Tuesday, April 24, 2012

For the Big Day

Macaron Frivolité
I wasn't planning on making macarons this past weekend. But then a good friend of mine called on Friday morning and asked apologetically if I could make a little dessert for his wedding reception. The wedding, I knew, was taking place on Sunday, just two days from then. Over the phone, I could here the chaotic clanging of pots and sheet pans. Clearly, the happy couple already had their hands full. I assured him that I'd have something put together for then and wished him luck.
Macarons seemed fitting for the occasion. When the couple had first gotten together, Octavian and I had had them over for dinner, and we finished the meal with a few Hermé macarons in the sweltering summer heat. And marriage--well, that seemed another beginning of sorts, so I set about separating some eggs and blanching some almonds.
8mm apple cubes Piped shells
Given that I only had a day or so, there was no time to suss out offerings at the farmers' market. I had to make do with what I already had at hand. Being April, that meant winter apples, butter, sugar, and cream--all that you really need to make Pierre Hermé's macarons frivolité.
And these macarons might just be my favourite yet. There are two parts to their filling: apples diced into tiny gems and then cooked gently in the oven and a deep, dark salted-butter caramel chilled and then whipped up cloud-like with butter. Together in the macarons, the effect is something like apple tarte tatin made fleeting, ethereal--there and then gone before you know it.
Baked macaron shells Salted-butter-caramel cream
The wedding, if you're curious, went beautifully. I got a little teary-eyed seeing the two of them at the altar. They were perfect. And afterwards, there were grapefruit mimosas, small savoury bites, marzipan, zserbó szelet, macarons, and tons of cake. The macarons were a hit with the guests. They were being snapped up in kitchen even before the desserts had been laid out. The bride admitted later that she'd secretly hoped that I would bring macarons. I was glad to have done my little part for the big day.
Overhead Macarons

Macarons Frivolité 
Adapted from Pierre Hermé's Macaron
NOTE: For more general macaron advice, see this postEquipment. You'll need at least two heavy-duty half-sheets to bake the shells. You can bake them in two batches, about 36 shells per sheet--Italian meringue is stable enough to stand for an hour or longer. You do, however, need to double up on half-sheets when you bake the shells--otherwise, the shells will crack during or after baking. The second half-sheet insulates the macarons from the oven's heat. (If you double the recipe as I did, the going is easier with three half-sheets on hand.) You'll also need a pastry bag and a no. 11 tip for piping the shells and filling, a candy thermometer for the meringue and caramel, and a mixer for the meringue and the buttercream. Aged egg whites. Egg whites that have been left in the fridge for 5-7 days, covered with plastic wrap with a few holes poked, will be easier to whip up for the Italian meringue. This allows some of their moisture to evaporate and their proteins to relax. Baking times. Hermé has you bake the shells for 12 minutes, but the time will vary depending on your oven. I've found that at 14 minutes, the feet on my macarons are better formed, and the shells no longer stick to the parchment on removal. Apples. You need at least 144 apple cubes, give or take, if you're making 36 macarons and putting 4 apple cubes in each. From Hermé's directions, I wasn't really clear on what to look for to determine whether the apples were ready. I baked mine for about an hour and 25 minutes, basically until the heat had taken away their raw edge. At this point, they're sort of pale and a little spongy. Not very pretty, but not to worry, no one will really see them. Colour. Before baking, my macaron shells were more or less the colour of mustard. Baking improved their colour. Even so, I might just skip out on the yellow food colouring all together next time. Trablit. Trablit is a French coffee extract. I don't know how it compares to more common coffee extracts from personal experience, but I'm sure that Hermé and other bakers favour Trablit because it's really just super-concentrated espresso with a little added sugar. (As a result, you don't need to worry about very much extra liquid interfering with the other ingredients.) In the macarons, the coffee flavour isn't very pronounced--though it's certainly there if you try the shells on their own. I can't really say quite what it added to the macarons overall. But I found a reasonably priced bottle of Trablit here at L'Epicerie. Buttercream. I wouldn't recommend making the buttercream on a very hot day. The butter might melt out of it. If you're worried about it, pop it in the freezer for 5 or 10 minutes before proceeding. But don't let it harden--otherwise, your piping won't be very pretty. The consistency of the buttercream should be airy and mousse-like. You may find yourself with leftover filling. Let your imagination run wild.
(These aren't the prettiest macarons I've ever made. I think my problem is a combination of letting the Italian meringue get too stiff and not mixing the meringue with the almond mixture thoroughly enough. The macaron batter holds its shape too well, which leaves the shells with little tails from piping. I'm a little out of practice.)

