Macarons: Or, Why I Am Not A Baker

Airy, tender, chewy, ethereally sweet, a good French macaron is one of the few desserts I am always in the mood for. Until a couple of weeks ago, I never contemplated making them on my own. They have a notorious reputation as finicky, fussy, requiring the right level of humidity and arrogance to pull off. I am a throw-everything-in-the-pot, figure-it-out-as-you go cook. I like breads and pie because they’re playful baking. You can squiggle things around. Macarons? They seemed like the holy grail of the science-minded, detail-oriented baking which is my kryptonite.

What a macaron ought to look like. My role for this batch was strictly junior-assistant level, which no doubt is why it came out so well.

But then my friend decided we should make macarons to bring to a dinner and it went just about perfectly and I was inspired. Sure, she’s a pastry chef, but whatever. I had helped make a great batch–or at least, watched closely as she did. I could do this. The recipe she used was reassuringly un-fussy and backed by absolute truck-tons of Q&A, and developed by Stella Parks, a pastry chef who’s now a senior editor at my beloved Serious Eats. I’d seen it in action. It was a trustworthy recipe. I set aside an entire day and got to work.

Here is the thing about macarons. They sound pretty easy to make.

Step 1: Make a stiff meringue using egg whites, sugar, salt.

Step 2: Aggressively fold in a well-sifted dry mix of almond flour and powdered sugar. The batter should be “molten”: visible peaks should slowly melt back into the rest.

Step 3: Pipe into cute little circles on parchment, and bake at 300 for not quite 20 minutes.

And yet. I made five separate batches over the course of the day. I got three half-sheet pans full of cookies from each batch. Of those 15 trays, three were keepers. THREE. That makes my success rate, what, 20%? That’s not even “F” grade bad. That’s, like, “go to summer school and we won’t speak of this again” bad.

Keepers up front; various types of rejects behind.

You may be thinking, Well, Margaret, at least you learned something! What was so different about those three successful trays? BUT I DON’T KNOW. Of the three successful trays, one was the only success in its batch, and truly came out almost perfect (the other two trays of the same batch? flat as pancakes). The other two successful trays were from my last batch of the day, the one that should have been the most challenging because I added extra ingredients to the meringue. (Gel coloring and flavor extract; at this point, I was like, who cares. If I’m going to fail, it might as well be pretty.)

In order to describe my failure, let me describe success. The meringues should come out of the oven perhaps a warmer color than the white they went in, but not brown. They should peel cleanly off the parchment when done (a handy way to test if they are done). They should rise into cute fat little domes with a separate ridge around the bottom. The ridges are called “feet” and they are highly desirable for some reason. They should be smooth and glossy. When broken open, they should have a consistent lacy internal structure. When eaten, they should at first have a lightly crisp texture, followed by a toothsome chew. After a day or two of aging they should be more universally chewy but still disappearingly light.

Good macarons vs. not-good macarons. Same batch, separately baked trays.

So, failure. Completely flat cookies. Slightly risen cookies, but with no feet. Cookies with okay rise and feet but cracked surfaces. Cookies with uneven or hollow internal structure. Cookies that are crunchy rather than crisp-tender. Brown cookies.

A few of the failures had clear reasons. One batch was for sure overmixed: although I thought I had that molten consistency perfect, it had gone too far. Overmixed batter will not rise. Another batch may have been overmixed as well, but that was subject to a different overriding problem that ruined two whole batches. My oven thermometer, which I was being so careful to use to avoid relying on the perhaps inaccurate oven dial, was–wait for it–inaccurate. By about 30 degrees. The macarons will not rise in a too-cool oven. That was my first incoherent rage-scream of the day (but by no means my last, gentle reader).

I will break down the basic recipe with my lessons learned or questions raised. Mostly the latter.

  • Sift together twice as much confectioner’s sugar as almond flour (8oz and 4oz).
    • When I made this recipe with my pastry chef friend, we used almond flour made from whole almonds. Pushing this through the sieve was something that was “interesting” to do once. Had I had to do this for each of my own five batches, I would have been a puddle of tears by #2. Fortunately, Costco had a big bag of superfine flour made from blanched almonds and that was easy peasy. Get that stuff.
    • I threw in a couple teaspoons of ground cardamom into three of my batches at this stage. You’re not supposed to add liquid flavoring/color to the meringues until you’ve nailed down the recipe, but after a bit of research, it looked like this might be a safe way to play. My hands-down best tray was from one of these batches, so I think it was fine.
  • Beat a very, very stiff meringue from twice as much egg white as granulated sugar, plus a touch of salt (5oz, 2.5oz, half a teaspoon).
  • Beat for 10 minutes total, at increasing speed: 3 min @ medium-low, 3 min @ medium-high, 3 min @ high.

