Thursday, June 18, 2009

My French Macaron Quest I

I’m a visual person. French macarons have always appealed to my eyes, but I’ve often found many macarons to be too sweet for my tastes. Especially disappointing is the fact most macarons I’ve tried taste similar regardless of the color. Thus, it had remained a mystery to me why some people are so crazy about macarons. When I received a beautiful cookbook – “Bouchon” – from my faithful foodie comrades Kimiko and Neil, I was intrigued by a photograph of a vanilla macaron. I couldn’t resist and was compelled to try creating the perfect macaron myself. Yes, you could say I was bitten by the macaron bug.

I just carefully followed the recipe in the cookbook and voila! Was it beginner's luck? They turned out all right. My first macarons had so-called “feet" on the bottom, shiny shells, soft yet somewhat chewy insides, and no air pocket! I can't say they were completely perfect but they met all the criteria of what defines a well made, French macaron. What was all the fuss about?

The disasters began during the second attempt. With the same oven, the same recipe, and the exact same ingredients, I couldn't recreate the success I had with the first try. I searched other recipes (Pierre Hermé, David Leibovitch, Mercotte, etc.); tried both Italian meringue and French meringue methods (to be described in a future blog on my macaron quest); varied oven temperatures; tried aging egg whites anywhere from 24 hours, up to 72 hours (in the fridge) – every variable I could think of – without complete success. Among the aforementioned criteria for a perfect macaron, there would always be at least one condition wanting.

Some say making macarons is all about technique. Some say it's all about precision. I was so confused and bewildered. However, after a month of cracking eggs, I learned something. Every single aspect, no matter how small, from techniques to even humidity is relevant. I had produced way more macarons that I could possibly reasonably eat. My family became less and less enthusiastic about cleaning up the “macaWrongs”. Nevertheless, through all the trial and error, I believe I am finally almost there. The following is a list of some of the troubles I experienced I hope I provide valuable data for anyone out there that also gets bitten by the macaron bug.

1. Feetless Macarons: Many macaron recipes recommend mixing the batter until it is “magma consistency”. What does “magma consistency” mean? I think a “mix and then check” approach is more understandable. As soon as the dry ingredients are completely incorporated, do a check with a spatula before over-mixing. Try to draw a ribbon in the batter with the spatula. If the ribbon holds and doesn’t spread out, mix the batter a little further and then check the batter again. When the ribbon holds briefly before smoothing back into the batter, the batter is done. At this point, extra mixing will result in feetless macarons.

2. Air Pocket: This is hard to diagnose. Among many reasons, I think a low oven temperature or not deflating the egg-whites enough when incorporating the dry ingredients can cuase air poctkets.

3. Overly Fragile Shells: Egg-whites not aged enough. (Egg-whites not stable enough yet.)

4. Cracked Shells: Egg-whites are not aged enough or oven temperature is too high.

5. Too Chewy: Over baked.

6. Macarons Sticking to Baking Sheet: I experienced this when I double-panned as some recipes suggest. I believe under-baking causes this to happen.

From several of my favorite recipes, I came up with the following.

Vanilla Macrons (French meringue method, adopted from “Syrup and Tang” and “Bouchon”)
egg-whites (aged at least 24 hours in fridge)
almond meal 1.3 times the amount of egg-whites by weight
powdered sugar 1.6 times the amount of egg-whites by weight
caster sugar 0.8 times the amount of egg-whites by weight
vanilla extract or paste

(1) Line a baking tray with parchment paper or Silpat.
(2) Sieve almond meal and powdered sugar together, set aside.
(3)Using a mixer, whip the egg-whites until frothy, then slowly add the caster sugar. Whip to a strong peak stage and shiny batter.
(4) Fold in the dry ingredients (2), in several batches. Mix just until dry ingredients are incorporated into the wet ingredients. Do not over mix. The number of total turns should not exceed 50.
(5) Pipe the batter in 1.5 to 2 inch circles.
(6) Rest for 15 to 30 minutes to form a dry skin before baking.
(7) Preheat the oven to 350oF. Place rack in the middle of the oven.
(8) Bake for 12 minutes and remove from the oven.
(9) If using parchment paper, lift up a side of the parchment paper and spray water lightly from a spray bottle in between the baking sheet and the parchment paper. Rotate and repeat for all four sides. (This step provides steam to help loosen the macarons for clean removal from the parchment paper.) Wait for one minute and remove the macarons. If you use a Silpat, you can remove the macarons as soon as they are cool enough to handle.

