basic macarons

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I have a long and storied relationship with macarons.  Not macaroons, mind you; not the soft, chewy, coconutty cookies of Passover-conscious Jewish grandmothers, but macarons – the finicky French meringue-ish confections that flash the proverbial finger if the kitchen’s humidity is fractions of a percentage point off.

ingredients, measured carefully (thanks, new digital scale)

This was my third time attempting these macarons.  Don’t ask me for a reasonable explanation; all I can offer is a pitiful cocktail of stubbornness, my new red KitchenAid, and the irresistible cuteness of these little buggers.  Plus, I am a huge, ridiculous sucker for anything with a filling or frosting.

a bit under-mixed, perhaps, but damn close. I'll get you next time, macaronage

If you prowl the interwebs enough, you’ll end up wading through thousands of macaron recipes from grapefruit to green tea to cayenne and chocolate; after failing in the art of macarons the first two times, I kept it simple and went with plain vanilla shells and made up for it with chocolate, dulce de leche, and cinnamon cream cheese fillings.

piped and waiting

The verdict?  Not a total failure.  In the words of one of my coworkers, who happens to be of a culinary ilk, “They’re actually pretty good.  Honestly, they’re probably as good as homemade macarons could be.  I don’t understand why you put yourself through that, though – just go to Chocolatine if you want macarons.”  In the words of a friend, “Oh my god.  Ohhh – oh my f***ing god.”

they - sort of - have feet!

I’m going to make these again.  I feel more comfortable with the technique now, especially since I have a real mixer now and can properly whip egg whites.  Next time, I think I’m going to replace the almonds with peanuts and fill with chocolate ganache – I’ve been on a chocolate peanut butter kick recently, and I’d like to get a little more creative with these.  Now I just need an excuse.

front to back: cinnamon cream chese, dulce de leche, dark chocolate ganache

Basic Macarons
adapted from Tartelette and Use Real Butter

The one adaptation I didn’t note below was that I sprinkled some coarse sea salt on about half of the shells (those intended for the chocolate and dulce de leche fillings) before the resting period.  In the future, I might wait until right before they go into the oven, but I think it was still a nice addition.

110g blanched almonds
200g powdered sugar
50 g sugar
3 egg whites (about 100 g), aged a day, room temperature
dulce de leche

Pulse almonds in a food processor until finely ground. Add the powdered sugar and pulse until well blended.

Whip the egg whites until foamy (like bubble bath foam) and gradually add the granulated sugar while whipping until a shiny meringue forms (but not too dry – think shaving cream).

Add the almond mixture to the meringue and give it a quick fold to break some of the air, then continue with more gentle strokes.  In total, the process should not take more than 50 strokes. Test a small amount on a plate: if the top flattens on its own, you’re set.  If there is a small peak, give the batter a couple of folds. You want to achieve a batter that flows and “ribbons” for at least 5 seconds.

Pour the batter into a piping bag fitted with a large plain piping tip [*Alli’s note: I used a Ziploc bag with the tip cut off] and pipe small rounds onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. The rounds should be about 1 ½ inches in diameter and at least an inch apart.  Let the macarons sit out for 30 minutes to an hour to harden their shells a bit [*Alli’s note: I left mine for an hour, just in case].

In the meantime, preheat the oven to 280F. When ready, bake for 15 to 20 minutes, depending on their size. Let cool.

To fill:  Pipe or spoon about 1 big tablespoon of filling in the center of one shell and top with another one.

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the best brownies

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Today is Thanksgiving – or, perhaps more appropriately, The Day No One Wants to Read About More Food.  Appropriately, I’ve chosen this day to provide a recipe for brownies that are far more moist, chocolatey, and delicious than anyone needs to hear about after glutting themselves at the annual American Ultra Feast.