2-3 granny smith apples (or any other tart, baking apple)
15 g lemon juice
10 g granulated sugar

150 g powdered almonds
150 grams powdered sugar
55 g aged egg whites
7.5 g yolk-yellow food colouring
7.5 g Trablit coffee extract
150 g granulated sugar
37 g water
55 g aged egg whites

Coarse-grain sugar

150 g granulated sugar
167 g heavy cream
33 g butter
2 big pinches of good-quality sea salt
145 g unsalted butter, softened

The night before, prepare the oven-dried apples. Peel and core the apples. Cut into 8 mm cubes and toss in the lemon juice as you go. Coat with the sugar.
Preheat the oven to 90 degrees C / 194 degrees F. Spread the apple pieces over a parchment-lined half-sheet in an even layer. Slide them into the oven and let them dehydrate for about an hour, depending on the variety of apple. The cubes should look somewhat dry when they're ready. Leave them at room temperature until the next day.
The next day, prepare the macaron shells. Sift the powdered sugar with the almonds. Mix the food colouring with one of the 55 g portions of egg whites. Add the egg mixture to the sugar and almonds without mixing.
Bring the sugar and water to a boil. 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 almond 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). Let the shells stand for 30 minutes. Partway through, sprinkle each shell with a pinch of coarse-grain sugar.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C / 356 degrees F. Slide the macaron shells into the oven. Bake for 12-14 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 caramel buttercream. Bring the heavy cream to a boil. Pour about 50 g of sugar into the bottom of a medium saucepan. Let it melt over medium heat. Then add 50 g more sugar and do the same. Repeat with the final 50 g of sugar. Let the sugar caramelize until it is dark amber.
Remove from heat. Minding the hot caramel, add the 33 g of butter. It will spatter and foam. Stir with a spatula and then pour in the cream in a few rounds, stirring until incorporated. Return the caramel to the flame and heat it until it reaches 108 degrees C / 226 degrees F. Pour it into a wide dish. Cover the caramel with plastic wrap, touching the wrap to the surface of the caramel. Leave in the refrigerator until cold.
Place the softened butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and whip the butter for 8 minutes until airy. Add the cooled caramel in a few rounds and whip with the butter until uniform. Work quickly at this point. Put the buttercream into a pastry bag fitted with a no. 11 tip. Pipe a generous amount of buttercream onto half of the macaron shells. Gently press 4 or 5 apple cubes into the buttercream. Top with the remaining shells. Leave the macarons in the refrigerator 24 hours. Let stand at least 20 minutes at room temperature before serving.
Makes about 36 macarons.

Monday, April 16, 2012

It has its charms

Chocolate-malt layer cake
Yes, dear reader, you are looking at another chocolate cake, and yes, I still maintain that I am, for the most part, indifferent to chocolate. But what can I say? Chocolate-loving friends deserve birthday cakes too, and how can anyone resist a cake stacked three layers high and filled with gooey, charred marshmallows?
The cake, as you might have guessed by the looks of it, was another one of those layer cakes, wacky and wonderful, dreamed up by the lovely folks at Momofuku Milk Bar. I say was. You're a little too late to meet this particular chocolate-malt layer cake. It was three layers of buttery chocolate cake dripping malt fudge sauce. It was topped with malted milk crumb and torched marshmallows. It was utterly over-the-top. But, as Saturday night slipped into Sunday morning, it was also utterly demolished. All that we left the birthday boy with at the end of the night were a few marshmallows and a mound of chocolate rubble.
Malted milk crumb Fudge sauce components Fudge sauce!
And though chocolate usually doesn't do it for me, even I have to admit that this cake had its charms. Digging into a slice was just that--an excavation. One forkful might be all buttery, chocolate crumbs and gooey fudge, but with the next, you'd crunch down on some cookie-like milk crumb or find a few toasty marshmallows. Buried treasure. Oh the marshmallows! It was a fun cake to eat.
But even more so, (I think, anyway) it was a fun cake, a marvellously fun cake, to put together. I got to play with liquid glucose and Ovaltine. I got to beat butter, eggs, and sugar into a dreamy cloud-mass. I got to set a half-sheet spread with marshmallows ablaze. Nothing too complicated, just good, messy kitchen fun.
Charred marshmallows Chocolate cake batter First layer
And if you're thinking about taking the plunge and putting together your very own Milk Bar layer cake, either this cake or the apple-pie layer cake might be the place to start. Neither requires anything particularly difficult of you (you really just need to read carefully and do what Tosi tells you), and apart from the liquid glucose in this cake, which you can replace with light corn syrup in a pinch, their ingredients are ones that you should be able to source at your local grocery store. Oh, and they're both spectacularly good, (though I, of course, am rather more fond of the apple-pie than the chocolate-malt).
A couple of years ago, Bon Appétit did a feature on Christina Tosi and published a version of the recipe for this cake. You can find it here. It's a little more home-cook friendly but maybe not quite as awe-inspiring from the looks of it. It'll give you a sense of what making this cake involves, though.
Technical Notes for Milk Bar's Chocolate-malt Layer Cake