Chocolate Ganache Filling (adopted from Pierre Hermé’s recipe)

8 oz bittersweet chocolate
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

(1) Place the chocolate in a large bowl.
(2) Bring the cream to a full boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Remove from heat and gently stir the cream into the chocolate until the chocolate is completely melted.
(3) Let the mixture cool for a minute and then add the butter in two additions.
(4) Wait until the ganache becomes a spreadable consistency.

* Keep unused ganache refrigerated or frozen in an airtight container.

Buttercream Filling (adapted from “Bouchon”)

1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup water
4 large eggs
1 pound unsalted butter, cut into chunks, at room temperature
Seeds scraped from 2 vanilla beans
(or 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract)

(1) Combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer until the syrup reads just under 248oF on a candy thermometer.
(2) Meanwhile, using a mixer with the whisk attachment, whisk the eggs for 2 minutes on high speed. Reduce the speed carefully while adding the syrup into the eggs. Continue to whisk until the mixture thickens and cools down to room temperature.
(3) Add the butter a few chunks at a time.
(4) Add the vanilla.

* Keep the buttercream refrigerated or frozen in an airtight container.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Unexpected tool for Macarons

I found this tool at a hardware store. I'm not a hardware person so I don't know what this tool is even called, but this gadget is certainly handy in the kitchen. I don't know its original function but I found this tool absolutely useful in removing macarons from a Silpat or parchment paper without damaging the macarons, especially when things get stickier and trickier ... I tried all sorts of spatulas and kitchen knives to remove those less than perfect, sticky-bottomed, macarons, at the expense of damaging my Silpat. Of course you don't necessarily need this tool for perfectly dry-bottomed macarons, but trust me, this tool is more useful that you might think.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Tango tranforms.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

On sticky rice- 1. Xoi Chien Phong

Foodies know sticky rice as an ingredient for mochi, but that's just the beginning. I love sticky rice in any form. Sticky rice is an extremely versatile ingredient in Asia. In Korea, we use sticky rice to make Samgye-tang ( sticky rice-stuffed-young chicken soup), all sorts of Doek ( desserts made out of sticky rice), steamed sticky rice, sticky rice steamed then pan fried into cakes, Yak-bob (caramelized sticky rice with dates and chestnut ..... , we even use sweet rice powder in a type of frying batter. It's a staple ingredient not just in Korea, but also used throughout Asia. I see my good Indonesian friend Sayful and his wife Kristen make art out of a dish called lemper (savory sticky rice bundle in banana leaves ) and Nagasari (sweet sticky rice bundle dessert, cooked in coconut milk ). And my Japanese friend Takenochi makes the stickiest yet softest mochi with red bean paste. I'll introduce them in later blogs.

One of the best sticky rice disheds I've ever eaten was Xoi Chien Phong (fried sticky rice balloon , they call it “Great ball of Rice”) in a remote village, near My Tho. After taking a bus for 2 hours from Saigon and then changing to a small boat on the Mekong River, we arrived at a beautiful and quiet village to have lunch. They deep-fried a tennis ball sized sticky rice dough in a wok. Soon the dough expanded to a basketball-sized balloon magically. They serve it as a side dish, accompanied with fried whole fresh water fish and consomme type soup (the soup look like just water with some vegetables but the taste was indeed top notch! ), and pork dish. How did it taste? Heavenly delicious! It was golden brown-caramelized, crispy outside and gooey, soft, chewy inside, slightly sweet, slightly salty. I especially liked the dramatic table-side presentation of the sticky rice balloon cake. They cut the balloon into serving portions with scissors on the table. Banh Ran, the regional northern Vietnamese dessert which is much smaller than Xoi Chien Phong , has mung bean paste filling inside (which is very similar to Chinese sticky rice ball cake, Zin Dou ) but this one didn't have any filling inside. It was simply hollow. We have Gongal-ppang ( translated as Bluff bread ) in Korea, made by similar technique but it's made with normal flour. (I'll introduce it later as well. ) It was one of those unforgettable meals in my life, I was amazed at how a side dish could play such a beautiful role on the table.