Monday, April 25, 2011

Blueberry Macarons with White Chocolate Buttercream

I somehow seem to think that I can be immune to the rules that govern everyday life. For the most part, I have grown up and accepted reality. I no longer think that my daily activities are being viewed with special interest by higher beings, nor that I (or my childhood dog) am secretly a princess (Sheba's royal human transformation was predicated on me finding the magic word, which I never seemed able to do, though I would hug her and reassure her that I would someday). No, these days I'm mostly realistic about my lot in this mortal realm. With a few exceptions.

Every now and then I do something so phenomenally ridiculous it truly boggles the mind. If pressed, I would acknowledge that I have no superhuman abilities, and that the laws of physics do, in fact govern my life. But my actions would indicate otherwise. For example, I seem to think that I am capable of removing my sweater whilst riding my bicycle (a button-down cardigan, and a sleepy residential street, but still). Or that tucking your fingers down when cutting onions is for suckers (I am sporting a shiny new butterfly bandage and throbbing pain on my left thumb as I type). Or that I can make Parisian macarons without following directions.

If you are unlucky enough not to have tried a macaron, I must tell you: try one. They are simply the best cookie, delicious and magical, like what a princess would serve to celebrate being released from canine form. Two adorable little disks of nut-enriched meringue (with a ruffly foot on the bottom and the merest hint of marzipan dampness inside) are sandwiched around a filling, usually buttercream or ganache, which unites the element into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Like I said, magic. If NPR is to believed (and we know they are), the cupcake has met its match.

But the catch: they're fussy. Very fussy. Macarons can go wrong in any number of ways: emerge footless, crack and deflate, or, my personal specialty, come out all peaked and piled instead of softly domed. These faults can result from high or low oven temperature, over- or under-mixing, mistakes in the age and temperature of your egg whites, and countless other factors. It's enough to make you give up, and instead fork over the $2 that most people seem to demand for such a confection. But I wanted to tackle the macaron challenge myself, found a stellar recipe, and, after finally deciding to follow it, turned out these beauties.

The recipe for these blueberry macarons was developed by the ever-awe-inspiring Not So Humble Pie. And if you follow the recipe, these beauties could be yours. Let me just stress: follow the recipe. Weigh out your egg whites. Weigh out everything. Mix it just the right amount. And don't like me, decide at the last minute that double-stacking your cookie sheets for an insulated bottom is just too annoying and fussy (especially if you, say, only have two cookie sheets), and instead to decide to go rogue. You will be punished with macarons that rise for the heavens like aspiring volcanoes, and then crack to expose their empty air pockets inside. And then when the second batch comes around, and you decide you aren't in fact too cool to listen, you will follow instructions perfectly, and be rewarded by these magical cookies. Admittedly, they're still not perfect macarons (some of the details just come with practice), but man are they closer than I've ever come before.

Like a stir fry, this recipe has a lot of elements that come together in quick succession, so be sure to pre-read and pre-measure as needed. It also requires a candy thermometer (which I managed to secure for $3.75), but beyond that all you need to do is devote a chunk of cooking time. And, you know, accept reality and follow directions.

Blueberry Macarons with White Chocolate Buttercream

macarons adapted from
Not So Humble Pie (with huge love to her for developing a failsafe recipe a
nd spelling it out in painful detail), buttercream adapted from Purple Cookie

yields ~3 dozen finished cookies

20 grams freeze-dried blueberries
130 grams almond meal (Trader Joe's is the cheapest source I've found)
150 grams confectioner's sugar
120 grams room-temperature egg whites, divided
food coloring (optional -- I'm a bit afraid of it, so I omitted, and still managed to get a bit of color from the blueberries alone)
185 grams sugar, divided
50 grams water

1/2 cup sugar
2 large egg whites
1 1/2 sticks (12 Tablespoons) butter, softened to room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
50 grams white chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature

Place the blueberries in a food processor, and blitz until they are mostly powdered. Add the almond meal and powdered sugar, and pulse another minute. Pour into a large mixing bowl, and add 60 grams of the egg whites. If using the food coloring, add a few drops now. Stir until everything is combined, and set aside.

Place the remaining 60 grams of egg whites in a stand mixer. Weigh out 35 grams of the sugar, and place in a dish next to the mixer.

