Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Oct 27: Daring Bakers Macarons or is it Macaroons?

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

In the United States, the term “macaroon” generally refers to a cookie made primarily of coconut. But European macaroons are based on either ground almonds or almond paste, combined with sugar and egg whites. The texture can run from chewy, crunchy or a combination of the two. Frequently, two macaroons are sandwiched together with ganache, buttercream or jam, which can cause the cookies to become more chewy. The flavor possibilities and combinations are nigh endless, allowing infinitely customizable permutations.

French macaroons are notorious for being difficult to master. Type in “macaroon,” “French macaroon” or “macaron” in your search engine of choice, and you will be inundated not only with bakeries offering these tasty little cookies, but scores and even hundreds of blogs all attempting to find the perfect recipe, the perfect technique. Which one is right? Which captures the perfect essence of macaroons? The answer is all of them and none of them. Macaroons are highly subjective, the subject of passionate, almost Talmudic study and debate. Chewy? Crisp? Age your egg whites? Ground the nuts or use nut meal or nut flour? Cooked sugar syrup, or confectioners’ sugar? In the words of a therapist, what do you think is the ideal macaroon? The answer lies within you.

Pictured below are chocolate macarons - cocoa powder added to the meringue with a chocolate ganache filling.

I'd like to claim I made these, but that would be dishonest. Having never had a macaron before, I found a local French bakery that made them so we bought a few so can have it a little taste test. As described by Ami S, above, the outer skin is slightly crunchy, but the center is softer, slightly chewy and filled with an marzipan (almond) and chocolate flavor.

On the surface, this appeared to be a simple challenge. Egg whites, powdered sugar, almond flour and regular granulated sugar, plus a filling. Five (5) freaking ingredients. For some reason, simple French goodies (Eclairs and now Macarons) seem to give me the most trouble.

Recipe Source: The macaroon recipe comes from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern. Our host, Amy, presents to us an adaptation of Ms. Fleming’s recipe.

Note: Macaroon making is somewhat labor intensive, yet simultaneously less difficult than you think it will be. One thing you must do is have your egg whites at room temperature. This ensures they beat up properly, as texture is an integral component to macaroons. You will be piping the batter onto parchment paper or nonstick liners, and some home bakers use stencils to make sure their macaroons are uniform in size. It’s your choice.

Be aware that you are beating your egg whites first to soft peaks. Soft peaks means that the peaks of the meringue curl over when you lift up the beaters. After you add the granulated sugar to the soft peak meringue, you will beat the mixture to stiff peaks, which, true to their name, stand straight up. Be careful not to overbeat your eggs.

You will also be folding the nut flour into the meringue. As with most recipes when you combine something with beaten egg whites, be gentle in your mixing to keep the egg whites light.

Some recipes call for drying the piped macaroons on the counter prior to baking for 30 minutes to an hour. This recipe stipulates that you bake the macaroons at a low temperature for 5 minutes, then take them out of the oven, raising the temperature, and baking them for an additional 7 to 8 minutes. Drying is necessary to get the trademark “feet” on your macaroons. Experiment to find the best technique for you.

If you plan on using parchment paper rather than nonstick pan liners, be careful when removing the macaroons from the paper, as they can stick and are very delicate. Some recipes suggest lifting up a corner of the paper and letting a drop of water fall onto the hot baking sheet, thus producing steam, which helps the macaroons release.

Mandatory for this Challenge:
-Make Claudia Fleming’s recipe for macaroons
-Fill and sandwich the macaroons

Actual baking time: 12 minutes total, plus a few minutes to get your oven from 200°F to 375°F.

Confectioners’ (Icing) sugar: 2 ¼ cups (225 g, 8 oz.)
Almond flour: 2 cups (190 g, 6.7 oz.) [I made my own by using a food processor to pulverize blanched, slivered almonds. It was the least expensive way to go.]
Granulated sugar: 2 tablespoons (25 g , .88 oz.) {NOTE: I used superfine sugar and kept this constant when I downsized the recipe. The granulated sugar helps stiffen the egg whites.}
Egg whites: 5 (Have at room temperature)


1. Preheat the oven to 200°F (93°C). Combine the confectioners’ sugar and almond flour in a medium bowl. If grinding your own nuts, combine nuts and a cup of confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of a food processor and grind until nuts are very fine and powdery.

