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November 28, 2011

VIDEO: Let's make some frickin' macarons!

My good buddy Krastin over at Style Pistol recently treated herself to a fancy pants HD camera. Last Sunday, whilst the snow was still glistening on the ground, she came over to try out her new toy on my macs. I then spliced and diced the resulting footage during the long holiday weekend. Movie-making is such fun!

In this clip I'm making rosemary-chocolate macarons. I chopped up a bit of rosemary into the almond-sugar mixture (that's what that green lump is going into the pastry bag at the 2:25 mark), and then whipped up a bit of rosemary ganache* for a filling while the shells were drying.

Of course, the batch I'm making in this video turned out to be my worst batch ever. Like, worse than the lemon ones I tried making on a paper bag. I was coming off of the high of making a lavender batch the day before that was absolutely perfect in terms of execution and yum factor, and I thought I was invincible. Now I know that pride comes before the epic mac fail.

I didn't whip the eggs quite stiff enough, and as a result my batter was far runnier than it should have been. They came out of the oven so flat and sticky that I had to scrape off little chunks of them to give them a taste. I was so disappointed with myself and upset that the moment Krastin left I started up a whole 'nother batch just to prove to myself that I could do this. It turned out a little better-- at least take-to-work-able-- but nowhere near as great as my lavender beauts.

And that, my friends, was enough to allow me to reclaim my life. I made nine batches that fateful week (lemon, raspberry, pistachio, speculoos, cinnamon-fig, lavender, pumpkin and chocolate rosemary x 2), ranging wildly in beauty but all top notch in delish. Now I can slow down to only one or two per week, to make room for such things as, you know, making dinner. Last weekend there was barely anything to eat in the house besides powdered sugar.

I leave you with the proof that the rosemary-chocolate macs, unattractive though they were, did not go unappreciated by my fine coworkers in the ticketing department:

Artwork by Kate:

That unicorn is farting sparkles, guys. Success.

*Rosemary Ganache Recipe (via Martha Stewart):

Place 9 oz chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate in a medium heat-proof bowl (or the top half of a double boiler). Warm 1 cup cream with a rosemary sprig in small saucepan over low heat. Bring just to a boil. Strain cream over chocolate. (I kept the rosemary in for a stronger flavor). Cover bowl tightly with foil; let sit about 5 minutes. Stir to melt all chocolate. To warm ganache, place bowl over a small pan of warm water to keep chocolate thin enough to spoon. (Do not keep chocolate over boiling hot water, or it may break and look as if it has separated.) The ganache may be made 1 day ahead and rewarmed in the microwave.

November 20, 2011

Sigh... young amour...

One of the most fascinating things about being Facebook friends with a gaggle of French teenagers is how publicly, emphatically, and dramatically they declare their love.

[All exhibits have been translated from French; I tried to preserve the original punctuation (or lack thereof)]

Exhibit A: 

"When I am in his arms I feel like the world stops and I fear nothing! It's next to him that I find my comfort every day passing shows me that I really love him and that I found the best! <3<3" 

"I love you my princess!"

Exhibit B:

"My heart, thank you for everything you do every day for me nobody has ever done that for me it's for that that I am forever grateful for you. I LOVE YOU MORE THAN EVERYTHING MY LOVE. It's truly you the woman of my life, I have no doubts I love you my dear. <3 <3"

"Bah, I only do what a girl in love is capable of doing. And you, thank you for these eight months of total happiness ;$ You are truly a love there is but you who can comfort me and give me back my smile when I have a morale of zero for all my heart :) I love you more than everything and above everything :$ My baby <3 <3"

Exhibit C:

"Hihi my Angel, you are far, very far from me and the absence of your presence by my side is unbearable, I want you, your hands, your mouth, smelling your odor, but what I miss the most are you kisses so sweet and warm. My Heart belongs to you and my life I offer you...<3 [Name] I love you and will always love you <3..."

"I met you, I was 15. Today I'm 18. Soon three years of Love, Three years of High and of Low but I love you and you love me, that's all that counts. I discovered in You someone who who is worth the pain, a marvelous person, who has always listened and who still searches for all the ways to make me happy. I love you, you marked my heart forever..."


November 16, 2011

Mac Attack Part Three: My only love sprung from my only love

What does Neenuh love most in the World of Treats? Macarons, obvi. Speculoos, clearly.

What happens when you put them together? Mouth bliss. Duh.

The speculoos macs were my worst, technically. I forgot to add the pinch of salt when I was beating my egg whites, and I didn't quite beat them long enough to become stiff. Then I made the fatal error of reading a gazillion macaron blogs and decided to use someone else's "fail proof" method rather than my own and baked them at 300F for 18 minutes rather than my regular 325 for 10.

