Saturday, September 5, 2009

Something New

Last weekend, I tried something I've never tried before. Three things, actually, all at the same time ...

1. I made homemade macarons (a French cookie or biscuit with a ganache filling; made famous by Laudree in Paris),
2. Following a recipe all in French,
3. And using the metric system for the entire recipe. (The metric system was probably the hardest part, as I am mathematically challenged, and conversions from the US system are incredibly difficult ... more on that another time).

The macarons were not bad for my first try, but I learned a lot. The taste was quite good (as evidenced by my husband, Aaron, eating them straight from the tray as quickly as I assembled them), but they were not quite as pretty or as uniform as the ones from Laudree. Of course, they are a complex creation, so the fact that I managed something even remotely resembling a macaron is a good start.

My passion for macarons all began when our friends John and Jillyanne brought des macarons vanilles to our house a few weeks ago. As we sat on our terrace savoring the delicate meringue cookies with a vanilla ganache filling, it truly felt like what heaven must be like.

For those of you who may not know me well, I love baking really complex desserts. There is nothing more relaxing than spending all afternoon dirtying up every mixing bowl, wooden spoon and baking pan to make some decadent creation that requires many hours, multiple steps and massive numbers of hard-to-find ingredients, but which brings great pleasure to those who will eat it. But let's be honest: I meet the challenge successfully only about half the time. The other 50%, I burn it, break it, drop it on the floor while taking it out of the oven (yes, I've done that!), or completely ruin it during assembly. But, the ones that do succeed make it all worth it!

The macaron meets my desire for complexity. I dirtied every mixing bowl that I own, and at the end of the day, my apron was covered in pastry cream, meringue, butter, batter ... you name it! What a satisfying feeling when you toss a very messy apron into the laundry, knowing that it served you well!

To make the macarons, you whip egg whites to a stiff consistency while adding sugar, almond powder, and food coloring. Here is where I made my first mistake. In translating the ingredients from French, there were two names used for sugar, but both translated into powdered sugar. I used this type for both stages, only later realizing that the first addition of sugar, to the egg whites, would have been more properly translated as regular sugar, or table sugar. The result was a more fragile cookie that cracked in the oven or under the weight and moisture of the ganache when assembled.

My next mistake was to compensate for my tendency to burn things, which I am very good at doing! I undercooked the meringues and didn't realize it until I removed them from the pan and they were not hard enough on the outside. An ideal macaron will be hard or crisp on the outside and slightly soft and chewy inside.

In the end, as long as Aaron ate them as soon as I assembled them, the macarons were quite good. But, when they sat for some time, they disintegrated, barely holding together.

So, the two options for future macaron making: ensure Aaron is hungry and ready to do his part, eating about 50 cookies at one time; or try again with the right sugar and cooking times! (Aaron votes for option 1).

I won't share the recipe until I practice a bit more and can make a lovely and delicious macaron. But, I will share a simple and delicious recipe for fig confiture, which I used as a filling, and which is also delicious on toast (with a little cream cheese if you are feeling decadent) or as a sandwich condiment.

And if you are feeling the need for a little taste of heaven, try and find a Laudree near you, and sample their macarons. I highly recommend the vanilla, but any of them are truly an experience not to be missed!

Bon degustation!

Fig Confiture

600 grams black figs (approximately 10 figs)
50 grams honey
Splash of vanilla extract (you can also add other spices, like cinnamon or nutmeg, to taste)

Wash and chop the figs into course pieces, removing the stems. Combine the figs with the honey and vanilla (and any other spices you choose) in a saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir frequently, to keep the figs from sticking to the pan. The figs will release their juices as they cook. Once the mixture is soft and liquid, lower the heat and continue cooking, stirring often, until the moisture is evaporated and the confiture is thick (about 30 minutes). Store covered in the refrigerator. Enjoy on toast, as a sandwich condiment (chicken salad, or brie and ham, perhaps).