I used slivered, blanched almonds. Coated with the powdered sugar. In the cup is granulated sugar for the egg whites.

The food processor was run for about 30 seconds to a minute. The mixture was passed through a fine mesh sieve to filter out any large bits. Surprisingly, 99% of the mixture passed through with no problems.

2. Beat the egg whites in the clean dry bowl of a stand mixer until they hold soft peaks. Slowly add the granulated sugar and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks.

Stiff peaks as desired!

3. Sift a third of the almond flour mixture into the meringue and fold gently to combine. If you are planning on adding zest or other flavorings to the batter, now is the time. Sift in the remaining almond flour in two batches. Be gentle! Don’t overfold, but fully incorporate your ingredients.

Folding in the almond flour and sugar mixture... sifting first.

Okay... I didn't know it at the time, but here's one spot where I went wrong in this challenge. I overmixed the batter. It's thick and flowing like waffle batter.

4. Spoon the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a plain half-inch tip (Ateco #806). You can also use a Ziploc bag with a corner cut off. It’s easiest to fill your bag if you stand it up in a tall glass and fold the top down before spooning in the batter.

Great tip to fill a bag with batter or buttercream! I learn something new with each challenge. :-)

5. Pipe one-inch-sized (2.5 cm) mounds of batter onto baking sheets lined with nonstick liners (or parchment paper).

The batter flowed out of the bag like water... I had a hard time piping the batter into nice little rounds. Also, as you can see below, the batter expanded to connect with one another.

6. Bake the macaroon for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and raise the temperature to 375°F (190°C). Once the oven is up to temperature, put the pans back in the oven and bake for an additional 7 to 8 minutes, or lightly colored.

7. Cool on a rack before filling.

Yield: 10 dozen. Ami's note: My yield was much smaller than this. I produced about two dozen filled macaroons.

Results of my first batch... No feet and no puff. It looks like a tuile from the DB tuile challenge from Jan '09. This is not what I wanted.

After that first batch disappointment...
I went on the internet and read up on making macarons. Also, I sought out the help from fellow Daring Bakers.
Daring Baker Tartelette, a pastry chef with a fantastic website full of beautiful pictures and recipes, provided some advice.
1. Beat the eggs stiff-stiff... meaning very stiff.
2. Using aged egg whites is a good way to go. Aging can be simulated by microwaving fresh egg whites for 10 seconds, pausing and microwaving another 5 to 10 seconds.

Note: I split the difference and went 7 seconds the second time around and started cooking the egg whites. So with new bunch of egg whites I went 10 seconds and 5 seconds without cooking the whites.
Also, I used 3 egg whites instead of 5.

The weight before and after microwaving was 100 grams.

I followed the advice about beating very stiff and microwave aging the egg whites. Also, I was gentler with the mixing. The macarons kept their shape and didn't flow.

However, no feet and the tops looks coarse instead of smooth.

The inside was drier and more cookie like.
This time I under-mixed the batter.

My goal is to put feet on these suckers... This time around I aged two egg whites at room temp for 24 hours (actually 20 hours) and another two egg whites for 45 hours.

The 24 hour egg whites egg whites started out weighing 65 g. After 20 hours, they weighed 62 grams, while the 45 hour aged egg whites started out at 69 g and had a final weight of 61 g.

So I have aged egg whites, stiffly beaten eggs and based on more reading I mixed all the ingredients until it flowed like magma. We want all the ingredients to be incorporated, some of the egg whites deflated so that it's not to stiff and not too runny. We want the batter to flow like magma.

The macarons were piped. Any peaks just melted into the batter but the batter didn't spread out like batch one. Also, looking at the surface of the macarons, it's smooth. That's a good sign. It's definitely different from my previous two attempts.

