Friday, April 27, 2012

Mastering Macarons

It's funny how sometimes the things that should be easiest in life are always the hardest. Take the humble macaron; although often having only three measly ingredients, these persnickety cookies have been confounding chefs for centuries. Simply one too many mixes of the batter, or uncooperative humidity in your kitchen and your cute, round cookies will turn into dry, flat wafers.

The first time a friend and I made macarons they came out perfectly.  I mean perfect. I was buoyed by our success and didn't see what all the fuss was about. I was cocky. So, a couple of months later when I planned to make macarons for a cherry blossom-themed dinner party, I didn't think twice. Big mistake. The curse of the macaron reared it's ugly head and, while still delicious, mine came out flat and chewy.

So before attempting my next batch of macarons, I decided it was time to get some help from the professionals. Enrolling in a "Mastering Macarons" class at my local Sur La Table, our class spent an instructive three hours with chef Monya Maynard learning the secrets of "macaronnage" and "macaronner." Which is French for, "how you mix the dry stuff" and "how you mix the wet stuff." What was most helpful about this class was actually getting to SEE what the macarons should look like at each stage. Often, I think we are too preoccupied with the recipe, and don't see what's really happening (Deep, I know).

For example, standard wisdom calls for mixing the macaron batter exactly 25 times. No more, no less. Clearly this is unrealistic, and Chef Maynard showed us exactly what the batter should look like (drizzle a little bit off the back of a spoon and it should disappear into the rest of the batter within 10 seconds) regardless of how many times you stirred it to get to that point.

Similarly, most recipes will tell you to allow the macaron cookies to rest 30 minutes before baking. But, as we learned in class, this amount of time will vary based on the temperature and humidity in your kitchen. Essentially, the top of the cookie needs to dry in order to form the telltale macaron "foot", which could take up to an hour. Because of the conditions in our kitchen classroom, we even had trouble getting our chocolate macarons to set. Instead of setting our macarons by the clock, we learned to look for a matte finish to tell that they were no longer sticky.

In addition to all of these helpful tips, we also got a copy of what I consider to be macaron gold...Behold: The Template. By slipping a copy of this sheet under parchment paper, you get perfectly sized macarons every time!! While you could make one of these on your own with a pencil, some quarters, and a hell of a lot of patience, I'll let you in on a little can get your very own template here from honeyandsoy. You're welcome.

When it comes down to the simple things in life, I guess you just need to know what to look for. And a good template.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Homemade Blackberry Pop-Tarts

Let me start by saying that if you're looking for a healthier alternative to store-bought Pop-Tarts, these are not the breakfast pastries you seek. While they don't have any preservatives or fake sugars, they do have butter...lots of butter. If you are, however, looking for a toaster pastry that is infinitely tastier and more rewarding, then look no further. 

I really have no excuse for buying a toaster pastry press...which I guess is a fancy way to say "square cookie cutter" because that's really all this is.  I bought this while Williams Sonoma was having a sale, so I figured $6.95 wasn't too much of a splurge if it meant finally having a go at recreating one of my favorite breakfast treats (can I get a shout out for Brown Sugar Cinnamon?).

You could absolutely make these with any square cutter that you have, or even just a knife and a lot of patience. Where the press did come in handy however, was helping to seal down the edges of the pastry more than you could have with finger or fork crimping alone. But, as I've mentioned before, I'm realizing that with hand pies, leaks are simply a way of life if you want to have a decent amount of filling in your pastry. And, not to be out done by the Apple Butter Hand Pies, these toaster pastries were no different, so be sure to line your baking sheet with foil or parchment for easy clean up.

A couple of notes: As for filling, frosting and decorations, you're limited only by your imagination. I went with a simple blackberry jam because it's my favorite, and a confectioners'-sugar-and-milk frosting because it was quick and easy, but the possibilities are endless.

Homemade Pop-Tarts
     from Williams Sonoma, makes 8
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 sticks cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" dice
6-8 Tablespoons ice water

1/2 cup fruit preserves or jam

1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon water

1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 Tablespoons milk

1. In a food processor, pulse together the flour, salt and sugar until combined, about 5 pulses. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 10 pulses.

2. Add 6 Tablespoons of the ice water and pulse 2-3 times. The dough should stick together when squeezed with your fingers but should not be sticky. If it is crumbly, add more water 1 teaspoon at a time, pulsing twice after each addition.

3. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, divide in half and shape each half into a disk. Wrap the disks separately in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.

4. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll out 1 dough disk into a rectangle 1/8" thick. (If using a toaster pastry press) use the outer ring of the mold to cut shapes out of the dough. Spread 1 Tablespoon of preserves onto each of 4 pieces of dough, leaving a 1/2" border. Brush the edges with the egg mixture.

5. Top each with a plain piece of dough and (if using) replace the inner ring of the mold inside the outer ring, place the mold on top of the pastry, and press the inner ring down to seal the edges. Transfer the pastries to a prepared baking sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough disk and preserves.

6. Preheat the over to 350 degrees. Bake the pastries until golden, about 25 minutes, reversing the positions of the baking sheets halfway through. Let pastries cool on the sheets for 10 minutes before moving to a wire rack to cool completely.

7. For the icing: in a bowl, stir together the confectioners' sugar and milk. Frost and decorate as desired.