I am rarely known to stay quiet. I am not often at a loss for words. Few are the events that leave me utterly speechless. Yet this week I am having a hard time finding what to say, words to express all that I am feeling, stories with which to regale you about what is going on. My childhood has become a misty illusion hidden in some far-off corner of my mind and refuses to resurface. Moods have been swinging back and forth around Crabby Kingdom and I have been finding refuge in my kitchen, baking, swiping clean surfaces usually left to fend for themselves, stirring meusli into yogurt and burying my nose in a paperback novel. I’ve been keeping low and out of range of whatever is simmering, brewing, bubbling just under the surface and likely to explode at the merest hint of a sidelong glance or friendly comment. Oh, none of the darkness is aimed at my innocent head, no, no, rest assured, but one does try and avoid the friendly fire, the arrows of sharp words and heated discussions. So I keep a low profile, mind my own business and…. bake.
I’m the lone woman in a house full of men. Even the dog is male. And it always seems that the men all go viral at once, as if a team. Men are strange and unusual characters and I simply will never be able to completely comprehend them, as hard as I may sometimes try. Women seem to be the ones stuck with the bad reputation, accused of being unreasonable or of spending too much of our time trying to reason….with men. They label us frivolous, acting too often on a whim, being capricious and erratic in temperament. But in my own household, this opinion is contestable! While I keep my head squarely on my shoulders, keep a smile on my face and sunshine in my step, my men seem to go all gray and grumpy on a whim, between the hormone-fueled adolescent mood swings to the inexplicable out-of-the-blue petulance, they are enough to drive me wild! And even though I try and stay out of their way when the black mood strikes, they stomp through the house pointing fingers, ranting that there is nothing to eat or too much food piled up and spilling out of the refrigerator. They flail their arms and rave that I bake too much, allowing cake, bread, cookies to grow stale, wither and die a pathetic death, or they complain that I am leaving them hungry, with nothing for breakfast or snack as they claw their way through the pantry. I smile sweetly (oh yes I do) and ask if anyone would like to keep me company as I make a cake, I warmheartedly inquire if one or the other of them craves anything in particular, if they prefer cake or cookies, panna cotta or pie and I am met with glares and sullen shrugs of manly shoulders. So I scurry off into the kitchen, pull out the butter, eggs, flour and sugar and begin. Oh, for the company of a sister or a girlfriend who could come over and bake with me.
Remember the days when you could call up your best friend and invite her over for an afternoon of baking? You’d get permission from your mom to use the oven, or a nod of approval from your roommates to take over the kitchen for an afternoon. Maybe it was boxed mixes, the kind your dad favored, the only thing the parents would trust you with. Or maybe you scoured through magazines, folding down the corners of pages each time one recipe or another tempted you. Lists were carefully drawn up, shopping done, ingredients lined up on the countertop awaiting the planned date. Your friend or friends would show up, a daytime slumber party, and you would delve in. Cookies and cakes, batter everywhere, frosting stuck in your hair, edges maybe burned, but the laughter would resound throughout the house and what you cooked together tasted better than anything that you ever tasted before because it was made with friendship, infused with passion shared, spiced with gossip. These days, I have no girlfriends living close by, close enough to come over and bake with me. Mathilde does spend one day a month making macarons with me, and that I love. Baking is more fun when it is done with a friend. Sadly, I have found no like-minded souls living in this city of mine with which to share my afternoons and passions, so I end up baking all on my lonesome. Like a teen heaving great sighs of unrequited love, I dream of standing shoulder to shoulder and creating baked goods with girlfriends. But if you can’t do it in real life, well, virtual baking parties are the next best thing.
I have gotten in the habit of baking across borders with Rosa, the talented chef behind Rosa’s Yummy Yums. We find each other on twitter, usually for a Daring Baker challenge or to bake bread, and we share woes and worries, ask each other questions (ok, mostly it is I asking her!) and check the other’s progress, we encourage and cheer, offer sage advice and bakerly wisdom. I bake macarons with Deeba, although rarely at the same time, but we cry over lost feet when we find ourselves in front of yet another tray of cracked puddles and we do the happy dance when one of us succeeds in reaching mac heaven. Baking together, although miles apart, is an exercise in sisterly kinship and affinity.
This week, Jeanne, Meeta and I had our first virtual bake-together: three friends, three countries, one recipe. We will reveal the great Cake Bake Surprise next Wednesday, so be patient, if you will. This kind of baking adventure is nourished with e-mails and twitter messages, pushing, encouraging, goading, teasing, photos sent, gossip giggled over, our inner 16 year olds resurfacing (as they often do when we are together, whether in real life or virtually) and ends with a delectable treat that we present with great aplomb to the men in our lives, allowing them the pleasure of the fruits of our sisterly labor, hoping upon hope that it will cheer them up, bring back the warm, happy men we know and love, leaving us content with spreading the joy.
