Monday, December 31, 2012

Salted Caramel Macarons

My Yelp tagline says "I'll give it 5 stars if it's better than my cooking." Well I'm even pickier about desserts since I'm a better baker than a cook. When I eat out, I rarely order dessert unless I'm feeling fancy, and it take a bunch of swooshes and molecular gastronomy thingys to impress me.

Well one thing that upset me for the longest time was that I couldn't make macarons. I tried my first one about a year ago and was obsessed ever since, so the point where if it was sold in a bakery on on the dessert menu, then there was no question that I'd get it. But if it's so common, I should be able to make it myself...right? So I tried. I tried making a batch last spring and they were terrible. They rose initially but instantly deflated when they came out of the oven, so I fed them to friends and called them "whoppie pies." Meanwhile, I continued to shell out almost $2 per miniature cookie since they are so ridiculously overpriced. Ever since moving away from college, my arsenal of kitchen tools has expanded improved dramatically, so I tried to make these again earlier this week. Much better.

A few notes and tips when making macarons...I didn't do any of this the first time around, and any of these might've been what resulted in my failure. Since then, I've done a lot of reading on proper macaronage (process of making a macaron, yes it's an actual word):
  • You can use the Trader Joe's unblanched almond meal, which costs $3/bag and is much cheaper than the commonly used Bob's Red Mill, which is $11/bag. The results may be rougher and not as pretty since the almonds are unblanched, but it's not a big difference. In fact, I like how the almond skin bits make them look rustic.
  • Age your egg whites by separating your eggs and let them stand at room temp for a few hours, or overnight in the fridge.
  • Whip your egg whites so that they're stiff enough to hold a peak but NOT so stiff that it won't fall off the whisk.
  • Learn proper folding techniques. Google those YouTube videos so that you don't accidentally deflate your egg whites.
  • Invest in a silicone baking mat if you bake often. It works marginally better than parchment paper, but it also saves in the long run if you bake these often.
  • Once you've piped your macarons onto the baking sheet, give the sheet a few firm taps on a surface to help them spread and get the air bubbles out. Let them sit out until a skin forms, as in so that you can touch them and not get batter on your fingers. This should take between 15 minutes to an hour, depending on how aged your egg whites are. 
  • Exercise restraint and don't eat them all immediately after filling! They are better the day after you make them, really. Make them a day in advance if you're serving guests.


Ingredients for Macarons
  •  3/4 cup almond flour
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 egg whites
  • Pinch of cream of tartar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp total volume of flavoring extract + food coloring

Ingredients for Filling
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp water
  • 1 stick + 3 Tbsp butter
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup powdered sugar

In a bowl, sift together 3/4 cup of almond flour and 1 cup powdered sugar. Alternatively, when I'm home with the parents who have a food processor, I just put both ingredients in and process for about 30 seconds to save time, since sifting is a PITA.

In a separate bowl, whisk two egg whites on low speed until foamy. Throw in a pinch of cream of tartar, then whisk at medium speed until soft peaks form. Add 1/4 cup granulated sugar, and flavoring extract/ food coloring as desired. Whisk at medium speed until stiff peaks form.

Fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, but do not overstir (~50 times or so for me).

Pipe the macaron shells onto your lined baking sheet into quarter sized circles. Let sit until a skin forms (touch to test).

Bake in the oven preheated at 230F for 5-8 minutes, until you see the foot beginning to rise, then raise the temperature to 250-270F and continue to bake for 12-15 more minutes (times can vary greatly between ovens). You can check for doneness by seeing if the shell/foot has dried, or by peeling off a corner macaron. When ready, remove from the oven and let cool.

While the macaron shells are cooling, make the salted caramel buttercream filling. Add 1/2 cup sugar and 2 Tbsp water to a saucepan and heat until boiling. Continue to cook and stir until sugar becomes amber in color, then turn off the heat. Add 3 Tbsp butter and stir until melted, then add 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream and whisk til smooth. Stir in 1/2 tsp salt and allow mixture to cool to room temperature.

When the caramel has cooled, beat it until it becomes lighter in texture, then beat in a stick of softened butter. Add a cup of powdered sugar and beat until fluffy.

This is what they look like filled :) Hold back, refrigerate, and dig in the next day.

How were they? Some of them cracked. Some of them broke when unsticking from the mat. Some of them broke away from the foot. Some of them were lopsided. Some of them looked perfect and tasted delicious, which makes this an overall success.
Would I make them again? Yes, over and over again with this recipe. I would experiment with fillings and flavoring extracts in the future. I don't think I'd buy another one again...but I wouldn't mind getting them as presents ;)

Blueberry Bread Pudding with Creme Anglaise

Pssst. I have a secret. I don't really like bread pudding.

