Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mastering the Macaron!

A few weekends ago, boyfriend and I bundled up and headed into Manhattan.  I was very excited about our Sunday plans, while he was less so.  I told him that if he behaved, I would buy him S'mac for lunch.  What were we planning on doing that Sunday afternoon?  I had signed us up for a macaron class!

Several months back, okay I think it was sometime in July, Groupon was offering a half price macaron class at Dessert Truck Works on Clinton St.  I didn't even hesitate and bought us two seats in one of their classes.  Boyfriend wasn't super excited about the class, since he's a master of boxed macaroni and break apart chocolate chip cookies, but he was willing to come with me.

Originally I had scheduled us for a class in October, which is right when we decided to go to Thailand.  The next class they had available?  February!  I wrote a reminder note on the marker board in the kitchen.  As the class drew near, I kept reminding myself to go to Dessert Truck on February 12th.  The morning of the class, the tri-state area woke up to frigid temperatures.  It was one of those days where I would have stayed in our apartment all day long, but we had to get on the train and head into the city.

I'm glad we got out of bed and went to the class because the class was completely worth it.  Held in the little bakery on Clinton street, the shop is closed until after the workshop, giving you one on one attention from the pastry chef.  We arrived and were given tea and coffee to warm our hands against the cold outside.  The group assembled and we were twelve macaron makers of all levels.  From those that had never even eaten a macaron, to those that love the cookies, to me, who had made a batch or two in the past.  We were all ready to learn a little something about these delicious French cookies.

The macaron teacher explained the basics of the cookies and told us of the three different varieties of macarons.  She described them in the best way that I have ever heard, macarons are like European men.  The French macaron - like a French man.  Sensitive, unpredictable and finnicky.  The Italian macaron - like an Italian man.  Strong, sturdy & dangerous.  The Swiss macaron - like a Swiss man.  Somewhere in between the Frenchman and the Italian.  I don't know a whole lot of Swiss men, but her descriptions of the French and Italian men seemed pretty funny, and right.

Personally, I've only ever made French and Italian macarons.  I can agree with her comparisons to European men.  I've had varying success with the French method while I've made some good batches with the Italian ones.  I was so excited that we would be making macarons with the Swiss method, because it was not something I'd ever done before.  We split up into groups and were ready to start whipping some egg whites.

Our instructor suggested our group of four split up, in order to get more hands on time.  I explained that boyfriend would not be handling the food at all, he would be taking pictures.  There was a little back and forth, but it was determined that it would be best for all (especially the final macaron product) if boyfriend didn't touch the cookies.  I kind of wished that he did participate, because my arm got tired whipping those egg whites!  He did make a good photographer though, I got some interesting pictures.  Yep, that's me in all these pictures, Hello!

The Swiss method consists of whipping the egg whites and granulated sugar over a simmering pot of water.  This gently cooks the egg whites and builds a little structure in the meringue.  The three of us took turns whipping the eggs, trading off when our shoulders couldn't take any more.

Once the egg whites reached the stiff peak and were slightly warm to the touch, we got prepared to combine all of the ingredients.  First, some unwhipped egg whites were added to the almond flour and powdered sugar mixture.  Next, we added the meringue and started the macaronage (aka, the stirring/folding).  This was the part that I wanted clarification.  What is the correct consistency to stop working the batter at?  Again, the "flowing like cooling lava" description came up.  I preferred the test of cutting the batter down the middle with the spatula.  If the line disappears in ten seconds, then your batter is ready.

We added a little red color for make our macarons cute and pink.  After transferring to the piping bag and pressing out all the air, we piped rows and rows of pink cookies.  Practicing piping identically sized macarons is tricky, something that I still have to work on.  We came out with a tray of pretty nice looking circles. 

Since the workshop was only three hours long, we didn't have time to wait around for the shells to dry, then bake and cool.  So we did a little swap!  Pink cookies went onto the drying rack, yellow and green ones came out!  We were given a series of delicious fillings, chocolate ganache, salted caramel, blackberry buttercream and toffee and told to fill our new cookies. 

We got to come back a few hours later and pick up our baked macaron shells.  I was so excited to see that they had feet!  The only question remained, could I do this at home? 

