CONFESSIONS OF A SHRINKING VIOLET
From the earliest age I was shy. A shrinking violet. Maybe it was because I was the third child. Some may say “Three times the charm.” We called it “Third Child Syndrome.” Struggling to be my own person, I was overshadowed by two mighty powerful figures standing in front of me, blocking all the light and most definitely leaving me in their shadows. Coming in third after a brilliant sister and a talented brother was nothing to sneer at. How many first days of school did I suffer, each first day roll call when the teacher would come to my name? Her/his head would snap up and teacher would say “Ah, another one! I just know you’ll be as brilliant as Sue and Michael! We expect great things from you!” I would slide down just a little bit more in my chair, brush my hair in front of my face creating a screen and slouch down inside my clothes. “No, I don’t think so!” was my silent answer.
At 5 years old, mom came and took my hand and said to me “It’s your turn to start going to dancing school.” Oooh, how I wanted to wear those satiny, sequined costumes and learn how to dance, yet there they were again: sister and brother, larger than life! She was already a star pupil, having 5 years on me already. And he was one of the few boys in the school so of course he always had roles. No, thanks, and I slowly backed away. And I dreamed of drawing or singing… didn’t matter that I had no talent. My brother had enough for all of us, so I never even made an attempt. We would sit on the living room couch, side by side with the Sears catalogue between us, flipping through the pages, having each 3 minutes to draw whichever model our fingers stopped on. His sketches all looked like real people. Mine looked like glorified yet oddly twisted stick people. * sigh * Oh well.
Ditto Girl Scouts. Okay, okay, I’ve already admitted that I hated it all: the uniform and the camping, the forced activities and, well, absolutely all of it except for the S’Mores. She was a long-term scout and loved every second of it. She reveled in it! Badges galore! I tried guitar lessons, but gave up after 4 years. Couldn’t hack it. And he and she had already been playing piano for who remembers how many years. You know the tune: “Anything you can do I can do better…”? Well, with the two of them it was usually true.
So I have a complex. Well, for whatever the reason, I turned into a Shrinking Violet. I have always avoided calling attention to myself for fear of trying and then just not being seen. Self-effacing, receding into the woodwork, you name it, I’ve done it. I always avoided watchful eyes, preferring to work in private where no one could see me, judge me, compare me or make me nervous. Make a hat? Better alone. Bake a cake? Will screw up if someone is watching. Which is why food blogging fits me perfectly. I can get as wild as I want in my kitchen, make a mess, have a disaster, and no one is the wiser (unless the neighbors can hear the cursing). But more often than not, I organize myself, take my time, make a cup of coffee, lick the bowl and work as I please. And more often than not it works. And behind the anonymity of the computer screen I can be who I am naturally and connect with people who “see me” as I am and accept me for that. And I have learned to cook, learned to bake, learned to be myself and enjoy it. I have found just what I am best at! And I have made a slew of fabulous friends.
Which brings me to macarons. As a naturally born scaredy cat, I shrink away from trying new things, things that seem a bit too complicated, sure to end in failure. So I’ve stayed away from macarons, those fancy, elegant treats, that oh-so French delicacy. Except… I love a challenge. Pushed up against the wall and dared to do something, I’ll do it! Give me a deadline and I’m there. Pushed to the challenge makes me determined, courage is gathered, enthusiasm overflows! What makes me tick? Who knows? Start saying something is difficult and I climb into the ring and face the difficulty, shaking my proverbial fist at the challenge, laughing in its face. I’ll throw myself into it with a passion and make sure that it comes out just right!
My darling food buddy, my wonderful friend Deeba of Passionate about Baking dared me! Dared me to make the perfect French macaron and share my recipe and my tips. Several of us were having a tongue-wag over on twitter: Deeba, Hilda of Saffron & Blueberry, Aparna of My Diverse Kitchen, Barbara of Barbara Bakes, Meeta of What’s for Lunch, Honey?, Ilva of Lucullian Delights, and, excepting baker extraordinaire, Hilda, not one of these lovely ladies had ever made a successful macaron. All as scared of this daunting procedure as I was. Yes, I did make macs once before, but with someone that had fairly well mastered the technique, so it didn’t quite count. So we decided to have our own Macaron Challenge Event, a Mac Attack, if you will, kind of pushing and pulling each other along, encouraging, talking through, you know. And for some reason, Deeba named me Mac Ringleader. A few more jumped on board the Mac Express, Shelley of Shelley Bakes, Erin of Explore and Eat, Deborah of Italian Food Forever, Rachael of Fuji Mama and Ria of Ria’s Collection and we’re good to go. Okay, on y va…
I scooted around the internet, food blog to food blog, drooling over gorgeous pictures and scratching my head over amazing recipes and hard-to-find, exotic ingredients. Does no one make just normal flavored Macs anymore? I then turned to the Mac Queen herself, Helen of Tartelette. And I found it! Gorgeous Violet Macarons. Stunning. I used Helen’s recipe, only tweaking it slightly by folding in a teaspoon of violet sugar into the shell batter, which added a beautiful depth of flavor and produced a gorgeous pale violet color. I decided to fill my Macs with a Dark Chocolate Ganache filling with a dash of more violet sugar adding an intriguing touch. The combination of violet and chocolate is incredible!