So in the spirit of family, the holiday, and the glories of excess, I’ll cut to the chase.  I may have mentioned that I’ve been looking for a new brownie recipe; I’m happy to say that I’ve now found it.  I’m usually attracted to more complex recipes, but after seeing Jen’s photos of these brownies, I was drooling and sold.

mix in the dry ingredients - these babies have chocolate AND cocoa

They’re chewy and chocolatey, but firm enough to cut nicely.  The top crumbles a tiny bit when you slice them, which gives the brownies nice layers of texture: the bottom is firm, giving way to chewy, chocolate goo in the middle and a crackled upper crust.  They’ve also convinced me that I need a subscription to Fine Cooking.  In short, they’re spectacular.

try this batter, and you won't have any left for the brownies

As much as I love fall-spirited desserts, these may haunt my thoughts tonight and tomorrow as I attend my double-whammy Thanksgiving celebrations – although they would certainly do so with greater persistence if I weren’t bringing candied pecans, chocolate dulce de leche bars, and a dark chocolate tart.  Just wait, friends.

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

Chewy Brownies
Adapted from Fine Cooking issue #34 (September 1999) – I found it through Jen

I have a confession to make.  I didn’t read the recipe thoroughly enough, which meant that I failed to notice that it called for unsweetened as opposed to semisweet chocolate.  To remedy this, I reduced the sugar and got fine results, but I would still recommend going the unsweetened route.  If you’re feeling adventurous or are just stuck like I was, I’m adding my additional changes for semisweet chocolate in brackets.  When I made this, I also tripled it with no problems – as written, it’s tripled; if you want a normal-sized batch, divide by three and use an 8-inch square pan.

12 oz. unsalted butter, plus a little to grease the pan [*Alli’s note: I did fine with cooking spray for the pan]
12 oz. unsweetened chocolate [semisweet]
4.5 cups sugar [3.5 cups sugar]
1 tsp salt
6 tsps vanilla extract
6 large eggs, at room temperature
13.5 oz (3 cup) flour
8 tbsps cocoa powder

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease or butter two 13×9 inch baking pans. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, then grease or butter the parchment.

Melt the butter and chocolate in a double boiler over simmering water; alternately, heat gently in the microwave for 30 seconds, then at 15-second intervals, stirring after each heating.  Err on the side of caution – when the chocolate barely holds its shape, keep stirring, and it will probably melt on its own. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

Stir in the sugar, salt, and vanilla. Beat the eggs in one at a time until blended. Add flour and cocoa and beat until the batter is just smooth.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake on the center rack in oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean (a few moist crumbs are okay, but no drippy batter). This should take about 35 to 45 minutes. [*Alli’s note: I think I got paranoid about gooey, un-sliceable brownies and went a little long on these.  I wouldn’t go above 45 minutes.]  Set on a rack until cool enough to handle.

Loosen edges with a knife and invert the brownie onto a plate or platter (even a paper towel words]. Peel the parchment off the bottom, flip the brownies right-side-up and let cool completely.  Cut with a sharp knife.  [*Alli’s note: These will be easier to cut if chilled; I’ll do that next time.]

red velvet cake

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I like pretty things.  I also like cream cheese and sugar and butter, which makes it a little odd that until a week or so ago, I’d never tried red velvet cake.

add the dry ingredients

and the sour cream, which is what happens when I forget to buy buttermilk

I know.  Everyone’s tried red velvet cake!  But I’m a Jewish girl from the suburbs, and we have no ties in the South, so I didn’t discover the jewel-toned cake until I happened upon the treasure trove of food porn that is Tastespotting.  Suddenly, not only did I have hundreds – if not thousands – of photos and recipes for red velvet cake at my fingertips, but I also had the opinions of every single baker as to exactly what red velvet cake should be.

so, it's pretty red

Seriously, guys, this cake looks innocent enough, but it may be the most controversial recipe I’ve ever encountered.  Pecans or no pecans?  Buttercream or cream cheese frosting?  How much cocoa?  I share my apartment with a Southern girl.  If I messed this up, would she refuse to eat it?

little mini loaf pans, all in a row

I’m going to come right out and say that screw it, I messed with this recipe plenty, and it’s probably entirely unorthodox.  But it was deemed “the best red velvet cake I’ve ever had” by more than one person at work, so I’m just going to consider this a new era in food-colored cakery.  I’ll put it in quotes if you want.  And if I haven’t convinced you, it has cream cheese frosting; if that doesn’t do it for you, I don’t think we can be friends.

try this on an oatmeal cookie

Just bake it how you want it, guys.  I promise it’ll be good.