If you happen to be visiting NYC or live in the area, I would highly recommend heading over to Dessert Truck for a workshop.  We had a lot of fun and I learned a lot about what I was doing right and wrong with my macarons.  It was great to learn another method for making these wonderful little cookies and the instructor was fun, helpful and informative.  You might have to book a ways in advance, this particular workshop was very popular after the Groupon deal!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Daring Bakers' - Quick Breads!

After months of not being able to participate in the Daring Bakers', I was so happy to read that this months challenge was quick breads!  The Daring Bakers' February 2012 host was - Lis!  Lis stepped in last minute and challenged us to create a quick bread we could call our own.  She supplied us with a base recipe and shared some recipes she loves from various websites and encouraged us to build upon them and create new flavor profiles.

I'm a huge fan of quick breads for so many reasons.  First, they come together fast (hence the name!).  Second, they make a wonderful and delicious breakfast/snack/I'm going to eat it anytime of the day...  Also, quick breads are so versitile, you can make them into anything you desire.

When I was mulling over the challenge, I was looking into my pantry.  I didn't want to make the traditional banana bread or zucchini bread.  While those breads are delicious, I've made them many times before.  Instead of going totally crazy with flavors, I decided to go with a classic flavor profile - cranberry & almond.  By swapping out some of the all-purpose flour for almond flour and subbing in almond extract for some of the vanilla.  I chose dried cranberries over fresh because of the time of year.  If I had thought ahead, I think that fresh cranberries would have lended a perfect tart pop for the bread.  Oh well, next time!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cherry-coconut bagels

Since it's Saturday, I'll keep this one short!  I want you to go outside and do something fun.  Or stay inside and do something fun, if it's cold/rainy/snowing/gross outside today.

The second installment of bagels involves cherries and coconut!  You might be wondering why I chose to make sweet bagels, rather than something savory or cheesey.  There is a simple reason, I never get sweet bagels! 

Let me say first, that I work for an awesome company.  Each and every Thursday morning we come into work and there is a big basket of bagels and muffins waiting for us.  People mill about in the lunchroom, toasting bagels, pouring juice and brewing coffee.  We chat about our lives and say hello to the people in other departments.  The bagels are slathered in cream cheese, butter or jam and people are jealous of that one person that got the cinnamon-raisin bagel.

I don't know who puts together the delivery bag of bagels for us, but they refuse to give us more than one or two cinnamon-raisin bagel!  It's not that there isn't a plethora of other delicious bagels, but sometimes I'd like the choice!  Savory or sweet?  Last weekend I decided to fulfill my desire for sweet!

If you are more of a savory bagel kind of person it's simple to adapt the base recipe to suit your needs!  Simply omit the dried fruits and stir in some cheese, hot peppers, bacon, whatever you want!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why Bother? 2012 - Bagels

Monday morning I walked into work with three bags full of fresh, homemade bagels.  I sent around an e-mail to my coworkers and they came by for breakfast.  People limiting themselves to a half bagel soon came back for the second half.  Some showed up later in the day for a second bagel, wanting to try each of the flavors that I brought in.  I don't know whether it was the draw of a homemade treat or that never-dying grad student mentality.

For those of you that don't understand the "grad student mentality," let me explain.  Grad students live on a small income and love free stuff.  Any free stuff.  By the time you hear that there is free food in the building, it's already gone.  Grad students are like little piranhas.  After five years of perfecting this skill, it never goes away.  Former grad students will always find the best free stuff, make friends with them!

Of course I'd like to think that it was the bagels that brought people back for seconds.  This past weekend I spent half a day prepping, kneading, rising, boiling and baking two batches of bagels.  I decided upon two different recipes, one requiring oil and one a simple dough.  Both recipes required quite a bit of hands on time and a lot of flour! 

Today I'm sharing the recipe for my blueberry-oatmeal bagels with you (tomorrow we'll have some cherry-coconut beauties).  These were the favorite of my two weekend endeavours.  Beginning with a traditional bagel recipe, I swapped out some of the bread flour with oat flour.  Once the dough came together I poured in a pouch of dried blueberries, they turned the dough a beautiful color. 

After a short rise period, the bagels were boiled for a short time in slightly sugared water.  A nice egg-wash and sprinkling of rolled oats and the bagels went into the oven.  Within a few minutes, the apartment was filled with the sweet smells of yeasty bread.  The first batch of bagels wasn't ready until around noon, but that didn't stop me from having one for lunch!