Alright! We have little feet. They're not size 10's like the bakery macarons, but baby booties is better than nothing.

A closer look at the little feet.

Hmmm.... what do I fill the macarons with now?
Well... I have all these egg yolks. Being a cheapskate, I decided to make pastry cream in order to use some of those egg yolks... lol

The chocolate pastry recipe was the one used in the Aug '08 Eclair challenge.

Pipe and sandwich the pastry cream. Lick fingers as needed.

Oops... Looks like the pastry cream is a little bit loose. I guess these macarons are made for immediate consumption. Oh, darn... but somebody got to eat them.

Overall, I enjoyed trying something new. However, I'm not a big sweets eater and not sure if I'd try again. Actually, I will when I have more time. I don't take to failure. I'll keep practicing until I get Sasquatch feet on my macarons!

What I've learned about making macarons...
1) Whip the whites very stiff.
2) Age the egg whites. Room temp aging for 24 hours seems the best way to go. There was no appreciable difference aging for 2 days. Also, 24 hour aged egg whites seemed to produce smooth macarons. Egg whites from fresh eggs seem too efficient at making bubbles which effects the texture of the cookie.
3) Mix the batter until it flows like magma.
4) Use a ganache or buttercream filling for the macarons or add more corn starch to the pastry cream.

Finally, a big thanks to Ami S of (Baking without Fear) for hosting the challenge and the professional advice from Tartelette.

I had to go one more round... Not being successful on the challenge has been bugging me. Also, I had enough ground almonds for another two egg trail batch.

Fellow Daring Bakers were reporting success using Tartelette's recipe so I wanted to give macarons one more shot.

Reviewing her recipes...
The basic proportion was
90 g eggs (which works out to 3 egg whites)
50 g granulated sugar
200 g powdered sugar
110 g ground almond

I proportioned the recipe accordingly for two egg whites.

2 egg whites, microwave aged.
35 g granulated sugar (The granulated sugar is used to reinforce the egg whites so I usually use the full amount. However, I was adding cocoa powder so I backed off by the amount of cocoa powder)
135 g powdered sugar
75 g ground almond
15 g (about 1 T) cocoa powder

1) Microwave egg whites 7 seconds... stop... microwave 5 more seconds. Previous test showed it didn't help age the eggs for me, but it does bring cold eggs to room temp quickly.

2) Mix and sift the confectioners sugar, ground almonds and cocoa powder.

3) Beat the egg whites... when egg whites are near soft peaks, start adding granulated sugar and beat until stiff peaks are achieved.

4) Sift the dry ingredients into the egg whites.

5) Mix the ingredients together.
What I noticed with this recipe, there is a lot more dry ingredients than the original challenge recipe. It almost seems like there's not enough egg whites to wet all the ingredients. However, as you mix, you'll see the dry ingredients wet out and eventually the mixture will become shiny. Also, the mixture will flow a little.

This YouTube video is very helpful, but it's in French. However, the video shows the process and with the new recipe, the mixing is very similar.

6) Bake
I baked per the challenge (200F for 5 minutes, remove, heat oven to 375F and bake 7 minutes) and per Tartelette's recipe (280F for 15 to 20 minutes). Both methods seemed to work. For convenience I would just bake at 280F for 15 to 20 minutes.

The results are what is expected for macarons - smooth tops and foot/feet at the base.
Hurray! Finally!

Besides adding more powdered sugar, I also had my pizza stone in the oven and baked on top of that.

For the filling, I used chocolate gananche on the outside and strained raspberry jam in the center... for a little surprise. I used David Lebovitz's chocolate filling recipe.

Finally, there results were very similar to the French bakery's macarons.
Crispy shell with a soft center. The almond flavor wasn't as strong, but these macarons reminded me of eating the tops of brownies. You know the yummy shiny, crispy tops of brownies and right beneath that crispy surface is a moist chocolatey brownie. That's the best I can describe these macarons.

Summary of Batch Results...

