Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Healing Powers of Bread

Before anything else: I found that the blog isn't allowing comments from Mozilla (not sure if it's all Mozilla browsers or if it's selectively temperamental).  I apologize if you've been trying -- I have been looking around but am unsure about how to fix that.  Please try to leave comments through another browser if you are having issues with Mozilla.  Again, sorry about the inconvenience.

Now, BAKING.  Let me start by saying work this week was tough -- absolutely brutal, if I'm being perfectly honest. It's one of those weeks which, by the end, I just want to collapse on the couch, wrap myself in a blanket, and not emerge for the next forty-eight hours. And, I have to admit, there have been weekends which have been spent in that fashion; but I think that I've found a better way to deal with the various and inevitable stressors of life. Ready? Here it is. . .

Bake bread. 

Seriously, someone should study this. There is something almost mystical in how fresh baked bread can restore the spirit. I find that out-of-the-oven brioche, in particular, is great at making everything look just a little bit brighter. One of the best things about brioche (and all bread, really) is that it can be appreciated with 4 of your 5 senses. (Maybe 5 of 5 if you have super-sensitive hearing and can sense the sound of the yeast working, but for most people 4 out of 5 ain't bad). The feel of brioche is lovely: springy outer coating with a delicate crumb -- it begs to be handled with care, almost melting in your mouth. Obviously, the taste of fresh baked bread is divine -- just a little crunchy in the crust with a complex, rich, full mouth taste. I can't talk about how the smell of baking bread can heal the soul (since, sadly, I have no sense of smell -- a long and rather mundane story with which I won't bore anyone), but I hear that the experience of smelling the bread is as good if not better than the sensation of tasting it. And lastly (but certainly not least -- because don't we eat first with our eyes?) is the sublime appearance of brioche. The golden brown crust encasing an inside with just the slightest hue of pale yellow -- the color of spring sunshine -- hinting at eggy, buttery goodness. And the crowning glory is that this recipe isn't hard at all. You will need a stand mixer, though, (unless you have the best upper body strength and endurance in the history of mankind.)

Once again, this recipe is from the Bouchon Bakery Cookbook.
(I read a review recently: "Do you bake, want to bake, dream about baked goods and are a Type-A personality, then invest in this book!" -- it made me laugh because I felt like it described me perfectly)

(fancy name for  specially shaped brioche)


Stand Mixer with Dough Hook Attachment
 2 Loaf Pans

 (for once, all of these are pretty easy to find 
Amazon must have missed my business this week)

Instant Yeast
Unsalted Butter at Room Temperature
Sea Salt


This recipe is so calming, in part, because following it is almost mindless.  Really -- first, you just add the yeast and milk together and give it a quick mix in the stand mixer.  Then the remainder of the ingredients, except the butter, get added in and mixed for just under five minutes.  Here comes the best part:  Continue mixing for thirty minutes, meanwhile, adding little chunks of butter (I did half inch cubes) one at a time.  You must wait for each chunk of butter to get incorporated before adding another one in -- that's why it is so very important that the butter is room temperature (otherwise it takes a whole lot longer to incorporate.)  It takes about forty seconds to a minute for each chunk of butter to fully disappear into the dough.

I find it oddly soothing  to watch each piece get whipped around, stretched, and finally pulled into the dough.  

At the end of the thirty minutes, the dough will be loose and hang off of the hook.  

Scrape it off of the hook as well as whatever dough is left on the side of the bowl and bottom of the bowl (which may not be much, if anything.)  Mix for another ten minutes.  
Pull the dough off of the hook and place on (very lightly) floured surface.  Pat into a rectangular shape while pushing air bubbles out to the side and eventually out of the dough.  

Then stretch one-third of the dough from the left side outwards and then fold towards the center, followed by the remaining one-third from the right, again stretching outwards, and then folding towards the center (like you would fold a letter)  

Do the same stretch and fold, but with the top and bottom of the now vertically long dough.  When you are finished, you should have a roughly square packet of dough.  Place in the greased bowl with the opening of the dough facing the bottom of the bowl. Let sit for one hour. Repeat the stretching and folding process one more time and place back in the bowl for an overnight chill in the refrigerator.

