Monday, 30 September 2013

Tutorial and Recipe: Macarons

So, let's get this straight right up front: Macaroons ("Mah-kah-ROONS") are homey, chewy coconut cookies containing condensed milk, and French macarons ("Mah-kah-RAWN" - the "s" is silent) are light, delicate meringue cookies sandwiched together with a luscious filling. 

I try not to be a Judgy McJudgypants when people mispronounce words, even though it hurts my heart to hear my beloved English language butchered...or in this case, French (but I digress); however, I would greatly prefer that the appropriate name is used in this particular case.  And no, you're not paranoid; all professional bakers WILL judge you.

Macarons are, admittedly, one of the most challenging patisseries for a baker to attempt. So many factors need to be controlled for a successful outcome, and many times the recipe will fail if even one of the main elements is a little out of whack; sometimes, your macarons recipe will fail because the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter is aligning with Mars, or you frowned at the batter for too long. Or mispronounced "macaron".  Who knows.

The best thing to remember when attempting this massively finicky cookie, is that the most important, controllable elements to get right are humidity, freshness of ingredients, oven temperature, timing, proper kitchen equipment, and a light, steady hand.
The first time I ever made macarons was in Pastry school; the class was taught to make four different flavours (2 per team), which we then boxed up, three of each, and the school sold them as holiday treats (we were not allowed to keep our production, although we could buy what we made for a seriously reduced price). 

I've been fascinated by what makes macarons so special ever since.

The anatomy of a macaron is simple; you have two biscuit bases, with a luscious filling sandwiched between them. The perfect macaron is solid (no cavity of air within), has a "pied", or "foot" that happens during baking, and is smooth on the top surface, with no wrinkles, cracks, or gritty bumps. Perfect macarons only occur when all of the above criteria are met (temperature, timing, etc.); in other words, there is little to no leeway, wiggle room, or forgiveness when making these challenging little cookies!

I decided to lose my mind make these for my wedding dessert table, because, hey, I'm a pastry chef; I'm *sure* I have the time/skill/motivation to do them perfectly on the first try!

...hehheh...hubris is funny.

So yeah...of the several dozen macarons I made (in three different flavour combinations, no less, because I am apparently insane...), maybe half turned out at the very least halfway acceptable to my perfectionist mind. Frustrating.  I was battling against some of the hard limits that Macarons impose upon their creators, namely time (I was rushing things at certain points), temperature (trying to make the perfect macaron during an August heatwave is dumb dumb DUMB), and killer humidity (see previous).

One more obstacle I didn't foresee: all of my desserts were being made to be boxed up and delivered  to the venue on the day prior to the wedding, as the kitchen crew would be completing and displaying my work on the day of, me being busy getting married and all.  Fine and well if one of the kitchen crew happens to be a pastry chef, and knows how to store/handle items as delicate as macarons, which in this case, they did not.  I blame myself for that one; I should have left more specific instructions on how delicate they were.  I'm sure many of my creations suffered from rough handling in the 24 hours prior to the wedding, sometime between storage, un-boxing, and display, given that the best picture I can find does not show my poor wee babies in their best light...
So ...much...damage...wahhh!!

I made pink rose flavoured ones with raspberry preserves filling, orange flavoured orange ones with milk chocolate buttercream filling, and (what were supposed to be blue, haha) green marshmallow flavoured ones with blueberry nutmeg preserves filling.

Anyway, here is a perfect recipe for basic macarons; this recipe works very well, given that you follow all of its steps in the proper order. Good luck!

Basic Macarons

Yield: 80-100 1" round halves (40-50 sandwiches)
  • 225 grams icing sugar
  • 125 grams ground almonds
  • 110 grams egg whites (about 4), aged overnight at room temperature
  • 30 grams granulated sugar
  • Pinch of salt
Step 1: Size and print out four pages of 1" radius circles about 2" apart (template included at bottom of this post for your convenience); place each sheet on a doubled baking sheet and completely cover with a flat piece of parchment paper; set aside. Note: if you're skilled with piping and don't need a "cheat sheet", skip this step and just use the blank parchment paper or a Silpat, you Fancy Jack, you.

