Braised beef shank is another favorite from my childhood that I commonly found as an appetizer at banquet-style dinners, though it isn't really a braised dish in the traditional western sense. It isn't served with the braising liquid, and it doesn't aim to fall apart on the fork; quite the opposite, actually. The shank is boiled in a mixture of soy sauce and aromatic spices, then sliced thinly and served cold. The end result is a great example of a cut of meat that is usually tough and cheap being transformed into something wonderfully flavorful by a bit of time and ingenuity.
Ingredients (see Notes below)
- Two beef shanks
- 1.5 cup dark soy sauce
- 3 cups water
- 6 star anise
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 10-12 sichuan peppercorns
- 5 cloves
- 1 inch piece peeled ginger
- 2-3 pieces rock sugar; otherwise, 2 tbsp table sugar
- Bring a pot of water to a boil, and simmer the meat in it for about 5 minutes, then rinse with cold water. This helps get rid of some of the gameyness and clean up the flavor a little.
- Place everything (the meat, soy sauce, water, and spices) into a pot and bring to a boil.
- Simmer on a low heat for about 2-3 hours.
- Let everything cool, and stick it in the fridge overnight. This step is not optional; the beef shanks will be infinitely easier to slice once cooled, and the extra time will let the flavors soak in properly. In addition, the tendons in the shank will have time to set, adding to its unique chewy texture.
- Slice thinly against the grain of the shank. If you're not sure which way that is, think of taking cross-sections of a tree, except instead of counting the rings this time you're looking to see the meat fibers and bits of tendon. Make sure the slices are thin, about 1/8 inch or thinner. Beef shank is a naturally tough cut; the thinner the slices, the shorter the meat sinews, the easier it will be to eat.
- Serve cold, preferably with a drizzle of sesame oil or some sesame seeds on top, maybe a few chopped scallions. Or just dunk it into a hot bowl of noodle soup, whatever works.
- (Optional) Save the braising liquid to use as the base for a future project.
Although I provide a list of ingredients, it is by no means gospel; everyone I've ever known has used slightly different ingredients in slightly varying amounts. Likewise, it's not the end of the world if a few ingredients are missing or have to be substituted, although all of the above list should be available at any decent Chinese grocer, or Amazon when all else fails. Dark soy sauce, which is similar to light soy sauce except fermented with a few extra ingredients and for longer, yielding a richer and less salty product, can ostensibly be replaced with regular soy sauce and more sugar (caveat: I've never tried this myself, so I have no idea how it will go--most places that sell soy sauce will sell dark soy sauce anyway). Rock sugar can be replaced by table sugar with negligible difference. Other aromatics like cardamom, fivespice powder, or orange peel can be mixed in. I would really caution against adding too many cloves, though; they have a tendency to overpower other ingredients very quickly.
The other thing worth mentioning is that the braising liquid can also work for other meats. Chicken thighs and drumsticks work with this flavor very well, and eggs can be used as well as sort of variation on tea eggs. A personal favorite of mine is pork tongue (I recommend the same boiling + slicing procedure, though with thicker slices and served hot), which arguably works even better than beef shank. It has an awesome flavor in addition to being available in plentiful supply for a cheap price, and I love the insane contrast between a horror-movie-esque pork tongue sitting on the cutting board and the same tongue ready to serve and neatly sliced on a plate moments later. Seriously though, pork tongue has an amazing flavor and texture, and everyone should try it at least once.
This is another recipe I started working on due to what I like to call the "American Bakery Syndrome"--that is, the majority of what I can buy in stores sucks. In this case, for the most part I've found that they've tasted soggy, and more of sugar syrup than cinnamon. That's not to say I don't have a sweet tooth--quite the opposite. But my stance here is much like the one I take for hot sauce--sure, it tastes like something, but it's still boring, stupid, and lazy.
Here are the basics. Cinnamon rolls are viennoiserie; simply put, that means they're sort of the bastard child of bread and more conventional pastry. This means there is fermenting dough involved, and you will need time to do this properly. You can, as usual, cut on the time, but the flavor won't be as nice. For people working the 9-5, I recommend starting the dough in the morning, and finishing everything after getting home from work. The fermented dough is then rolled out, sprinkled with filling, and rolled up and cut into small buns. The full form of this roll that I originally used comes with a glaze, but since development I haven't put them together; the combination of the sugar and butter in the roll, cinnamon filling AND the glaze is potent enough to violate the Geneva Convention. As for the icing crap on top--I don't believe in it. It clobbers any nice feeling from the bun and cinnamon with massive amounts of unwarranted sugar. You can do it if you want, but don't let me find out, or I will come for you.
