Lavender and Vanilla Bean Macarons

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Why what do we have here? Just my long promised second (and more successful!) post about making macarons! I know. I left you hanging for forever. A few of you even emailed me. But what can I say? I got distracted by other goodies like pineapple upside-down cake, cappuccino cheesecake, and a delicious orange pound cake that I still need to post.

I recently began seeing a group of people on twitter posting about a monthly #mactweets event. It took me a while to figure out what exactly was going on, but eventually I got it : a group of people looking to perfect macarons, and sharing laughs, encouragement, and cheers along the way. All with a monthly theme. I’ve been watching from the sidelines for a while, but decided that this would be the month that I would jump right in.

The theme for March is “Spring Fling: Baking Your Favorite Springtime Flowers.” I’ve been looking for an excuse to buy some of the beautiful dried flowers that they keep in the bulk bins at the co-op, so this was the perfect month for me to start! It took me a while to settle on a flavor, but I ended up choosing lavender and vanilla bean macarons with buttercream frosting.

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I’m not going to lie. These are tricky little devils to make! It actually took me two tries to get them right – I over folded my first batch and ended up with flat, cracked cookies that stuck to the baking sheet and were a huge mess to clean up. But I didn’t give up. Instead, I did a little more reading and gave it another go. My results still weren’t perfect, but they were a lot closer! I mean, how cute are these?!

A few tips that I learned along the way:

  • You need to mix the batter a lot more than you think you should. It’s ok! Start out quickly and the slow down — it should take around 50 strokes. When it’s folded enough, the batter will flow like magma, and a line drawn in it with a knife will disappear after about 10 seconds.
  • Use a scale. It’s much more accurate than trying to measure your ingredients.
  • Parchment paper works better than a silpat. I don’t know why, but it does.
  • Don’t crowd your oven. Bake one tray at a time, turning it halfway through so they cook evenly.
  • It’s much easier to put your “toppings” on before the macarons bake. I don’t now why I thought I would be able to get stuff to stick to them once they were baked last time!!

Also, one of the things that I didn’t like about the other recipe I had used was that it didn’t call for the piped macarons to rest before baking. Instead, you baked them for a few minutes at a high temperature, and then the rest of the way at a lower temperature. I much prefer the method of letting them rest, which helps the tops dry out. When they bake, the dried top will rise straight up, giving you nice, ruffly “feet.”

The tops on this batch isn’t as smooth as I would have liked — blame that on me being lazy and not sifting my sugar/almond mixture. Also, I didn’t let my egg white age (my aged white went into my failed batch). I’m not sure what aging does to them, but these seemed to come out ok. They were also a little more hollow than they should be. So I know what I have to work on for next month. But for now, not bad, if I do say so myself. {….]

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Daring Cooks: Beet Risotto

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I had to laugh a little when I saw that this month’s Daring Cooks Challenge was risotto. It doesn’t take very much time on this blog to figure out that we love the stuff and I even have a whole categorydedicated to it! I took the opportunity to step a little out of my comfort zone and make a vegetarian meal based around the risotto itself rather than relying on lots of toppings. In fact, this simple and delicious risotto only makes three changes to the standard recipe – the addition of beets and the substitutions of goat cheese for parmesan and red wine for white.

The 2010 March Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Eleanor of MelbournefoodGeek and jess of Jessthebaker. They chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make risotto. The various components of their challenge recipe are based on input from Autralian Masterchef cookbook and the cookbook Moorish by Greg Malouf.

In my recent blog survey, an overwhelming number of you asked for more information on how to create your own recipes. Risotto is the perfect place to start! Once you have the basics of making the base down, you can feel free to experiment with add-ins. The rice itself has a very subtle flavor, so just about any other ingredients will work – you can either mix them in, like I did here, for a more uniform flavor or you can serve them on top of the rice and let each individual flavor speak for itself. Pick an ingredient that you want to use, and think about what other flavors work well with it. Those will be the main components of your dish – 2 or 3 should be plenty. Then you can change up the items in the base to go along with those flavors. There are three main areas where you can make changes – the aromatics, the wine, and the cheese. For example, if you’re going for a French theme you might want to use shallots instead of onion and ramps go great with other springtime flavors like peas or asparagus. If you’re using a bold flavor like sliced steak and don’t care about the risotto being a creamy white, you can consider using red wine. And you can use whatever cheese you think will go best with the flavors that you’re using.

For this dish, I took my inspiration from one of my favorite salads – simple greens dressed with beets and crumbled chevre. Since I had an open bottle of pinot noir and I didn’t care about the dish being pristine white so I used that instead of white wine. The flavor of the beets were strong enough that they masked the wine and either would probably have worked just as well. Upon the first taste, I could tell that it needed something – the flavors were kind of muddled and heavy. Lots of freshly ground pepper did the trick! I’ve found that whenever a recipe I’m creating seems too dull, it’s because it needs either more acidity or more spice. Something like a splash of lemon juice, a simple vinaigrette, or some black pepper is usually all you need to perk the flavors right up!

What would flavors would you use in your risotto?