 

Really Unorthodox Red Velvet Cake

Adapted from Peabody, whose husband would probably be very upset by this cake.

2 eggs

1 cup brown sugar, packed

1/2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

1 tsp white vinegar

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking soda

3 tbsp cocoa powder

1 cup sour cream

1 tsp vanilla

5/8 ounce bottle red food coloring

Preheat the oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Cream the eggs, sugar, oil, and vinegar.

Sift the cake flour, baking soda, and cocoa together. Gradually at first, beat the flour mixture into the creamed ingredients.  Be careful not to overbeat.

Slowly add the sour cream. While still beating, add the vanilla and the food coloring.  [*Alli’s note: Do this SLOWLY!  Or else risk irreversible damage to your clothing!]

Pour into three 8-inch layer pans; bake for about 25 minutes. Press lightly; if the layers are spongy, then the cake is done. Frost the cooled layers, assemble, and frost the top and sides.

Alli’s note: This made five mini loaf pans’ worth, baked for an extra ten minutes or so.  Also, in a fit of things-sticking-to-cooking-dishes paranoia, I greased the pans.  You’ll notice it does not say to grease the pans in the recipe.  These need some traction on the sides to form a nice dome shape; if you’re really worried, put some greased parchment on the bottom of the pans.

Serves 12 to 14.

 

Cream Cheese Frosting

1(8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter
1 (1 pound) box confectioners sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Melt the cream cheese and butter together over very low heat.  Transfer to a mixing bowl.  Beat in the sugar vanilla and mix well. If the frosting becomes too thick, add a little milk.

Frosts one 8- or 9-inch layer cake.

 

 

buckeyes

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So, sometime in the relatively recent past I made chocolate peanut butter surprise cookies, affectionately nicknamed “orgasm balls” by a few of my favorite and most amusingly candid people.  Frankly, I can’t argue.

they're good even without the chocolate

But I’m an overachiever, and I don’t seem to have a reasonable quota for foods that combine chocolate and peanut butter, and then Deb posted these, and damned if I wasn’t sold again.  That woman will either be my inspiration to culinary fame or the death of me (and all of my friends, who are convinced they will have taken their last buttery breaths by 35 and will be lying heavily in their 400-pound graves).

dipped

These won’t do that to you, though.  Not according to my boss, at least – who, when he brought a hefty corner of a dense, warm, and heavily-chocolated cookie to my desk the other day, insisted that it had no calories because it was “just a piece.”  There’s your solution, folks!  Break these babies in half (and they’re already small; aren’t you virtuous?) and share with a friend.  Bathing suit shopping will be a breeze.

Speaking of my boss(es), I have them to thank for the newest, handiest, and cheeriest addition to the family over here.  As I was plowing through a foot-high stack of copying today, they called me into one of their offices.  “It’ll just take a second,” they said.  “Let me finish this document,”  I said.  I walked in.  They gestured toward a corner of the room.  “Could you take this up front for us?” they said.  “Where do you want me to put it?” I said.  I failed to register that they were referring to a box containing a shiny red KitchenAid stand mixer.  They stopped and grinned.  “You could just put it your car,” they said.  And then my butt was on the couch, because my knees couldn’t believe that they had just bought me a KitchenAid.

aren't I beautiful?

So here it is, red and cheery and adorable.  I think it needs a name.  Also, make these buckeyes.

 

Buckeyes

Adapted from here

Yield: 36 to 42 tablespoon-sized candies

1/4 cup (2 ounces) cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups peanut butter
1 cup graham cracker crumbs (from about 14 graham crackers)
Pinch salt
3 cups confectioners’ (powdered) sugar
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks or 5 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
12 ounces dark chocolate (60 to 72%), coarsely chopped

Make the filling: In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and peanut butter together until combined. Add the graham cracker crumbs and beat for 10 seconds. Add the sugar and butter, and mix on the lowest speed until it starts coming together, then increase the speed until the ingredients are combined. Scrape down the whole bowl well, then mix again. The mixture will be sturdy and a little dry. Set it aside while you prepare the coating.