    The meringue should be stiff enough to clump inside the whisk.
  • Add any extracts or color at this stage, but regardless, beat for another minute on high “to show it who’s boss,” as Stella says. The meringue will be clumping inside the whisk at this point.
    • I never had trouble making a good stiff meringue. Fat lot of good it did me. In my research, I have now found that perhaps beating my meringue a tad less might help with the hollowness issue. I was worried that my 325 watt, 5-quart stand mixer would not do as good a job as my friend’s larger model, but that was no problem at all.
    • There are many macaron mystics who claim that the age of the egg and the temperature are critical. Stella dismisses this. I left my eggs on the counter all day as I went. Cold egg whites, from my hopeful morning, seemed to perform just the same in the meringue as room temp ones in the late afternoon, as I was sinking into despair.
    • During round one with my pastry chef BFF, we ran into trouble trying to use liquid egg whites and had to switch to separated whole eggs. The liquid ones may have been over-pasteurized, so watch out for that.
  • Dump the almond flour/sugar mixture in all at once. Fold into the meringue. You’re trying to deflate the meringue, not preserve it, so fold the heck out of it.
    • 40 strokes is what Stella recommends. Apparently I am aggressive? Or something? Because my 40 strokes were definitely too many. I found it took more like 25ish for me to get to the right place: when dropped onto itself, the batter would hold its shape briefly. It would ooze back to near-formlessness after about thirty seconds.
      Considerably decreased in volume, glossiness, and general appeal, this is about ten strokes into deflating the meringue once the flour is added–so-called macaronage.

      Macaronage complete! The batter is glossy again, and about the consistency of a thick pancake batter.
    • I really don’t know how you adjust for this. Slightly under-mixing the batter led to predictable results for the first trays of the batch I piped (cookies that retained their little peaks–let’s be honest, they look like nipples–even after resting and baking). However, it resulted in PERFECT texture for the last tray of the batches in question: smooth, glossy, risen domes with nary a nipple in sight.
      Expert friends are so super handy.
      • As the batter rests, and as it gets scooped into a pastry bag and piped out, it continues to develop. That’s why the last slightly under-mixed stuff to be piped worked so well. How can you possibly pipe all of the batch at the same time? I could let the whole batch rest longer, okay. Then the first piping bag full might be good. But the last two or three definitely would then be over-mixed. (See above, viz. rage-screaming.) This was also an issue that my pastry chef friend ran into, and it matters the least of all the failures–so it’s definitely the lowest rung on my ladder of concerns–but still. STILL.
  • Pipe onto parchment-lined baking sheets.
    • Just breaking this out to share my friend’s method for this, which I really like. As opposed to trying to pipe in a circle, which is tough, simply pipe straight down for a consistent length of time. The batter will spread to make circles. Like, count 1-2-3 as the batter comes out. If you use consistent pressure and time you will get perfectly matched cookies. Piping fifteen trays of meringue cookies did really improve my piping skills, I will say.

      Piped circles of meringue. This batch was a bit overmixed–you can tell that the batter spread too easily. The flecks in this batch are from the ground cardamom.
  • Bake at 300F for 18 minutes, or until the cookies peel easily away from the parchment.
    • Honestly, between my villainous thermometer and my verging-on-antique oven, I’m not sure I can say that I ever baked at exactly 300. I did find that erring on the side of too hot was preferable to too cool.
    • Colored macarons are apparently harder to get the timing right for. They can take up to twice as long to bake. It is true that the first tray of my only colored batch never passed the “done” test–but it’s also true that leaving them in for an extra ten minutes resulted in waaaay overdone cookies (although I was using professional color that should be heat-proof, these also went from rosy pink to yucky brown). It was the only tray I actually threw out. The subsequent two trays also did not peel up cleanly when warm, but I took them out at 18 minutes anyway; when cool, they did peel up just fine. They were even a bit over-done, but with my oven temp being so effing mysterious, I can’t really blame the recipe for that.
      With a few drops of liqui-gel food coloring (red) and some raspberry extract.
      • For reference, I used 3 drops of gel fool coloring and two teaspoons of raspberry extract in this batch, within the parameters Stella gives for her flavored versions.
    • Fill and enjoy! Buttercream, fruit curds, jams, alone or in combination with each other–the options are truly endless. They are best once they have been filled and rested in the fridge for a couple days, giving the meringue a chance to absorb some moisture from the filling and achieve that luscious texture.
      • I chose two different combos for the few of mine that qualified for filling: (1) Cardamom meringue with orange flower and almond buttercream; and (2) raspberry meringue with raspberry buttercream and lemon curd. For the batch I made with my friend, we chose hazelnut buttercream with a Nutella center sandwiched in plain meringue.

The diversity of macarons is actually what appeals to me so much about them. The process may be exacting, but the flavors can be so playful. That’s why I will–at some point–make these again.

But not, like, for a while.

To Happier Anniversaries and Recommitting to Goals

This month Salt Sweet Bitter turned a year old. Happy birthday, little blog!

When Margaret first suggested the idea of a shared blog to me, I was not at all certain I was the right person to trust with such a venture–I have always had a bad track record for beginning things with great enthusiasm and abandoning them when I run out of steam weeks or months later, and at the time I was still struggling with grief and severe anxiety. I really liked the idea, though, so I said yes.

I have been glad I did so every week. I have not always been able to finish my posts on the deadlines I have set myself, but I have kept to them more often than not. My baking projects were a large part of what pulled me out of the depression I had been struggling with since before my mother’s death, and learning to write coherently about politics has been a buffer against some of the despair that set in after the election. Having a place to report about these things, however informal and forgiving, has proven to be vital.