Step 2: Push almond flour (also called almond meal) through a fine sieve into a medium-sized bowl, and sift icing sugar on top. Mix together and set aside.
(Tip: at this point, I ran the icing sugar/almond flour through the food processor for about a minute for a fine grind. This helps lessen/eliminate lumps and the grittiness of the almond flour in the final product).

Step 3: In a large clean, dry mixing bowl, whip the room temperature egg whites with the pinch of salt on medium speed until foamy. Increase the speed to high and gradually add granulated sugar as they whip. Continue to whip to stiff peaks—the whites should be firm and shiny.

Step 4: With a flexible spatula, gently fold in icing sugar/almond flour mixture into egg whites until completely incorporated. The mixture should be shiny and "flow like magma" (when small peaks dissolve to a flat surface, that's your clue to stop mixing).

This is the time to add any flavourings or colourings you want for your macarons. I highly recommend using candy oils and food colour paste or gel because they are highly concentrated and will not dilute your batter adversely.

Step 5: Fit a piping bag with a 3/8" round tip. Gently pipe the batter onto the baking sheets, within the circles. It's best to work from the back to the front so you don't accidentally drag through your hard work! Gently but firmly tap the underside of the baking sheet to remove air bubbles. Let dry at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours to allow skins to form (important to achieving a smooth, unwrinkled surface during baking).

Step 6: Bake in a 325 degreeF oven for 10 to 11 minutes. Make sure you have double-panned your baking pans to protect your delicate macarons from burning. Use a wooden spoon to keep the oven door slightly ajar, and carefully rotate the baking sheet after 5 minutes for even baking.

Step 7: Remove macarons from oven and transfer the parchment to a cooling rack. When cool, slide a metal offset spatula or paring knife underneath the macaron to remove from parchment. If they are stubbornly resisting being removed, you can carefully pour a small amount of boiling water underneath the parchment paper to help "steam" them off the paper (put the parchment back on your baking pan first!).

Step 8: Pair cooled macarons of similar size, and pipe about 1/2 tsp of the filling of your choice onto one of the pair. Sandwich macarons together gently but evenly and firmly, and refrigerate to allow flavours to blend together. Bring back to room temperature before serving.

Have fun with your flavour pairings!  There are virtually unlimited possibilities, so go as wild as you can stand.  I'm always up for pictures and reviews of your own recipe success (and failures!), so please feel free to send me a comment with pics if possible.  Good luck!

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Tutorial and Recipe: Raspberry Jam

The second jam I wanted to make after the "kinda blue" blueberry-nutmeg jam was a nice, deep red, to reflect the red in my wedding colours.  I looked around for other recipes, but I really had my heart set on the gorgeous, jewel-like colours of raspberry jam. Having made it before, I knew how to make it, how easy it would be, and what to expect.

I had originally hoped to recreate a Raspberry-Chambord jam my classmates and I made in Year 2 of Pastry School, but I was unsuccessful in finding the proper raspberry liqueur, so I left it out and let the razzies I had picked myself and frozen at the peak of their ripeness do the talkin'!

Please excuse the shoddy jam labels; totally my fault.  My Photoshop-talented bridesmaid, Katrina, had made some amazeballs labels for all three of the jams, but because I couldn't decide on my "yellow" jam until it was too late to order the labels, I had to make do with my own unprofessional-looking, hand-printed labels.  However, since this *is* my blog, I am giving these labels another chance at celebrity, so all can see her awesomeness!

This is the label she created for me for the raspberry jam:
So anyway, here is the recipe and the tutorial for making this delicious jam!

Raspberry Jam 
Original Source: Bernardin online 
Makes about 6 x 250 ml jars 
  • 4 cups (1000 ml) raspberries, fresh, or frozen and completely thawed
  • 1 pouch (85 ml) Liquid Pectin
  • 6 -1/2 cups (1625 ml) granulated sugar

Place 6 clean 250 ml mason jars on a rack in a boiling water canner; cover jars with water and heat to a simmer (180°F/82°C). Set screw bands aside. Heat sealing discs in hot water, not boiling (180°F/82°C). Keep jars and sealing discs hot until ready to use.