Make the coating: Melt the chocolate either over a double boiler, stirring until it is completely smooth or in a microwave in 30- then 10-second increments, stirring before you zap it again until it is completely smooth. Let it cool to tepid while you shape the peanut butter centers.

Assemble: Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Scoop out slightly more than one tablespoon’s worth of filling and form it into a ball. Place the ball on the prepared sheet and repeat the process until all of the candies have been shaped – just make sure they’re not touching on the sheet.

Using a fork or skewer, dip each ball into the chocolate and roll it about so that almost the entire candy is covered, leaving a small circle uncoated. Chill the buckeyes until they are set, about 30 minutes.

 

shiny new things

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Far be it from me to suggest that any of you might get tired of baked goods, or looking at pictures of them.  But, on the off chance that that’s the case, I cordially invite you to visit my shiny new art blog, the painted life.  Right now I’m working on posting my current portfolio, and I’ll be updating regularly with new works.  Contact info for pricing and commissions is also there.

So please enjoy!  And accept my apologies for the absence of food porn in this post.  In its stead, I hope a few pictures of the magnificent skies we’ve been having will at least partially suffice.  Expect peanut butter and chocolate soon…

the view out the door of my office

walking to my car after work. this might be the apocalypse

Love,

Alli

apple pie

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If you frown upon the consumption of raw pie dough (no eggs, don’t worry), close this page now.

Frankly, I'd be okay with just the sugared lattice, but I guess people like fillings in their pies. Go figure.

Honestly, I didn’t even know I was a fan.  My sister used to nibble on  it when she would make pies years ago, but I always thought it was kind of gross.  Butter and flour, with a pinch of salt and sugar mixed in?  Sorry, I’ll wait for the cookie dough.  I didn’t even know I could make a pie crust with any competence until last week, when I, well, did.  And then ate half of it.  Sigh.

The uneaten sections of dough went into a pretty successful apple pie.  A lot of people seem to be intimidated by pie, and while I shared the feeling for the bulk of my baking “career,” it’s nowhere near as difficult as it seems.  Apple is one of the easiest kinds – if you can peel and slice, you’re good to go.  And, may I say, there’s little as delicious as apples tossed with a bit of sugar, flour (stay with me), cinnamon, salt,  lemon juice, and water.

As for the crust, take it from a former doubter: there’s nothing to fear here.  The most common mistake is over-processing; just remember that the little clumps of butter and/or shortening are what will make your crust flaky and tender.  The dough won’t be uniform until you press it all into a disc to chill.  That’s another thing: Be stingy with the water you add, and make sure it’s ice-cold.  Only add enough to make the dough stick to itself when you press a few bits together.

One last note:  You can certainly use a food processor to make this, but honestly, I prefer to just do it by hand – a knife or two will work just fine.  It gives you more control, and more importantly, it’s less to clean.  Cleaning a food processor sucks.

I hope that didn’t sound too arduous or complex!  I promise pie dough is much easier than you think.  Next time I’ll get pictures of the dough in its various stages.  I’ve included the recipe for the dough and filling, with my changes.  Just give it a shot!  It’s got butter and sugar – there’s no way you can go wrong.

this could be yours.

 

American Pie Dough for Lattice-Top Pie (Non-Lattice Directions in Parentheses)

Adapted from – where else – Smitten Kitchen

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (2 1/2 cups, non-lattice)

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar

7 tablespoons all-vegetable shortening, chilled (8 tablespoons, non-lattice)

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled, cut into 1/4-inch pieces (12 tablespoons, non-lattice)

10 tablespoons ice water (6 to 8 tablespoons, non-lattice)

1. Pulse flour, salt and sugar in a food processor fitted with steel bald until combined. Add shortening and process until mixture has texture of coarse sand, about 10 seconds. Scatter butter pieces over flour mixture; cut butter into flour until mixture is pale yellow and resembles coarse crumbs, with butter bits no larger than small peas, about ten 1-second pulses.  Turn mixture into medium bowl.  Alternately, in a medium bowl, scatter butter and shortening pieces over flour, salt, and sugar.  With two knives (I was fine with one), cut butter and shortening into flour mixture until mixture has the texture of coarse sand.