The next morning, turn the dough out and again pat into a rectangular shape, pushing any remaining air bubbles outwards. Roll the dough into twelve equal balls.  

*Don't be sloppy when doing this.  If you don't roll the balls smoothly, the creases in the dough end up being large holes in the finished loaf.* 

Place 6 balls in each pan, and brush with egg wash. (To make a truly excellent egg wash -- aggressively beat a whole egg and strain it through a fine mesh strainer.  You can brush or spray onto dough)
Set aside under a plastic or cardboard box to proof for two-and-a-half to three hours.  I try to use cardboard to proof because I feel like it holds the heat better than plastic -- nothing fancy; I usually use an Amazon shipping box.  Make sure that you put the dough in a WARM area -- recommendations for proofing dough state that the temperature should be around seventy-two to eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit; I put my dough in the warmest place in my home, in front of my fireplace.  When appropriately proofed, the balls of dough should expand so that they touch each other.  (See the progression from pre-proofing to post-proofing in the pictures below.) They should also be much softer than they were originally.  Then, another coating of egg wash and into the oven they go.

 And here is the finished product.  

The great part about brioche is that it is so versatile.  It's great with just a bit of butter, but my favorite way to use it is to toast up two pieces, slather a side of one with mayonnaise, a side of the other with mustard, line with lettuce, and stuff with Genoa salami, provolone, and hot sopressata.  Little bit of France, little bit of Italy, lots of mayo. . .delicious.  The bread can also be sliced into cubes, drizzled with some olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and popped back in the oven to make homemade croutons.  Also very yummy.  
  • Probably because of the high butter content, it is very easy to burn brioche, both when re-baking, or when toasting -- so make sure to keep a close eye on that precious bread!  
  • If you aren't as much of a carb monster as I am, you can also freeze the brioche, double wrapped in plastic, for at least a month (and probably two).  I find that it's easier to slice and freeze the slices individually -- then just pop out of the freezer a couple hours in advance and unwrap when you are ready to use the bread.  It toasts up perfectly even after being frozen.
  • Slice the pieces thick -- because this is a delicate bread, it needs a bit of heft to get a satisfying bite when eaten plain, as well as for it to hold up well in sandwiches. 

Make this recipe -- it is not difficult and the rewards are great, for the stomach and the spirit!  Try it out and tell me what you think!


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Mmmmm. .. Macarons!

Confession. . . I have never been a huge fan of macarons.  I mean, don't get me wrong, they may be the cutest pastry out there -- almost like teeny tiny rainbow-hued ice cream sandwiches.  I do love the way they look. . . just not the way they taste.  It's difficult to say exactly why I'm not the biggest fan; it's not that they taste bad per se, but maybe it's simply that they LOOK so amazing that I'm almost bound to be underwhelmed at the taste.

So, you may be wondering, why are we baking macarons if I'm not excited to eat the finished product -- really, the entire point of baking anything is to eventually get to eat it, right? Well, it seems that I may be the only person in the entire WORLD with these tepid feelings in regards to macarons.  I have seriously never met another person who isn't infatuated by these little treats, and since this weekend is about more than just me,  I thought I'd give these a shot.

For those of you who are unaware of the significance of the date, today is International Women's Day (Happy International Women's Day everyone!)  And so, before we get to the baking, I thought that today would be the perfect time to draw attention to one of my favorite nonprofit organizations: Plan International -- specifically, it's "Because I am a Girl" campaign. In a nutshell, Plan International works to aid girls who are growing up in environments hostile to their educational development, and (subsequently, in many cases) to their physical and emotional well being.  Heartbreakingly, in many places around the world, investing time and money in a girl  is just not considered a worthwhile endeavor -- even though the average total cost to these developing countries, in loss of economic growth, is approximately ninety-two billion dollars EACH YEAR ( It is devastating to see the way that these girls are treated, as if they lack intrinsic value or potential, and without the right to hope or dream, or to strive towards something better.  Plan International works to change this by encouraging the education of girls, and in turn, helping them become more self-reliant, promoting gender equality and discouraging violence to girls and women world-wide: a worthwhile cause if I ever saw one.  And today, I had the pleasure of introducing a group of wonderful women who were interested in helping girls around the world to this very important cause at a Gathering.