I also had a packet of spices burning a hole in my proverbial pocket (the basket of goodies on my shelf), a spice mix given to each of a dozen blogging girlfriends who met up for a London brunch, by wonderful Kavey, and this also finally made it to the kitchen table this week amidst the groans and grumps emanating from the livingroom. The spices were offered to each one of us apparently at random and as I peeled away the crisp, white tissue paper, I saw with utter delight that my packet contained mixed dried vegetables: carrot, tomato, red and green paprika, leek, salt and vegetable oil, in all of their lovely red, green and gold glory. Kavey had the utterly brilliant idea of offering each of us a packet of spices and asked each of us to make something with them, post on our blogs and then she would share all of the resulting creations. Well, put anything dried and in powder form in front of a macaron maker and her eyes light up and only one thought crosses her mind: macarons! Savory, salty and sweet, this is what my little packet cried out to me! And after two miserable, failed results, third time was absolutely the charm and here are my Salty Savory Sweet Vegetable Macarons filled with Chili Chocolate Ganache!
Like my wonderful, crazy men, these macarons, these simple little treats, are strange and unusual, sweet and salty old dogs all at once, changing as I savor them, always pleasing in the end and putting a smile on my face.
These macarons would be perfect filled with a cream cheese filling, maybe whipped with a tad more of the dried mixed vegetables or with slivers of sundried tomatoes and served as an appetizer.
Visit Kavey Eats to see what creative treats everyone else came up with!
And speaking of my passion for macarons, don't miss my latest on Huffington Post Food: New Year's Resolution: Making Your Own Macarons! And if you haven't yet, 2011 is the year to tackle these tiny French confections!
SALTY SAVORY SWEET VEGETABLE MACARONS with Chili Chocolate Ganache
7.4 oz (210 g) confectioner’s/powdered sugar
4 oz (115 g) ground blanched almonds
3 large egg whites (about 3.8 – 4 oz/ 110 – 112 g) *
1 oz (30 g) white granulated sugar
2 Tbs dried mixed vegetables in powder form
* It is recommended to age your egg whites by placing them in a very clean lidded jar or covered bowl and leaving them out at room temperature for 24 hours before making the macarons.
Prepare 2 large baking sheets. On 2 large pieces of white paper the size of your baking sheets, trace 1 – 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.
Sift the powdered sugar and the ground almonds together into a large mixing bowl. Add the dried powdered mixed vegetables and stir with a whisk or fork until blended. 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 sugar as you continue to whip the whites until you obtain a glossy meringue and all of the sugar has been beaten in. The meringue will be very stiff (turn the bowl upside down over your head and they shouldn’t move) and be dense like marshmallow.
Gently but firmly fold the whipped whites into the powdered sugar/ground almonds, using a silicon spatula or the equivalent, turning the bowl as you lift and fold, making sure you fold in all the dry ingredients completely. When the batter is ready to pipe, it should flow from the spatula 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 and test again. You can also fold the powdered mixture into the meringue if it is easier for you.
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. 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 45 minutes to an hour. The top of each shell should form a “skin” (it will feel like it hardened a bit when gently touched and not stick to your skin). Bake the shells for 15 – 25 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.) I turn the trays back to front a little more than halfway through the baking. These macarons took about 5 minutes more than my macarons usually do, but they were perfectly baked, peeling off of the parchment paper immediately.
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 completely before sliding the shells very gently off of the parchment by slipping a metal cake spatula under the shell as you lift it up or by peeling the parchment paper from the back of the shells. Be careful or the center of the shell risks sticking to the parchment.
When the macaron shells are cool, pair the shells up evenly, each with a partner. Pipe a dollop, about a teaspoon, of ganache filling onto half of the shells, the bottom shell in each pair. Carefully sandwich the shells together.
CHILI CHOCOLATE GANACHE
I decided to use a bar of Chili Chocolate in order to add another spice to the mix, but feel free to use any dark chocolate you please!
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
4 ¼ oz (120 g) Lindt Excellence 70% Chili Dark Chocolate
Chop the chocolate and put in an appropriately-sized pyrex (heatproof) bowl. Heat the cream in a saucepan gently until it comes just to the boil. Pour the cream over the chopped chocolate and stir until all of the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth and luxurious. Allow to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. It should thicken to a spreading/piping consistency. If you need to, speed up the process by placing in the refrigerator until desired spreading/piping consistency, stirring occasionally.