The Daring Bakers’ challenge for October 2009 was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern.
I was really excited. Not only was this my first Daring Bakers’ challenge, but we would be making macarons. I love macarons. And I love a challenge in the kitchen . . . don’t I? So why was I such a nervous wreck about this? Why did I keep putting it off?
According to an article I read this weekend in one of my glasswork magazines, I was hitting my “terror barrier.” Wow. Sounds ominous. Maybe a titch overwrought? According to this article, I actually hit it a lot. A LOT. I’m surprised I don’t have a concussion.
So let’s begin with the happy ending:
Now back to the beginning. The first hurdle was what flavor to make. I think I spent three weeks thinking this over. I finally decided I would attempt cinnamon macarons with chai white chocolate ganache.
I won’t dwell a lot on the first batch. If you’ve seen the movie Apollo 13, these are what NASA would call a “successful failure.” They tasted pretty good but looked pretty pathetic. These were not macarons.
I had started worrying when I piped the batter. It was foamy and lifeless.
They seemed kind of wimpy.
Baking confirmed that these were, in fact, wimpy. Total failures. What did I do wrong?
With the hysteria headband firmly squeezing my head, I knew I had to step back, take a deep breath and not start throwing reasonably tasty but ugly cookies into the garbage. They were still almondy, chewy and sweet, after all. But honestly, I swear it hurt to look at them. My son and his friend kindly removed them from my sight, into their stomachs.
So back to the cookbooks and Web sites to do some more research. Trying to find my way was like playing a role-playing game where you get to choose where the character goes. Choose the wrong path? Pffft, you’re dead. Different ingredient ratios; raw vs. cooked meringue; stacked vs. single baking sheets; buttered vs. bare parchment; do or don’t rap the baking sheet; let the piped cookies sit at room temp, or refrigerate, or put them right into the oven; bake them at low and/or a high temps; turn the oven off, then turn it back on again. The options seemed to be endless. How could I possibly navigate safely to success? I have to say, it was advice gleaned from David Lebovitz’s blog that gave me the courage to go on.
For the first batch, I had weighed the dry ingredients first, pulsed them in the food processor, and then sifted the mixture as I added it to the meringue. Maybe sifting out some of the almond pieces threw off the ratio of the recipe? For the second batch, I sifted the almond flour before weighing it and then ran it in the blender with the sugar and cinnamon, for extra refinement. The blender worked better than the food processor for making the almond flour finer. I also decided to stack baking pans, which is a trick my friend Marcy Goldman always advocates.
But probably the biggest change I made was with the egg whites. Back when I was a beginning baker, I don’t think I knew it was possible to overbeat egg whites. I used to just whip away in ignorance. Now that I know better, I watch them churning in the mixing bowl with the vigilance I used to have when watching my son for signs of breathing in his crib. In other words, I’m very over-protective of them. I think that was the biggest stumbling block in my first batch. I was so afraid of overbeating the egg whites that I underbeat them.
As the second batch of egg whites were beating they took on the gloss and thickness of marshmallow cream; it started feeling like I might be on the right track. They piped out much better too. Too bad I didn’t remember to wet my finger and smooth down those little peaks on the first pan I piped out.
It felt so much better to peak into the oven this time!
In the end I’d used up all of my parchment paper, dirtied my Cuisinart, blender, mixer, bowls, various utensils. All for an innocent looking cookie with only FOUR ingredients. Well, five if you count the cinnamon. I almost took a photo of the wreckage of my kitchen, but I have to draw the line somewhere.
Oh, and the final product: Cinnamon macarons filled with chai white chocolate ganache? They were pretty divine.
And now I have four days until the next terror barrier . . . er, I mean, Daring Bakers’ Challenge is revealed.
Here is the recipe I used for the first batch, for which I take full responsibility that they did not turn out. It’s followed by the recipe for the second batch:
Adapted from Claudia Fleming’s “The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern”
Almond flour: 2 cups (190 g, 6.7 oz.)
Egg whites: 5 (Have at room temperature)
1. Preheat the oven to 200°F (93°C). Combine the confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon and almond flour in a medium bowl. If grinding your own nuts, combine nuts and a cup of confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of a food processor and grind until nuts are very fine and powdery.
2. Beat the egg whites in the clean dry bowl of a stand mixer until they hold soft peaks. Slowly add the granulated sugar and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks.
3. Sift a third of the almond flour mixture into the meringue and fold gently to combine. If you are planning on adding zest or other flavorings to the batter, now is the time. Sift in the remaining almond flour in two batches. Be gentle! Don’t overfold, but fully incorporate your ingredients.
4. Spoon the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a plain half-inch tip (Ateco #806). You can also use a Ziploc bag with a corner cut off. It’s easiest to fill your bag if you stand it up in a tall glass and fold the top down before spooning in the batter.
5. Pipe one-inch-sized (2.5 cm) mounds of batter onto baking sheets lined with nonstick liners (or parchment paper).
6. Bake the macaroon for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and raise the temperature to 375°F (190°C). Once the oven is up to temperature, put the pans back in the oven and bake for an additional 7 to 8 minutes, or lightly colored.
7. Cool on a rack before filling.
Adapted from David Lebovitz’s “The Sweet Life in Paris”
Makes about twenty sandwich cookies
1 cup (100 gr) powdered sugar
½ cup sifted almond flour (about 2 ounces, 50 gr, sliced almonds, pulverized)
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
5 tablespoons (65 gr) granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats and have a pastry bag with a plain tip (about 1/2-inch, 2 cm) ready (or a Zip-loc bag with a corner snipped off).
Sift the almond flour before measuring. In a blender, grind the powdered sugar with the almond flour and cinnamon so there are no lumps.
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they begin to rise and hold their shape. While whipping, beat in the granulated sugar until very stiff and firm, about 2 minutes. The egg whites should look smooth, shiny and thick, like marshmallow cream.
Carefully fold the dry ingredients, in two batches, into the beaten egg whites with a flexible rubber spatula. When the mixture is just smooth and there are no streaks of egg white, stop folding and scrape the batter into the pastry bag (standing the bag in a tall glass helps).
Pipe the batter on the parchment-lined baking sheets in 1-inch (3 cm) circles (about 1 tablespoon each of batter), evenly spaced one-inch (3 cm) apart.
With a barely wet fingertip, gently smooth down any little peaks. Rap the baking sheet a few times firmly on the counter top to flatten the macarons, then bake them for 15-18 minutes (Next time I’m going to check them at 10-12 minutes. They were just a tick dry). Let cool completely then remove from baking sheet.
Sandwich with chai white chocolate ganache.
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 chai tea bags
1/2-1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
6 oz. good quality white chocolate, chopped (such as Callabaut)
Pour cream into a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cut open the tea bags and add contents to the heavy cream. Bring cream to a simmer then remove from heat and let steep for about 1/2 hour, stirring occasionally.
Bring back to a simmer and then strain through a fine mesh strainer over the white chocolate, pressing tea against the side of the strainer to extract as much liquid as possible. Whisk until chocolate is completely melted. Stir in pumpkin pie spice to taste. Let mixture cool completely, stirring occasionally. It will thicken to spreading and piping consistency as it cools.