Last week I got to spend time in Boston with Margaret for the first time in far too many years, and it was glorious. She graciously guided and drove me to various locales so that I could indulge my obsessions with history and chocolate and bookshops. We also did lots of talking and lots of eating popcorn while watching films and television, and lots of cooking. And more eating. If you have not been to Boston, the food is flipping incredible, whether it comes from Margaret’s kitchen or any of the innumerable awesome restaurants. (I expected I would lose a few ounces due to all the walking that I am not used to. This did not happen, because Burdick’s and lobster rolls.)

I do not think I am a bad cook, and I will certainly stand up and say I am a good baker of most things that are not bread–at least, not yet–but my range is limited. I can do a few excellent cakes, good roast potatoes, and I can manage baked salmon and fried pork chops without drying them out. I haven’t practiced enough to call it a talent yet, but I’ve had remarkably good luck with joints of roast beef thus far, even the cheaper cuts that are likely to turn out tough. Margaret’s abilities, however, remind me that if I’m not exactly a beginner, neither am I far into the intermediate level, and as much as I enjoy making salmon en croute and noodles and shrimp with lime-sesame dressing, there are only so many times one can serve these things to guests before everyone gets bored.

One recent success: Christmas morning cinnamon rolls using an ATK recipe, which were in all honesty the best I’ve ever had, if I do say so myself. Including Cinnabon.

Without quite noticing, I’ve found over the past couple of months that I’ve achieved a lot, if not all, of what I kept telling myself I had to do after my mother died. The house is mostly tidy, a great deal of the clutter has been either parted with or better organized, and cleaning takes a fraction of the time it used to, even if I still hate doing the ironing and the carpets need vacuuming on almost a daily basis (because cats…). The silver kittens are almost full-size cats and very affectionate, if still shy. I have done some reorganizing of the house, and have a clearer idea of what else I want to do. So far this year has been devoted to politics, writing, and reading. I have no intention of giving up any of those, but I have worked through enough grief and despair to start focusing on some of the other things I love again, especially cooking. I have a growing collection of cookbooks that I am quite proud of; it is time to start using them more frequently, trying out dishes I am entirely unfamiliar with and finding new ways to cook foods I know I like. I have a collection of herbs in the garden that have been entirely neglected while I focused on the inside of the house, so they desperately need some care and attention. I am also determined to become a very good baker, particularly of bread, including sourdough. It should be interesting, if nothing else; in between the political writing and gushing about chocolate and pop culture, I promise to get back to documenting more of what I’m working on. I would love to hear more from our readers–if you have any suggestions or requests regarding recipes, please do let me know.


And now, pie

I have yet to emerge from my post-election hideout from the real world, but I think the worst of the comfort food phase is over. Or should I say best? There were a lot of indulgences in there, among them: pie. Lots and lots of pie.

Yet I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. (My tooth is very, very salty.) One of the reasons pie has always appealed to me is that you can moderate the sweetness and offset it–a fresh fruit filling, a buttery crust that verges on savory, a hint of almond in the cherries or whisky in the apples. But I also really love coconut cream pie so go figure.

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The two rules of pie crust: mess with it as little as possible, and keep it as cold as possible. I happen to like mine made with all butter and no sugar, like this one from the NYT, but there are plenty out there that use shortening or sugar or egg (for a tart crust) and really, those are just lovely too. Make it all by hand or do 90% of it in a food processor. Roll it out between sheets of parchment, plastic wrap, or silpats for a process that’s nearly as mess-free as buying one from a store. The flavor and texture rewards are so worth it.


My favorite from this most recent craze was a batch of sour cherry hand pies. The cherries were from my aunt’s tree–from last year, in which it had produced a prodigal crop of the pale ruby gems–and had been frozen after processing. I thawed a quart of them, drained them, cooked them down with barely a cup of sugar and a cornstarch slurry made with lemon juice, and then let them cool. I stirred in a little almond extract just because.

Baked in individually-sized portions for the maximum crust-to-content ratio, they came out like every cherry pie I’ve ever wanted. Tart then sweet, ending with a fat roundness from that buttery, buttery crust, their only flaw was insufficient quantity. Okay, and some of them were falling apart because I am terrible at shaping hand pies (all the good ones were made by a lovely friend/kitchen goddess helping me). But still. Perfect.



Oktoberfest may be loads of fun in Munich, but in the States it’s usually a bust. Giant crowds of drunk people, expensive beer, sad lederhosen. So when close friends began hosting their own, I thought I couldn’t be more thrilled. But then they made pretzels. REAL pretzels.

Oktoberfest pretzel textureIf ever you have loved a street pretzel, I am sure it’s because of the peculiar snap when you bite into it. The contrast of savory crust against chewy, yeasty dough is pretty good too. If ever you have been disappointed by a street pretzel–all of us?–it’s because the skin is dull or soft, and the interior a bready flavorless mass.

So what’s the secret? Other than requiring a good basic yeasted dough recipe, what sets apart a real pretzel from the impostors is a dip in a food-grade lye solution. Home cooks don’t usually mess with lye, which is highly caustic and needs to be handled carefully, but it’s the critical component in both pretzels and bagels.

The high-alkaline lye breaks down proteins in the surface of the dough. These freed-up amino acids interact with sugars when exposed to heat, creating complex flavor compounds along with darkening color. This process happens on some level with all cooked food–it’s called the Maillard reaction and is responsible for much deliciousness, like the crust of creme brulee–but the lye amplifies it. Often, home cooks try substituting baking soda to skip messing with lye; this works, but doesn’t get you quite the richness, complexity, or deep brown color possible with lye. Baking soda’s pH is 7. Pure lye’s is double that at 14.

