Every woman needs an obsession: and I am obsessed with culinary obsession.
Every other week, it seems, I get some gastronomic bee in my bonnet, and I just don’t feel at peace until I’ve cooked it. First it was making homemade Jaffa cakes, then fig chutney, then handmade marshmallows. Once the idea has occurred to me, I’ll constantly think about a recipe, and when, how and with who I’ll whip up these little gustatory delights. Yet as soon as I’ve made a big mess in the kitchen and have something edible to show for my efforts, I move onto the next obsession. I’m like some donkey providing my own interminable carrot so that I am never left with the sense of having nothing left to cook.
Each obsession reflects a different side to my character, or rather, reminds me of the kind of person I would like to be: an effortless urban hostess who can cook dinner for twenty; a country bumpkin surrounded by homemade preserves; a countess who eats nothing but sweets. But I am none of these things – just a girl from East London who likes to cook. It feels as though I am more obsessed with needing an obsession, rather than with the food itself.
Macrons changed me.
Whereas making ketchup til one in the morning soon lost its appeal; I return to macaron again and again.
Not to be confused with its bastardised English cousin, the macaroOn, le macaron is a delicate French patisserie, that balances on the edge of being a biscuit and a taste of heaven. Whereas macaroons are flat and pumped up on coconut, macaron are a breath of almond indulgence. Essentially a meringue with almonds stirred through, these petit fours have been the bane of many a Michelin chef. Macaron are like a tempestuous lover who consistently evades your understanding, yet always has you going back for more.
There are contrasting theories whether the secret is in keeping the oven door ajar with a wooden spoon, only folding in the almonds with fifty strokes, or if it’s the thickness of your baking sheets that make a difference to achieving the perfect macaron. Needless to say, I have created enough flat macaron to write a book and yet still not understand why.
If I were to pick one of the many pretensions that macaron-lovers purr over, I think the age of the egg is the crucial factor. Recipes all recommend aging your egg whites for at least 24 hours before you use them. Now don’t get your health and safety knickers in a twist – it’s perfectly safe and you can leave them in the fridge or on the counter top. Airing allows some of the water in the whites to evaporate and strengthens the proteins to form a more stable molecular structure within the macaron. This is crucial for the distinctive ‘feet’ that makes the crisp dome of a macaron stand up with a soft base of almond underneath.
The architectural feat you want to achieve, is a fine crusted dome with an airy (but not air pocketed) distribution of almond lightness beneath. It should make you shiver when you eat it, and imagine small French nobles running around at your feet.
I have tried countless recipes with varying quantities of eggs and complicated instructions on how to fold. David Lebovitz’s macaron from The Sweet Life in Paris have consistently given me the best results. Measure accurately – it makes a difference!
Makes about fifteen…
100g powdered sugar
50g ground almonds
25g unsweetened cocoa powder
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
65g granulated sugar
125 ml heavy cream
120g bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
15g butter, cut into small pieces Prune Filling
15 medium prunes [pitted], about 5 ounces [150 g] prunes
70g best-quality milk chocolate, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Armagnac
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F [180 degrees C].
1. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and have a pastry bag with a plain tip [about 1/2-inch, 2 cm] ready.
2. Grind together the powdered sugar with the almond powder and cocoa so there are no lumps; use a blender or food processor since almond meal that you buy isn’t quite fine enough.
3. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they begin to rise and hold their shape. Whilst whipping, beat in the granulated sugar until very stiff and firm, about 2 minutes.
4. Carefully fold the dry ingredients, in two batches, into the beaten egg whites with a flexible rubber spatula. When the mixture is just smooth and there are no streaks of egg white, stop folding and scrape the batter into the pastry bag [standing the bag in a tall glass helps if you’re alone].
5. Pipe the batter on the parchment-lined baking sheets in 1-inch [3 cm] circles [about 1 tablespoon each of batter], evenly spaced one-inch [3 cm] apart.
6. Rap the baking sheet a few times firmly on the counter top to flatten the macarons, then bake them for 15-18 minutes. Let cool completely then remove from baking sheet.
You can just fill these little fancies with the chocolate ganache and they will be fantastic. Or you can really push the boat out and add a layer of prune filling too.
For the Chocolate Filling…
Heat the cream in a small saucepan. When the cream just begins to boil at the edges, remove from heat and add the chopped chocolate. Let sit one minute, then stir until smooth. Stir in the pieces of butter. Let cool completely before using.
For the Prune filling…
Cut the prunes into quarters and pour boiling water over them. Cover and let stand until the prunes are soft. Drain. Squeeze most of the excess water from prunes and pass through a food mill or food processor.
Melt the milk chocolate and the Armagnac in a double boiler or microwave, stirring until smooth. Stir into the prune puree. Cool completely to room temperature [it will thicken when cool.]
Images courtesy of David Lebowitz
I shall end with what can only be classed as ‘hard core’ food porn: feast your eyes on these, but be prepared for yours to look a little different!
If you’re still reading – you’ve got the obsession. See Veronica’s Macaron Chronicles for a woman who has even more time on her hands than me: a faultless exploration of what makes macaron tick. Read the fifteen page e-gullet thread where you can find macaron friends, or Tartlette’s list of macaron innovations to keep you busy.
Author: Rohini Wahi
Rohini is a London based freelance journalist and trend forecaster for the design industries. She has worked for Elle Decoration, Living Etc, Houzz and Design Sponge amongst others.
She loves a period drama and keeps a tidy home. Launched in 2007 The Beat That My Heart Skipped focuses on home inspirations, design trends, lifestyle and food – coupled with an insight into Rohini’s work and home life – from key picks at trade shows to styled weekend soirees. To contact Rohini for queries, work for hire or just to say hi drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org