- 400g bread flour
- 100g cake flour (AP works as well)
- 200g warm water
- 75g egg (About 1.5 large eggs; see procedure for what to do with the leftover partial egg)
- 100g sugar
- 8g salt
- 10g yeast
- 150g butter, room temperature (or melted)
The main thing to understand about the filling is the proportions. The basic formula is 100g brown sugar for 100g sugar for 6g cinnamon. However, how much you actually use is basically up to your personal tastes, and how diabetic you feel like getting after eating a batch. For the dough quantity above, a full amount would probably be something like:
- 25g brown sugar
- 25g sugar
- 1.5g cinnamon
- Mix the dry ingredients together, and add the water. Mix until it's just starting to come together.
- If you chose to melt the butter for time constraints, mix it in slowly so you don't have a large quantity of hot butter touching the dough at any given time. If the butter is at room temp, chop it into small 1/2 inch cubes and incorporate into the dough slowly.
- Mix/knead the dough until the gluten is well-formed, and you have a solid ball of dough. This takes roughly 5 minutes on medium speed on a kitchenaid with a dough hook, but may take longer if you're doing it by hand.
- Cover the dough with plastic wrap, and let it rest in the fridge "overnight"--this means 4 hours minimum, 10 hours maximum by my reckoning.
- Take the dough out, and let it sit for about 45 minutes so the butter in the dough softens and it becomes more workable.
- Roll out the dough into a rectangle, and mix up your filling.
- Brush the entire surface of the dough with water, and sprinkle on the filling. I prefer using a sieve for an even distribution. MAKE SURE to leave a small strip of dough, about 1-2 inches, at the edge that has water but no filling, so that when you roll it up it seals properly.
- Roll the rectangle up into a big log, and cut into small rolls. Rest them on their sides on a baking pan lined with parchment paper. In the meantime, pre-heat your oven to 385 F.
- (OPTIONAL) At this point you can give the rolls a good coating of eggwash (this is a good opportunity to use up that spare egg from above). It doesn't really affect the taste (unless you screw up) but it definitely goes miles in terms of presentation. Everyone has different formulas for eggwash and as far as I can tell it doesn't make too much of a difference, but I like using whole eggs cut with a tiny tiny bit of cream. The only thing you have to watch out for is that you have to beat the eggs properly before using them. If you don't, then the eggwash turns out uneven and it will look like shit. This means your eggs have to be fully runny, with no bits of stringy cohesive white or whatever in there at all. Another small thing is to not put on too much; if you have your buns lying in a giant pool of egg, then the pool of egg will brown (or even worse, burn) in the oven, imparting a nasty taste to your buns.
- Let the rolls proof for about 1.5 to 2 hours. How long this takes depends, again, on the temperature; the cooler it is, the longer it takes. A good rule of thumb is just to wait until it's about 1.5x to 2x their original size, and have softened up considerably. Unless there is no change after 2+ hours, in which case something is terribly terribly wrong; perhaps you didn't use enough yeast, or killed them off somehow. Another good indicator is if the middle of the rolls are slightly pushed up due to the expansion, and if any excess water you brushed on earlier gets squeezed out as well.
- (OPTIONAL) Right before putting the rolls into the oven, throw on a second coating of eggwash. Why two? It gives it more color and more depth, and if you're going to go to the trouble of doing eggwash, might as well do it properly. If you're really lazy, you can skip the first coating from above and just do this one.
- Bake at 385F for about 13-15 minutes. The time it takes depends on the size of the rolls and everything, but I recommend checking on them after 13 minutes and deciding how much longer based on how they're looking.
And there you have it. Not that hard, aye? There's not even a need for a Notes section, since this is a fairly straightforward (if time-consuming) process. Anything that can go wrong in terms of rolling, shaping, etc, all comes down to practice, so there really isn't much I can say in a broad sense to remedy that.
One interesting note though, is that there is a Swedish-Slash-Scandinavian version of this that infuses the filling with cardamom, and tops the bun with tiny bits of pearl sugar. It's a bit unusual, but tasty nonetheless. I may try reproducing it one day, but I prefer the regular kind.
I'll be frank. The chicken I had at Bonchon has been haunting my dreams. Since I went the first time, I've had the chicken once more via takeout, and wanted more an uncountable number of times. And like all the other times that I've experienced such cravings, I set about recreating the food in question.
