Monday, April 18, 2011

French Macarons

Have you had the pleasure? I hadn't, until this past weekend. A trip home brought me back to a cozy, fully-stocked kitchen, a trusty baking partner, and an open afternoon. I'll take it.

We might have made our default chocolate chip cookies had I not still been tinged by the afterglow of my recent coup des croissants. An affinity for recipes of the finicky French kind sprung from that experience, and I was ready for the next challenge. Macarons had, for quite some time, a definite mystique. I knew what they looked like, and I knew what they had to offer: a creamy filling harnessed by two light, airy cookies. I did not know how the exquisite sandwiches came to be, and to be honest, I wasn't entirely sold on such a textural combination. All we could do was follow the recipe, step by step. And so we began.

Did you know that powdered almonds are the "flour" of macarons? Yep. Our recipe called for whole blanched almonds that were to be pulverized in a food processor. We had whole almonds, but not blanched. We had no food processor, but an adorably tiny coffee grinder. Now, take pause here, because this was an incredible breakthrough for my mom and me. We learned that we could blanch our own almonds by pouring boiling water over them, then waiting a minute before slipping off the seedcoat. (We also learned that we don't need no stinking food processor.) With a spark of ingenuity and mutual enthusiasm, we powdered those almonds.

After that we were running on what I dare describe as la cocaïne de le chef Francais: a high only achieved by the knowledge that you've done more than purchase and combine ingredients - that you have, in fact, made your ingredients!

All right, I've had my say. Now feast your eyes on the rest of this confectionary venture, because it's just as beautiful and fascinating as the onset.

With macarons now demystified, I can attest to the gustatory trip these petit sandwiches promise. The coalescence of crispy, chewy, and creamy is ethereal, and impossible to meet with your eyes open.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Enchanté, croissant

I did it! J'ai fait mes premiers croissants. And if I do say so myself (well who am I kidding, this entire blog is me saying so myself), they turned out très magnifiques et exquis. But I had my misgivings.

When I approached this project, croissants were, to me, formidable but friendly. I knew the process was long and exacting, but the product was so simple and thoroughly pleasant. I dove in knowing full well this may not work out, even if I adhered most strictly to the directions. I buffered this potential blow with a light musing that perhaps one must be French to craft a truly superb croissant.

Not so.
Cake flour, hot milk, warm cream, and sugar make croissant dough what it is. But only one ingredient can create those flaky layers...

Do NOT spread butter on a croissant. It's built in.

Fold like a letter. (By the way, it shouldn't look like this. In my eagerness to begin the hallmark folding of croissant dough, I forgot to roll out the first layer. Oops.)

Fold like a book.
Freehand triangles for croissants with character
A light egg wash

Behold, le croissant. According to my bread book, Parisians like their croissants a deep brown, almost burned.
I think I'd make a fine Parisian.

Croissants probably shouldn't be made when one is craving croissants. The tedium of preparing the butter and kneading, rolling, folding, cutting, and shaping the dough would be frustrating to someone seeking instant gratification; then add the hours of cooling, rising, chilling, rising, resting, baking, shuffling, baking. The process is high-maintenance and long-winded, and it mustn't be cut short. Take it on when you have plenty of time and a scrupulous passion for every part of it.