Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Those Cute Little Feet (or French Macaroons)

A month ago, one of my good friends asked if I, his friend-who-just-graduated-from-culinary-school, could help him with something.

I was more than happy to oblige, but when I found out what it was for, I tried my best not to fall into a pile of girly mushiness.

Apparently he had befriended a cute girl at a recent group dinner, and for dessert noticed she was "gobbling up" a plate of French macaroons. So my friend decided that in order to show his affection, he would learn how to make macaroons and present them to her.

I know, "awwwww" right?

"No problem!" I told my friend after I heard the story.

Except that there WAS a problem. I never learned how to make macaroons in school. I mean, I learned how to make the coconut kind, but not the French kind. So after extensive reading, here is what I learned about making French macaroons:

-A proper macaroon is smooth with no cracks
-A proper macaroon has "feet"--a crackly, puffed second layer that measures about 1/16-inch high. If your macaroon has no feet, you either overmixed it or underbaked.
-You have to be in a good mood for them to turn out right.

Ok, sounded simple enough. And the recipe I was using sounded simple too. My pastry teacher even let me make a batch at school during one of the nights I was assisting her.

An hour later, the pastry teacher came round and asked me how the macaroons were coming along. "Great!" I replied, and showed her my tray of piped macaroons. She shook her head in disapproval.

"You underbeat the egg whites," she said. "See how they are spreading out as they are drying?"

I decided I would make round two at home.

This time, my friend was around to help me. I made sure the egg whites were at a definite stiff peak this time, but unfortunately my friend was still sifting the almond meal by the time the whites were done and waiting. So I kept whisking, and I should have listened to my gut to NOT add the expensive almond meal in, to just start over, but I didn't. By the time my friend added in the sifted almond meal, I knew it was a lost cause. The whites were dry and crumbly. We baked them anyway. They turned out like little turds:

Lovely, purply turds. But turds. With no feet.

Time for round three. This time I whipped the whites until they were *almost* to a stiff peak but not quite. I also decided not to dye them with any color. I didn't need any more factors that might ruin this batch.

Better, but they still spread out a little more than they should have. Meaning, I just barely underbeat the egg whites again. Also I should have achieved more feet--so I might have underbaked them just a bit.

So three trials later, this is what I learned:
-Do not underbeat the egg whites, or they will spread and become flat.
-Do not overbeat the egg whites, or you will end up with snail-like turds.
-For perfection, keep trying. One day, you might get there.

French Macaroons
200g confectioner's sugar (aka powdered sugar)
110g blanched almond meal (available at most grocery stores)
100g egg whites, room temp, preferably aged overnight
Cream of tartar
30g granulated sugar

Food coloring (optional)

1) Sift together confectioner's sugar and almond meal and set aside.
2) In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk egg whites and a pinch of cream of tartar to a foam. Gradually add sugar and whip to a stiff peak. Whites should be firm and shiny. If desired, add food coloring.
3) Add sugar-almond mixture to whites and fold until completely incorporated. The mixture should be smooth, shiny and able to flow off a spoon.
4) Pipe small rounds (about 1 1/2") with a piping bag onto parchment covered sheet trays. Let macaroons dry at room temp for an hour.
5) Bake at 300 for about 16 minutes.

Cool completely, then fill with buttercream, jelly or ganache.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Jasmine Infused Rice Pudding (or Forgive me, Please)

When it rains, it pours.

My husband and I fought not once, not twice, but five times last week. Each fight was louder than the last, and became about dumber things as the days dragged by. For those of you who have a spouse, you know what I mean--most of us in our single lives would never imagine fighting about a laundry machine dial. But you do. And somehow, life goes on.

Some say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, and my husband is no exception. Give him something fried or laced with bacon, and he will swoon. Knowing this, whenever we have a fight I usually cook those very things to seek forgiveness. But this time I wanted to do something that showed a little more love and sacrifice.

As I flipped through my trusty Martha Stewart cookbook (yes, yes...I graduated from culinary school but I still adore her recipes), I saw a recipe that made me wince:

Jasmine Rice Pudding.

Don't get me wrong, it has nothing to do with Martha Stewart or the beautiful flavor of jasmine. I winced because I HATE rice pudding. Absolutely hate it. I never understood why anyone would take perfectly good rice and spoil it into a disgusting dessert. But my husband loves it. I knew if I made rice pudding, he would know I did it only for him.

I gave the ingredients list a quick look and as I suspected, I had everything at home. Perfect. I had an hour to whip it up before I had to pick my husband up from the train station.

Jasmine Rice Pudding (adapted from Martha Stewart)
(serves 6 to 8)

1 quart whole milk
1/4 cup jasmine tea leaves (use the real thing, not bagged tea)
3 cups water
1 1/3 cups jasmine rice
1 t kosher salt
1 T unsalted butter
1 1/2 c sugar

1) Heat milk in medium saucepan until hot but not boiling (I turned the heat off when it was almost too hot to the touch). Add the tea leaves. Remove from heat. Cover the saucepan, and steep for 20 minutes; strain milk and set aside.

2) Rice cooker method: Make rice as you normally would with the called for amount of jasmine rice/water/salt above.

Non-rice cooker method: In a medium pot, bring the water to a boil. Stir in the rice and salt. Reduce heat to low; cover, and cook until rice is tender and liquid has disappeared (about 15-20 min).

3) When the rice is ready, stir in the flavored milk, butter and one-half cup of the sugar (I emphasize this because you don't want to throw it all in right now) into rice. Cover, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved and pudding is thick, about 30 min.

4) Spoon the rice pudding into dessert dishes (I used ramekins). Lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of each pudding to prevent a skin from forming, then transfer dishes into the fridge.

5) Place the remaining cup of sugar in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Cook without stirring until amber in color, about 10-15 minutes. Pour caramel over top of each pudding, and serve immediately.

Verdict? Let's just say I took a tentative bite before serving it to my husband and my eyes widened in surprise. I actually really liked it! I've had rice pudding in fine dining restaurants before (when my husband ordered it of course) and didn't even like it then. This Martha Stewart recipe helped me appreciate the dessert in a new light.

One difference for this, I believe, is that the rice for this recipe was cooked perfectly al dente. Most rice puddings I've tried in the past were either mushy or hard, whether it was Rice to Riches in NYC or a triple-digit restaurant. I also thought the amount of sweetness was perfect--it wasn't overwhelming and balanced well with the subtle jasmine. But the aroma of infused jasmine tea leaves was the amazing part--I didn't think such a delicate flavor would work for a hearty dessert, but it did, and beautifully at that.

So what did the husband think? He liked it of course ("SO GOOD," he said), though he thinks the rice pudding he makes is up to par. Potentially another fight in the making? Maybe. But until then, we're living happily ever after together...with our ramekins of rice pudding.