One google led to another, and I slowly learned more about Fried Chicken a la Kim Jong Il, and the many ways it was different from your standard American fare, or even the chicken you can find at the local Chinese takeout. The secret to the texture of the chicken seems to be a thin batter combined with a double frying. I found this interesting, since all the deep-frying I've tried so far has benefited from a second run in the oil--I exploit this technique in my squid recipe. Furthermore, contrary to my instincts the chicken was not brined or seasoned at all being fried--the flavor came from a sort of glaze that is applied to it right afterwards. I suppose it does explain why the drumsticks at Bonchon tasted a bit less intense than the wings.
Unlike in my naive youth, I knew not to trust any one site's information. And so I aggregated knowledge from many sources across the great network of tubes that is the internet, eventually ending up with something workable. The first trial was a success in terms of the chicken itself--I had recreated the crunchy texture of the outside along with the perfect cookedness of the inside. Unfortunately, this first trial's seasoning was completely off, with the rice vinegar and garlic content bringing the flavor to epically acidic levels. The next trial I decreased the garlic and got rid of the rice vinegar, and it was much more acceptable, much closer to the garlic soy flavoring that I knew and loved. After some more characteristic tweaking, I arrived at my current results. Before you start, I kindly ask you to read the warning in the notes, even if you find my Notes section pedantic and boring. It's for your own safety. And now without further ado...
- Chicken wings & drumsticks. Either will do; personally I prefer the wings slightly. I suppose breasts or something could work as well, but I wouldn't recommend it--dark meat is always superior (yeah I did). Make sure to get boned parts with the skin on--The skin is essential for the perfect crisp, and meat with the bone on is ALWAYS more flavorful. For the purposes of this batch, assume about 6 wings and 2-3 drumsticks for a decent mix.
- 2/3 cups flour
- 1 heaping Tbsp corn starch
- 3 cloves garlic (or 2 large cloves)
- 3 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp honey
- 3/4 Tbsp sesame oil
- Pinch of sugar
- Lots of oil for deep-frying
- Prepare your glaze first so it has time to sit. Mince the garlic very finely, then add the honey, soy sauce, and sesame oil. The sugar is optional, more of a taste thing than anything--I personally prefer it without. You can also stick the whole lot in a blender if you want the garlic to be pureed and integrated fully into the mixture.
- If you are using wings, cut them into three sections--the wing drumette, the wing proper, and the tip. Discard the tip--you're not really going to eat it, and frying it isn't saving you anything, stop fooling yourself.
- Prepare the batter. Combine the flour and corn starch, then add as much water as it takes to get a liquid consistency. You want something approximating a crepe batter, or something a bit thinner than a pancake batter. The idea here is to get it as thin as possible while still having it reasonably adhere to the surface of the chicken.
- Drop the chicken in the batter (remember, skin on), mix to coat evenly, and heat your oil to 350 degrees F.
- Drop your chicken into the oil, making sure not to crowd the container or burn yourself, and let it fry for 6 minutes. This phase cooks the chicken and starts the development of the crust on it.
- After the chicken is done frying, let it rest on a paper towel while you let the oil come back to 350 degrees. The second phase of the frying is also at 350 for 6 minutes. This phase drives the last bits of moisture out of the chicken, and crisps the crust to an unbelievable level. It also gives the chicken a very very nice color. Hell, the first time I fished the chicken out of the fryer after the second fry I realized that I hadn't been that moved by the sight of food in a very long time.
- After the second fry, let it rest on some paper towels some more. It's basically ready to eat as soon as it's cool to handle. Just don't forget the glaze.
- The first note I have is... WARNING. The second frying phase will be violent. When meat finishes cooking, the juices flow and pierce the surface, and chicken is no exception. Since the chicken will rest at least briefly before the second fry, that means there is actually increased moisture right under the crust, which translates to a violent, violent time. Seriously. The first two minutes of this make Vesuvius look like a joke. Drop the chicken in there fast, and step back. This mess is going to get raw like sushi, so haters to the left.
- Don't think about covering it either; the moisture will get back into the oil, making it far worse when you finally lift the cover. You'll basically be staring at a Chernobyl-level thing at that point.
- When butchering wings, the wing joints are actually fairly soft and have big spots of cartilage, making them easy pickings for even the dullest of kitchen knives. If you're still too squeamish to lift your blade and tear the wings asunder, you have 3 options. 1) Fry them whole. 2) Grow a spine, pick up your sword, and slay you some chicken. 3) Make your butcher do it, and leave them a nice tip for having to deal with your aforementioned lack of spine.