Batch 1: Daring Baker Recipe - recipe scaled to 3 eggs, eggs brought to room temp over 4 hours.
Comments: Overmixed macaron batter - was similar to a sourdough waffle batter.
Results: Marcarons were thin like a tuile.

Batch 2: Daring Baker Recipe - 3 eggs, microwave aged.
2a) Microwaved egg whites - 5 seconds, rest 30 seconds, microwave 7 seconds.
Comments - egg whites started cooking. Made for a nice breakfast omelet the next day.

2b) Microwaveed egg whites - 5 seconds, rest 30 seconds, microwave 5 seconds.
Comments - egg weight was the same before and after microwaving, 100 g. Undermixed the batter.
Results - Macarons did not spread out. Cooked resulted in no feet and coarse, bubbly texture.

Batch 3 - Daring Baker Recipe, 2 eggs used to conserve ingredients, eggs aged at room temp for 24 hours.
Comments - egg whites lost 3 g, 65 g to 62 g. Batter has a smoother appearance after piped.
Results - Macrons have small feet, smooth appearance. Soft, but slightly chewy.

Batch 4 - Daring Baker Recipe, 2 eggs, aged 48 hours.
Comments - eggs whites lost 8 g, 69 g to 61 g.
Similar results to Batch 3.

Batch 5 - Daring Baker Recipe, 2 eggs, microwave aged.
Comments - Confident that I'm mixing the batter properly, wanted to try microwave aging again.
Results - Similar to 2b... no feet and coarse appearance.

Batch 6 - Tartelette's Recipe, 2 eggs, microwave aged.
Comments - More dry ingredients, very apparent when mixing - appears to clump, but with more folding the batter begins to shine and liquefy. Baked 5 minutes (200F) and 7 minutes (375F). Also, baked 280F for 15 minutes.
Results - Best batch to date. The cookie part was very similar to the French bakery macarons. Smooth top, larger feet. Cookie has a thin crunchy skin but with a soft, melt in the mouth interior. Both baking methods gave similar results.

Based upon my vast experience with macarons (6 small batches... lol), I've come to the conclusion that the original challenge recipe is just too sensitive to the weather in the Pacific Northwest. Too little dry ingredients for the amount of moisture in the air. Tartelette's recipe has 25% more dry ingredients. I believe the extra dry ingredients help soak up any extra moisture in the air so we end up with better results.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Daring Cooks: Pho, Pho, Pho-un

The October 2009 Daring Cooks’ challenge was brought to us by Jaden of the blog Steamy Kitchen. The recipes are from her new cookbook, The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook.

I'd like to thank our special guest hostess, Jaden of Steamy Kitchen, for sharing a delicious recipe and our founders Ivonne (Cream Puffs in Venice) and Lis (La Mia Cucina) for doing all the work around The Daring Kitchen and for setting up this months Daring Cooks' Challenge.

From Jaden:
Hello Daring Cooks!

I’m ecstatic that you guys will be cooking one of my very favorite dishes from the cookbook, the Vietnamese Chicken Pho. On my site, I have a longer version of the recipe, which involves making the stock from scratch.

In the cookbook, I wanted to make things easier for those on a time-crunch. The book includes a recipe for “Quick Vietnamese Chicken Pho” which uses store-bought stock. For the challenge, you’re welcome to create either recipe.

So what is Vietnamese Pho? Well, it’s like the most insanely delicious noodle soup popular in Vietnam. The broth is simmered for hours and hours with either beef knuckle/leg bone or with a whole chicken. Other accompaniments include ribbons of rice noodles, fresh herbs like cilantro or basil, a wedge of lime or lemon, fresh bean sprouts and fresh sliced chilies if desired.

What makes Pho so different than any other type of noodle soup is the spices that go into the simmering broth. Warm spices like coriander, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fresh ginger transform an ordinary broth into a very authentic Vietnamese Pho.

Our challenge focuses on Chicken Pho, or “Pho Ga” in Vietnamese. By the way, the correct pronunciation of Pho is “fuh?” Yes, you say the word like it’s a question! Chicken Pho is lighter than Beef Pho and the spices used are a little different as well.

