Zhumping on zee — ow you say? — “bandwagon”

Let me just say up front that the irony of this post on the heels of my last post is not lost on me.

Last post: lamenting my inability to lose weight. This post: espousing on the agony and ecstacy that is the macaron. A cookie — and so much more.

I was largely uninitiated in the macaron mystique until my niece became a macaronaholic before Christmas, making dozens and dozens and dozens and DOZENS in an attempt to achieve perfection. Based on the ones she shared with us at Christmas — a glorious assortment of lemon, lime, cherry, and vanilla, each a picture-perfect wonder — she achieved it.

Before that, I had read a bit about the surge in popularity of these pretty little sandwich cookies, but I didn’t understand. I was confusing them with macaroons — those dense, chewy, coconut cookies. Macarons (a French creation) are completely different. Not coconut — almondy, meringuey, chewy — yet light. Yet luscious, usually filled with something wonderful like buttercream frosting. Hard to describe. Easy to love. Gluten-free, so there’s that too.

Also, a little hard to Google, because if you try to search for “French macarons,” Google helpfully switches it to “French macaroons” — at least until it learns better.

Anyway, once I knew about my niece’s obsession, I started doing a little research online and found that macarons have been all the rage for quite some time. Bloggers galore have posted about their attempts, and pastry chefs everywhere have shared their tricks. Me, I just fell in love with the taste and have been wanting to try my hand, despite reading how difficult they are and how any of a dozen little foibles (too much humidity, over-mixing, under-mixing, mixing too fast, mixing too slow, cold eggs, warm eggs, old eggs, new eggs, on and on) can thwart even experienced bakers.

Clearly this macaron obsession is a powerful thing.

For my first attempt, I relied on the method and tips at BraveTart.com — truly a great resource. Howevah, and it’s a big howevah, I wasn’t ready to buy all the tools recommended…e.g, a food scale ($25 on Amazon) to weigh the ingredents rather than relying on the amateur’s way (measuring cups), or a pastry bag and tips for piping out the cookie batter (reverently called “the macaronage”). So, I improvised.

I’m not sure why we have this postal scale that used to be at Mike’s office, but we do. So I used it. I have no idea if it’s accurate, but I figured if I used it to weigh out all the ingredients, at least proportionally everything would be in sync with the recipe.

Also, a pastry bag and tips is not a big investment, but again, I already had this.

Almond flour is a key ingredient, and while I’ve  tried twice now to buy ready-made (Bob’s Red Mill), Wal-Mart has been totally out for well over a week (way to manage inventory, world’s largest retailer). So I made my own by grinding almonds in my food processor — a totally normal thing that many bakers do. Blanched almonds (without any of the brown skin) yield the prettiest result, but blanched, slivered almonds cost a little more than the unblanched, sliced, so I opted for the sliced.

Also, all the recipes call for using a stand mixer with a whip attachment to beat the egg whites into meringue. I just have regular beaters on my mixer, and while I’ve made meringue with no problem, I opted to use my immersion (hand) blender that has a whip instead. It took virtually the same amount of time the recipe called for (like 9 minutes of beating — quite a lot), so I don’t think that was an issue.

Mixing the almond flour-powdered sugar mixture with the meringue to create the macaronage is a crucial step. I think I did OK — at least I think it approximated the description in BraveTart’s recipe. Loading this into my handy Pampered Chef decorator was a bitch — I’ll be springing for a pastry bag. And while it wasn’t easy to pipe out the little rounds of batter, I was happy the batter seemed to be the right consistency and spread and flatten as it was supposed to.

After following BraveTart’s suggestions for whacking the cookie trays on the counter a few times to get any air bubbles out, I was hopeful when I finally got them in the oven. My oven can be set to convection or regular — I chose regular after reading that the fan on the convection can cause the macarons to crack.

I thought I saw the start of “feet” — key to a great macaron. Feet is the name given to a thin layer of airy, sponge-looking cookie that the smooth top rests on. (See the beautiful feet on BraveTart’s photos).

But, alas, feet were not forthcoming.

That thin, airy layer you can see on a few of them should be at least double that size. No cracked ones on this tray, at least. The other tray, below it in the oven, didn’t fare so well. Clearly a product of some oven discrepancy — I’ll have to experiment with that on future batches. I tried the convection setting on the second batch of trays, but cracking was more of a problem. BraveTart recommends adjusting the oven racks to avoid them getting blown on by the fan, so maybe I’ll try that, too. The idea of a convection oven is supposed to be super-even baking, so it seems like it should be ideal for macarons. But so far, not so much.

Also, I experimented with using my silicone baking sheet liners on the first batch and parchment paper on the second. Parchment worked better with less sticking.

In the end, my first-ever macarons turned out flatter than they should have been, and many had cracks. Many were hollow underneath — which I think means they were underbaked. I didn’t achieve perfect, same-size circles — some were downright oval. They were a little tan on top, instead of soft, creamy ecru all over. They had flecks from the almond skin.