- I'm afraid you do need a thermometer for this; trust me, I'm an Olympic-level too-lazy-and-cheap-to-buy-extra-equipment competitor, but in this case it really is necessary. Just drop the $20 or whatever and be glad you did.
- On that note, for deep-frying I usually prefer my cast-iron pan, since it's heavy and holds a constant temperature well. In the absence of that, any good tallish heavy-bottomed pot will do, like a creuset stockpot or something. And, in a pinch, just about any large container works--you just have to watch more carefully for fluctuations in temperature.
Well, that's it. I honestly and truly doubt that you can get better fried chicken than this, but if there's something that proves me wrong, I want to eat it. Until then, the only thing I can see left to do is to expand my repertoire with a spicy option. For that I think I'll be needing some good ol' Korean gochujang and a whole host of other things--but that'll have to wait for another post.
I've been meaning to write this post for a very very long time, but could never gather all the proper information for it. After all, if I write a half-assed one, I'd be no better than all the people I cursed while trying to figure everything out. But thanks to my lovely photo assistant Cindy, I finally got the photos I needed, and so... Here it is.
First thing you need to know is: macarons are not macaroons. Macaroons are chewy and coconutty. Macarons are impossibly light and made of almonds. Confusing the two is unforgivable, and calling macarons "macaroons" on purpose will get you punched in the face.
Let's start with the basic anatomy of a macaron. Macarons are a "sandwich" with two shells (above) around a filling. The filling can be everything from buttercream to ganache. But what makes them distinct is the contrast between the smooth top and the ruffly rim of the shells, also known as the pied (french for feet). The pied is what gives them that little je ne sais quoi, if you'll allow me to be a little douchey. Macarons are great because a batch requires barely any active effort, and the result looks astounding even with minimal decoration. And more than anything else, it's versatile. You can make these work with every flavor--from the simple things like chocolate, coffee, and pistachio, to the weird and eldritch combinations like Pierre Herme's ispahan: a combination of rose, raspberry, and lychee.
But the name of the game is "moisture and air." Moisture because the more of it you have, the harder your life will be, and air because you need JUST the right amount in the batter for it to work out. Drying out the top of the shells after piping gives it that smooth top, and the air in the batter inflates during baking, driving the dried tops upwards and allowing the foam underneath to solidify into the pied. If the tops aren't solid enough (i.e., they're too wet, or the batter hasn't been deflated enough) to contain the force of the air, they crack and become misshapen. But if there isn't enough air, the batter doesn't rise at all or it rises like a limp... Well, you know. The result of that one is flat, crunchy almond biscuits. Like with Goldilocks' porridge, this batter has to be just right. Sounds simple enough, eh?
Not quite. Macarons like to play jump-rope with the Vicky Mendoza diagonal. When made properly, they're delicious. They're impossibly light. They're good looking, and make excellent party favors. Did I mention delicious and light? Seriously, they practically don't require chewing. You could give them to that toothless grandma you love, if it weren't for the whole diabetes thing. If it's not so light you can eat it without teeth, then you're doing it wrong. But in exchange for this they require a level of anality that makes your ficklest grade-school penmanship teacher look like a California pothead, and they're harder to predict than New England weather. Temperature change in the room? Screws things up. Humid day? Screws things up. Change the positioning of the racks in your oven? Screws things up.
Is it worth it? Depends on your preferences, really. And how easily you can get your hands on a batch of well-made ones. Since I love these sorts of things and seem to live 200 miles away from anything consistently good, I naturally set out to collect all the information I could to produce a good macaron. After a lot of roadblocks, trials, mess-ups, lessons, and of course manly pain-tears, here are the results. The good news is that after you get things down, the process is fairly matter-of-fact. Easy, even. Downright effortless. The bad news? It takes a LOT of prep and experimentation to get to that point. It's really one of those "looks super easy if you're good, but try it and you find out exactly how hard it is" things. Making a crappy macaron that sort of looks like the real thing is easy. Making one whose tastes live up to the name? Ah, now you're talking.
Naturally, since I mean for this to be a "master post" and a one-stop-shop for everything you need to make a good macaron, this post is going to be absolutely fucking monolithic (Yeah, you're not even halfway through yet.), so... You've been warned. Many many people have written whole books on this topic, both good and bad, but I'll try to keep it (relatively) short while covering as many bases as possible. I'm afraid this isn't a post for the people who want the pretty photos, but one for those who actually want to get down to the nitty gritty and conquer this son of a bitch.
... Still here? I applaud your persistence. Grab a cup of tea and buckle down...
