Sunday, June 26, 2011

A learning experience

Grapefruit-Campari Macarons
These macarons were going to be stunners--ruffled and delicate, with the faintest rosy blush to them. But then, I stupidly didn't see a typo in the measurements for what it was (Pierre Hermé's typo, I should add, not mine). Three failed batches of sugar syrup later--all of them burnt and crystallized--I finally referenced Hermé's other recipes. I should have been adding ten times the water I had been. And, of course, I should have known sooner--7 g of water is a negligible amount--but when translating, I'd shrugged my shoulders. Hermé knows best, right? And by that time, my boyfriend was already at the stove with batch no. 4, only it was too late to measure the proper amount, so we just added water liberally and hoped that the excess would evaporate off. Things could have gone just fine from there, but I was just so frustrated--I forgot to add the second portion of egg whites to the almond powder before folding in the meringue. That became apparent very quickly. All I could do at that point was add the whites to the stiff, sticky mess at the very end, cursing all the while.
So, here they are--my not-so-pretty grapefruit-campari macarons. See how the feet stick out past the domes of their shells? Terribly over-mixed in all that confusion.  Now, I could blame Hermé's editors or the fact that I wasn't working in my own kitchen--but really, I just lost my cool. I'd been looking forward to this all week--I'd made a special trip into the city for ingredients and spent the day before making some amazing candied grapefruit. So, even though things were finally going well with the meringue, I just wasn't with it anymore.
At least making these macarons was good experience--I candied citrus peels for the first time, made my first ganache filling, and learned a little about what makes for good white chocolate. Have you ever looked at the ingredients list on the average (or even a premium) bag of white chocolate chips from the grocery store? Chocolate in name only. The second ingredient is likely palm kernel oil, and if you keep reading, you won't see any cocoa-derived ingredients at all. How is that chocolate? Of course, being white, there won't be any cocoa solids in it. But cocoa butter--that's what makes the difference. I only noticed because Hermé calls for couverture chocolate, which is chocolate that is 32-39% cocoa butter. Now, cocoa butter is important if you're going to be tempering your chocolate, but I'm not sure that it's essential to macaron ganache. I might have to do some comparison testing. But I can say this much--couverture wafers are velvety and complex (at least for white chocolate) straight out of the bag. (I found E. Guittard couverture wafers at Dean & Deluca in SoHo--couverture is surprisingly hard to come by).
The ganache for these macs wasn't traditional. Instead of pouring hot cream over the chocolate, Hermé has you melt the chocolate in a double-boiler, heat a blend of Campari and citrus juices separately, add these to the chocolate, and then whirl it all in the blender for four minutes. Quite frankly, I wasn't crazy for the ganache. It was good, but I was hoping that the Campari and citrus would be more prominent. I'm not sure that I could have identified them without having been told that they were there first.
Candied grapefruit
But the ganache was a great foil for the candied grapefruit, and maybe that was all it was meant to be. I was excited and a little intimidated by the prospect of candying grapefruit. I was afraid that it was going to be too bitter to eat. But it turned out to be really easy. Hermé's candied peels, like his ganache, aren't very traditional either. Ordinarily, you just cut the peel, pith and all, from the fruit's flesh for candying. Hermé has you take a centimeter of flesh off the fruit with the peel. Then it's just a matter of blanching the peel to rid it of some of its bitterness and simmering it in a sugar syrup for an hour and a half. The resulting candied wedges are jammy and intense. They have a nice bitter edge, which plays well with the subtle perfumes of the star anise, Sarawak pepper, and vanilla bean that infuse the candying syrup. The fleshy bits of the wedges are especially fruity--a good contrast to the actual peel.
For the macarons, the peels get cut up into tiny, bright grapefruit gems and then tucked into the center of the ganache of each shell. But I think these peels are brilliant unto themselves. I've been plucking them out of their syrup and eating them with my fingers. This morning, they found their way onto french toast. I'm sure they'd be great in oatmeal or with some yogurt too. And, if you really wanted to do something special, I'm sure that you could strain these, leave them out to dry on a rack for a good day or two, and then dip them in some melted chocolate, orangette-style. There's nothing like dark chocolate and candied citrus.