Red Devil Lye for pretzelsFortunately, our host and my intrepid spouse are best friends and perfectly willing to support each other through the drama that is the lye dip. While they are, to date, the only ones who dip their gloved hands into the chemical that constitutes drain cleaner, the rest of us do what we can: mixing dough, shaping loaves, setting timers, rolling and shaping the pretzels. And then more friends arrive and somehow, dozens and dozens of pretzels just disappear. It’s an Oktoberfest miracle.

The dough is simply yeast, flour, water, salt, and a sugar; malt syrup is traditional, we used molasses as it’s easier to find. You mix it well, and like a bread dough knead it until it’s stretchy and smooth (signs the proteins are starting to break down and re-form into nice long chains that will hold their shape as the dough rises). Then it rests. Afterwards, punching down and a few gentle kneads, then portioning it, rolling long ropes of dough, and forming pretzels. After they adjust to their new form, they get dipped in the lye bath and immediately baked in a hot oven.

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Our pretzels for Oktoberfest 2016 were made according to a NYT recipe that we hadn’t used in past years. Calling for quite a lot of instant yeast per batch (2 T per 6 c flour!), they were much more active than our previous doughs. In order to stagger our time and be able to actually party and stuff, we made the dough the night before and let it rest overnight. With some doughs this would have been fine. With this one, even their 40-F degree resting environment was not cool enough to retard their growth sufficiently. So these were a mite less “pretzely” looking than previous years on account of their puffiness, but the taste was fabulous. All that yeast (and rising time) gave them really deep flavor.

This year, we made 84 pretzels for ~30 guests. We had 5 leftover because clearly a couple of people weren’t pulling their weight. I think I had 8 but it might have been 9 because once we started toasting them by the firepit while drinking whiskey I sort of stopped counting.

Photo from Oktoberfest 2015, I was too stuffed with pretzels for fire-pretzel photos this year.
Photo from Oktoberfest 2015, I was too stuffed with pretzels for fire-pretzel photos this year.


Smoked Salmon, Potato, and Dill Tart

20160508-DSC_0264It is hot outside. Like, so hot. I am barely tossing together salads these days, let alone turning my oven to 450 for a nice golden tart crust. However, looking through photos recently, I realized I never did anything with the ones I took of a pretty decent smoked salmon tart I made for Mother’s Day this spring. Consider this a #latergram.

20160508-DSC_0256If you have a thoroughly air-conditioned kitchen, this would be an excellent dish to make ahead and have for cold summer lunches, or serve with mixed greens and chilled rosé for a perfect summer dinner.

For the base of my recipe, I used this one from the BBC. I liked two things about it. (1) It called for a quite easy custard mix of egg and cream, no separate heating or complicated multi-step whisking, and (2) it added thin slices of potato to the usual combo of salmon and dill. Potatoes are such a natural pairing with both dill and cream bases, and I felt they would provide a nice textural dimension in a tart that would otherwise melt in your mouth.

salmon tart with dill potatoesSteam the potatoes rather than boil them as the BBC suggests–it takes less time overall, and it’s easier to keep the potato slices intact with the gentler cooking method.

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I threw in much more dill than strictly called for, and used lemon instead of lime as that’s what I had around. Otherwise I stuck close to the recipe in an attempt to overcome my naturally relaxed approach to cooking–custard-filled pastry does not take kindly to anarchy.

This was a successful smoked salmon tart. Lovely, if not perfect: well-set custard, not too rich but rich enough to complement the fish and potatoes, and against which the dill and lemon popped.

(The shortcrust was gorgeous, if I do say so myself. Sparing you the photos because really, how many pictures of crust can a person look at in his lifetime, but I did a much better job with this one than my delicious Thomas Keller failure of recent memory.)

Black Forest Gateau

A few months ago I asked my friends for suggestions about what cakes to make in the future. Most of the requests I got I tried to act on quickly, depending on the availability of ingredients and whether I possessed all the tools needed to accomplish the dish in question, but one I put off. My friend Zoe asked for a Black Forest gateau, and in Googling recipes I came across this:

Black Forest Gateau

And just stared at it for a wee while, in awe. I know this woman has a good photographer–or is herself a good photographer–to produce images of her creations, but that cake is amazing. And she apparently created it in her own kitchen, no exceptional tools or training needed. I looked at a few other recipes, and decided that nothing was going to equal that cake. I wanted to attempt it, but lacked the courage. After a few weeks’ thought, I decided to give it a try as my birthday cake, in lieu of buying one this year. (Choosing a birthday cake has always been something of a ritual for me, and something I’ve been known to spend a disproportionate amount of money on. If you’re in Atlanta, give one of Metrotainment Bakery‘s creations a try some time. Their Georgia peach pound cake with bourbon caramel sauce is insanely good.)