Push about half of the raspberries through a sieve (not a colander) to separate from the seeds; capture as much of the pulp as you can; discard the seeds. Recombine with unseeded raspberries. If you prefer a totally unseeded jam, you can de-seed the entire amount of raspberries; if you are doing do, I'd add another cup of raspberries to the total, to make up for volume lost through de-seeding.

In a large, deep stainless steel saucepan, stir together prepared fruit and all of the sugar. Over high heat, bring mixture to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down. Add liquid pectin, squeezing entire contents from pouch. Return to boil; boil hard 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and skim off foam.

Ladle hot jam into a hot jar to within 1/4 inch (0.5 cm) of top of jar (headspace). Using nonmetallic utensil, remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if required, by adding more jam. Wipe jar rim removing any food residue. Centre hot sealing disc on clean jar rim. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip tight. Return filled jar to rack in canner. Repeat for remaining jam.

When canner is filled, ensure that all jars are covered by at least one inch (2.5 cm) of water. Cover canner and bring water to full rolling boil before starting to count processing time. At altitudes up to 1000 ft (305 m), process (i.e. boil filled jars) for 10 minutes.

When processing time is complete, turn stove off, remove canner lid, wait 5 minutes, then remove jars without tilting and place them upright on a protected work surface. Cool upright, undisturbed 24 hours; DO NOT RETIGHTEN screw bands.

After cooling check jar seals. Sealed discs curve downward and do not move when pressed. Remove screw bands; wipe and dry bands and jars. Store screw bands separately or replace loosely on jars, as desired. Label and store jars in a cool, dark place. For best quality, use home canned foods within one year.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Tutorial: Dowelling a Cake

Reboot of my original post from a previous blog, Chronic Masterbakers

What’s a dowel?
Dowels are straight sticks made from rolled paper, plastic, or wood, that are (usually) vertically pushed into a cake in order to support the weight of the above layers.

How many dowels you use, and where to place them within your cake depends on a number of factors:  how many layers your cake is going to be, how large (diameter/square inches) the layers are, and how heavy each layer is once the fondant and decoration has been added.

Why dowel a cake?
Doweling a cake is strongly recommended whenever there will be:

a) more than one tier on the cake, 
b) the tiers are offset or not completely vertical (like on a topsy-turvy cake), or 
c) the top tiers are particularly dense or heavy.
Don’t let this happen to you!
A beautiful action shot of a wedding
cake disaster!
Doweling prevents your cake from allowing gravity to have its wicked way. Two VERY BAD things can happen to undoweled cakes (if they even manage to make it to their destination unscathed): either your unsupported layers will slide off one another (see left) and fall onto the table — if you’re *really* unlucky they’ll hit the floor – or the weight of each unsupported layer weakens the structural integrity of the cake as a whole (see right), and squashes the cake layers beneath due to excessive weight. 
And then it falls to the floor. 
Guess who’s paying the costs for THAT cake?  Hint: it’s not the client!

What is the best doweling material?
Which dowels to use is largely a matter of preference; every professional cake baker/decorator has their favourites. 
No, you fool! That’s her

WOOD: Old-school decorators usually advocate wooden dowels, as they are very strong, relatively thin, can be sharpened into a wicked point on one end for better driving (like a stake) through the centre of tall cakes (had that tall wedding cake in the pic above had a stake through its little cakey heart, it would probably have never hit the ground). 
The downsides: wooden dowels are getting harder and harder to find as cake designers move to alternate doweling options, and in response their cost is rising. 
Pro-TIP: whatever you do, DO NOT buy wooden dowels from a hardware store or a discount/dollar store that are not SPECIFICALLY LABELLED as food-safe.  Many wood dowels are used for non-food crafting, and may have been coated with a potentially-toxic pest retardant or otherwise handled in a non-food-safe manner. Also, don’t whittle one end of your dowel. Go out and purchase a cheap pencil sharpener and sharpen them that way.

