Pretty in Pink – Raspberry French Macarons

Our friends Mel and Keith are about to have a baby! It will be their first and they are having a girl! We are so excited for them and can’t wait to meet the little one – literally any day now. They recently had a baby shower which was no ordinary affair. Maybe it’s a San Francisco thing, but more and more I’m seeing a transition from the traditional shower to something more couple friendly and less pastelly. Maybe it’s like a Baby-Moon (the final vacation possible before baby comes) or the last struggle to hold on to your DINK lifestyle (double-income-no-kids) but I definitely support the non-traditional shower movement, especially when I don’t have to guess the melted candy bar in a diaper….

Mel & Keith

Mel and Keith had their shower in a live/work warehouse in SF. It was an amazing space complete with a pingpong table, darts, and a baby-grand piano. Top this off with adult beverages, 90’s slow jams, and a minimal amount of baby trivia it was a great night. Who doesn’t like dressing up for a party? (Especially Mel and Keith – they are too cute). Definitely more a celebration of Mel and Keith rather than an explosion of pink. There was this one little item I couldn’t let go of being pink (big surprise I’m sure).

Trio

I was asked to make some desserts for the party. Desserts for a cocktail party/ baby shower need to be a little more magical than mini cupcakes and cookies. I decided on mini cream puffs and Raspberry French Macarons. I kept lemon bars in my back pocket just in case the macarons failed. It had been a while since making French Macarons but this wasn’t going to stop me. I did ruin about half of each batch, but practice makes perfect right? I didn’t want to make it seem like these beautiful morsels were easy by any means! I think half of baking success is luck; the other half skill and patience. Macarons are very exact. So specific you need to measure the weight of your egg whites. This is the skill part. The luck part is using the right amount when given a 5 gram window in the recipe (the wetter batter turned out better). Then you need patience when you try baking two sheets at once and the bottom sheet gets too hot resulting in cracked tops. The other lucky part happens when you mix your batter correctly and which yields the perfect consistency for piping without peaks. Over time I’m hoping that there will be less luck and more success based on instinct and feel. Until this moment becomes a realization, I’m going to keep practicing.

IMG_2504sm
(yours shouldn’t have little peaks like the picture above, they should look like the picture below)
line up

One of my new year’s resolutions was to bake things that were difficult. I get in the habit of making the same things because they take minimal effort (even when they look pretty) and I know the end product will not be a waste of time or ingredients. If you have any suggestions I’m all ears (please leave a comment)! If you’re up for a challenge and you want to try French Macarons you definitely should. You might be amazing! You may even make them better than the little french bakery around the corner, but how will you know until you try?

Raspberry Filled French Macarons

Raspberry French Macarons
150g sugar (or 3/4C)
1/4C water
168g powdered sugar (1 1/2C)
168g almond flour (1 1/2 C – use store bought Bob’s Red Mill or Trader Joe’s vs grinding your own)
55-60g egg whites
55-60g egg whites (this is not a repeat – you need 4 egg whites total divided)
gel paste food coloring optional

Getting Started:
Place 2 egg whites measuring 55-60g in the bowl of a standing mixer with the whisk attachment.

Line two jelly roll pans with silpat baking mats with circle templates. Alternately you can use parchment paper with circles drawn on the backside of the paper. 1 1/4″ circles work well. I used the lid of a spice jar to trace circles. The circles don’t need to be too far apart because the batter doesn’t spread once it’s piped onto the mat.
Preheat the oven to 275˚F.

Next:
Make your simple syrup. In a small saucepan over medium heat, add the granulated sugar and slowly pour in the water, careful not to splatter the water on the edges of the pan. Place the thermometer in the bowl (best is a digital thermometer) and turn up the heat until the flames touch the outer-most edge of the bottom of the pan. (The flames shouldn’t come up the sides.) Once the temperature reaches 226˚F, turn the mixer on medium speed. Continue cooking the simple syrup until it reaches 230˚F. Remove from the heat. At this point the egg whites will look like foamy bubble bath. While the mixer is running, slowly pour the syrup along the side of the pan so it trickles down the bowl and doesn’t splatter onto the whisk. This is really important because you want all of the simple syrup to be incorporated into the egg whites rather than splatter and harden along the sides of the bowl. Continue to beat the meringue until the bowl feels cool to the touch (the bowl will be very hot when you first add the sugar), then turn off the mixer.