Some adaptation of the recipe proved necessary, as thickened cream is something that apparently exists only in Australia, and I didn’t have cake tins of the specified size. (I found a nearly brand-new set of the requisite three tins at an estate sale about 24 hours after I finished the cake. As you do.) I also did something wrong with the ganache–at first the butter wouldn’t blend properly, or I didn’t have enough chocolate; it looked greasy and unpleasant. I added a bit more chocolate and cream, which improved it greatly, but it still lacked the consistency I wanted. I haven’t had much trouble with ganache in the past, so next time I’ll use a different recipe for that element.

Ganache mishaps aside, it was actually far less difficult than I’d feared. The cakes themselves are very easy, and turned out perfectly. They didn’t seem dry to me when they came out of the oven, but after being soaked with probably more than half a cup of syrup and kirsch each, they did not turn into a soggy mess. The other steps were almost as easy as the cake, but there was a fair bit of waiting for everything to come to room temperature before assembly, so I ended up running a bit low on counter space.

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Once everything had reached the requisite temperatures, the fun part began: dousing everything in kirsch. Because the alcohol evaporated out of the syrup in cooking the cherries, I added a few tablespoons of fresh kirsch to the cakes as well; the cherry flavour certainly came through in the finished cake, but I couldn’t taste the alcohol, as you would in a rum or a whiskey cake. Whether or not this is a good thing I will leave to your discretion. (Side note–I bought a variety of preserved cherries for the project, thinking I would need all of them–tinned cherries, frozen cherries, cherry jam. I may in the future add a swirl of cherry jam to the cake before baking, but on this occasion I used only the frozen cherries, boiled in kirsh. They were Trader Joe’s dark sweet frozen cherries, and they held up beautifully after a ten-minute boil, so I recommend them.)

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My finished cake didn’t look like Thalia’s, but I don’t think I did too badly. The cream looks like it overwhelms the cake, but it actually deflated a bit when the cake was chilled and I ended up adding a bit of the excess filling when serving slices once the cake was a couple of days old. It was also huge–I couldn’t get the top of the server on until a few slices had been cut and some of the fruit eaten. Next time I am determined to get the ganache to drip prettily down the sides–I am in the process of thinking up a recipe of my own for my next attempt.


Fresh Fruit Tart

Tarts seem to be becoming a theme around here–must be the season. This week’s iteration of “probably a bit too ambitious for my skill level but I’m going to try it anyway” is a fresh fruit tart. A few years ago I ordered an enormous fresh fruit tart for a birthday cake from a swanky local baker’s, and I’ve been meaning to try doing one myself ever since. A friend of mine is planning a lunch party a couple of weeks hence and has asked me to provide the dessert, so I thought it a perfect time to try it; this is my practice run, because I’ve never made pastry cream before.

I couldn’t find a full recipe that had everything I was looking for, so I cobbled this together from a Martha Stewart recipe (the pastry) and the America’s Test Kitchen version (the pastry cream). Because this is my practice round, I went for the easy way out on the fruit–just raspberries and blackberries. Next time I’ll go for the fresh kiwi and mandarin orange slices and the works, but this time I just wanted to make sure I could cope with the tempering eggs part of the recipe. I managed to curdle the eggs in such a maneuver once before, and the fear has dogged me ever since.

Similar to the lemon meringue pie, this is one of those recipes done in stages–everything has to be chilled between assembly steps. This experience was less intense than the lemon meringue, though–the only part that requires careful attention is the pastry cream.

The first step is the crust. The birthday fruit tart of memory had a dense, thick crust, so instead of using the ATK recipe I went with Martha Stewart’s pate sucree (I can rarely bear to watch Martha Stewart on television, but she does have some good recipes.)

tart 14 tart 12 tart 11

tart 7 tart 6 tart 5

I am eternally grateful for our Cuisinart. It’s about twenty-five years old, and I hope it never dies–I don’t think I’d have the patience to make pastry crust or shortbread without it. One day I will be organized enough to spend a morning making several batches of sweet and savoury pastry crusts so that I can just pull them out of the freezer…one day. When I’ve made up my mind which specific recipes I like best. The pastry crust was mixed, shaped into a ball, chilled for two hours, rolled out, shaped, and went into the oven. I wanted a relatively thick crust, so I rolled the circle out to about half an inch, and lined the inside edge with the excess dough, which turned out to be unnecessary. The dough was deceptively soft when raw, even when chilled, and I feared it was going to come out puffy and soft. It didn’t; it was firm without being claggy and overwhelming, but the next time I do this I’ll roll it out a little bit more, to leave more room for pastry cream.

After baking, the crust went back into the refrigerator to chill, and I started on the pastry cream. I used the ATK recipe, but halved it as it looked like it would produce a lot more than what I needed; this recipe from The Joy of Cooking is close to what I did. (And as a bonus you can add the liqueur of your choice! Something that did not occur to me until I tasted the final result.)

Tart 10Tart 9tart 8

Making the pastry cream was less fearsome than I expected, and I managed not to curdle the eggs (hurrah!). I added some almond flavouring, as I thought it would go nicely with the raspberries; next time, I’ll use amaretto rather than artificial flavouring. Once complete, it went back in the refrigerator–the instructions required a very specific three hours for this, although I’m sure if you poured it in a shallow pan it would take less time, even for a full recipe.

While the pastry cream was chilling, I added another tweak from the birthday tart of fond memory–I heated about 2/3 of a cup of chocolate chips and painted the inside of the cold shell with melted chocolate. Aside from being delicious, this seems to prevent the softening of the crust by the pastry cream and juice from the topping.