Place the remaining 150 grams sugar in a saucepan, along with the 50 grams water. Get your candy thermometer out, and get ready for the fun!

Heat the sugar water over a medium heat, and once it's melty, start testing the temperature. When it hits 210, start mixing your egg whites, first on a low and then on a high speed. When they start to get foamy, add the 35 grams of sugar you've set aside, and beat until it forms soft peaks.

Check your sugar syrup. When it reaches 245 degrees (which will be a boil), take it off the heat. With the egg white mixture on high, drizzle in the hot hot hot sugar syrup. To avoid mixer blades flinging it everywhere, aim to pour it in a slow but steady stream down the inside of the mixer bowl. At this point, the difficult coordination is over! Allow the mixer to run for another 5 minutes as the mixture cools. Prepare a pastry bag with a wide tip, or a plastic bag with the end snipped off, and line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Layer each lined cookie sheet inside another unlined cookie sheet, to insulate the bottoms and ensure even cooking.

After 5 minutes, you can fold the meringue into your almond-blueberry mixture. Add a small scoop of the egg whites first, and mix well to lighten your mixture. Add the remainder, and fold in gently, using big bottom-sweeping strokes to incorporate the mixture in as few stirs as possible. Mix until it is just barely uniform, and the mixture ribbons thickly off the spatula back into the bowl (it should be just thin enough to pour rather than plop).

When the mixture is ready, load it into your pastry bag. Pipe 1" circles onto your prepared cookie sheets, aiming for uniformity, and leaving a bit of space between (they shouldn't spread that much, but need to bake evenly). Give the cookie sheets a strong rap on the counter to bring up any air bubbles, and allow to sit 15 minutes. During this time, preheat the oven to 335. If you don't have enough oven space (or cookie sheets) to bake them all at once, leave the remaining dough in the pastry bag and pipe it when the first batch is done -- this meringue-based batter is stable enough that it'll still bake up lovely even if you pipe it out an hour later.

After the cookies have rested, place in the oven and bake 10-12 minutes. They will dry out and set, but shouldn't color. Remove, and let cool on the sheets for 30 minutes before removing to a rack to cook completely.

While the cookies cool, prepare the buttercream. Place the sugar and egg whites in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, and whisk constantly until it feels hot to the touch and has begun to get bubbly and glossy, ~3 minutes. Pour this into a stand mixer, and beat (first on a low speed and gradually increase to a medium-high one) until it forms soft peaks. Switch from a whisk to a paddle attachment, and add the softened butter by tablespoons. When it's all been added, continue beating until the mixture is thick and very smooth, ~6-10 minutes (sometimes buttercreams curdle, but if so it should come back together during this time). Add the vanilla and melted white chocolate, and mix until blended.

To form your cookies, choose two similarly-sized cookies (on the off chance yours aren't perfectly uniform), place a hefty blob of buttercream on one, and top with the other. Place on a plate or in a container, and chill until the buttercream firms up. Macarons are actually best served the day after they're made, when the filling and cookies have had a chance to meld. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for a few days, and the freezer if you need longer storage.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Homemade Peeps

Don't let nobody say I don't aim to please. After last week's Passoverpalooza, I now bring a bit of Easter love. In the form of homemade Peeps (or, as the litigation-happy Just Born candy manufacturer would prefer I call them, marshmallow chicks).

The New York Times recently came up with a similar marshmallow menagerie, in flavors as delicious-sounding as saffron-honey and green tea-ginger. But boring old me, I went with the classic vanilla variation. And while the cookie-cutter version is much, much easier, I wanted a piped marshmallow (the kind that sets up well when squeezed from a bag), to get chicks that sat upright, with tapered-off beaks and upturned tails. This does not come without its price. Namely: it's a big sticky mess.

But if you're willing to deal with marshmallow fingerprints all over your kitchen, you can make these delicious chicks. If my experience is to be universalized, you may initially be a bit dismayed at how your poor motor control leaves you with lopsided little lumps of chicklets. But then you will show them to your friends in despair, and your friends will kindly overlook their shortcomings, and instead ooh and aah over the homespun cuteness. And then there's the delicate texture, just a whisper of sweet foam, a far cry from industrial staleness. You can find my painfully detailed recipe at The Oregonian.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Passover 2011: Sephardic Seder, Matzo Pies (Minas), Gefilte Fish Cook-Off, and a Manischewitz Spritzer

A few months ago, my father, from his home in New York, happened to be talking to someone on the West Coast. "I told her that my daughter writes about Jewish food for The Oregonian!" he proudly told me. Really? I was about to correct his somewhat misdirected paternal pride, but then I thought, well, he's not quite wrong. While it's certainly not the first phrase I'd grab to describe my freelance career, at the same time, I can't really argue with it. As evidenced by this Passover season.