Rule No. 1 of macarons: Once you finds what works with your oven, STICK WITH IT.

My shells, which I'd flavored with a teaspoon of vanilla extract and sprinkled speculoos cookie dust over, were cracked and hollow. The slightest breeze would make them crumble. Shame. But, failure as they were execution-wise, several (including the Dude) have deemed them the best, taste-wise. And wow, did they smell good. Ever gone into an ice cream shop where they make their own waffle cones? Yeah. Like that.

I spread them with speculoos paste and felt the world slip away as I took my first bite. These fall under the Must Make Repeatedly category. You can get your own speculoos paste and cookies under the label Biscoff here in America. The paste can usually be found near your peanut butters, jams and other spreads.

Next up was cinnamon-fig. I put a teaspoon of ground cinnamon in my almond meal-confectioners' sugar mixture in Step 1 and used my brand new pastry bag to pipe them out. These were probably my best, technically. At least the first round was. Since I only have the one Silpat, I must wait up to an hour and a half between piping my first and second rounds (you have to wait for the cookies to set, then bake, then cool). My second batches almost always have the problem of sticky middles, whether I refrigerate the batter between rounds or leave it out. If I had another Silpat I could pipe them out simultaneously and there would only be a 10 minute lag between oven time.

November 14, 2011

Mac-lovin' Part Two: Pistachio with Salted Caramel

Now that I know I can make you, sweet sweet macarons, I never want to stop.

On Sunday I made some raspberry numbers and filled them with leftover lemon curd, raspberry jam and Nutella. They were such a hit at work that I decided to make even more last night.

I've learned some good lessons since I was a novice mac-er way back on Saturday, and I thought I'd share them, along with some pictures of the process I neglected to snap the first time around and  clearer, numbered directions. Oh and also: I'm more than happy to share the bounty in keeping with my goal to avoid the Marriage 15, so if you live in the Twin Cities and would like to be a member of Neenuh's Test Kitchen, give me a hoot and/or holler.

Star-Crossed-Roommate-of-Yore took me to Trader Joe's after work, where I purchased almond meal, a small bag of unsalted, shelled pistachios and a jar of salted caramel sauce. Eventually I'd like to make my own caramel, but Manda convinced me to only experiment on one treat at a time.

1. Grind a 1/2 cup of pistachios along with 2/3 cup almond meal and 1 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar in your own Little Food Processor That Could and set aside. Having the pre-ground almond meal was way easier and better than grinding my own. Highly recommended.

2. Whip three egg whites and a pinch of salt until they are just getting stiff, and then add 3 Tbs ultrafine sugar one tsp at a time, beating well after each addition. The whites are ready when they hold a stiff peak, as above. Look at the fine point on my peak, you guys. LOOK AT IT! Pride.

3. I added eight drops of green food coloring and three drops of yellow to make a minty green, and then stirred it up in a frenzy to make sure the color was evenly incorporated. Whipped egg whites make an interesting noise when you stir them in a frenzy with a spatula. Highly recommended.

4. Add in your almond meal mixture from step one and fold in with a metal spoon. It may take about a minute to get it all mixed in.

It should look like this when it's ready; all molteny.

5. Pour your batter into a piping bag or, if you don't have one, place a baggie in a cup with the ends folded over and pour it in there. Seal the top of your baggie and cut a small corner in the tip.

6. Pipe out your macs evenly on a lined baking sheet. I like making minis, because A. it yields much more happiness in the world, B. they're perfectly bite-sized and C. they're really frakking cute.

7. Let the macs rest for up to an hour to dry, until they're not wet, sticky or tacky when tested with a finger. Last night was the first time I was patient enough to follow this step. They do get there. Preheat your oven to 325 F.

If you want to sprinkle anything onto your macs, now is the time. I tried to be all fancy and I bought some smoked sea salt to put on these guys. Turns out smoked sea salt smells (and probably tastes) like fire. Not in a good way. So instead I sprinkled a tiny bit of kosher salt on about half of them. It really brings out the flavor of the pistachios and the caramel.

8. Bake them for about 10 minutes, turning the baking sheet once midway. Let them cool on the baking sheet. This is where impatience has also gotten the best of me in the past. Giving them time to cool completely ups the chance you're going to be able to get the whole cookie off the pan without leaving any sticky middles behind.

9. Spread the inside of one shell with caramel and then sandwich together with a shell of a similar size. My caramel sauce was really runny, so I put these guys in the freezer to set for a little bit before moving them to the fridge to sleep.

I learned yesterday when I brought my raspberry ones to work that if you let them sit out they're going to get very crumbly. Keeping them in the fridge seems to make them chewier.

10. Share, if you're so inclined. My coworkers are going to love me today.

What flavor should I try next?