Baking usually requires a good amount of equipment--let's face it, desserts are a rich man's game. But with this, it's especially true. It's not a giant list, but it's still noteworthy.
The first in the list is a food processor. The principle ingredient in macarons is powdered almonds (also known as almond flour, almond powder, almond meal). For some reason, I have a hell of a time finding it around here--and even when I do, it's usually too coarse to use. You need a very fine powder to produce macarons that aren't lumpy. With a food processor, I can find blanched almonds and just grind them myself. And even with existing almond powder, nothing works as well as a good blitz in the Cuisinart to get rid of lumps from moisture or shoddy manufacturing. For those on a tight budget (like college students, cough), a coffee grinder such as this one costs relatively little and works just as well. You'll just need to work in smaller, more numerous batches. It's more of a pain, but what can you do.
Pastry bags are necessary. You'll be doing a lot of piping between the shells and the fillings, and in this case dropping batters off a spoon is NOT an acceptable substitution in this case. I like the disposables from Ateco; I got 200 of them for $20 on amazon. It's convenient, and saves me the washing. As far as tips are concerned, I like an Ateco #804 for regular-sized shells.
Silpat mats are useful, but not necessary. I wouldn't recommend them unless you have too much money. Parchment paper on metal sheet pans do just as well.
In regards to spatulas, make sure it's a firm silicone one. If it's too soft, you won't be able to deflate the batter properly later. Trust me, you'll thank me later.
In terms of macaron recipes, there are two main schools of thought: the French meringue style, and the Italian meringue style. They both require roughly the same ingredients: almond powder, egg whites, sugar. It's just the process differs a bit, with the Italian style requiring a bit of sugar syrup work. Neither of them can really be called the "superior" style--it's all up to personal preference, really, and what you are most comfortable with. All the greats--Pierre Herme, Laduree, etc--play both styles, with Herme sticking by and large to the French and Laduree to the Italian (I'm not 100% on this; someone correct me if I'm wrong). The French produces something that is a bit lighter, whereas the Italian produces a bit more solid but tends to be more stable. I personally prefer the former, which is what I will detail here; I recommend it to beginners as well, since the latter requires a bit of sugar work that may make this even more intimidating than it already is.
- 90g egg whites
- 110g almond powder
- 200g confectioner's sugar
- 25g sugar
Simple, right? Definitely. Dead simple, in fact. The thing to note here is that the egg whites should be measured at exactly 90 grams. Not "3 large eggs", not "2.5 extra large eggs", 90 grams. Why? To reduce unpredictability. Trust me, you'll be wanting to control as many variables here as possible, especially when you're just starting out. Life will throw enough stuff in there to mess you up even without you having to worry about the egg whites in your batter, trust me. In fact, half of the macaron process is basically putting the odds on your side. Sure, you can skip the "optional" bits and play the odds, but that's really not something you want to do on your first few attempts.
- This part is optional, but you can rest the egg whites in a cool part of the kitchen or the refrigerator for a few days. This gets rid of some of the moisture, which stabilizes the whites and makes your job just a little bit easier. Don't worry; as long as there is no yolk in the mix, whites will last 3-5 days even at room temp. Alternatively, you could instead nuke them in the microwave for 3-5 seconds at a time to get rid of some moisture. Just make sure not to leave them in there too long, you'll accidentally cook them. How do I know this? Definitely not from experience, that's how...
- Whether you choose to follow #1 or not, start with egg whites at roughly room temp to maximize your chances of success.
- Pre-heat your oven to 290F.
- Throw the almond powder and the confectioner's sugar into a food processor and blitz it for about 30 seconds to a minute to work out the lumps. If you have unground almonds, it'll probably take a few minutes to get it to proper powder consistency. Don't try grinding just the almonds alone; it'll turn into almond paste more often than not because of the fat in the nuts. The confectioner's sugar helps keep things dry and powdery.
- Sift the almond powder + confectioner's sugar to be super-sure that you have a good consistency. You can skip this, but you risk ending up with unpleasant little lumps.
- Whip the egg whites to the stiff peak stage, and dump in the 25g sugar. Whisk for a few more seconds to incorporate fully.
- Alright, here comes the tricky part. Combine the almond powder/sugar combination with the egg whites, and start folding with your spatula. The goal here is to deflate the batter JUST enough that there is enough air in it for the feet to form during baking, but not so much that the macarons are misshapen or cracked. The total process should take less than 50 good strokes of the spatula for a batch of this size. This is probably THE most important yet overlooked part of this process. Please do yourself a favor and take a look at the post-procedural notes on this part. :)
- Load up the pastry bags. For beginners or the bag-challenged such as myself, you can put the bag in a tall mug. Just make sure the tip is pointing up as below, so it doesn't start spilling into the mug as soon as you start filling it.