That's what the macarons were for.

It was a great afternoon and, although there is still so much work to be done, it is heartening to see women coming together to support this cause. Please check out the link above if you think that this is something that you would be interested in -- I promise, it is worth it.

Now, on with the baking . . . being a Thomas Keller aficionado, I once again chose my recipe(s) from the Bouchon Bakery cookbook. Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything on the internet that had his permission for reprints, so I can't give you a link to the exact recipe, but technique is everything in this particular pastry, so I'll let you know what I did right (and wrong) and you could probably apply it to any macaron recipe you find. (Or you could buy the cookbook -- you won't regret the purchase, believe me.) 

Note: Macarons are gluten free (!)

This recipe was HARD -- as in wearying, physically exhausting, hard. Part of that was my fault; I was a tad bit overly enthusiastic and decided to make vanilla macarons, raspberry macarons, and hazelnut macarons in one sitting (or standing, as it turned out), and subsequently, ended up working at these nonstop for a full 6 hours.  Crazy, I know.  A normal person would have chosen to start with one recipe; but it actually ended up working out.  My batch of vanilla macarons was an unmitigated disaster, with the raspberry macarons turning out measurably better, and then the hazelnut macarons turning out beautifully.  I have to admit, if I didn't make all three batches the same day, I probably would have been so disgusted by the way the vanilla ones turned out that I never would have tried my hand at macarons ever again.  So, luckily, it worked out in the end.

I think that the best part about this recipe is that it requires very few ingredients.  The recipe for the vanilla macarons is the base and then minor changes are made for the hazelnut and raspberry macarons (namely, no vanilla bean in the raspberry and hazelnut macarons, pink food coloring in the raspberry macarons, and flour substitutions in the hazelnut macarons.)

Basic Macaron Cookie Ingredients:
  1. Vanilla Bean
  2. Egg Whites
  3. Powdered Sugar
  4. Granulated Sugar
  5. Water 
  6. Almond Flour (substitute Hazelnut Flour for Hazelnut Macarons)   Both of these can occasionally be found at the grocery store.  I found the almond flour at Kroger, but had to go online to get the hazelnut flour.  Next time, I will probably go online for the almond flour as well (rationale coming shortly.)

The worst part about this recipe is all of equipment necessary (for those 6 ingredients).   You need a mixer, a separate mixing bowl, a sieve, a food processor, and a saucepan as well as a candy thermometer.

The first thing to do (as always) is to prep the ingredients and the baking pans. I prepped out six pastry bags with round tips -- 3 for the three types of macarons and 3 for the three types of fillings.  I find it easiest to fill the bags if I stand them up in a tall glass with the end of the bag folded over the top of the glass.  This ensures that you won't overfill the bag, and allows the filling to stay in the bag instead of squeezing out the wrong end all over your hands.  You may be able to see that the tip is not actually facing down at the bottom of the bag, but instead the bag is creased so that the tip faces up.  This is essential to making sure that the filling doesn't ooze out of the bag while you are filling it. TK recommends making templates with twelve circles drawn out on parchment paper with a dark marker.  Since I can't draw circles freehand that look anything like circles, I used a round cookie cutter.  Make sure you flip the parchment paper; the side that you drew on should face the pan, so that you don't get (likely toxic) ink all over your macaron cookies.

The pan on the right has the drawn side face up, while the one on the left has the drawn side face down.  As you can see, the marking will be lighter, but dark enough to guide you while piping.

Next step is to grind the almond flour as finely as possible.  The recipe says to use a food processor and to pulse to get a find grind.  You do have to be careful because if you grind for too long you will end up with almond butter -- which is good, but not for our purposes.
Tip -- use a better food processor than mine.  This is the finest that I could get the flour.

Or you could try what I'm going to try next time, and use an already fine ground almond flour.  If you choose not to heed my advise, you will be stuck doing what I did, which was forcing this very coarse grind through a sieve manually (hence the physically exhausting portion of the day).