And perfect macarons they are. Now I can stalk around like Mr. Rooster in the barnyard, display my feathers like the most gorgeous of peacocks. And this Shrinking Violet has bloomed into the most lush, the plumpest, most sweet-smelling flower in the garden.
Courage, dear friends, these macs are incredibly easy to make. Just trust your instincts, don’t think about it too hard or worry too much, for self-doubt is what creates disasters. This mission, should you decide to accept it, will be to complete 2 – not 1, but 2 – Mac Projects, e-mail the results to me and post the photos on your own blog (with a link back to Life’s a Feast). You have 2 weeks to complete this challenge, for then on Tuesday, September 15 it will be posted on my blog. I’ll be sending a second secret recipe to each of you (via e-mail) that I will make and post the day I post the “round up” of all of your creations, all of your successes! Good luck, and may the Mac Force be with you! (Okay, okay, so I’m mixing my cultural references, but you get the idea!)
For the macarons shells:
90 gr egg whites (about 3) * *
30 gr granulated sugar
200 gr powdered sugar
110 gr ground almonds
2 tablespoons crushed violet sugar or candied violet petals *
* This is optional if you cannot find either violet sugar or candied violet petals.
* I replaced 1 tsp of the granulated sugar with 1 tsp violet sugar and I used about 1 teaspoon or so of violet sugar to sprinkle on the shells.
** The egg whites should either be left out in a covered container at room temperature for 24
Prepare 2 large baking sheets. On 2 large pieces of white paper the size of your baking sheets, trace 1 ½ inch-diameter circles (I used the wide end of my pastry tip) evenly spaced, leaving about ¾ - 1 inch between each circle. This will be your template to help you pipe even circles of batter onto the parchment paper. You will be able to reuse these endlessly. Place one paper on each baking sheet then cover with parchment paper. Set aside. Prepare a pastry bag with a plain tip (Ateco #807 or #809).
If using violet sugar, remove 1 teaspoon of the granulated sugar from the 30 g and replace with 1 teaspoon of the violet sugar. Stir to combine.
Sift the powdered sugar and the ground almonds together into a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
In a standing mixer or with a hand mixer, whip the egg whites for 30 seconds on low speed then increase speed to high and whip until the whites are foamy. Gradually add the granulated (with violet) sugar as you are whipping the whites until you obtain a glossy meringue. Mine was just stiff.
Gently but firmly fold about 1/3 of the whipped whites into the powdered sugar/ground almonds. Add the rest of the whipped whites/meringue and fold, using a silicon spatula or the equivalent, turning the bowl as you lift and fold, making sure you fold in all the dry ingredients. When the batter is ready to pipe, it should be flow from the spatula, as Helen describes it, like lava or a thick ribbon. To test to see if you have folded it enough, drop a small amount onto a clean plate and jiggle it slightly. The top should flatten, not remain in a point. If it doesn’t flatten, give the batter a few more folds.
Fill your pastry bag with the batter. Pipe circles onto the parchment paper, using the traced circles on the template sheets to guide you, holding your pastry bag above each circle and piping into the center. When you have piped all of your batter out, sprinkle each shell with violet sugar or crushed candied petals. DO NOT FORGET TO CAREFULLY REMOVE THE WHITE PAPER TEMPLATE FROM UNDERNEATH THE PARCHMENT PAPER. YOU DO NOT WANT THIS TEMPLATE TO GO IN THE OVEN!
Preheat your oven to 280°F (140°C).
Allow the macarons to sit out for 30 minutes to an hour. The top of each shell should form a “skin” (it will feel like it hardened a bit when gently touched). Bake the shells for 15 – 20 minutes, depending on their size (when I touched macs that were not quite done, the top jiggled a bit as if there was still a bit of liquid batter between the top and the “feet” so I let it continue to bake another minute.
Remove the tray from the oven and immediately slide the parchment paper with the shells off of the hot baking sheet and onto a surface, table or countertop. Allow to cool before sliding the shells very gently off of the parchment by slipping a cake spatula under the shell as you lift it up. Be careful or the center of the shell risks sticking to the parchment.
VIOLET - DARK CHOCOLATE GANACHE FILLING
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
½ tsp violet sugar (optional if you don’t have)
¾ cup (about 100 g) chopped dark chocolate (I used Lindt dessert 70%)
Place the chopped chocolate into a medium-sized mixing or other heatproof bowl.
Pour the cream into a small saucepan. Stir in the violet sugar to dissolve. Slowly heat the cream until it comes just to the boiling point. Pour the cream immediately over the chopped chocolate and stir until it is smooth and creamy.
Allow the ganache filling to cool, stirring every so often. If need be (I do this) place the bowl in the refrigerator, pulling it out every 5 or 10 minutes and giving a good, hearty stir. When the ganache is ready to use to fill the macarons, it should be thick and creamy, not runny. You want to be able to pipe the filling onto the shells and have it stay there not run all over the place.
Prepare your pastry bag with a plain tip that will pipe teaspoon-sized dots of filling onto the macaron shells. Pair up the shells so you have sets that match (same size and shape).
Pipe the ganache filling onto one shell of each pair. Sandwich with the second shell.
Allow the filling to set.