Now the big question, was all the time invested worth the final product?  No doubt about it, yes.  Store-bought bagels, even some deli-bought bagels, tend to be too tough on the outside and too huge for a normal person.  Making your own bagels at home gives you the option to change the flavor, size and texture of the bagels.  And really, nothing beats a house that smells like freshly baked bread.  It's a bonus.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Banana Bread Donuts

I want to thank you all for sharing your stories of your days in braces.  While I'm not looking forward to the next year and a half, I know that it will be all worth it in the end.  Sure, I'll spend some time sipping on smoothies and spooning up risotto, but I'll come out of it all with the smile I've always wanted.  I'm thinking that we'll have to start  monthly smoothie and monthly risotto posts!  I'm going to get so good at stirring!

After my orthodontia appointment Wednesday night, I was feeling fine.  It wasn't until the next afternoon that I was starting to feel the difference and, as strange as this may sound, I was completely aware of my teeth.  Every last one of them.  There wasn't pain, just the sensation that I had a whole bunch of teeth in my mouth and that they were trying to move around.  After reading a bit about the actual process that occurs during braces, I was happy to know that the worst of it would be over after three days. 

Sure enough, come the weekend I was ready to have some (soft) solid foods!  I spent the weekend cooking and baking, filling the house with sweet and savory smells.  If you were following my crazy series of tweets this weekend, you got a sneak preview of Thursdays bagels.  Boyfriend got a cheesey and meaty dinner Sunday night.  And I got to break in my new donut pan.

I waited and waited, until I had a good idea of what I wanted to make, before buying a donut pan.  I figured that if I didn't have any recipes in mind for the pan, it would just sit in the cupboard and gather dust.  Once I collected a bunch of ideas on scraps of papers, boyfriend and I picked up a pan while shopping at Michael's.  You can look forward to many donut recipes to come and I'll enjoy eating them all year long, even with my new braces.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pasta with Gorgonzola Cream Sauce

What would you choose as your last meal?  Would it be a big, juicy steak with a heaping side of mashed potatoes?  Or maybe a creamy asparagus soup topped with crunchy croutons?  Perhaps you would go for a large cheese pizza with some chicken wings.  Thinking back, I wish I had gone for the pizza and wings, but no, this was my last meal.

No, I'm not dying, but I won't be eating chicken wings any time soon.  Yesterday evening I journeyed to the orthodontists office and had my brand new braces affixed to my teeth.  Yep, I'm thirty years old and I just got my first ever set of braces.

I always thought that I needed that I needed braces when I was little.  It's not that my teeth are crazy out of place, they just need a little rearranging.  When I was in middle school, everyone had braces, it was not uncommon for half of the people sitting at your lunch table to have them.  I was even a little jealous of this one girls braces, I liked the way she talked with them on her teeth.

When I went to my new New Jersey dentist this past fall, he told me something that I didn't really want to hear, that I would need to wear braces for at least a year.  I had just turned thirty the day before and this was not quite the birthday present that I was hoping for.  I made appointments with local orthodontists and went over my options.  In the end, I told myself that 18-24 months in braces was a small time in comparison to the rest of my life with straight teeth, so I scheduled my appointment. 

Tuesday night I cooked boyfriend and I a lovely Valentine's day meal, pasta smothered in a creamy sauce along with crusty bread and a chocolatey dessert.  This would be my last real meal until my braces come off.

Now, with my new ice-clear braces adhered to my teeth, I dust off my smoothie cookbooks, buy cans of oatmeal and jars of arborio rice.  I'm ready to perfect my egg-making skills and become an expert in panna cotta preparation.  I'm also reaching out to all of you, you former wearers of braces, for your favorite food options!  Help me out in my time of need!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chocolate-Peppermint Marshmallows

Happy Valentine's day everyone!  Have you had your fill of pink, hearts and little cupid angels?  Somehow I missed out on this holiday.  Heading to the store this weekend I saw mostly St. Patrick's day decorations and candies.  Between visiting my parents two weekends ago and moving last weekend, January came and went without so much as a snowstorm.

I have done very little to prepare for this love-centric day.  I made no chocolate-covered strawberries, no raspberry covered chocolate mousse, no heart-shaped cookies.  I haven't even planned a wonderful dinner for boyfriend yet!  It will most likely be a last-minute, what can I make with the stuff in the fridge, kind of meal.  I think that as long as I avoid pork, sweet potatoes, shrimp and fruits, he'll like it.