I don't think the picture fully conveys the back breaking, soul crushing, muscle destroying task that this actually was. . .  Luckily, the hazelnut flour was a tad finer grind, so it was (slightly) less frustrating to make the hazelnut macarons.  At the very end of this painful process, I found that it was easier to push the flour through the sieve if I only put a couple of tablespoons in at a time, forced whatever would go through, through, dumped whatever was left in the sieve into trash, washed the sieve, dried it well, and started the whole process over again.  Otherwise, the larger pieces of almond meal clog the sieve and absolutely nothing will go through. When finally sifted, this gets mixed with powdered sugar and some of the egg whites.  No big deal there.

The water and granulated sugar get heated on the stove until they hit just above 200 degrees.  A candy thermometer is necessary -- I don't care how good you are, you will not know when the mixture is ready without a thermometer. You need a specific candy or deep frying thermometer -- a regular cooking one may not go high enough. I have a CIA candy thermometer which works fairly well and which I paid around ten dollars for, but for some reason it's unavailable through the buyer I used on Amazon, and now it's only available from another buyer trying to sell it for ninety-five dollars. (?!) If you are looking for one, I would just stalk Amazon for a while until it pops back up at a more reasonable price.

While the mixture is cooking on the stove, the egg whites get beaten to a soft peak in a stand mixer.  Okay, this was a problem for me.  Don't get me wrong.  I LOVE my Kitchenaid stand mixer.  But when trying to whip up small volumes, the whisk attachment doesn't touch the bottom of the bowl, so nothing actually gets whisked.  My solution was to not lock the bowl down, and instead prop it on top of the lock so that the whisk could get to the bottom.  As you can imagine, when whisking at high speeds in this fashion, it ends up being a slightly harrowing experience.  I had one eye on the candy thermometer, one eye on the mixer, and one hand next to the bowl in order to try to catch it if it happened to attempt to fly away (although to be perfectly honest, there is slim to no chance that my reflexes would have been good enough to subvert disaster if that had actually happened.)  Luck was on my side though, and everything remained exactly where it was supposed to.  When the candy thermometer strikes 200 degrees (or slightly over), the sugar mixture gets poured SLOWLY into the egg white meringue.  Then whip to stiff peaks.  For some odd reason, this took a different amount of time for each of my three batches.  The first one did not form stiff peaks until a good 10 minutes after I started, while the second one came together within 5 minutes, and the third batch, sometime in between.  No matter -- go by the egg whites, not the timer.  This is what stiff peaks should look like:

This was the tipping point -- the moment that it all went wrong for the vanilla macarons.  TK's recipe states to fold approximately 1/3 of the meringue mixture into the almond flour/sugar mixture and then to continue folding in egg whites until a ribbon forms when folding the mixture, that holds in shape and doesn't dissolve.  Confused?  Me too.  I thought that I may be seeing the "ribbon," but that was after only adding the initial 1/3 of the meringue, and I figured that that couldn't possibly be right (I still had 2/3 of the mixture left!) So, I added more egg whites.  I should have gone with my gut.  The ribbon started to dissolve into a puddle of batter and when I went to pipe the batter onto my templates, each macron spread to far beyond the templated borders and melded with its neighbors.

See if you can guess which batch of batter turned out better. . . If you guessed that the batter on the left was the initial batch and the batter on the right was the final batch, you would be correct.  The batter on the left was obviously a loose oozy mess, so for the raspberry and hazelnut macarons (on the right), I stopped when I saw the ribbon form (see it?) after folding one layer upon the other and, for the most part, they stayed in place when I piped them into the circles.  Just to be safe, I stopped a little inside the circles margins, so that if the mixture did spread a bit (which it did), it would still be okay.

Into the oven, it went.  I baked convection based on the recommendations of the recipe.  Apparently, standard ovens can cause little flecks on the macrons which can affect the texture, and after all this work, I was certainly not going to risk that, so. . . convection it was.

I had to bake for 5 minutes longer than the recommended time because my oven is slightly slow. . .