So, by now you might be thinking I threw the whole, pitiful batch away.

But here’s the beauty part: Macarons are scrumptious even without feet. Even with cracks and speckles and a suntan. Even without perfectly matched tops and bottoms.

Even more beauty: They get better over time! Store them in the fridge (for up to a week) and they’ll mature into even greater lusciousness.

I soldiered on.

Instead of the classic buttercream filling usually called for, I used a different chocolate frosting recipe from the can of cocoa — one that didn’t require a mixer. Seriously, considering the state of my kitchen, and that I’d been at this for almost two hours and it was now dinnertime, I wasn’t willing to dirty another appliance. (And this shot was after I put the food processor away.)

Soooo, after all that, with my first macaron effort — and a few of the tasty results — happily under my belt, I’m still hooked. I’ll try again, tweak a few things, and strive for prettier, more classic cookies. I’ll try other flavors and colors. I’ll go for the real buttercream and experiment with some other fillings, too. But I’m sure not complaining…except maybe about those 5 lbs. I can’t seem to lose.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
~ Samuel Beckett 

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What’s your favorite Christmas cookie?

I seem to be the designated cookie baker in the family. Not by election, just by default — I’m usually the only one who makes them, and now it’s sort of expected.

For the past several years, I’ve made 7 or 8 different kinds — old favorites and some new ones that I particularly like or that sound good. Here’s what last year’s cookie tray looked like — I have a lot of baking left to do this year.

I’m curious: What’s your favorite kind of Christmas cookie? Leave a comment and let me know. If it’s on the unusual side (e.g., not thumbprints or gingerbread or spritz cookies or something most people would know right off), describe it please. If you have a recipe, so much the better. (Or if you have a recipe for an old favorite that you swear is the best ever, I’d love that too.)

I always try to make at least one thing different every year, and it helps to know what’s really worth the effort out of the million recipes you can find online. And who better to ask than experts like you?

A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.
~ Some clever soul

A guiltless CCC? Practically.

Kudos to Prevention magazine (March 2009) for this gem of a recipe.

Last night, after feasting on mac & cheese from a box (Mike was away; I was splurging), I was scrounging through the plastic bin that holds my chocolate for baking (as you know, one doesn’t typically do this unless one is up to no good, and ironically, the Tupperware bin was intended for holding celery and other produce) and found a half-full bag of chocolate chips. (Notice I said half full? That takes some effort when you’re talking about chocolate chips.) I was ready to stop there and nestle (Nestlé?) on the couch to watch THE VERY LAST “VERY SPECIAL” ER EVER, when I remembered seeing a recipe for “healthy” chocolate chip cookies in a Prevention magazine I had lying around.

Big appeal: No mixer needed. No butter needed. Less than ½ bag of chips needed (meaning I could just eat what was left) — no big mess or big deal. I had all the ingredients, and I had a half-hour before THE VERY LAST “VERY SPECIAL” ER EVER, so I plunged in.

It was well worth it, though I was skeptical, especially in the last step before chilling the dough when I couldn’t get the chocolate chips to actually blend into the very stiff dough. They sort of clattered around the bowl and collected at the bottom. But I kept on (what else do you do at that point?). As I was forming the chilled dough on the cookie sheet later, I just poked the unmixed chips in — kind of like planting morning glory seeds. (The dough itself was delicious, so if you didn’t actually feel like baking the cookies at that point, you’d be OK too. Don’t say I said to do that though — uncooked egg whites and all.)

I used a bit less of each kind of sugar called for. And wasn’t paying attention and used quick oats instead of old-fashioned. But the results were still great. Don’t be put off it only makes 16 cookies — these are big! Like mall cookies (which they were created to emulate in healthier form).

Try them this weekend and let me know if you like them. We sure do.

da-cookiesjpg

Chunky Chocolate Chip Cookies

Work Time: 15 minutes   ::    Total Time: 45 Minutes   ::    Servings: 16

  • 1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1-1/4 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips or chunks (4 oz)
  1. Combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk together oil, granulated sugar and brown sugar in a large bowl. Whisk in egg whites and vanilla until smooth. Stir in dry ingredients until blended. Fold in oats and then chocolate.
  2. Cover and chill dough at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, heat oven to 375 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
  3. Shape dough into 16 balls (scant 1/4-cup each) with hands, using a little pressure. Place 8 balls on each prepared sheet. With fingers, press each into a patty about 3″ in diameter, allowing about 2″ between patties for spreading.
  4. Bake 7 to 10 minutes or until desired brownness (do not overbake), switching position of sheets halfway through. Let cool a few minutes before moving to rack to cool completely.

Nutritional info per cookie (4″ diameter): 218 cal, 3 g pro, 32 g carb, 2 g fiber, 10 g fat, 2 g sat fat, 0 mg chol, 162 mg sodium.

16% fewer calories, 50% more fiber, 67% less sat fat than a 2-ounce mall cookie

I am still convinced that a good, simple,
homemade cookie is preferable to all the
store-bought cookies one can find.
~ James Beard

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