Finally all the elements were cooked and properly chilled. Assembly was easy, particularly as I wasn’t concerned on this occasion with layering everything in a nice pattern, as I will next time. Even with only half the recipe, I had more pastry cream than I could use, so next time the dough will definitely be rolled more thinly. I meant to use apricot jam to make the glaze (half a cup of jam + 1-2 tablespoons boiling water, mixed until the jam thins out), but discovered the jar I’d squirreled away mysteriously absent, so I used seville orange marmalade instead.

tart 4  tart 2

I was concerned that the orange marmalade would be too strong a flavour and overwhelm the berries. If I’d used a different combination of fruit, I think I would have been right; with the blackberries, however, it tasted a lot like I’d added sherry to the mix, an effect I was quite pleased with. I also like the effect of the little shreds of orange peel on the finished product. I think in the future I will stick with the apricot jam, though; the marmalade glaze was still quite thick and made it difficult to cover all the fruit. All that said, I’m quite pleased with the result, and look forward to trying a grander version for company.

last tart

Lemon Lavender Meringue Pie (and Brownies)

I’ve been back and forth these last couple of weeks housesitting, so planning time to bake things has been tricky. I was away for most of Sunday, so my planned baking project–the pie–had to wait. Instead, I made Ina Garten’s outrageous brownies the Friday before, because they looked easy and I had a chocolate craving.

They are easy. They are also lethally rich. Half went in the freezer, four largish ones to the friends I was housesitting for, and the remaining ones are slowly slowly disappearing from the cookie jar, half-square by half-square. You can find the recipe (and demonstration) here. I neglected to take pictures of the process this time because I was in too much of a rush, but here is the final result:

Pie 11Not a drawback by any means, but I was a bit surprised that they didn’t have that crispy crust on the top that rich, sugary brownies often do–they’re gooier than I expected, particularly as I left them in the oven rather longer than recommended. My only other variation from the recipe was to leave out the espresso powder, although I’m sure they’re even more delicious with it.

Yesterday I set out to make my lemon meringue pie. I used the America’s Test Kitchen recipe, which can be found here (unfortunately there’s a paywall, although they do offer free trial subscriptions. If you come across any of their massive cookbooks in a second-hand shop or a yard sale, I recommend them–I have their meat book, their classic cookbook, and their baking book, and while this hasn’t stopped me from buying other cookbooks, they’re great fail-safes and they often explain a lot about the chemistry of why some techniques and recipes work when other standards are a matter of luck.)

It turned out to be an all-day affair; there’s quite a bit of make a part, let it chill, add another part, etc., and I was in and out running errands in between. I grated the lemon zest and squeezed the juice the night before, and started on the crust in the morning. I’m growing to like making pie crusts quite a bit–they always used to be a disaster for me when I was younger, so I’ve been buying ready-made ones for years. I’m not sure what I was doing so wrong before, but they’re working much better for me now.

Here are some of the ingredients, the chopped and frozen butter, and the completed and wrapped dough, ready for chilling. Allegedly there is some way to do this that does not involve a food processor. I would not recommend it–surely trying to incorporate frozen butter into flour rather defeats the purpose of the butter being frozen?

Pie 7 Pie 6 Pie 5

Pie 4 Pie 12Pie 16

Above is the dough after a couple of hours in the refrigerator. Rolling it out wasn’t as difficult as I’d anticipated. I used an all-butter crust for this recipe, not having any graham crackers on hand, but I think a graham-cracker crust is traditional for lemon meringue pies? My experience is limited. I’ve had lots of key lime pies in the past, but very few slices of lemon meringue.

Lemon 2

It did shrink a bit on one side; not sure why, as the dish was in the center of the oven. The damage wasn’t bad enough to make a difference to the end result, happily. Back in the fridge it went, for another hour or so.

Next was the filling. I was worried about this, because my cornstarch has in the past proved rather weak when it comes to doing its job, and I had barely enough for the recipe. I was also terrified that I would curdle the eggs–in all the recipes I’ve tried that required adding eggs to a moderately hot liquid, I’ve actually succeeded in not doing this, ever (knock on wood), but it remains one of the aspects of cooking I fear most.

Pie 3

  LemonPie 8




The eggs didn’t curdle, and the cornstarch did its job. This was the only point at which I altered the recipe, by adding about 1/4 of a teaspoon of culinary lavender oil (lavender and rose oils are strong stuff, one to two drops is enough for a cup of hot chocolate). I love the flavour of lavender, but there aren’t many other tastes it mixes well with; it does best with lemon and with chocolate.

I probably could have stopped at this point and been happy with the result, but the lemon curd by itself makes for quite an overpowering pie.  Back in the fridge again, for two hours this time.

Pie 1

Finally came the meringue. This was an Italian meringue rather than a French, like the one I got wrong before. Again, I was worried I would get the temperatures wrong and ruin the whole thing, but all came out well. I used an extra egg white, as the eggs I’d started with weren’t as large as I tend to use. I ran out of white sugar in this last measure, so I topped up the cup with turbinado. It didn’t make any difference to the taste, but the meringue was more ivory than white. (I don’t recommend this as a replacement–I used only a couple of tablespoons, but adding more would probably alter the chemistry of the meringue and cause disaster. I only resorted to the turbinado because the thought of going back to the grocery store close to rush hour nearly reduced me to tears.)