- Pipe the batter into small rounds. Don't squeeze them together too much; this will create too much moisture and weaken the integrity of the shells as you bake. Personally I like a shell of about an inch and a half in diameter. While piping, I recommend holding the tip at a slight angle and not moving it, then lifting the tip after the round is finished, and "hooking" the tip back towards the center to make a circle. Don't worry; if your batter was done right, the little tip will settle back into the shell. ... If not, then the tips might stay and your macarons will look like cartoon poo. See the picture below for ones that have been done properly, as well as ones that haven't. (As usual, click to embiggen.)
- Let the shells rest for roughly 45 minutes to an hour. Again, see the notes for a more detailed explanation.
- Bake the shells for about 16 minutes, adjusting according to size.
- Let the shells cool down after baking, then remove from the sheets with spatulas. Fill with whatever you want.
And finally the mythic Notes section. This time there are actually enough to make multiple sections of notes: this section is on all the little details you'll need to really succeed. So you'd better watch your step, cause I'm about to drop some knowledge.
Folding the batter. Alright. Here's the most important part of getting a good french meringue macaron: the folding. Let's get one thing straight here, you are supposed to deflate the batter. In fact, the entire macaron is dependent on you deflating the batter JUST enough. Now, it's really hard to give a solid count because of the variability in folding style, spatula size, whether you've added food coloring/cocoa powder/whatever to the batter, and all that. Also remember that filling the pastry bag and piping it also serves to deflate the batter further; it's not a HUGE thing, but it's not insignificant either. But (as I said above) generally speaking it should take less than 50 good strokes of the spatula. The one way I've best been able to tell though is the consistency of the batter as it flows off the spatula. And so I present the photo that this post really does revolve around:
The texture when it's very important here. Note how it drops off the spatula in thick ribbons. Note the speed, the consistency, the texture. If it's coming down in giant blobs it needs more work. If it's dripping off like syrup, you've gone way too far. When the batter drops back into the bowl, any irregularities in its surface should start to even out, very very slowly. The only way to be absolutely certain is to see this enough and use your experience to judge, but since I can't give you that, I can only give you this animated picture, which I really wish I'd had when I was learning this shit. It would have made my life 1000 times easier. Use it as a guideline, and good luck.
On that note, if you have a bit of trouble getting the batter completely even and lump/bubble-free, you can fold a small fraction into the egg whites as a sort of "starter" and giving it 5 strokes or so, so you don't have to work with it all at once. Don't overdo it though or you'll deflate the batter way too much.
Resting macarons and you. While macarons are actually relatively quick to make, all desserts require time. This is no exception. The first rest you will need is obviously the egg whites; that has been covered above. The second is the shells after piping. What you want to do is let the shells rest until a slight "skin" has formed on top of them. This means that when you touch them lightly with your finger, they should not be tacky at all, in any way, in any area of the shell. On average this takes me 45 minutes or so, but that can change depending on humidity, temperature, and what you put in your shells. See what I mean by variability? If you're in a HUGE hurry, you can speed up the process with a blow-dryer or a space heater. But if you overdo it with that, then your shells might have a slight bit more crisp on the outside than usual, which slightly violates the spirit of macarons. Use your judgment.
The second rest is after filling. While sometimes shells are ready to eat right out the oven, most often they are not. After you fill them, cover them up and let them rest a few hours. Optimally, you should leave them overnight (or even better, a full 24 hours) in the fridge. This lets the fillings' flavors infuse properly with the shells, resulting in a better taste overall. In addition, the moisture from the fillings helps soften up the shells even more, bringing it to the edge where the impossible and the possible meet--the possimpible, if you will. Right out of the oven, you get a product that can be okay to meh. After a good long rest though, you get something amazing.
Though this isn't really a rest, if you refrigerated your macarons please let them come back to room temperature before eating. Please. It's kind of common sense, since fillings like ganache and buttercream harden considerably in the fridge and are not at all pleasant to eat at those temperatures, but I feel like it should be mentioned anyway. Obviously something with mascarpone takes way less time to come to room temp than something with butter, which in turn takes less time than something with chocolate. Again; use your judgment.