This Valentine's day is a special one for boyfriend and I.  It's the first February 14 that we will get to spend together as a couple and we've been together for nine years.  I suppose that I should make this a special holiday...  Maybe I'll stop at the bakery in Penn station and get him a box of cookies.  We can enjoy the cookies with some hot chocolate and peppermint marshmallows.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Almond Sugar Cookies

Hi Everyone, I hope that your weekend treated you well!  Boyfriend and I ventured into the city today for a macaron class (more on that later) then made our way in the chilly cold to S'Mac (our favorite comfort food place!).  If I had known that it would be this cold today, I would have scheduled the class for another weekend.  Really, any other weekend this winter would have been warmer!  Since I booked the class in September, I really had no idea how the weather would be.  At least spring is on its way!

Since it's Sunday and I'm cold, I'm going to leave you with this delicious cookie recipe.  Then I am going to climb under a pile of blankets, snuggle up to boyfriend on the couch and try to steal all his body heat.  Stay warm out there fellow freezing friends!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Why Bother? 2012 - Fondant

Sorry for the delay in this challenge post, my kitchen was all in boxes from our move!  Believe me when I say, this was worth the wait!

Fondant is a strange concept.  When explaining what I was making to my friends and coworkers, they were all confused.  They asked "What is fondant?"  "Is it that stuff you peel off of wedding cakes?"  "Why would I want to eat solid frosting?"  Those who watch too much Food Network knew exactly what I was talking about, most were still confused until I brought in the goodies.

 I'm sure you've all had an experience with fondant.  Generally it covers wedding cakes and has a minimal amount of flavor.  Mostly sugary, sweet, stretchy and tough, most people I see at weddings have removed the outer shell of the cake to eat the insides.  So I wondered, does fondant have to taste so gross?

I looked through several of my cake cookbooks, searched the internet and read through old baking magazines until I found two different fondant recipes.  Traditional fondant, made with gelatin and glycerin as additives, is pegged as the trickier version to make.  Marshmallow fondant, made with marshmallows and powdered sugar, is billed as the "everymans" fondant recipe.  I found this to be exactly the opposite.

I started the day with making the marshmallow fondant.  The recipe calls for melting an entire bag of mini marshmallows in the microwave.  Once the mini mallows are melted you pour in almost a whole 2 pound bag of powdered sugar and start mixing.  Then comes the messy part, you have to knead all of the sugar into the marshmallows, by hand.  Even with repeated greasing of my hands with shortening, I was a big mess.  The fondant was sticking to everything it touched.  It took a good fifteen minutes to incorporate all of the sugar into the marshmallow and form a smooth fondant.  My arms were tired.

Once the marshmallow fondant was safely in a zip-top bag, I started with the traditional recipe.  The most difficult thing required of me was to microwave some gelatin in water.  The remainder of the hard work was complete by my stand mixer.  Everything mixed together much more easily that in the marshmallow recipe and required only two minutes of hands on kneading to finish.

You might be wondering if there was a difference in the outcome of the two recipes.  First, they both rolled and shaped easily.  Other than a modest color difference (the traditional fondant was pure white, while the marshmallow fondant was slightly off-white), I found no physical difference in the recipes.  The major difference came with the taste. 

The marshmallow fondant tasted just like a marshmallow, like vanilla.  I used this fondant to cover the cookies and they were a smash hit.  People were raving about how good the fondant was and how delicious the cookies were (Click here for the cookie recipe).  The traditional fondant had the same texture, it was just almond-flavored (because I added almond extract).  I enjoyed the fact that I could flavor the fondant with whatever extract or oil that I wanted.  Imagine chocolate cake, covered in mint fondant or red velver cake covered in cheesecake flavored fondant.  So many possibilities!

In the end, I think that I preferred the traditional fondant recipe for two reasons.  1. The ease of preparation.  This fondant came together so much quicker and cleaner than the marshmallow fondant.  2. The flavor.  Being able to add different flavors to the fondant open up a whole world of possibilites. 

I don't think that I will be buying prepared fondant in the future.  Comparing all three recipes, the store-bought stuff comes out as a definite loser. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Thai Sweet Potato Stew

I am completely wiped out after this weekend.  Boyfriend and I spent the weekend moving into a new apartment.  That might not sound unusual or especially tiring, except for the fact that we moved from the second floor of our building up to the fourth floor.  We did this move over the course of three days.