Mix your almond flour:
While the egg whites are mixing, measure out your powdered sugar and almond flour. Add your egg whites (when I used 60g my batter turned out better), food coloring, and extracts if using. Mix all of these together with a large spatula.

Fold in the Meringue:
Scoop about half the meringue into the bowl with the almond flour mixture. Fold this in to lighten the batter, then add in the rest of the meringue. Keep folding until the batter looks shiny and has a lava like consistency. You want the batter to flow so it doesn’t have any peaks. Test a couple of spoonfulls on a piece of parchment to see if the batter has peaks. If it does, keep folding until you get a batter that smooths out into a perfect dome when you spoon it out. Transfer the batter to a piping bag with a plain 3/8″ or 1/2″ tip. Pipe little circles following your template and put them immediately into the oven. Some recipes tell you to let them sit to form a crust, but if you’ve made your batter correctly, it doesn’t matter.

Watch the cookies after about 12 minutes. They should have formed feet at this time and you’ll want to start checking them overy two minutes. To test doneness, touch the top of the cookie and wiggle it. The cookies are done when the the top barely moves against the ruffle. Remove from the oven and cool on the baking sheet.

Cool completely or refrigerate overnight before filling. If refrigerated, bring the cookies to room temperature before filling.

finish

Troubleshooting:
If the tops are cracked, your oven is too hot. Try adjusting the racks. If you need to adjust the temperature, try baking at 300˚ or 325˚F. My oven was probably around 270˚ and worked well. Every oven is different though. If its too low, the feet will not develop.

a Spring(erle) in his step

We visited Michael’s Grandparents in Great Bend Kansas for part of our Christmas vacation and my it was cold! Michael’s Grandma, Beverly, has carried on many of the family Christmas traditions originating in Austria and a good chunk of these traditions are tasty ones. There are three specific traditions I have experienced so far: no meat on Christmas Eve, Strietzel, and Springerles. I welcomed Strietzel into my belly soon after Michael and I started dating. It’s kind of like fruit cake in bread form and I love it. It’s weird with those candied fruit bits and dense – but delicious slightly chilled with a thin schmear of butter. It’s also the one item Michael and I agree is fantastic. Grandpa eats this bread on Christmas Eve accompanied by shrimp cocktail and the infamous cheese ball and crackers (and pretty much every day for breakfast until it disappears). The tradition Michael loves most is a little cookie called a Springerle. Michael just ran out of his stash in early January, savoring them as long as humanly possible. They are not nearly as good when they’re crisp but Michael may argue that.

Townsends

Last Christmas Grandma gave the entire family a lesson in Springerle Craft. She is an amazing woman and I hope you can find some time to watch the video we made. The recipe is incredibly simple with few ingredients, but tricky indeed. I’m especially grateful we have this video because the Springerle is one tradition I’d like to carry on, and I have a feeling I’ll need as much help from Grandma as possible. YouTube is a good second runner-up to teleportation.

Over the past ten years, I’ve grown to like Springerles. I must confess I detested the first bite of Springerle I tried and Michael probably thought “more for me”. If there is one thing I learned over the years is the Springerle inspires sneaking and taunting. All in good spirits mind you. The cookies also inspire a love/hate relationship and I’m finally  beginning to love them. There is a Great Townsend Divide when it comes to who likes them and who doesn’t. I prefer them less Anise-y. The texture is incredible; they are crisp on the outside and perfectly chewy on the inside.  I have a feeling I’ll really like them when I make my own, but I’ll have to make two batches because Michael will not be happy with my wimpy cookies.

