Monday, 30 March 2009

Spring Happiness

After what has been the most gruelling week of my teaching career I am appreciating anew the joys of Spring! Ofsted is over (and we are pronounced 'good with outstanding features'!!), I survived - and even almost enjoyed - a residential trip with 29 children, and now there is only a week of term left before the 2 week Easter Break.

Here is what made me happy yesterday...

A long walk in the countryside on a crisp sunny day. I loved this road lined with ancient trees and golden daffodils.

Blossom on the trees and contented animals in the fields.

Our first attempt at vegetable gardening is off to a good start.

Relaxing in front of a real fire with a nice glass of red wine and a new cookery book - a fascinating mix of memoirs and recipes, stunningly presented in collage-style.

A husband who cooked the entire roast-beef dinner last night, including what were perhaps the best roast potatoes in the whole world! (The Yorkshire Pudding was incredible too!)

Jugs of flowers from the garden. I think the daffodils look wonderful in the blue jug, and the grape hyacinths (which are carpeting our front flowerbeds) are such a beautiful colour.

I hope you are all feeling the joys of Spring as well!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Donuts... Mmmmm!

Last weekend. A day in Oxford. Beautiful sunshine punctuated with heavy showers. What better place to escape from the rain?

I love that Krispy Kreme have changed the spelling in their tagline to read 'doughnuts' so as not to offend us on this side of the Atlantic! The coffee was goooood...

But the donuts? Divine!

Caramel Dream donut, the 'special'. I loved the generous amount of filling, and the chocolate icing, sprinkled lavishly with chocolate shavings.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Oooh La La!

In recent years I have begun to develop a fascination with macarons. Not the coconut-laden English macaroon, but the delicately-coloured, airy, meringue-like, cream-filled, crispy mouthful of heaven that is the classic French macaron. Who could fail to be enchanted by the sight of these beauties? This stack was snapped in Raymond Blanc's Oxford patisserie Maison Blanc, but it seems as though macarons are quietly invading our shores, with shops such as Laduree moving across the Channel, and macaron pyramids seen increasingly often in bakery windows.

Despite my fascination, I never really thought about making them myself. I have made Nigella's Pistachio Macarons (from How to Be a Domestic Goddess) several times and absolutely loved them. But there is no doubt that although they taste divine, they are a somewhat more 'rustic' version of the original. Or maybe that was just mine...

However, I have recently stumbled upon several blog posts about making macarons (here, here and here to be precise) and last week I decided that I was going to go for it.

Making macarons is not difficult, but there is no doubt that the whole process takes up quite a lot of 'brain space' (although again that might just be me...). I found myself obsessing over different recipes, buying hitherto unknown ingredients (egg-white powder?!) and planning the entire event days in advance. To be fair, some planning is definitely necessary as the consensus amongst macaron aficionados is that the egg whites need to be 'aged' before using, which simply means separating the eggs up to 3 days before you plan to bake. Fortunately we made a batch of ice-cream at the weekend which used some egg yolks, so I was able to set aside the whites for 48 hours.

I wanted a double filling - some kind of cream, and some kind of fruit - and I also wanted to make them in a pretty pastel colour. As I have some vibrantly purple blackberry and apple jam that I made last Autumn I decided to make this my theme. I coloured my meringue mixture with food colouring paste so as not to thin the mix too much, and then piped it into rounds.

I was nervous about getting the consistency right, but I guess I struck lucky this time as I managed to get 2 trays of well-near-perfect mauve domes of batter. I didn't bother taking a picture of the third tray... in the process of scraping out the bowl I had obviously knocked all the air from the batter so the last piping-bag full just dribbled out and the macarons spread into eachother in a delightfully messy, but decidedly un-Laduree style!

A couple of the macarons cracked a little in the oven, and a few of them browned very slightly too (next time I will cook them at a lower temperature for a bit longer) but most were fine, and had developed the distinctive macaron 'foot' at the base.

Once cooled, I sandwiched each pair together with the bramble and apple jam - making sure to squidge at least one whole blackberry into each one - and a white chocolate ganache that I had made by simply melting some white chocolate with a splash of cream. Filling them is a delicate job, so I warmed the ganache slightly to make it easier to spread without cracking the macarons.

Then I just sat back and admired them. Pride may be a deadly sin, but I couldn't help feeling just a little bit proud of these.

They are so beautiful, I couldn't resist indulging in a little food-posing... how lovely they look with my purple tulips!

And look, they go well with blue hyacinths too!

And how do they taste? Gorgeous. Crispy on the outside, deliciously squidgy on the inside. I couldn't be more pleased. My mind is already buzzing with ideas for other flavours and colours... watch this space.

There are lots of macaron recipes out there as a quick Google search will testify, but I went for a combination of two which seemed to work for me. Here is what I did:

3 large egg whites, aged
1tsp egg-white powder (I used Meriwhite)
1/2 tsp fine salt
50g granulated sugar (I used vanilla sugar)

200g icing sugar
110g ground almonds

In a bowl whip the egg whites, egg-white powder and salt to a foam using an electric-whisk, then gradually add the vanilla sugar until you obtain a glossy meringue. Add colouring paste if desired at this stage. Combine the almonds and icing sugar in a bowl and use a hand whisk to combine the two, breaking up any lumps. (You could also do this in a food processor, but I couldn't be bothered to add to the washing-up.) Add the sugary almond mix to the meringue, and fold it in confidently using a metal spoon. The whole process should only take a few strokes. I found the many hints and tips about the ideal consistency downright terrifying - it shouldn't be too firm otherwise you will get a 'beak' on top of the macarons, but too well-folded and the macarons will spread) so I erred on the side of too firm, figuring that I could always smooth the tops down when I had piped them (which as it happened was not necessary).

Fill a pastry bag fitted with a plain tip with the batter and pipe small rounds onto lined baking sheets. Let the macarons sit for an hour or so to firm up slightly. Opinion is divided as to whether this is necessary, but I ended up letting mine sit uncooked for about 3 hours. Preheat the oven to 300F/150C - but I would lower this next time, to perhaps 250F/120C. Bake for 10-12 minutes, depending on their size. Let them cool completely before filling. Pipe or spoon some of your filling on one shell and sandwich with another one.

Makes about 50 macaron halves, so assume about 20 'perfect' sandwiched macarons, with a few mistakes which are just perfect for tasting!

Bon appetit!