The secret is out and I'm a little scared to put this on the internet, but here is me being vulnerable. Now don't get me wrong, I will definitely eat the stuff and I've had fantastic bread puddings from M. Henry and Tartine, but I order it because it's the most popular item on their menu and not because I adore it. The paragon bread pudding is rich and almost cake-like, but there's something about the moist and gummy texture that rubs me the wrong way.

Despite my dislike, I've still attempted to make it time and time again, hoping that I would taste something that would change my mind. After all, bread pudding in concept is incredible. Warm buttery bread dipped in rich cream and sugar, baked til it's gooey, and drizzled with a rich, creamy sauce. I made a loaf of brioche before I left for winter break, and the leftovers had gotten stale in the fridge after a week, so it was time for one more try.

Slice half a loaf of bread (brioche ideally) into cubes and pack tightly into an 8x8" square pan.

In a bowl, beat two eggs with 3/4 cup sugar. 

To the egg mixture, add 2 cups milk and a Tbsp of vanilla. Stir well and pour over the cubed bread.

Let bread soak in the egg mixture for at least 15 minutes. Top with blueberries and distribute evenly. Melt 2 Tbsp of butter and drizzle over the bread pudding.

Cover pan with foil. Sadly, I ran out of foil, but any kind of bake-proof covering will do really. Bake in a preheated 350F oven for one hour, then remove the covering and bake for an additional 15 minutes.

While the pudding is baking, make the vanilla creme anglaise topping. In a bowl, whisk 2 egg yolks with 2 Tbsp sugar.

In a separate saucepan, heat 1/2 cup of whole milk and 3 Tbsp heavy cream, stirring occasionally until it bubbles.

Pour half of the milk mixture from the pan into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Add the new yolk mixture back into the pot with the remaining milk mixture. Heat at low-medium heat for a couple minutes until thickened, stirring frequently.

This is what the bread pudding looks like when it's done!

Did this change my mind about bread pudding? No
Was it fantastic? Meh. It is a decent recipe, yes. It has that soft, cakey, rich texture reminiscent of some of the most popular bread puddings that I've tried.
Would I make it again? No, this is the last time I will make a bread pudding. I need to stop trying to do this again and again because I know I'll most likely never grow to like it. But I might just be saying that. Watch what happens the next time I have too much leftover bread...

Friday, December 28, 2012

Bouchon Bakery's Nutter Butters

My foodie dream day would be spent in Yountville, CA. I would have breakfast at Bouchon Bakery, dine at Ad Hoc for lunch, and the grand finale would be dinner at The French Laundry. There would be lots of horse carriage riding and wine tastings. This day will most likely never happen. Or it may happen eventually, but probably not til I'm old and decrepit and my grandchildren want to treat me to something fancy. Until then, I can only pout at home and attempt to recreate Thomas Keller's recipes.

I made Bouchon Bakery's Nutter Butters, which is a recipe that was featured in the New York Times. I only made 1/4 of the original recipe, which still yielded four ginormous cookie sandwiches. I only made a small batch since the original recipe calls for four (4!) sticks of butter, and I figured the fam bam didn't need that much fat in their diet. 

In a bowl, melt 1 stick of butter. Cream together with 1/6 cup of peanut butter. Add 1/2 cup of sugar and mix well.

Add 1/2 an egg and a dash of vanilla extract, then stir well. Add 1/2 cup flour, 1 tsp of baking soda, 1/2 tsp of baking powder, and mix well again.

Add a little over a cup of oats and stir to mix well once more.

Using an ice cream scoop, place balls of dough on a greased baking sheet. You do not need to flatten them because the dough will spread.

Bake in a preheated 350F oven for 10-15 minutes until lightly browned on the edges. Let cool.

In a separate bowl, make the filling by melting 2 Tbsp butter. Mix with 1/8 cup of peanut butter, then stir in 1/3 cup of powdered sugar. Cream together til smooth. Yes my spoon has Tigger on it. 

Spread the frosting on on the underside of one cookie and top with a second cookie. If you have trouble spreading the frosting, heat for a little bit in the microwave so that it's softer and more spreadable.

My sister ate one and loved it. My dad ate a second one and said that it was one of the best cookies he's ever had. I think this recipe is a winner. Btw, I'm super jealous of my mom's bake ware (look how pretty that casserole dish is!)

Would I make this again? Yes, this is a fantastic cookie, although definitely a special occasion type of deal. I'd probably make it again for my family in the future since they liked them so much.

Lemon Cheesecake Creme Brulee Bars

This is not what they were supposed to look like :(

I made a shortbread crust...

And made the filling...

Then baked, refrigerated til firm, and cut. The last step was to spread sugar on each piece and use a blowtorch for a caramelized sugar crust. Since I don't have a blowtorch (...who has a blowtorch?) I used the broiler setting on my oven.

Expectations (from the original recipe)

Reality :( At least they taste better than they look. I'm going to go cry myself to sleep now. And add a blowtorch to my Pinterest wishlist.