In keeping with the above, you'll notice how any macaron shop worth its space will have the macarons AT ROOM TEMP. Usually they will be stored sideways in a nearly airtight box. The environment of the box lets them rest and soften properly, and the sideways arrangement keeps them from sticking--trust me, with the moisture in the macarons and the fillings, if you try resting macarons on a plate some of the ones touching the plate will stick. Also the boxes just look good. People often talk about baked goods "fresh out of the oven", but in this case that is actually a bad thing. I can assure you that the best macarons you buy will always be room temperature and resting on their sides, and will always have rested for a while before being taken out for sale.
Removing the shells. Some people recommend putting a bit of water on the sheet to soften and remove the shells. I think that's a load of horse apples. It's way too much risk for sogginess for something that shouldn't need it in the first place. Just get a good flat thin spatula, and remove them with that. If you can't get them off a silpat mat or nonstick parchment paper, then they are probably undercooked and not ready yet, or something else has gone terribly terribly wrong.
Yes, for once I am writing a troubleshooting section. Getting tired of me yet? This part will be for the common things that go wrong, and how to fix and/or prevent them.
1. Cracked shells. Shells crack for a variety of reasons, but the root of it is that the top of the shell wasn't strong enough to withstand the force from the air rising in the body of the shell. One possibility is that you haven't rested the shells enough to form a sufficient skin. Make sure you rest them long enough. Another is that the batter was simply undermixed. And the third (and not so uncommon) is that the macarons are getting too hot. This has happened to me once or twice, since I work mainly in an electric oven with the heating coils at the bottom and tend to keep my racks at the bottom for higher heat. Try moving the oven rack up a slot or two and see if that helps. Otherwise, just make sure your batter is the right texture, and that you let it rest enough to form a skin. And lastly, if there is too much moisture and it compromises the shells, they will crack. This can result in too much liquid food coloring in the batter, or baking too many macarons too close together. In these cases, opening the oven door for a second a few minutes into the baking can help vent the oven of moisture and prevent cracking.
2. Misshapen shells. This is somewhat related to cracked shells, in that it shares a common cause: undermixed batter. As you deflate the macaron batter, it becomes more and more liquid, and less and less lumpy. If you don't deflate it enough, it'll still behave like a meringue; that is, any shape you give it with the pastry bag will stay that way instead of smoothing down into a nice dome-ish circle. You can see a bit of this in my green tea macaron pictures, where the tips haven't QUITE sank back into the shells. The more undermixed the macarons are, the worse this problem is.
3. Flat shells, with wide and short or no pied. This comes from the exact opposite as the above two. If you have this problem, chances are your batter was flowing like crepe batter, and you have deflated it far far too much. Go easier on the spatula next time, yeah? Another possibility is that you didn't rest them for long enough, but this time the top was so under-rested it just went ahead and expanded in tandem with the rest of the macaron, resulting in a non-flat but still footless shell. The rest after piping is so important. I would have gotten a picture, but after everything I've been through I couldn't bring myself to overmix on purpose like that.
4. Small lumps in the shells. This is an ingredient problem as much as anything. Lumps usually result from moisture in the almond powder or just badly/coarsely ground almond powder. For macarons you need powder that is approaching confectioner's sugar in how fine it is. Again, blitz it with confectioner's sugar in a food processor even if you have awesome pre-ground almond powder. Confectioner's sugar is laced with corn starch, which will help get rid of any moisture-induced clumps. To be extra sure, sift it before using. Though honestly, with a good quality powder I find that a few seconds in the Cuisinart gets rid of the need for sifting.
5. Large lumps or bubbles in the shells. This comes mostly from the even mixing issue discussed above. Use a small part of the powder as a starter if it helps, and work slowly. Make sure you incorporate as much of the powder as you can with each stroke, getting rid of large clumps and dry spots as you go along. I've heard people say that smacking the bowl helps get rid of air bubbles, but I haven't found it necessary. You can try it if it makes you feel better though. Same with rapping the undersides of the macaron trays after piping and all that, I've never needed to do it. Just work methodically and don't hurry yourself.
6. Lopsided shells. Work on your piping. Don't try to pipe in a spiral or something stupid like that. Hold it in place, then lift and pull the tip. I apologize for not having an animated photo for this part, but I didn't think of it at the time. If I ever get one in the future, I'll retroactively link it back here. This could also be caused by uneven resting surfaces, which makes the batter subtly and slowly flow into a weird shape. I had this problem in the beginning, since I was lazy and rested them on paper that was already on metal baking sheets; the problem was, most of our sheets are cheap shit and warped from repeated abuse. :)
Here's the section that I rarely get to write. But I wouldn't have discovered most of what I know without the following...