Candied Grapefruit Wedges
Adapted from Pierre Hermé's Macaron
Note: Sarawak peppercorns are a variety of Malaysian peppercorn, apparently prized for their distinct floral aroma. I was able to find a small package of them at Kalustyan's in Manhattan, and they are available online. I'm not sure how much of a difference they make. I'll experiment and let you know.

1 grapefruit, preferably unsprayed or organic
2 cups water
250 g granulated sugar
half a star anise
5 whole Sarawak peppercorns
half a vanilla bean
2 tbsp lemon juice

Prepare the candied grapefruit peels. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. In the meantime, wash and dry the grapefruit. With a sharp knife, trim the ends and cut off the skin from top to bottom in strips, taking a good centimeter of grapefruit flesh with it. Put the strips in the water, return to a boil, and cook for 2 minutes. Then drain the strips and run them under the tap to cool them. Repeat this blanching process two more times.
Crush the peppercorns. Place them in a medium saucepan along with the water, sugar, lemon juice, and star anise. Split the half vanilla bean in two along its length and scrape the seeds into the pan. Add the empty pod. Bring the mixture to a boil over low heat. Add the grapefruit strips. Simmer gently on medium-low for about one and a half hours, partially covered. Pour the zests and syrup into a bowl and let cool. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave in the refrigerator until at least the following day.
Strain and serve.
Optional finishes: lay the grapefruit wedges out on a cooling rack set over a half-sheet for at least 24 hours, then roll in granulated sugar or dip in melted dark chocolate.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Notes from New York

Pretzel croissant
In between writing papers and counting deer at the boyfriend's parents' place upstate, I've been eating my heart out in Manhattan. David Chang's noodles are everything they're cracked up to be. But it'll be the shrimp buns that I'll be back for. So good. They're what iceberg lettuce was made for.
Pictured above, the ever buttery, salty, and brilliant pretzel croissant. It's how I like to start my days in the city--breakfast of champions, I know. Below, a peek at Christina Tosi's crack pie™--pure buttery, sugary goodness, kind of like a butter tart but not so gooey. Yes, it's trademarked, and yes, it comes in a little cardboard box, just like a McDonald's apple pie, just, you know, a thousand times more awesome.
I promise to be back next week to talk about Lucky Peach and, if all goes well, a new batch of macarons.
Crack pie