This past month I've been up to my matzo-covered elbows in a variety of Passover dishes. Last week I mentioned my Sephardic dinner party in Mix Magazine, featuring a feast full of warm North African spices, piles of punchy fresh herbs, and all sorts of tagines and artichokes and lemons. While someone with a citrus allergy might have problems with the menu, I think anyone looking for an extraordinary Seder meal would be pretty well pleased.

Oh, and then there's my feature on NPR's Kitchen Window about minas, the Sephardic matzo pie. I talk a bit about their history, then fill them with saffron-scented potatoes and artichokes; dilled spinach and feta; lemony leeks, asparagus, and fresh mint; and, thanks to the wonderful Jennifer Abadi, a Turkish lamb and beef filling, savory with onions and tomatoes, and brightened up by fresh herbs.

But there's more: today's Oregonian features a gefilte fish cook-off, with local chefs providing traditional and updated recipes from around the world to give a new spin on the oft-maligned Passover fish patty. Oh, and also a small mention of a Manischewitz spritzer, realizing the true destiny of the syrupy plonk as a the base of a sweet boozy soda.

So yeah, it's possible my dad was right. Happy Passover!

Monday, April 04, 2011

Tempeh Sausages

The word "hippie" gets bandied about a lot at my house, mock-branding various offenses against the sensibilities of our modern and disposable culture. Washing and reusing plastic bags, for one. Bringing one's own pyrex containers for leftovers to a restaurant (because, as I like to tell people, I am just that cool). Applying curry powder to any dish that doesn't really warrant it. There's a chance I'm over-applying the term.

But every so often I make a dish that is truly, undeniably deserving of the hippie label. Like these tempeh sausages (or, if you will, "soysages"). Their offenses are numerous: they're a mock meat, involve use of inappropriate seasonings (although that's partially my fault), and, most damningly, were developed at an actual honest-to-juice commune founded in the 1970s. Also? They're pretty darned good.

If you're looking for a vegetarian breakfast accompaniment, these are hard to beat. To be fair, my heart does belong to the Morningstar Farms veggie bacon, but every now and then it seems like a good idea to consume breakfast foods that don't feature disodium guanylate and artificial flavors (from non-meat sources, they point out, but still). At those times, I heartily recommend these tempeh sausages. Tempeh is steamed and grated, then mixed with a series of seasonings that give it a somewhat meaty depth. It's formed into patties and pan-fried, perfect for accompanying your waffles. Let it be known, I have no illusions that anyone would confuse these soysauges for the real thing. But I think they're pretty great in their own right. Yeah, I know I'm a hippie.

And if you're hungering for food that you wouldn't be embarrassed to serve to company, I present instead a dispatch from a Sephardic-style dinner party a friend recently hosted. The recipes are drawn from several sources, and together make for a menu that would be perfect for a sunny Passover Seder. Or any celebration of spring, really. You can read the details at Mix Magazine.

Tempeh Sausage

adapted from The New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook
yields ~12 sausages, depending on size (serves ~4)

8 ounces tempeh
1/2 tsp dried sage
1/2 tsp thyme
large pinch asafoetida (this is my addition, and optional, but it gives a nice funky depth if you've got it)
2 Tbsp flour
2 Tbsp warm water
2 Tbsp oil (I use canola)
2 Tbsp soy sauce
oil for pan-frying

Steam the tempeh over simmering water for 15 minutes. Let cool slightly, then grate on the coarse holes of a box grater. Add dry ingredients (sage, thyme, asafoetida, flour) and stir to combine, then add liquid ingredients (water, oil and soy sauce) and mix until combined. The finished product should be neither too wet nor too dry, and easily hold a shape when squeezed together.

Heat a small amount of oil in a skillet over a medium flame. Pinch off small amounts of the sausage mixture (a tablespoon or two), and press into thin patties. Pan-fry the patties until brown, and then flip and brown the other side (they should only take a few minutes per side). Serve hot.