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Meat Free Friday: Chana Masala (Curried Chickpeas)

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There’s an Indian restaurant around the corner from my house. In addition to having great food, they’re one of the few Indian restaurants in town that have a weekend lunch buffet — and sometimes they even have a coupon for buy one, get one free! Needless to say, we find ourselves there on Saturdays fairly often. All of the options are spectacular, but I always head straight for the chickpeas. They do them a few different way, but whenever I see “the one with the onions” I know I’ve hit the jackpot. This dish is glorious: hearty but not heavy and with the perfect amount of spice to make it noticeably hot without being too much. And the chickpeas — oh, the chickpeas. I’m always jealous of how they get their chickpeas to be so silky smooth.

So, me being me, I decided to try reproducing it at home.

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I searched for a while, but wasn’t able to figure out what exactly this dish is called. So I used a combination of recipes and memory to come up with this recipe. I’m calling it chana masala, which from what I can tell is a broad description that translates to something like “chickpeas in curry sauce.” It isn’t exactly the same as the restaurant’s, but it’s delicious nonetheless. Caramelized onions and tomatoes give the dish a great depth of flavor, and a combination of spices and cream give it a luxurious earthiness.

The trick to getting those velvety chickpeas is to start with dried beans. I have nothing against canned chickpeas. In fact, I use them all the time. But when you really think about the texture of them, they have sort of a grittiness or a sandiness to them. Dried beans take a lot longer to prepare, but the texture is entirely different — they’re soft and plump, with a smooth, creamy center that doesn’t have a trace of grittiness to it. I’ve tried making dried chickpeas a few times before but they’ve never come out quite right. You need to be patient with them. Soak them overnight in lots of water — they’ll plump up to at least double their original size. Then, simmer then slowly for at least an hour until they are tender and creamy.

If you’re in a rush, you can use canned chickpeas and have a delicious dinner in a few minutes. But if you have the time and patience to start with dried beans, you’ll be in for a real treat.

You may find chickpeas being sold under their other name — garbanzo beans.

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Shirred Eggs with Thyme

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I know I just posted a breakfast recipe a few days ago, but I’ve been loving weekend breakfasts lately! You may have noticed that in my post about waffles, I wrote that we’ve been having them almost every weekend. The rest of the time, we’ve been eating these baked eggs. We’re pretty much obsessed with them – they’re so good! And so easy to make! As much as i love breakfast, I never really feel like cooking in the morning. The great part about these is that there really isn’t much “cooking” that needs to be done: no standing over the stove, no measuring. Just throw them in the oven, set the timer, and a few minutes later you have a delicious breakfast. (If you can conjure the energy to cook a few slices of bacon, you’re really set!)

Plus there’s something so beautiful about eggshells. They never fail to make me smile. Any day that starts with something so beautiful can never be bad. [....]

Spaghetti with Feta and Capers

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Back in December, I had the opportunity to watch a cooking demonstration by the chef from a local Italian restaurant. He made all sorts of wonderful dishes, but the one that impressed me the most was a briny, saucy pasta dish. Looking back I can’t remember if his version actually had feta in it or not, but the idea of a soft, salty cheese with pasta has been in the back of my head ever since. If you follow me on twitter, you’ll know that last week I just did not feel like cooking. At all. I didn’t really feel like eating either. It was simple, delicious recipes like this one that got me through to week – this takes very little effort to make, but the result is impressive.(And don’t worry, I made an awesome grocery list for this week and am back to my normal self!)

While you could use your favorite jarred sauce for this to make it even easier, I find that it’s just as easy to make my own. Pasta sauce really is a snap to make and it taste so much better than store-bought! San Marzano tomatoes were on sale, so I used those and I recommend that you do too. I find them to be slightly sweeter and less acidic than other canned tomatoes, resulting in a sauce that tastes like you made it from ripe, summer tomatoes. If you can’t find San Marzano’s (they can be difficult to find and are pretty pricey if they aren’t on sale), feel free to use your favorite brand of peeled plum tomatoes.

I served my sauce on top of spinach linguini. No real reason for that. I don’t think it tastes any different than plain pasta and the nutritional differences are negligible. Honestly, I just like the way that it looks. Green pasta is so much more fun to eat than beige pasta! [....]

Buttermilk Waffles with Sauteed Bananas

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Buying Shawn a waffle iron for Christmas may have been one of the best things that I’ve ever done. We’ve wanted one for a while, but were hesitant because people kept telling us that we would never use it and it would ust take up precious cabinet space. Well, guess what? They were all wrong. We’ve been making waffles just about every weekend since we got it.

There’s something about a homemade waffle that just doesn’t compare to the frozen version. If you’ve ever ordered one at a diner you know what I’m talking about – they have that beautiful crispy exterior that gives way to a fluffy, light interior. These buttermilk waffles are perfect for a lazy weekend breakfast, or for a weeknight dinner. I like to make extras, which I reheat in the toaster for weekday breakfasts.

There are so many waffle recipes out there that it can be a little overwhelming. Cornmeal waffles, yeast waffles, chocolate waffles…the options are limitless. But my favorite are these buttermilk waffles, which call for whipped egg whites. They’re the closest that I’ve found to the diner waffles that I love so much. I think the whipped eggs result in an extra light and fluffy center.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk toppings. Syrup is a classic, but I don’t like to use too much since it can be so sweet. For these, I used just a drizzle of real maple syrup and some bananas that I sauteed with a little bit of grand marnier. The creaminess of the bananas was a really nice contrast to the tender-crisp texture of the waffle itself. As another alternative, I really like these waffles topped with a little bit of raspberry preserves. [....]