French Breakfast Puffs

Back when I was still in college at NU, there was a little brunch place across the street from my apartment called Fraiche which was pretty popular with the college folks. I went there relatively frequently with David on Saturday/Sunday mornings. Several months ago, the owner filed a lawsuit against a former baker who reportedly stole cookbooks with proprietary recipes. Supposedly, the books contained shop secrets, among which was a recipe for their signature "cinnamon bombs."

I've seen those cinnamon bombs on display quite often but they never stood out to me. They're just coffee cakes covered in cinnamon sugar really. But Time Out Chicago ranked it as one of the 100 Best Things We Ate and Drank in 2011. And since I'm all about hype, I was pretty curious. I stumbled across this recipe on The Pioneer Woman's food blog and the pictures look exactly like what I saw at Fraiche, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

I only made 1/3 of the original batch aka 4 muffins, since you'll see later that these are terribly unhealthy. Melt 2 Tbsp butter and cream together with 1/3 cup sugar, then add 1/2 an egg and 1/3 cup milk. Mix well.

Add 1 cup flour, 1 tsp baking powder, a dash of salt, and a dash of nutmeg. 

Mix well. This is what the batter should look like.

Fill greased muffin tins, then bake in a 350F preheated oven for 20-25 minutes until golden. 

Now this is the part that makes me wince. In a bowl, add 1/2 cup sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon. In a second bowl, melt an entire stick of butter. Now dip a muffin in the melted butter for 20-30 seconds to let it soak in for a bit, then coat with the cinnamon sugar mixture. I know! These are terrible! But I already committed and there was no backing down once I already started making them. 

Here they are. They tasted pretty good, like a donut-muffin hybrid, but not worth it for something that's rolled in butter. I only ate a bite and felt dirty afterwards. Now keep in mind this isn't the same recipe so Fraiche's may be infinitely better. But from what I can tell, Fraiche's muffins are just coffee cakes rolled in butter and cinnamon sugar. There's nothing original about the concept and even if it's a unique can't really switch this up very much. I'm not sure what the fuss is about.

Would I make this again? No, they were decent but not worth the calories

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Saffron Vanilla Biscuits

I visited SF a couple of months ago and visited Blue Bottle Coffee. My soy decaf mocha and Belgian waffle were both fantastic, and thus began a deep affection for Blue Bottle. One of the baked goods that I noted was their saffron vanilla snickerdoodles, which I eyed but resisted (can't have both a cookie AND a waffle, that's just too gluttonous). 

Later on, I stumbled on the snickerdoodle recipe, taken directly from the Blue Bottle Cookbook, and I knew that I had to give it a try. 

Whole Foods was having sale on spices so I bought a thing of saffron. It came in a huge bottle which initially surprised me, but then I realized they were just being stupid with the packaging, because inside the enormous bottle was this tiny pouch of saffron threads ಠ_ಠ

Unfortunately, I encountered a huge mishap in the recipe. I didn't realize that my parents' kitchen (I'm home for the holidays) isn't as well stocked as my apartment kitchen, probably because they don't bake as much as I do. It turns out that they didn't have either granulated sugar or brown sugar. I was already halfway into the recipe when I realized this, and the only sugar they had was powdered sugar so I just substituted that for both of the sugars that the recipe called for.

The cornstarch in the powdered sugar made the cookies more biscuit-like, and since powdered sugar is much less dense than regular sugar, it also came out only lightly sweetened. Thus, I dub these saffron vanilla biscuits and they tasted surprisingly decent. The texture was light and fluffy, and the saffron added a delicious aroma (I typically dislike saffron since it's hard to get it right). I definitely need to try these again in the future and follow the recipe to a T, or perhaps enhance it by rolling in vanilla sugar or adding white chocolate chips. That sounds divine.

Would I make these again? Yes, but I'll follow the recipe the second time around

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sugar Cookie Decorating

One of my friends gifted me with a batch of delicious Christmas wreath sugar cookies on my birthday, and they were so delicious that I just had to have the recipe. I've been dying to make them for the past week, but resisted until I got home so that I could do it with my sister.

Unfortunately, the nearby Whole Foods didn't have circle cookie cutters that we were looking for. All they had were some awkward tiny ones and these heart-shaped ones, so we decided on these. I guess we're celebrating Valentine's Day a tad early. 

The frosting was just powdered sugar with some chai tea, soymilk, and orange juice, mixed together until it's thick and glossy.

My sister was in charge of applying the frosting.

Meanwhile, I melted some white chocolate chips in the microwave (adding a touch of canola oil helps it melt smoothly) and piped it on for additional decorations.

They still look rather festive, even if they're not Christmas themed. 

Recipes: Dough is Ideal Sugar Cookies + zest of one orange + subbed strongly brewed black tea for brandy/milk
Frosting is powdered sugar, black tea, orange juice, and soy milk
Decorating icing is white chocolate chips (melted) + canola oil
Would I make this again? Definitely, although not for awhile since we made so many that I'm going to be sick of these for quite some time