Some of the secrets to making great Chicken Pho is:
1) Toast the spices and char the onion and ginger. This brings out the flavor and fragrance of these ingredients!
2) If you’re cooking the longer recipe (on my site) make sure you’re pre-boiling the chicken first – give it a hard boil for a few minutes to get rid of the scum and stuff in the chicken. This will help you create a crystal clear, clean broth.

The spices for Chicken Pho is whole coriander seeds, whole cloves and whole star anise – they should be easily found in your grocery store.

An essential component of Pho is fish sauce. Make your best effort to find fish sauce – your local Asian market should carry it. And if not, visit your local Thai or Vietnamese restaurant and see if you can buy a bottle from them. Soy sauce is a poor substitute for fish sauce, but if you can’t find fish sauce, then go ahead and make the sub.

2009 October Daring Cooks’ Challenge (A Double Challenge!)
Recipe Source: Jaden of Steamy Kitchen from her new book The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook.

Challenge #1: Vietnamese Chicken Pho
Preparation Time: 45 cooking time + 15 minutes to cook noodles based on package directions
Servings: Makes 4 servings


For the Chicken Pho Broth:
2 tbsp. whole coriander seeds
4 whole cloves
2 whole star anise
2 quarts (2 liters/8 cups/64 fluid ounces) store-bought or homemade chicken stock
1 whole chicken breast (bone in or boneless)
½ onion
1 3-inch (7.5 cm) chunk of ginger, sliced and smashed with side of knife
1 to 2 tbsps. sugar
1 to 2 tbsps. fish sauce

1 lb. (500 grams/16 ounces) dried rice noodles (about ¼ inch/6 mm wide)

Accompaniments (served with the noodle soup):
2 cups (200 grams/7 ounces) bean sprouts, washed and tails pinched off
Fresh cilantro (coriander) tops (leaves and tender stems)
½ cup (50 grams/approx. 2 ounces) shaved red onions
½ lime, cut into 4 wedges
Sriracha chili sauce
Hoisin sauce
Sliced fresh chili peppers of your choice


1. To make the Chicken Pho Broth: heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add the coriander seeds, cloves and star anise and toast until fragrant, about 3-4 minutes. Immediately spoon out the spices to avoid burning.

2. In a large pot, add all the ingredients (including the toasted spices) and bring to a boil.

Started out with homemade chicken stock and a whole chicken breast.

The rest of the ingredients... the toasted coriander, clove and star anise, 1 T rock sugar, 1 T of fish sauce, 1/2 onion blackened under a broiler and a 3" chunk of ginger - smashed and charred under the broiler.
Note: I found that breaking up the star anise would help toast the sides too.

All the ingredients soup ingredients added to a pot... I noticed my homemade stock was a little cloudy. When I've had pho in restaurants, the soup is usually clear.

Here's a step that I added...
Since I wanted a clear soup, I beat two egg whites to soft peaks and added a slivered scallion. The idea behind the egg whites is the whites will cook on top of the soup forming a "raft". The protein mesh will act as a filter to trap impurities (floaty bits) in the broth. The slivered green onion is there mainly to provide some structural support for the egg white foam. Also, it does add a little extra flavor to the broth.

The egg white raft is added to the soup... and the whole thing is brought to a boil and cooked per the directions... brought to a boil, heat lowered and simmered for 20 to 30 minutes.

3. Reduce the heat to medium-low and let simmer for 20 minutes, skimming the surface frequently.

4. Use tongs to remove the chicken breasts and shred the meat with your fingers, discarding the bone if you have used bone-in breasts.

5. Taste the broth and add more fish sauce or sugar, if needed. Strain the broth and discard the solids. I added another 1T of fish sauce. You want the broth to be strong at this point since we'll be pouring over unsalted noodles and raw veggies.

The before and after pictures...
looks like the egg white raft did the job filtering the broth. The broth is clear while the toasted spices and charred onion and ginger gave the broth a nice caramel color. I'm actually surprised there isn't more fat floating on the soup since chicken breast was not skinned.