Friday, June 10, 2011

Macarons à l'Hermé

Macaron praliné a l'ancienne
Last week, one of my friends returned from Paris with a copy of Pierre Hermé's Macaron for me. I had been looking for this book for months. For those of you who haven't been consumed by macaron obsession, Hermé is the man when it comes to macarons, and his book--a trove of wild and wonderful variations--is a classic, though sadly out of print and very difficult to get in North America. My friend scoured five bookstores in Paris and finally found a copy at Hermé's bakery. Thank you--you know who you are.
The book, as expected, is spectacular. You could pour over it for hours, just marvelling at the photography and imagining what each macaron might taste like. There are classics, like rose, pistachio, and lemon, and more non-traditional pairings like olive oil and vanilla. And then there are the macarons that I could only dream of making, like the one featuring a 25-year-old balsamic vinegar or the black truffle macaron. Just wild.
Hazelnut praline
As you might imagine, it was hard to decide where to start. I wanted to make something interesting but not overly complicated. And whatever it was going to be, I wanted to make it soon. That ruled out a number of options--even some of the traditional macarons call for some hard-to-come-by ingredients. For example, the cassis macaron--I don't expect to find food-grade titanium dioxide at any grocery store that I know of. It's an industrial compound used to make things brilliantly white, like marshmallows. There are a few American suppliers, but I'm not sure that they'll sell anything but huge quantities of the stuff, being industrial suppliers. [Update 2013-04-20: I was poking around L'Epicerie, my go-to online merchant for hard-to-find ingredients, and found that they now sell food-grade titanium dioxide! I was one of a few people who e-mailed them a while ago and requested that they stock it. So, you're welcome.] Of course, the titanium dioxide isn't necessary to the cassis macaron, but if you're going to do macarons à l'Hermé, you may as well go all the way, so I might still look into this.
Praline powder
Eventually, I decided on the macaron praliné à l'ancienne--that is, the traditional praline macaron. What made up my mind was this. To make the filling, you make a French praline--a dark, caramel candy made with just sugar, water, vanilla bean, and whole hazelnuts--pour it out onto a half-sheet, grind it to a powder, and then incorporate it into a sort-of buttercream. Just awesome.
A few notes on the process. First, the macarons that I've made to date started with a French meringue, where you simply whip egg whites with granulated sugar to stiff peaks--no problem with a good whisk and a copper bowl. Hermé's macarons, however, call for an Italian meringue, where you cook a sugar syrup until it reaches 118 degrees C and then incorporate that into partially beaten whites until they form peaks--not something you can really do by hand, not without a second pair of hands and not when your arms are noodles, anyway. I borrowed another friend's stand mixer. And apart from the terror of pouring hot sugar into egg whites going at high speed, the meringue turned out just fine.
Piped shells
Second, because I don't exactly have an eye for uniformity, my boyfriend and I made ourselves a template to make the most of the macaron batter.  We measured a sheet of poster board to fit our half-sheets, calculated how many 3.5 cm macarons could fit spaced out 2 cm from one another, drew up a grid that marked the centre of each shell, and then drew out the circles with a compass. When it came time to do the piping, I put the template down on the half-sheet, laid my silicone mat over top, and piped out beautiful, uniformly sized shells. Then it was just a matter of carefully pulling the template out from underneath the mat. Well worth the extra effort.
Macaron shell template
Third, don't make the praline cream on a hot day. It happened to be inhumanly hot in Chicago on Tuesday--and especially in my apartment--which meant that the cold butter, which was supposed to beat into something light and airy, just got soupy in the bowl of the stand mixer. If this happens to you, incorporate the meringue (yes, you make not one but two Italian meringues for these macarons) into the praline butter as instructed and then cover it and let it stiffen up in the freezer for 15-20 minutes. It should then be of a good consistency for piping onto the shells.
Baked shells
Finally, Hermé's book is entirely in French, so I had to translate the recipe. My grade-school French was helpful for the first time in years (hooray for mandatory second-language classes), but I'm not at all familiar with French baking jargon. I relied a lot on David Lebovitz's translation of another Hermé recipe to fill in the gaps. Please let me know if you spot any egregious errors, though I'm pretty confident that I have nearly everything right. The macarons, after all, turned out splendidly--intensely nutty and bittersweet, with the right balance of delicateness and chew. Definitely the best macarons I've made to date.

For some general macaron pointers, check out this older post.

Macaron Praliné à L'ancienne
Adapted from Pierre Hermé's Macaron
Note: Special equipment. You will definitely need a mixer of some sort to make the Italian meringue. You will also need a candy or probe thermometer that reaches 250 degrees F, three heavy-duty half-sheets, a scale, and a food processor.About the aged egg whites. Hermé recommends that a week before you plan to make the macarons you separate the requisite amount of egg white from the yolks and age them in the fridge. Place them in a small container, cover it with plastic wrap, and puncture the plastic a few times with a sharp knife. After four to seven days in the fridge, the whites will lose their elasticity, making them easier to whip up and less likely to get over-beaten and dry. About the praline. It comes together very quickly--probably in about 7 or 8 minutes from when you start heating up the sugar and water, so don't step away from the pot, even for a moment. I was a little slow in getting the praline out of the pot--another second or two and I would have burned the sugar and had  to start over. You'll know your praline is ready to come out of the pot when the syrup, which should be amber and clear after you've added the hazelnuts, turns slightly milky. It'll get dark very quickly after this, so be prepared to pour out the praline out onto your half-sheet just a few seconds after this. About the baking time. Hermé calls for the shells to be baked for 12 minutes. However, my first batch of shells came out underdone. This might be due to my finicky old oven, so I advise checking your oven temperature's accuracy. Slightly over-baked macarons are salvageable--they just need to mature in the fridge for longer than 24 hours. Underdone macarons will have sticky bottoms and won't lift off your parchment.