November 13, 2011

Holy merde I made French macarons

Sew a dress. Frame two friends' paintings of The Dude and me. Create a photo book of my life in France. Re-finish my dining room table.  Repair my sunglasses. This is a partial list of my Short-Term Life Goals.

Yesterday I got to cross one off the list: Make French macarons from scratch.

Reader, this is big. If you see me in person anytime in the next seven months please give me a high five. I will be still be riding the high of successful macaron making.

I used the recipe from the book Macarons: Chic and Delicious French Treats by Annie Rigg, gifted to me by one Anna Dubs for my nups. It is supposed to yield 40 shells (for 20 filled macarons). It calls for:
  • 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 2/3 cups ground almonds
  • 1/2 cup egg whites (about three eggs)
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons caster/superfine sugar
My local Lunds didn't carry ground almonds, so I got a bag of natural, unsalted almonds from the bulk section and ground them down with a food processor. I think you'll get better results using store-bought ground almonds, as my little-food-processor-that-could was only able to get a semi-fine grind on. Also, if you have to grind your own nuts try to find some of the blanched variety-- my batter ended up with little brown flecks from the almond skin.

Once you've got your almonds all nice and grindy, add the confectioners' sugar to the food processor and blend for 30 seconds, until thoroughly combined.

Next up is the egg whites. Make sure your eggs are room temperature. Some websites I've read recommend using older eggs, as they're less liquidy. I, however, read those post-baking and thus used fresh ones from the store and they turned out fine. So follow your heart on that one. The most important thing is to be extra, super, freakishly careful not to let any of the yolk mar your separated whites, for then they will fail to fluff up properly and you may as well just stop pretending that you can make macarons.

Tip your unadulterated egg whites into a very clean and dry mixing bowl. Again, if there is a trace of grease or other fatty ick in your bowl you're going to have issues. BE VIGILANT! This was an opportunity for me to bust out my Precious, but you can use a regular mixing bowl with hand mixers and it should work juuuuuuust fahn.

Add the salt, and using a standing mixer or a hand beater, beat until they can only just hold a stiff peak (I know what you're thinking, and no she did not say that).

Continue to whisk at a medium speed while adding the caster/superfine sugar a teaspoonful at a time, mixing well between each addition to ensure the sugar is thoroughly incorporated. When all the sugar has been added it will look white and glossy, like a proper meringue.

This is the point where you would add any flavoring or food coloring you want in the shells. I decided to make lemon macs, so I squeezed in 20 drops of yellow food coloring and the grated zest of one lemon. I kept losing my grip on the lemon as I grated it over the bowl and it plopped into my meringue more times than I care to admit. Don't do that. Grate your lemon over a separate bowl, like a civilized cookstress. Mix thoroughly to make sure the color is even.

Next, fold the ground sugar and almond mixture into the meringue until it is thoroughly incorporated and smooth. The book says to use a metal spoon and I obeyed. When it's ready, it should drop from the spoon in, "a smooth molten mass."

Now, according to our Macy's registry, someone has purchased us the Martha Stewart Collection Pastry Decorating Set we registered for, but I have seen neither its hide nor its hair. Mystery guest, I can haz now please so I don't have to use plastic baggies as piping bags? Thanky muchly.

That said, if you must use a baggie, don't do what I did in the above picture (hold the baggie open with one hand as I spooned the mixture in with the other). In my second round of baggie-filling I wised up and stabilized the baggie in a cup with the top folded over, and then just poured the mixture in. I then sealed the baggie shut, which had I done the first time it would have 'sploded all over my phalanges. Much mo' easier.

Pipe the batter in evenly sized rounds-- about 2 inches across-- onto a lined baking sheet. Without a nozzle on my little baggie I ended up with some interesting circle approximations on my Silpat. And then this happened:

So, the book says to line the baking sheet with parchment paper, and the accompanying photo shows said paper of the brown variety. Which must mean you could just as easily use a brown paper bag, right? WRONG. I only have one Silpat, so I thought I was getting creative. I was just getting very stupid. Don't do this.

Give the bottom of your baking sheet a sharp thwack on the work surface to eradicate any air bubbles that may have formed. Let them rest from 15 minutes up to an hour to set and form a dry shell. They should not be sticky, tacky or wet when you test them with your fingertip. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 325 F.

Bake them in the middle of a preheated oven, one sheet at a time, for 10 minutes, until the tops are crisp and the bottoms dry. My Silpat beauties looked the way they were supposed to, with smooth, shiny tops and little frills around the edges.

My paper bag reject ones, however, were a total disaster. Cracked, flat, sticky disaster. Oy. Straight to the gaping maw of Mr. Garbage.

