 250g of butter and I only had 220g out and softened. I decided to take the big leap and halve the quantities to make a cake of half the size. I had done that once before, in my early baking years, and it had turned out disastrous. Nevertheless, I attempted to try it once more.

So I creamed half the required butter with half the required sugar and then guess what? I added all the eggs. All four of them. I only realized what I had done when my mixture had the consistency of water. After some frustration, I decided to add everything together. And make the entire quantity of cake.. except for the 30g of butter... I made it.. without expecting the cake to be anything spectacular but it turned out WONDERFUL.

Melt in your mouth, buttery, cakey goodness.

Here's my tweaked recipe:

220g unsalted butter, softened and cubed
1 tsp almond extract
220g granulated sugar
4 eggs
150g self-raising flour
75g plain flour
90g ground almonds
10g unsalted butter, softened
100g icing sugar, sifted
2 tsp milk
25g dark chocolate, chopped

Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease and flour six mini loaf tins or a 19cm square or round cake tin.
Cream the butter, extract, and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and beat thoroughly.
Sift the flours and ground almonds directly onto the egg mixture and beat through until just combined.
Spoon into tin(s) and bake for 30 minutes at 180C. Then, reduce the heat to 160C and bake for another 30 minutes or until baked through.
Remove from the oven and allow cake to cool in tins for 10 minutes before placing on a wire rack to cool thoroughly.
Simmer water in a small saucepan and in a heatproof bowl that fits above, stir together the butter and icing sugar till a paste forms. Add the milk and stir until the glaze is smooth.
Drizzle over the cake and allow to set.
Then, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over the same pan of simmering water. Once the chocolate is melted and smooth, place in a sandwich bag and make a VERY, VERY small incision at the base of the sandwich bag.
Drizzle the melted chocolate over the glaze diagonally.
Serve these cut into slices and with a cup of tea- it's perfect! 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Eid Mubarak! & a Spiced Caramel Cake recipe!

Have you taken part in my giveaway yet?! Closing date is November 23!

My centerpiece

Eid Mubarak everyone!!
Yesterday was the first day of Eid al Adha here in the UAE.
Eid is a major religious holiday just like Christmas and Diwali except that we have it twice a year. The first Eid for this year was in early September and the second one was yesterday. It runs for three days each.
Eid's dates on the solar calendar change according to the moon so next year Eid Al Fitr (the first eid) will be in mid August and the second one will be in late October.
I love Eid and all the preparations that go along with it. With any event, I think half the fun is in preparing for it.

For Eid, Muslims are religiously obligated to shop for a new outfit (amazing, huh!) or wear the best outfit that they have. Women obviously take this shopping task much more seriously than men and there is a lot of talk on what outfits each person has bought, where to find the best ones, and what colours they're wearing.

I, for one, designed my own outfit this Eid. It was somewhat Grecian inspired and had a creamy jersey bodice with a tight gold, silk, and high-waisted skirt. Everyone thought I had bought it from somewhere, so I gather that it was a success then! I personally really liked it.

Eid is all about reconnecting with one's friends and family. It is an occasion to take time off from your daily routine and catch up on everyone you haven't seen in a while. Eid is also a time to pamper children where instead of receiving gifts, they receive money which they can then use to buy whatever they want. So during Eid, you have people visiting you and then you visiting other people. And with all that visiting comes lots and lots of eating. Eating sweet things, to be precise.

The Eidiya for the neighborhood children

I had a dessert overdose yesterday and I think it's going to take 26 hours of running to burn it all of.

Each family has their own Eid routine and ours go something like this:

I start baking for Eid two days before it starts. A whole mix of biscuits and cookies and everything of the sort. I always have a few "classics" that I make every Eid, these mainly being lemon cake, vanilla cupcakes, chocolate shortbread drops, and vanilla and chocolate cookies among many other things. This time though, I decided to go on a complete revamp and the only "classic" thing I stuck to were the chocolate shortbread drops.

This time, I made vanilla biscuits, chocolate shortbread drops, spiced Belgian biscuits with raspberry jam, maple syrup butter whirls, vanilla kisses, cherry and almond loaf, spiced caramel cake (which I am sharing today!), marble cake, mini triple chocolate cakes, and lavender cupcakes.

Bread for breakfast!

The night before Eid, I package them in cute boxes and send them to some relatives and friends. The rest I keep for Eid breakfast at our place.

I love planning for Eid breakfast at our place because that's when I get to be all creative with a table setting and give out presents to family members and friends who come over. Our breakfast also includes doorbell rings from neighborhood children asking for Eidiya (eid money that you give children). We package these in cute little pouches with candy and hand it out to them.

At Eid, women also get elaborate henna designs done and the henna salons are packed with hundreds of people the nights leading up to Eid. Sometimes you have a wait of 8 hours (yikes! I know!) They hand out numbered coupons like counter tickets and if I'm getting henna done at a salon I pick up a ticket at 1PM and return at 9PM (which is inevitably when my number is called!). Most times, I have a henna lady come over to the house. It's so much better that way since I prepare for bed, wear my pyjamas and then get Henna done. It takes a while to dry and if you wash your hands soon after it dries off, chances are the color won't turn out as deep as it could. That's why I prefer getting Henna done at the end of the day and at home. It also gives me a chance to prepare for breakfast until the last possible minute.

Here's the recipe for the spiced caramel cake which is extremely easy and quick to make!

125g butter, chopped
200g dark brown soft sugar
2 eggs
2 tbsp golden syrup
225g self raising flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp mixed spice
125ml milk
240g sifted icing sugar
30g softened butter
2 tbsp milk
50g dark chocolate, chopped 

Grease deep 20cm round cake pan, cover base and side with baking paper.
Combine all ingredients in medium bowl of electric mixer, beat on low speed until ingredients are combined. Then, beat on medium speed until mixture is just smooth and changed in color; do not overbeat. Spoon mixture into prepared pan. Bake in moderate oven about 55 minutes. Stand 5 minutes before turning onto wire rack to cool.
Mix together the icing sugar, butter and milk until fluffy, smooth, and spreadable. Spread over the cake.
Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water and spoon into a sandwich bag.
Make a tiny incision at the base of the sandwich bag and draw lines over the cake with the melted chocolate. First draw vertical lines, then horizontal ones, then diagonal ones.
Eat and enjoy!

spiced caramel cake