I’m quite pleased with the finished product. The meringue did not collapse in the oven or afterward; it’s still fluffy and pretty this morning, although the necessity of covering it with plastic wrap for storage has damaged a few of the peaks. The flavour of the lavender didn’t come out as much as I’d hoped, so next time I’ll increase the amount of oil, perhaps a half or two-thirds of a teaspoon. It’s not the most complicated of recipes, but given the need to wait between the steps and before serving, it’s best kept for a weekend. On the plus side, there was plenty of time for cleaning up between steps, so at the end I didn’t have stacks of pots and equipment to clean–I got to sit down and enjoy a slice in peace.

Pie 15

Thomas Keller’s Mushroom Quiche

Thomas Keller mushroom quiche
The quiche we want is not always the quiche we deserve. This is Thomas Keller’s version, image c/o Food & Wine. Mine looked just like it.

Invited to a French-themed dinner party where the main event was duck l’orange and another guest had already volunteered the potato gratin, I volunteered a truffled quiche. Seemed fancy. Seemed hearty. Seemed appropriate. The thing is, I had never made a quiche. I don’t even really like quiche.

But then I saw a promising recipe on Food & Wine. It mentioned “silky custard” and “several inches high” which are the circumstances that apply when I do find myself enjoying a quiche. And once I had already obtained ingredients, I realized on a closer look that I had picked a Thomas Keller recipe. You know, he of that little-known hole-in-the-wall THE FRENCH LAUNDRY.

Perhaps I should have applied slightly more common sense at this stage. For instance, going to Whole Foods and buying a quiche. However: I did not. (In my defense, since I’m pretty comfortable with pastry and had the entire day to work, I figured I could take it slow and get it right, because apparently I have never met myself?!)

So here’s the deal, folks. Quiche is hard.

  1. Make a crust with so much butter you actually lie about it to people.

    Note: I did like Keller’s unorthodox stand mixer method for mixing the dough. I was dubious but stuck with it and will be using it in the future.

  2. Let it rest in the fridge and then let it come back up to rolling temperature. Pretend like you knew this would take about 2 hours.
  3. Par-bake this crust, which is several inches high, until it is golden brown.
    1. Check it halfway through and realize that you only put in half an inch of pie weights so your crust is toppling and shrunken, hahahaha no problem you’re only three hours behind on your schedule!
    2. Do ignore the fact that your kludgy crust-fixes will likely not work, and think gamely to yourself, “The top edges will be sliced off anyway!”

      Butter crust for quiche
      Totally normal. Everything is fine. This looks just like the picture.
  4. Slice up and cook, like, a lot of mushrooms. A lot. And some shallots.
    1. Make sure you use butter for this stage because you have not used enough butter yet.
  5. Let the mushroom mix cool In a panic, scatter the still super-hot mushroom mix over the pre-baked crust.
    1. Right! There should be cheese in this! Go find some and grate that s**t right in there.
  6. Make the first half of the egg-and-milk mixture for your custard and definitely do what I did and mix up the proportions so that then you have to retroactively mix in more milk to the sloppy mess already in the crust, carefully, with a whisk, while crying.
    1. Assure yourself that this is for sure what Thomas Keller does when he makes quiche.

      Iceland puffin photo
      Here is a picture of a puffin in Iceland! Isn’t this much better than those disaster photos I literally could not spare 2 seconds to take while cooking?
  7. Scatter the rest of your thankfully delicious mushroom mixture on top of the mess you just made. Top with the second half of the custard.
  8.  Watch the custard spill out onto the baking tray through the gaps in the crust that your kludgy fixes (see Step 3.2, above) failed to adequately stop. Crying more is okay at this stage, but personally, I recommend healthy, loud, really offensive cursing. Kick something!

    Kitchen mess during cooking
    Generally I am a “clean as you go” cook. Also: Dishwashers save lives.
  9. Figure you might as well bake it before throwing it away, and while it’s in the oven you can put on clothes that aren’t covered in flour and butter. Remember that dinner party you’re going to in–oh god it’s in an hour—-
    1. Assess the amount of cold coffee left in your cup, add an equal amount of Kahlua, and absolutely under no circumstances look over at the clock.
  10. Check the quiche a bit early. Experience the actual miracle of it being done! Be grateful for your friends making soothing noises at you. Transfer it to a pan not coated in a horrifying mess of custard spillover, pack it up for the ride to dinner, and hope for the best.

Turns out this tasted lovely. The bottom layer of custard did not set correctly, presumably due to my frenzied attempts to fix my proportion mistake, but it wasn’t too bad. And the top layer was in fact supremely silky and light despite having partially drained out the sides.

Thomas Keller mushroom quicheKeller’s method of layering the cooked ingredients and the custard layers did result in a beautiful distribution of mushrooms throughout the quiche. My black truffle salt and white truffle oil additions turned out to be right on the nose–not overwhelming (I thought) while still prominent. The par-baked crust stayed crispy and flaky and was nearly good enough to make one overlook its hideous aspect.

All in all, I was glad I hadn’t chucked this in the trash when steps 1-All of Them went wrong. A lesson in learning to love the imperfect.