While I let the cookies cool, I whipped up some lemon curd with the leftover yolks, because that's just how I roll. Here's the recipe:
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup caster/superfine sugar
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
  • grated zest and freshly squeezed juice of one unwaxed lemon
Place all of the ingredients into a medium-sized heatproof bowl (or the top half of a double boiler) set over a pan of gently simmering water. Stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar has dissolved and the butter has melted. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the curd has thickened and will coat the back of a spoon. This will take about 15 minutes (or double that, if you're me). Transfer to a bowl and cover the surface of the curd with plastic wrap so it doesn't form a skin. Refrigerate until needed.

When my shells were cooled I spread them with lemon curd and then sandwiched them together. Note how some of my shells have gaping holes in the inside from where the insides stuck to the baking sheet as I tried to pull them off. Apparently that's a sign of over-mixing. 

Et voilà. Beautiful and delicious lemon macs to impress your friends, scorn your enemies and in general make the world a better place. Applause is welcome and appreciated.

November 11, 2011

A Night at the Opera: Coupon Code for Silent Night Included Below!

On Thursday I had my first experience at the opera, and I think I'm hooked. The sets! The costumes! The drama! Those piercing high notes that fill the entire auditorium! Chills!

The video doesn't do it justice, but oh my goodness... hearing her exquisite voice heard live was just beyond. I was completely and totally enthralled, in awe, entranced, etc.

I've always wanted to go to the opera, and when I saw this season's lineup at the Minnesota Opera one in particular stood out to me: Silent Night. It was inspired by the film Joyeuse Nöel, which depicts the true story of French, Scottish and German soldiers who called a truce on Christmas Eve 1914. They exchanged provisions, sang Christmas carols and buried their dead, only to have to continue trying to kill their now-humanized "enemy" once the truce was over.

Before the show we had a short chat with the composer and librettist, who called WWI, "the stupidest war ever." The 20th Century had been going so well, and WWI tipped off a series of events that led to so much hate and destruction. When I had my French history class in Paris in 2006, one of our field trips was to Verdun, where hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers died during an 11-month battle. You can still see the tips of bayonets poking up through the grass in a chilling reminder of all the wasted lives whose remains were below.

The opera drives home the tragic futility of war... once these men got to know one another as decent humans, with loved ones at home and so much to live for, rather than the enemy, how could they go on with the senseless killing?

If you've never been to an opera before, I think Silent Night is the perfect first taste. To help you get there, the Minnesota Opera has generously offered Francey Pantsers an incredible deal to see this Tuesday's performance for $20. Go. Seriously. You will not regret it.

The fine print: Limit up to 4 seats regularly priced $50- $110. Online: Enter blog20 and click “Add Coupon”. You will see your savings applied. Do not complete order if coupon does not load. Service charges and other restrictions may apply. Offer valid for the 11/15 performance only. Offer expires 11/15.  For additional information call the Ticket Office at 612-333-6669, M-F, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

November 7, 2011

Dec. 2: The day I join the 21st Century

Ever since I returned from France I've had an unsettled feeling I haven't experienced since my freshman year of college. I was what felt like the last holdout among my peers who had yet to purchase a cellphone. I looked on forlornly as my cooler, more technologically adept peers joyfully entered the names and digits of all their new buddies in their gleaming Motorolas.

Finally, when I started an internship in downtown Minneapolis at the start of my sophomore year I was feeling very dangerous about not having an immediately accessible phone that I could use to alert loved ones that I was about to die (which is usually the first thing that happens when you venture downtown), so I caved.

For the past few months I've been feeling similarly very dangerous about being armed with nothing but my dumbphone. My little brother and I were on a cross-metro journey to a friend's party on Saturday and got lost not once, not twice, but thrice. We were millimeters away from getting dead by all the crazies lurking on the side of the roads just waiting for victims like us. We would have never been in such a situation if we'd had a smartphone with GPS by our sides.

Luckily for me, the contract to which my three-year-old flip phone is attached will expire come Dec. 2. And then, my friends, I jump on the Dude's family plan and get the smartest of smartphones: the iPhone 4S.

I will immediately start doing such things as:
  • Actually looking at something interesting during the inevitable lull in conversation that is cue for everyone to start staring at their phones for five minutes. Currently all I can do is whip out my flippy and start punching it randomly while making "boop boop boop" noises and muttering, "Hmm... interesting."
  • Taking photos of garbage with really cool photo filters on Instagram and pretending it's art.
  • Checking in EVERYWHERE. My bed. My bus. My cube. My coworker's cube. The locker room. The yoga room. EVERYWHERE.
  • Mocking everyone who doesn't yet have a smartphone. "What is that??? A FLIP phone?! I haven't seen one of those in DAYS!"