Day One: Wait, before I get into the details of the moving process I should tell you this - I packed almost nothing prior to our move-in date of February 4th.  The morning of day one, we were scheduled to get the keys to our new "penthouse" apartment at 10 o'clock.  Not wanting to move on an empty stomach, we did what every moving day person does, we went to Dunkin' Donuts.  We filled up on egg and cheese sandwiches and hot beverages.  Movers need protein!

Upon receiving the keys, we signed our new lease and went up to our new place.  We knew we were moving into an apartment with a slightly different bed/bath layout, but we weren't quite ready for what we saw when we entered the room.  The main living area was the exact reverse of our apartment downstairs.  This is going to hurt my brain for weeks.

Moving day one was fine, with the exception of our harrowing journey with the couch into the elevator, everything went smoothly.  We moved our clothes from the old closet to the new, smaller closet.  The bedroom set went from our old, weirdly shaped bedroom to our new, normally laid out one.  The couch and TV did make it upstairs without being broken or leaving too many marks on the walls.  It was a good move.

We did not have that soup for dinner.  Oh no, no.  We had Chinese food from the take-out place down the street.  The Thai sweet potato soup that you see above was made last week and enjoyed by one and only one person in the apartment, me.  Someone doesn't like sweet potatoes.  Someone is a weirdo.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Poffertjes: Cheese Pancakes

Here we are at last, we've finally made it to Amsterdam.  It's been a long journey through the continent (and you even got to sit out our time in Austria and the long drive across Germany!) and The Netherlands is our country of exit.  After our time in Venice, boyfriend and I headed through Innsbruck and on to Munich.  The Munich airport had a plethora of automatic transmission cars and we were on our way, on the autobahn!

Through Germany we travelled, stopping at castles and small towns, and into Holland, with its speed limit, boo.  We drove our tiny little rental car into the heart of Amsterdam and checked into our super cool hotel.  The front desk held a dish of stroopwafels, delicious little caramel-filled wafers, which we stole many of during our short stay there.

Boyfriend and I weren't really sure what to expect in Amsterdam, but we were both pleasantly surprised.  It's a beautiful city, cross-hatched by canals and green with parks.  We passed by more museums than we could possibly visit with a whole week in town.  We enjoyed a fragrant walk through the flower market and bought my mom some "blue" tulips (they turned out to be pink when they came up in the spring).  We finished up our evening with a table full of Indian food and a late-night stroll through the red-light district.  The very next morning we headed off to Schipol airport and back to the United States, with my new cookbooks in tow.

Mmmm, so gouda...

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ravioli di taleggio con salsa alle spugnole

After our journey through Paris and our trials in getting a rental car, we made our way through Switzerland into Italy via train.  We decided that it would be a bad idea to try and learn how to drive a manual transmission car and drive it through the Swiss alps.  This was the best decision of our entire trip.  While we ended up missing out on a day in Interlocken, we gained so much more time by travelling by train. 

Rather than focussing on maps and driving directions, we took our time on the rails to learn about our next destination, play games and talk with fellow travellers.  We travelled through the mountains, skirted lakes and pulled into Venice, from our window seats.

After we checked our luggage at the baggage drop, we made our way through the winding streets of Venice.  A pair of American tourists gave us their vaparetto passes (their friends gave us a second pair, which we passed along to a couple on their honeymoon), which allowed us access to the Venice boat busses. 

We rode the vaparetto along the grand canal and under the Rialto bridge, passed by gondolas and ancient churches.  As the grand canal opened up into the lagoon boyfriend turned to me and "This is completely surreal."  Even though we had seen so many famous landmarks, climbed an unbelievable amount of stairs and taken hundreds of photos, this was truely a surreal moment.

Of all the days we spent travelling across the continent, I remember that day in Venice so vividly.  Our walk around Piazza San Marco, the amazing mushroom tortellini from a hidden bistro and the hazelnut gelato we ate while watching a crazy house dog, all combined for a perfect day in such a unique city.  It would have been a perfect day, had our hotel not given away our room and sent us to the Hotel Marco Polo.

At least it has one redeeming quality, it's PINK!

Brining memories home with mushroom ravioli

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