Yorkshire Puddings

Most weekends when I head into the kitchen I come out four or five hours later with two or three concoctions that taste good, look more or less like the book says they should, and I enjoy a brief sense of accomplishment for having done something that makes me feel like a grown-up, before returning to my normal state of feeling overwhelmed.

This was not one of those weekends. On Saturday I made blueberry muffins and oatmeal muffins (both from America’s Test Kitchen recipes, which can be found here), which were good but just not inspiring for some reason. I made this recipe for dinner at my father’s request. (Note: I do not know who came up with the labels “simple” and “healthy” for this dish–the healthy label was applied on another site. It is neither. It was somewhat tedious to prepare, if not terribly difficult, and no dish consisting of stuffed pasta topped with fried pork wherein the [also fried sauteed] vegetables are effectively a garnish has any business being called healthy.) It wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great either; my father ate a few bites, threw most of his serving away, and then insisted that it had been my idea to prepare the meal in the first place. I was not pleased.

On Sunday I lacked the heart to spend much time in the kitchen, so dinner came out of packets from the refrigerator and the freezer and there was no dessert. We had roast beef, though, so I decided to make some Yorkshire puddings to go with it.

Yorkshire puddings are one of those things that taste like home to me–they are a reminder of childhood Christmases in England when the holiday was a week of fun and new things with family I rarely got to see, before worry about budgets and the stress of preparing things crept in. My mother would only ever make them at Christmas, and was never happy with her results: they were always soft and buttery and pancake-like, never achieving the crisp edges of the store-bought ones, which I have never seen on this side of the puddle. I didn’t care–I’ve always found them delicious no matter how soft they were, and still prefer them slightly underdone at the base. They are comfort food to me, like hot chocolate, fresh blackberries, or a grilled cheese sandwich, and I needed something to cheer myself up this weekend.

I tried my hand at them for Christmas about three years ago, and achieved entirely by chance what she had always tried and never managed: crisp, rounded edges with a dip in the middle. Her recipe book of Classic English Cookery insisted that the batter be chilled before pouring it into the pan and set in the oven, but things had been a bit hectic in the kitchen that day and I had set the batter aside while other things were baking and promptly forgotten about it for an hour. When they came out of the oven they were perfect, and didn’t deflate. Aside from a poached egg, this is the only thing I have ever been able to cook better than my mother did.

She would only cook them at Christmas; I try to make them at least once a month. I would do them more often if I thought they were remotely healthy, but unlike roasted brussels sprouts, they are not a vegetable, so I don’t get to use every excuse to make them. It has taken me a bit of fine-tuning to get them to really crisp up at the edges and not deflate once they’re out of the oven. I’m still having a bit of trouble getting the ones at the center to puff up properly; the one thing I haven’t tried is doing them on a convection cycle, so I will do that next time.

Yorkies 2
Extreme close-up of finished puddings

The recipe is simple: two eggs, one cup of whole milk, one cup of flour, pinch of salt. When I don’t have whole milk on hand, I find that adding a couple of tablespoons of cream to low-fat milk does just as well. Add all ingredients together and whisk until smooth. The batter must be at room temperature before baking: this can be achieved by leaving the eggs and cup of milk out for a few hours, or mixing up the batter and leaving it to rest for at least an hour before baking–I haven’t noticed any discernible differences in results.

Heat the oven to 425 F. If you have any beef drippings (or bacon fat) on hand, put a good pinch (about 1/2 to 3/4 of a tablespoon) in each cup of a twelve-cup muffin pan–butter or oil will also do. I usually use butter, but drippings will give you the best flavour and have always produced the best results in my experience. Put the pan in the oven until the fat or butter is quite hot–I wait until I can hear it sizzling. Take the pan out of the oven and pour the batter into the cups–I start with about 1/4 a cup in each muffin cup and top up a few if there is any batter left over. Put the pan back in the oven and bake for at least 20 minutes. If the puddings are not turning a dark brown along the top edge, leave in for a few more minutes–taking them out too early will result in deflated puddings. Still delicious, but not crispy.

I did a bit of research online, wondering if there were other variations on the recipe. Some versions I found indicate that the batter ingredients should be doubled (4 eggs, 2 cups milk, 2 cups flour) and the muffin cups filled to the top; some also insist that the batter should indeed be cold, as per my mother’s old cookbook. This has never worked for me either–like my mother, I get tasty muffin-shaped pancakes, not Yorkies.

Yorkshire puddings are traditionally served with roast beef–still the rule in my house, otherwise I’d be making them every week, and that would be bad–but I don’t see why they couldn’t be served with any sort of roast meat. The batter can also be poured into a pan and sausages laid in a row down the middle to make toad-in-the-hole, but they must be British sausages, which are exorbitantly expensive here when they can be found at all, so I’ve never tried this for myself. What Trader Joe’s describes as Irish sausages are not actually Irish or anything like a sausage produced in the British Isles. (Here in the US you can sell solid chocolate bars that are only 11% cocoa and “taco meat filling” consisting of only 35% beef, but apparently you’re not allowed to label a sausage a sausage if it contains a certain percentage of breadcrumbs….) They’re a nice attempt, but don’t have the flavour or consistency of the real thing. If you have a UK imports shop near you, you might be able to find Cameron’s or some other version of the real thing.