We have an assortment of antique cookie cutters from Grandma and Michael got the special rabbit shape in his stocking this year. Rabbits are the best because they are the biggest. I finally I bought everything I need to make a batch and I’m hoping all baking ammonia is created equal because I bought mine from Amazon. I think I’ll practice a few batches before May so I’ve mastered them by Michael’s 30th birthday! Hurray for Springerles and Happy Family Traditions!

Springerle
Emilie Peschka Komarek

4 large eggs
1 lb powdered sugar
4 drops anise oil (Grandma Bev uses 6-8)
baking ammonia on the tip of a knife
flour, about 4 cups

Beat the eggs until thick, about 10 minutes. Add powdered sugar gradually and continue to beat for several more minutes. Drop the 4 (or more) drops anise oil during this process. If the baking ammonia is not finely pulverized, grind it between two spoons and mix it in with the first flour added. Add more flour until the dough is firm and well mixed. Shape in a ball, roll out about ¼” thick. Smooth with back of hand. Cut into shapes with cutters.

Place on a lightly floured surface to dry for about 8 hours. Cover lightly if desired.

Heat oven to 325˚F. Place cookie sheets in oven until hot. Remove and “grease” them with paraffin. Dust cookies [remove as much flour as possible] and place on cooled sheets. Bake for 10-12 minutes until lightly brown on the bottom. The cookies will not spread but double in height. Time will depend on thickness and size. Cool completely on a wire rack. Store tightly covered. Flavor will develop after about 2 days. If not covered the cookies will become very hard!

Notes from Grandma Bev:
Baking ammonia was available in drugstores but is now available in specialty shops (like the spice merchant in Wichita). [I got mine from Amazon.]

The “tip of the knife” I translated to a scant ¼ tsp. 1 tsp baking powder may be substituted, but we purist think the ammonia is better. It is also called hartshorn.

If a Springerle rolling pin or press is used, the dough should be rolled thicker to accommodate. Grandma Komarek did not use a press, only cutters. These cookies were always baked for Christmas, and I am sure that Cecilia Komarek Goetzel Miller baked them as well although I never knew her.

Alfajores need You!

A friend and previous client of mine is an amazing baker with the sweetest personality. She makes the best Alfajores I’ve ever had locally in Oakland, California. If you’ve never had one I suggest you try one soon. Andrea has mastered her Argentinean grandmother’s recipe and has been selling her cookies to local coffee shops and other retail establishments (like Whole Foods!) for the past year and a half. Recently, her company has grown and the demand is so high she needs a chocolate enrober for her Oakland bakery. Currently, she makes all her cookies by hand and coats each Alfajor in chocolate by hand. The chocolate process is quite messy and they loose a lot of good quality chocolate in the process. The chocolate enrober ensures each cookie is coated perfectly and captures the excess to reuse. She created a Kickstarter Campaign and at almost every level of donation, you get Alfajores in return. They are definitely worth the donations. Hand-Made and fabulous, you’ll probably be addicted to these sandwich cookies at first bite. Trust me, you really want Andrea to succeed in this campaign! And I must mention that you can get some of these beauties gluten free!

Here is a little snippet from her Kickstarter site.

What are Alfajores???

Alfajores (pronounced “Al-fah-HOR-es”) are scrumptious traditional Argentinean pastries made of two shortbread-like cookies joined with dulce de leche. Alfajores are a daily treat in South America and introducing this unique flavor to my new home is very exciting!

Buenos Aires Alfajores is a dream come true. We simply love making alfajores. A spoon full of dulce de leche combined with two cookies makes us jump for joy!

Our alfajores are handmade in small batches with lots of love in a commercial kitchen in Oakland, California ~ home. We are committed to using only all-natural, high quality ingredients with no artificial flavors or preservatives: Guittard dark chocolate, Clover cage-free eggs and butter without rBST…We are proud to be part of Oakland’s local food movement and are committed to supporting local vendors.