Helene Dujardin, whose free ebook Demystifying Macarons first turned me on to the importance of the consistency and mixing of the batter, and has been an invaluable resource otherwise. I swear I will read her blog one day.
Michel Suas, whose book Advanced Bread and Pastry didn't teach me anything on macarons in particular, but did inspire me with the pretty pictures inside, and kept me going even when I didn't really want to. Also it's just a great reference in general.
Jill Colonna, whose book Mad About Macarons was the only resource I actually paid for to learn macarons specifically, and clued me in to the after-filling rest to bring macarons to perfection.
And once again I have to extend my glare of withering condemnation to LeNotre academy, whose texts were as usual thoroughly unhelpful and bordering on misleading, and the main sabotaging factor in my very first attempts. Seriously, screw you guys.
... Well, that's it. Notice how despite this giant wall of text, the amount of time you spend in actually making a batch will probably be tiny compared to any other desserts. This is because like most real skills worth knowing, it's not really about the fancy stuff so much as the absolute mastery of the fundamentals and imposing your will on the crap life throws in there to get in the way. Sure, you can rap the tray and add powders and chemicals and invert the bowl at exactly 30 degrees from the vertical when you're mixing and all that, but that's just a lot of bull without accomplishing much. Peddling that is like tying a brick to your bike and saying that it's OK, you're still moving. Trust me. It's all about the basics.
So in the end, making a batch of macarons actually doesn't require too much work, and the active effort time required is downright trivial, but since you have to learn so much to get it just right, I'm sticking this in Category 5. If you've read this post all the way down to the end, I admire your tenacity. Good luck, so long, and thanks for all the fish. Hopefully someone finds this useful at some point.
I remember going to a restaurant once and being repulsed at the "strawberry shortcake" that was served which had a base of something closer to a cookie than a cake. As it turns out, this is the "correct" American version, but you know what? I spit on American shortcake. The form I'm familiar with--strawberries, sweetened whipped cream, light sponge cake--is apparently a Japanese take on the concept, and I must say that once again I prefer the Asian approach to the American. I swear it's not a racial thing.
That aside, this is the latest in a series of experiments involving the original sponge that I had discovered. The main variable I was playing with in this cake was the sweetened whipped cream. Whipped cream alone is not stiff enough to hold a cake together; especially when you consider that it must be sliced, and pieces will be taken with forks, etc. It's simply too squishy. This problem is remedied with the addition of confectioner's sugar, which sets as the cake rests in the refrigerator, but add too much of that and here comes the diabetic shock. What I ended up settling with was:
- 600g cream
- 150g confectioner's sugar
The result was a very workable mixture that didn't taste TOO sweet. I took it to 180 once, which was just way too much; I think the final number I'd settle on is about 130, but in all practicality anything as low as 100-120 would probably be alright.
A side-note: Some people hold that you need all sorts of fancy contraptions to assemble a cake properly; for example, a cake "frame" to hold the cake in constant shape while frosting. This is, if I've ever seen any, some pretty class-A horse excrement. All you really need is a bit of skill and a flat-edged palette knife, maybe an even surface to work on. Sure, tools and gadgets and gizmos will probably make your life easier; especially if you're a professional and turning out one cake after another. But to believe that all that is necessary is an advanced case of what I like to call "powering on the electric mixer before ever holding a whisk." And by advanced, I mean like stages of cancer.
And aside from a bit of sloppiness on the bottom right-ish rim of the cake (oopsies), note how it's pretty presentable even with minimal effort; with an extra 5 seconds, I tidied up the rim to complete flatness. A quickly (albeit extrememly messily, look on the right there!) piped garland type thing did a perfect job in covering those bits that I missed up. Cake frames? Pah!
But all disdain for idiotic doodads aside, if there's one thing this little experiment has taught me it's that I've been giving decoration far too little credit. Thus far I've focused on other technical parts of cooking that weren't to do with pure aesthetics (for example, the intensely fickle process behind macarons) and dismissed decoration as something more artsy fartsy than having a significant effect on taste. Of course I knew appearances played a part in food but I guess I'd underestimated just how much, as well as the degree of technical skill needed for proper decoration even disregarding any sort of artistic ability and flair. I thought I'd hit a soft cap on the technical after I'd finished macarons, but it's nice to know that there's another frontier. And so for the time and effort it takes to properly decorate this strawberry monstrosity as well as the precision needed to get the slices the right thickness, the frosting just so, and the flavor completely balanced; I place it in Category 4.