The directions for this cake were, for the most part, straightforward. Below are a few points of obsessive detail that you might find helpful when making the cake.
  • Fudge sauce: you only need three tablespoons of fudge sauce for the cake batter, but unless you have a jeweller's scale, it might be hard to scale down the recipe to that amount. I used the leftovers on some malt ice cream. If you're making this ahead of time, be sure to give it some time, at least half an hour, to warm up a little on the counter. Alternatively, you can give it a short zap in the microwave to loosen it up. Otherwise, the fudge sauce will just cling to the paddle of your stand mixer and won't incorporate properly.
  • Sifting the cocoa powder: I know, I know, Christina Tosi thinks that sifting is generally a waste of time. But cocoa powder can be ridiculously difficult to incorporate unless you've already broken up the clumps it tends to form itself into. Maybe, if you're lucky enough to have Valrhona cocoa powder lying around (I didn't), this isn't as much of a problem. I didn't sift my cocoa powder, and it didn't incorporate into the cake batter properly. I ended up having to use an immersion blender on the batter. The cake didn't seem to suffer much from all that overmixing--there were just a few more air bubbles in it than there might have otherwise been.
  • Malt fudge sauce: much like the plain old fudge sauce, this malt one stiffens up pretty quickly as it cools. I made mine right before assembling the cake and left it in a bowl over some simmering water until I was ready to use it. It was a little difficult to eye five equal portions from the bowl, so I poured it into a 2-cup glass measuring cup for assembly purposes.
  • The unveiling: the malt fudge stuck to the acetate, so peeling back the plastic on this cake was a little more difficult than with others, but I don't think there's much that you can do about this. The cake still looked fine for the most part.
  • Storage: As Tosi says, the fudge sauce will stick to plastic. If, like me, you don't have a cake carrier or a giant bowl to cover your cake while it thaws in the fridge, you can, like me, tape together a few sheets of acetate and build a plastic ring around the cake or the plate that it's sitting on. Pull some plastic wrap over that, and you've got a temporary cover for your cake. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

You'll be in luck

Blanched meyer lemons
I think I'll always be a city girl. But sometimes, I do dream of living somewhere with room enough for a backyard full of swishing collards and an old lemon tree heavy with more fruit than I'd know what to do with. Maybe I'd even have a few chickens.
Right now, though, I'm happy enough to pretend. And last weekend, that wasn't too difficult to pull off. Just down the street, the last of the season's Meyer lemons were going for sixty-five cents a pound, so, naturally, I carted as many home as I could manage. And then I had more lemons than I knew what to do with.
I considered making my favourite lemon curd--my standby when Meyer lemons are in season--but I was afraid that with so many lemons that much curd would spoil before Octavian and I could possibly eat it all, as much as we love the stuff. So I decided to take things in an entirely different direction and preserve the lemons.
Lemons in salt
Preserved lemons are lemons that have been packed in a jar with salt and their own juices and left out to soften for a few days or weeks (depending on the specifics of the process). After that, with all that salt and acid, the lemons will keep in their jar refrigerated for about a year. So when you're longing for sunny, mouth-puckering citrus in high summer, you'll be in luck.
I was introduced to preserved lemons for the first time at Prune in New York City. They came diced--bright, tart little gems--studding a creamy, ricotta-slathered tartine. It was one of those simple but incredible lunches--nothing fancy, just beautiful ingredients thoughtfully put to use. I've been thinking about preserved lemons and summer-vegetable tartines ever since.
Jar and slice
Marinated sardines
You should think of these lemons as a savoury seasoning that will lend salty, lemony-bright notes to your dishes. So far in my kitchen, they've made their way into a lunch of marinated sardines and buttered bread. And I'm thinking that they'll do wonders in parchment-roasted asparagus or stirred into quinoa or rubbed into a chicken awaiting the oven...and maybe even in a cocktail or two. An abundance of lemons, all through the summer! For now, at least, I'm good without a lemon tree.

Moroccan-Style Preserved Lemons
Adapted from Paula Wolfert via Epicurious
Note: the number of lemons you need will really depend on their size. The Meyers I had were rather smallish, so I needed 22 in all to fill up my jar and cover the lemons with juice.

6-8 organic Meyer lemons + 5-15 additional Meyer lemons for their juice
150 g / 2/3 cup fine sea salt or kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

Blanch the lemons in boiling water for 5 minutes, then drain. This step hastens the softening of the lemons. When cool enough to handle, cut each lemon into 8 wedges, discarding seeds. Toss the lemons with salt in a bowl, then pack the lemons, along with their salt, tightly into a clean 1-quart jar.
Squeeze enough juice from the additional lemons to cover the salted lemons. The lemons may float a little, but this is okay--you should just turn the jar upside down and let it rest that way occasionally while the lemons are curing. Seal the jar and let the lemons stand at room temperature, shaking gently or turning once a day, for 5 days.
Add the oil to the jar and refrigerate. The lemons will keep chilled for up to a year. To use, remove flesh and discard. No need to rinse the lemons.