PLASTIC: Other more contemporary cake designers use hollow plastic tubes; depending on the style of your cake, these can be extremely strong, yet take up very little cake “real estate” so the client still gets all the cake that they paid for.  Plastic dowels are good for cakes that have a lot of surface space you can utilize to support your structure, and they are also very light for their strength so they don't add much weight to the overall cake. Cheaper alternatives include the bubble tea straws, though I have never used them myself.

The downsides: they can be quite expensive (with the one exception), can’t be sharpened to a point to drive through multiple layers, and, depending on their shape, are not usually as strong as wooden dowels.

ROLLED PAPER: Also known as “lollipop sticks”, these economical dowels can be used on average sized multi-layer cakes, and are narrow enough in circumference that they can usually be easily inserted anywhere more structure is needed in a cake.  They’re also a breeze to cut to the proper length (most times you can just notch where you want them to break, then just bend them to break them), and due to their thinness they don’t have to be sharpened. 
The downsides: the longest paper sticks available today are still only lollipop-length, and so aren’t long enough to be driven in one piece through a multi-layer cake from top to bottom. They are also not meant to be used exclusively for extremely heavy cakes, or those with large, multiple layers (like a big wedding cake).

What is the WORST product to use for dowels?
Hands down, using cheap plastic straws, like the ones you would get from a fast-food place, is the WORST idea ever (I would make the one exception for bubble tea straws, as noted above, which are surprisingly strong for their shape and size).

I understand and respect the need to reduce costs when making cakes for commissions; you might even have gotten away with it a few times in the past with no bad effects…but TRUST ME, this is NOT where to cut corners.
A cake decorator’s nightmare
I've heard too many stories from my contemporaries and professors about beautiful cakes made for fabulous occasions that never made it to the event due to cheaping out on the doweling.  To me, it’s like building a beautiful house, yet making the basement out of sand.  Sure it looks nice for a while, but as soon as that first earthquake hits, BOOM all that work is destroyed in an instant.

How do I dowel my cake?
It’s actually quite simple.  The two most important things to remember when considering your doweling options are: 
1) Your dowel should never be seen once it’s in the cake, and

Wooden dowels pushed sub-surface
prior to the fondant covering. See the
scribed circle line? That is showing
where the above cake will sit.
Seriously, though, for simple 2, 3 or 4 tier cakes, as long as you are a) placing your dowels within the space that will be covered by the cake above (see pic to the left); b) they are equidistant to one another; c) you are using a cakeboard, plate/platter, or a thin cake card on the bottoms of each cake above the base cake; and d) they are cut to be flush, or even slightly below the cake’s height, then you’re good to go.

For larger, taller cakes, the best guide to maintaining stability is to ensure you have a central, 90 degree vertical angle that runs from the top of your cake to the bottom, where you will *gently!* pound a sharpened long dowel from the top through each cake and cake card right to the bottom cake.  You need to measure the height of your assembled cake, choose a dowel of the appropriate height and style (see above for descriptions of various dowels), and cut accordingly. After that, take another dowel, hold it on top of the one in the cake and hit it with a small hammer to make sure that the one in the cake is down all the way through the tiers. No, don’t just shove it in with your finger and hope for the best.

I’d also suggest that you mention to the client that when they cut the cake there will be dowels present, and to please just have them quietly removed after the cake cutting. You never can tell; you don’t want to choke a greedy kid, do you?

Here are a few pics of perfectly doweled cakes, to show you how excellently it can be done:
A lovely five-layer cake.  Perfect.

A perfectly balanced cake!

Beautiful example of dowelling!

One of my favourite cakes from Pinterest!

So now you know everything there is to know about doweling cakes, or at least all that *I* know! Good luck to you in your next doweling adventure, and remember: be confident but be careful, and things will go well.

Don’t forget to take lots of pictures of your little beauties!

Friday, 27 September 2013

Tutorial and Recipe: Blueberry Nutmeg Jam

Being a baker as well as a full-time administrative professional can lead to certain...expectations on the part of friends and family at times.  This was in evidence at my wedding, too!  I just *knew* that if I didn't make my own cake and do the dessert table myself, my guests would be asking why I didn't provide the desserts, considering it's not only what I do for a living, but my passion?

Well, that's what I imagined they would say, anyway...