2. Sprinkle 8 tablespoons ice water over mixture. With blade of rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix. Press down on dough with broad side of spatula until dough sticks together, adding up to 2 tablespoons more ice water if it will not come together. Divide dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. (If possible, weigh pieces. They should register 16 ounces and 14 ounces.) Flatten larger piece into a rough 5-inch square and smaller piece into a 4-inch disk; (If for a non-lattice, double crust pie, these pieces should be even in weight and both round) wrap separately in plastic and refrigerator at least 1 hour or up to 2 days before rolling.

[Alli’s note: See instructions for lattice construction here.]

 

Apple Pie

1 1/2 pounds Granny Smith apples (about 3 medium)

2 pounds McIntosh apples (about 4 large)

[Alli’s note: I used all Fuji, with great results]

1 tablespoon juice

3/4 cups (5.25 ounces) plus 1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice [Alli’s note: I used only cinnamon, purely out of laziness]

1 egg white, beaten lightly

1. Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat rimmed baking sheet and oven to 500°F. Remove one piece of dough from refrigerator (if refrigerated longer than 1 hour, let stand at room temperature until malleable).

2. Roll dough on lightly floured work surface or between two large sheets of plastic wrap to 12-inch disk. Transfer dough to pie plate by rolling dough around rolling pin and unrolling over 9 1/2-inch pie plate or by folding dough in quarters, then placing dough point in center of pie plate and unfolding. Working around circumference of pie plate, ease dough into pan corners by gently lifting dough edges with one hand while pressing around pan bottom with other hand. Leave dough that overhangs lip of plate in place; refrigerate dough-lined pie plate.

3. Peel, core and cut apples in half, and in half again width-wise; cut quarters into 1/4-inch slices and toss with lemon juice. In a medium bowl, mix 3/4 cup sugar, flour, salt and spices. Toss dry ingredients with apples. Turn fruit mixture, including juices, into chilled pie shell and mound slightly in center.

4. Roll out second piece of dough to 12-inch disk and place over filling. Trim top and bottom edges to 1/2-inch beyond pan lip. Tuck this rim of dough underneath itself so that folded edge is flush with pan lip. Flute edging or press with fork tines to seal. Cut four slits on dough top. If pie dough is very soft, place in freezer for 10 minutes. Brush egg white onto top of crust and sprinkle evenly with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.

5. Place pie on baking sheet and lower oven temperature to 425°F. Bake until top crust is golden, about 25 minutes. Rotate pie and reduce oven temperature to 375°F; continue baking until juices bubble and crust is deep golden brown, 30-35 minutes longer.

6. Transfer pie to wire rack; cool to room temperature, at least 4 hours.

 

arrrrrr

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To be honest, I haven’t produced a painting that I really LOVE in a while.  The last was probably this, of my friend Alyssa:

full sheet (22x30), May 2010

There are things I don’t like about it, to be sure – the background, for example, even though there’s only a little corner of it.  The figure looks like a cutout against it; it looks almost like an afterthought.  I prefer when all of the sections of the painting melt into each other.

I think I like this one, though.  Too often, I get more excited about the figure than I should, and I ignore the rest of the work until the paint has dried and  it’s too late to achieve that unification.  Even though I couldn’t wait to paint Emily and Isaac (my sister and her pet conure), I forced myself to lay the background wash in first.  I could have done a better job, but I’m still okay with how it came out.  Here’s the full version:

(roughly) half sheet (11x15), November 2010

And here’s the original photo, taken Halloween of 2009.

The one thing I’m really not satisfied with in the painting is the shirt, but that’s because I’m afraid of drapery and I wasn’t careful enough with it.  It still reads as clothing, though, and that’s the important part.  I still prefer it cropped, though.  I’d probably crop it to something like this:

I think I captured her trademark Emily smirk pretty well, though, and that was the most important part.  And the light on the left side of her face – I love that.  It’s weird how often the best parts of a watercolor are the sections you leave unpainted.  I’m okay with it.

Side note: I’m thinking of selling some of my paintings.  Thoughts?

 

All images copyright Allison Wachtel 2010.