6. Prepare the noodles as per directions on the package.

Soak in hot, just boiled, water for about 7 to 10 minutes.

7. Ladle the broth into bowls. Then divide the shredded chicken breast and the soft noodles evenly into each bowl.

8. Have the accompaniments spread out on the table. Each person can customize their own bowl with these ingredients.

In the small cup - Chili sauce and Hoisin sauce.
The herbage - two types of jalapeno peppers, cilantro, Thai basil, mint, thinly sliced red onion, lime and bean sprouts.

The bowl of noodle is set up and waiting for the boiling hot soup to be added. The hot soup will help cook the raw veggies.

The finished bowl - hot soup is added.

I've tried many pho recipes with mediocre results - mainly blandness. However, this recipe surprised me with 1) how simple it is and (2) the flavorful broth. I'd say this is the best pho recipe I've tried so far.

Another surprise, the whole chicken breast simmered for about 25 minutes total, was very moist.

Overall, I enjoyed the results of this challenge. The broth was aromatic and flavorful. This recipe is something that I'll cook again.

Challenge #2: Dessert Wontons
(Note: This second dessert challenge is about being creative with filling and form. Knock yourselves out!)

This challenge is where we DC'ers come up with our own recipe for a Dessert Wonton.
Ingredients: I had many ideas, but I became fixated on bananas so there was no turning back... Probably influenced by jr high and high school, a majority of the students were Filipino, where banana fritter lumpias were a common item in bake sales and parties. Nostalgia. :-)

1 Large Egg (you will be using the egg white to seal the edges of the wonton)
12 Wonton wrappers
1 Banana, sliced
2 T Brown Sugar
2 T Shredded Coconut
Chocolate Chips
Confectioners’ sugar (for dusting)

The ingredients:
Egg whites - for sealing the edges egg whites are best.
The thinly sliced banana mixed with coconut and brown sugar.
Chocolate chips and the wonton skins.

Place a little of everything in the center... paint the edges with egg white and seal.

Deep fry at 350F for until golden... about 1 minute per side.
Drain and serve

My banana wontons were so-so. The thinly sliced banana cooked really fast becoming kind of mushy. Reminded me of pureed banana baby food... The flavors were good, but I was hoping the brown sugar would caramelize a little more to form a caramel. I think the texture threw me off the most.

Next time, slice the banana thicker or use plantains... actually make a caramel sauce if I want caramel flavors. :-)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oct 08: French Fried Potatoes

About a year ago, I was watching a PBS show, "Hubert Keller: Secrets of a Chef" where he was making dishes using potatoes. He segment on the perfect French fry looked delicious and involved a double soaking in water overnight.

Even though I don't like deep frying at home, I thought I'd give it a try, especially if it involves a long, drawn out process.

This is my attempt at his recipe.

2 Russet potatoes, peeled
Oil for frying
Salt for seasoning.

1) Peel and soak the potatoes in water overnight.

2) The next day - cut the potatoes into 1/4" fries.
Here's were I unintentionally deviated from his recipe. I ended up soaking the cut potatoes 5 days. At work, I picked up extra assignments from people how left the company. We had a big deadline due so I put in massive amounts of OT to get the job done. Well... by the time I got home, I wasn't up for deep frying. The potatoes ended up sitting in the fridge until I got done with work.

3) Drain and dry the potatoes.
Deep fry at 250F for about 8 minutes.
Remove the potatoes from the fryer and set on a towel to drain and cool

The parcooked potatoes shown below are about 85% cooked. They're holding their shape, but squeeze a fry and you can feel the potato underneath the surface is soft and mealy (in a good way).

4) Heat the fryer to 400F.
Drop in the fries and allow to crips up, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Drain... Toss in a bowl with salt and you're ready to eat.

Considering I don't have a deep fryer, I ended up using a sauce pan to be the deep fryer...

The potatoes turned out nicely - soft and potatoey inside with a light crust on the outside. I was hoping for a crispier outside, but small fryer had problems keeping up with the potatoes.