The same thing applied to my choice of wedding favours as well. My three reasons: 1) I wanted to make something that would not only be appreciated at the moment of the giving, but later on, after the wedding was but a distant memory; 2) It was important to me to not just give out some cheap little piece of bric a brac that would be shoved in a cabinet and forgotten about, donated, thrown away, or broken within a few short months, and 3) I wanted to share my love of and skill in baking and desserts with the people I loved the most!

So, what is a gift that satisfies these criteria?  Food, of course! To that end, I decided on making three delicious homemade jams, with the jam colours consistent with my wedding colours -- or at least as close an approximation as I could get. I processed them in cute little 125 mL jars, and let guests choose which jams -- and how many -- they would like to take home with them.

This tutorial and recipe is for the Blueberry Nutmeg Jam one of my amazing bridesmaids and I made in the month leading up to my August wedding:

Blueberry Nutmeg Jam

Step 1: Prepare your workspace. From left to right you see screw-bands (for holding the lid inserts on the jars), a head-space gauge (the blue stick), a jar lifter, jars, and a canning funnel (not pictured, inserts and lid lifter magnet).

While you don't technically need anything other than the jars, lids, and screw-bands, these other supplies make the process of making jam much easier and safer.

Step 2: Prepare your canner. If you don't own a canner (see photo), a large, deep pot will do. To avoid the jars touching the bottom of the pot, crumple up some tinfoil and flatten into a circle slightly smaller than your pot's diameter. Rest the jars on the foil disk when placing them in the canner for processing.

The most important thing to ensure is that the pot's sides are high enough that water will be able to cover the tops of the jars when they are submerged.

Bring water to a rolling boil on your stove (one of the back burners). Add your jars and process them in the boiling water bath for 5 minutes, then turn down the heat to a simmer until needed.

Step 3: Meanwhile, prepare your lid inserts.  While it's not necessary to boil the screw-bands, the lid inserts do need to be boiled briefly to sterilize them and activate the glue band.  Once the pot comes to a boil, turn down to a simmer and keep it handy.

Step 4: Recipe!
Blueberry Jam
(Original Recipe and instructions courtesy of De Bernardin website)

Yield: 8 x 250 ml jars, or 16 x 125 mL jars
To make this jam, you will need the following ingredients:
  • 4- 1/2 cups (1125 ml) fresh blueberries, about 4 pints (2 L)
  • 1 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
  • 4 tbsp (60 ml) lemon juice
  • 2 pouches (170 ml) Liquid Pectin
  • 7 cups (1250 ml) granulated sugar
Rinse blueberries, add to a large, deep, stainless steel saucepan, and crush roughly with a potato masher (this may be easier to do 1 cup at a time). 

Add the lemon juice, nutmeg, and all the sugar, and stir together to combine. 

Over high heat, bring mixture to a full, rolling boil that cannot be stirred down.

Add both packets of liquid pectin together, squeezing entire contents from both pouches. Stir into mixture to completely combine; bring back to a full, hard boil for one full minute, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat, skim off foam and discard.

Ladle hot jam into a hot jar to within 1/4" of top of jar (headspace). Using a nonmetallic utensil, remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if required, by adding more jam. Wipe jar rim removing any food residue. 

Center hot sealing disc on clean jar rim. 

Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip tight. 


Return filled jar to rack in canner. Repeat for remaining jam.
When canner is filled, ensure that all jars are covered by at least 1" of water. Cover canner and bring water to full rolling boil before starting to count processing time. 

At altitudes up to 1000 ft (305 m), process (boil filled jars) for 10 minutes.

When processing time is complete, turn stove off, remove canner lid, wait 5 minutes, then remove jars without tilting and place them upright on a protected work surface. Cool upright, undisturbed, for 24 hours; DO NOT RE-TIGHTEN screw bands.
After cooling, check the jar seals. Sealed discs curve downward and do not move when pressed. Any jars that move up and down (making the *poink!* sound), are for the refrigerator only and are good for up to two weeks.

Remove screw bands; wipe and dry bands and jars to minimize rusting. Store screw bands separately or replace loosely on jars, as desired.  Label jars, and store in a cool, dark place. 

For best quality, use home canned foods within one year.