How you can help us…

Our business is growing and we need to keep up with demand.  Alfajores are very labor intensive. We now hand-coat each alfajor. You should see the chocolate on our faces after a few hours of dipping alfajores in chocolate and using a reverse vacuum to blow off the excess! We end up wasting lots of chocolate  – a tragedy.

We can’t wait to share our wonderful, high quality, home grown, delicious alfajores with the whole world.  However, we can’t meet demand with our current manual processes and we can’t buy the fancy equipment from profits when our production is so low!  We need your help!!!

If’ you’re feeling generous this Holiday Season, I hope you consider donating to Andrea’s Kickstarter Campaign. There are only 16 days left and they are only 27% funded. Check it out and be sure to watch the video. You’ll get to know a little more about Andrea, what Alfajores are, and how you can help make her dreams come true!

Ps. My favorite are the chocolate covered Alfajores. I’m pretty sure that I’ll be ordering mostly chocolate in the three boxes I get if she succeeds! If you’re lucky I’ll share with you, but don’t count on it… go out and get your own!

30 is the new 29

I know a lot of people born in 1982 and you know what that means… they will all be turning 30 this year. Thirty is a big deal. People have extravagant parties and destination parties and I happen to be going to two before May. I’m also happy to report I was born in ’83. There is still time! Apparently I need to start planning something amazing. Oh, and I’ll need to begin my list of Thirty before Thirty (the 30 things you want to accomplish before you turn thirty). Until then, I’ll keep baking you cakes!

Heed these words of wisdom from Lucille Ball, “The secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.” HAPPY BIRTHDAY to all my 30-somethings and a pre-happy birthday to those of you who will soon be thirty (aka my sister!).

Cakes worthy of a 30th Birthday Celebration

Merry Merry Gingerbread Men

I wish there was a magical recipe generator that combined the best recipes on one website… then I would waste less time looking through hundreds of recipes! Until this exists, I will trust a tried and true method… asking friends. My friend Nicole suggested I make a recipe for gingerbread cookies from Not Without Salt (a fantastic blog by the way). Nicole and I would make a mean baking duo if we lived in the same city again….

When I read through the recipe I was nervous about the amount of black pepper. I like spiced cookies, but was a little unsure of spicy cookies. Nicole assured me they were great, so in the end I used about half of the black pepper called for just to be sure. I made gingerbread cookies for a dinner party we had with some friends. I thought it would be fun to decorate them all together and it was! I’d like to make this into a tradition, decorating cookies that is, no matter who comes to the table. Traditions give meaning to otherwise meaningless baking and I think creating a tradition of gingerbread cookie decorating would be great.

(I added only 1 tsp of black pepper)

Happy Halloween

I love Halloween! I don’t have kids, and I’m thankful San Francisco doesn’t put an age limit on dressing up. Michael and I went with some friends on Wednesday to an underground restaurant/costume party at a “haunted” house in Alamo Square hosted by Stag Dining Group. We paraded through a gigantic house-turned boarding school-turned artist studio/event rental complete with a larger than life size painting of Michael Jackson in full Thriller get-up. Oh, and loads of gorgeous glitter paintings. Yes, I said glitter and gorgeous in the same sentence! Artist Rene Garcia Jr. is a genius with glitter. My limited experience with glitter involved a bottle of Elmer’s Glue….

We jumped from dark rooms into dark hallways to scare other diners in a creepy empty top floor, and walked through a staged “Haunted House.” We also drank some interesting cocktails by Cocktail Lab complete with basil seeds and rum that look and feel texturally like you are chewing on eyeballs. They also made a “Hannibal Lecter;”a whisky sour with chianti poured over a spoon on top to keep the colors separated, which I liked much more than the first.