After coming out of the oven, the vanilla macarons were a horrible stretched out mess (which proceeded to crack as I tried to remove them from the parchment,) but the raspberry and hazelnut macarons were fine.   Tip:  if the macarons do run together, cut them apart directly after removing from the oven.  The edges are still slightly gooey when hot and if you wait until they cool, the cookie will crack when you try to cut it. Note, you do have to pipe the mixture into the circles at a 90 degree angle (perpendicular to the pan).  If you are a hair off, the macarons turn out off center, with the shiny top veering off to one side and the cookie "foot" veering off to another side.

You can see the progression from "hot mess," to "not bad" above.  The only saving grace to the vanilla macaron debacle was that they were absolutely delicious. . . so I just ate the crumbly cracked cookies right off of the cookie tray (hey, I couldn't get them off, and I couldn't waste them!). My view of macarons is definitely changing for the better.

Fillings were a little easier.  First for the hazelnut macarons:

Ganache Ingredients:
  1. Heavy Cream
  2. Caramelia Chocolate (Made by Valrhona Chocolate and available to buy here)
  3. Butter
  4. Trimoline (also known as Invert Sugar -- I bought it off of Amazon here)
  5. Fleur de Sel (available at most specialty stores)

If you've ever made ganache before, you know it's very easy.  Heat the chocolate over a double boiler to melt.  A double boiler is simply a sauce pan filled half way with water with a snugly fit bowl containing the chocolate, over it.  The bowl should not touch the water. The concept is that it is a gentler way to heat the chocolate, since it is being heated by the steam trapped in between the two dishes.  It heats the chocolate more evenly than a dish that is directly on the stove since the part that touches the bottom of the pan will heat more quickly and possibly burn, in that circumstance. Melt the cream, trimoline,  and butter together and pour over the melted chocolate.  Stir until combined. Let set.

My ganache set very quickly and I actually had to thin it with some additional cream to make it a consistency that I would be able to pipe, but all in all, it was a pretty easy filling to make.  And, oh my God, so very delicious. It tasted of chocolate and caramel with a tiny little hint of salt -- it tasted like happiness.  I could have eaten the whole bowl in a single sitting without taking a breath.

The vanilla macarons were filled with a french buttercream:

French Buttercream Ingredients:

  1. Butter
  2. Sugar
  3. Egg Yolks 
  4. Milk

How hard can this get -- it's only 4 ingredients. . . Mix a portion of the sugar and egg yolks and set aside; bring the milk to just under a simmer over heat, and then combine the two while stirring constantly (you don't want to make scrambled eggs)for about a minute at a full simmer.  Transfer to a stand mixer and mix until cool.  Add the butter, a little at a time, until fully incorporated.  Whip at high speed until fluffy. The MOST important thing to remember when making buttercream is that the butter HAS to be room temperature.  If it is not, your buttercream will curdle.  So leave the butter out for a couple of hours (or overnight in these polar vortex times).

For the raspberry macarons, I set aside a small amount (about 1/4) of the buttercream, added a heaping tablespoon of raspberry jam, and mixed it all up.  I used the raspberry buttercream to pipe a circular "wall" at the very edge of the macaron, and then filled it with the same raspberry jam that I used to flavor the buttercream.  I made sure to pick a seedless jam, so that the texture of the bite wouldn't be affected.

For the vanilla and hazelnut macarons, turn one cookie over and pipe the filling in a circular motion starting at the center of the macron and ending at the edge.  I loved the ganache (in case you didn't catch me raving about it above) and I'm pretty fond of buttercream too, so I did this twice, ending up with a double layer of filling (double stuffed macrons!).

And here, several hours later, is the final product:

Not bad, I must say -- I can definitely see the progression from "argghh! what could have possibly happened here" to "huh, so this is how it's supposed to be," which, I suppose, is a good thing.  And they did taste excellent, if I must say so myself -- I've officially flip-flopped on my position on macarons and joined the millions of die hard fans around the world.  I'm already trying to figure out an excuse to make them again!
Thanks everyone for joining me in my macaron journey -- hope I encouraged you to try your hand at them (and helped you to avoid some pitfalls); if you do, let me know how they turned out.  And again, Happy International Women's Day to all!