75 g almonds, powdered
75 g whole hazelnuts, with skin
150 g powdered sugar
55 g aged egg whites, at room temperature
150 g granulated sugar
37.5 g water
55 g aged egg whites, at room temperature
30 g whole hazelnuts, with skin

Praline Cream
125 g whole hazelnuts, with skin
75 g granulated sugar
20 g water
1/4 vanilla bean
125 g butter
50 g aged egg whites, at room temperature
80 g granulated sugar
20 g water

Prepare the praline. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C / 338 degrees F. Spread out the 125 g + 30 g + 75 g hazelnuts on a baking sheet and slide into the oven. Roast the nuts for about 15 minutes.
Put the hazelnuts into a medium sieve or a colander. Using a clean kitchen towel, roll them against the surface of the sieve to remove their skins. Set aside 75 g for the macaron shells. Put 30 g into a Ziploc bag and crush them into small pieces with a rolling pin. Set aside. Place the remaining hazelnuts in the oven, keeping them warm with the residual heat.

Place 20 g water and 75 g granulated sugar in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Split the 1/4 vanilla bean in two, scrape out the seeds into the saucepan, and add the pod. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Keep the sides of the saucepan clean to prevent the sugar from re-crystallising by brushing them with a wet pastry brush. When the syrup reaches 121 degrees C / 250 degrees F, add the warm hazelnuts and remove from heat. Stir just until the sugar looks sandy and then return to the flame, reduced to medium heat. Stir continuously just until a good, dark caramel is achieved. Pour the mixture out onto a baking sheet. Remove the vanilla pod. Let cool. Then grind into a fine powder in the food processor.
Prepare the macaron shells. Powder the 75 g hazelnuts that were set aside in the food processor, adding half the powdered sugar to prevent the nuts from turning into butter. Sift the remaining powdered sugar and the powdered almonds, along with the powdered hazelnuts into a large bowl. Add 55 g aged egg whites but do not mix them in.
Bring the sugar and water to a boil. Keep the sides of the saucepan clean to prevent the sugar from re-crystallising by brushing them with a wet pastry brush. When the syrup reaches 99 degrees C / 210 degrees F, begin whipping the second 55 g portion of egg whites. When the syrup reaches 118 degrees C / 244 degrees F, slowly pour the syrup into the whites, letting the syrup run down the sides of the bowl so that it doesn't splatter. The whites should have barely formed soft peaks at this point. Continue whipping the whites on high speed for one more minute. Reduce the speed of the mixer to medium and continue whipping the whites for about 2 minutes. The whites are ready when they've cooled to 50 degrees C / 122 degrees F. Add the whites to the powdered nut mixture and fold together quickly, in as few strokes as possible. The batter is of the right consistency when it falls off the end of the spatula in a thick ribbon. Put the macaron batter in a pastry bag fitted with a no. 11 tip.
Pipe shells around 3.5 cm in diameter, spaced at least 2 cm apart on a parchment-lined half-sheet (doubled with another half-sheet for insulation). Dust with reserved crushed hazelnuts. Let the shells stand for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C / 356 degrees F. Slide the macaron shells into the oven. Bake for 12-13 minutes, opening the oven door quickly twice towards the end of this time. Let the shells cool for at least 30 minutes before lifting them from the parchment.
Prepare the praline cream. Whip the egg whites to stiff peaks. At the same time, bring 20 g water and 80 g granulated sugar to a boil in a small saucepan. When the syrup reaches 121 degrees C / 250 degrees F, pour it over the egg whites and whip until completely cool.
With the paddle attachment fitted, cream the butter for 5 minutes in the bowl of the stand mixer and then add the praline powder a little bit at a time. Mix for another five minutes.
Gently incorporate 1/3 of the meringue into the praline mixture, then add the rest, again gently.
Fill a pastry bag fitted with a no. 11 tip with the praline cream. Pipe a generous amount of cream on half of the macaron shells. Sandwich these with the remaining shells.
Leave the macarons in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Remove from the refrigerator 2 hours before serving.
Makes about 36 macarons