The chef’s behind the Stag Dining Group created a great menu for the night:
Crab Puffs – Togarashi, lemon
Roasted Beets & Carrots – goat cheese mousse, preserved lemon-honey vinaigrette, rye crumble
Squid Ink Chowda – lobster, kabocha squash, clams
Baby-Back Ribs – smoked maple glaze, apple celery root slaw
“Drumstick” – dark and stormy brownie, rum ice cream, waffle cone 
I can’t complain much about the food, only a little about the timing. It was fun and provided a good test run of the costumes. 
Saturday I spent a majority of the day decorating the house with spider webs and fake plastic spiders for our grown-up Halloween party. I also tried a new recipe for sugar cookies. They are super soft and puffy and very much like the kind you buy in the grocery store… you know, the round ones with sprinkles coordinating with every holiday. The recipe is great. The cookies are not overly sweet and pair well with the buttercream frosting. I prefer buttercream on cookies as opposed to royal icing decorated cookies – the buttercream tastes so much better. The recipe I tried came from Sweet Pea’s Kitchen and I didn’t change a thing (except on the second batch I rolled them a bit less than 1/4″). The general consensus was good and Michael really liked them. I believe his exact words were, “Those cookies are the Bomb!” Then we laughed and high-fived. This is the key to a good marriage. 
Hopefully I’ll get to hand out some candy to neighborhood kiddies this year since we have a front door! I think I’ll refrain from my creepy Black Swan costume as well… no need to terrify the little ones. 

Happy Halloween!

Successful French Macarons!

Last month, I had a Fight with French Macarons. Literally. They stuck to my parchment and the tops cracked a bit. I had no idea why, so I decided to take a class from Richard at Baking Arts here in San Francisco. Richard is pastry genius and a fantastic teacher. His classes range from the most simple biscuit and scones to intricate sugar flowers and souffles. He’s a stickler for his favorite brand of chocolate and makes the most seemingly-difficult macaron easy. So, thanks Richard, a whole new world of baking is in my future. 
The problems I had before were sticky, cracked cookies. This comes from too wet a batter and not enough folding. You want your batter to flow like lava and mine was no lava. You should also just go ahead and buy an instant digital thermometer that can read a temperature while touching the bottom of the pan, and a digital scale is a must. Converting recipes from grams to cups and teaspoons is not very accurate and you may end up with a whole sheet of failed cookies. It’s not fun, it’s sad and depressing and makes you feel like a failure (not good). 
During our class, we watched Richard demonstrate the whole process, then under his supervision made our own batch. It was nice to have someone there to tell you when your batter looked like lava, and give your tips the best piping technique. It’s also good to make a template on the back of some parchment paper. A 1 1/2 inch round makes a good size cookie and the template insures you’ll be able to match your cookies for proper sandwiching. Another good trick to test for doneness is to press down on the center of the cookie and wiggle. If it wiggles a lot, cook it a little longer, if it wiggles very slightly it should be done. Also, you should peel them off the silpat by bending the mat, not attempting to lift the cookie. Fill cookies when cooled completely. 
We made vanilla cookies with a little espresso powder sprinkled on top and filled with chocolate ganache and salted caramel. Yum! They were so good. I can’t wait to try them again. I’ll be buying pre-made almond flour from here on out. If you’ve tried macarons before without luck, don’t give up, keep trying, it’s all about the proper technique. 

I also mentioned in my last post about macarons that I was headed to NYC and wanted to try some macarons from Bisous Ciao Macarons in the East Village. We happend to stay very near here, so a trip wasn’t too far. They have mixed reviews on yelp, but Michael and I really enjoyed our flavors (blood orange with chocolate ganache and strawberry with basil chocolate ganache). The flavors were intense and the cookie itself was just what you expect from a quality macaron. My next traveling macaron stop will jave to be Pierre Herme in Paris. He’s the godfather of Macarons (and french desserts) and why not travel to Paris for another tasting? Do you have a favorite french macaron shop in your city? 
the following photos from Michael Townsend at Bisous Ciao, NYC 

Feel free to peruse the rest of Michael’s photos on Flickr or follow his Tumblr account!