Friday, December 30, 2011

A Recipe for Lori - and You!

Well over a year ago I promised my friend, Lori, a recipe for a wonderful appetizer - Brie Onion Tartlets. I even told her I would write a blog entry with the recipe and get it to her "soon."But I kept pushing the blog entry to the back burner and never wrote the blog or shared the recipe with Lori. Sorry!

Guess what? I'm going to make things right and post the recipe now. And even though I'm late in posting, the timing is actually perfect for any of you who might need to make a great appetizer for a New Year's party!
Brie Onion Tartlets
I discovered this recipe in the Taste section of the Star Tribune in 2003 and have made it many times since. The recipe is called "Honey-Glazed Onion and Brie Tarts but I've always referred to the little tarts as "Brie-Onion Tartlets." I'm not sure how I ended up changing the name. It's probably just because it's easier to say "Brie-Onion Tartlets" than "Honey-Glazed Onion and Brie Tarts."

Here are my notes on the recipe:

•I almost always skip the parsley. The tarts are still great without it.
•I find that I have enough of the onion mixture to fill 30 mini-phyllo cups instead of the 15 the recipe calls for. Be sure to pick up an extra box or two of mini-phyllo cups in case you have extra onions, too.
•The tarts are best served right out of the oven but I've also served them at room temperature and they still taste great.
•Browning the onions is time consuming and the tarts are somewhat bothersome to assemble but they are still relatively easy to prepare - and well worth the effort!
Onions, brie and mini-phyllo shells - everything needed to assemble the Brie Onion Tartlets
Interested in making these yummy little tarts? Click here for the link to the recipe on the Star Tribune's website.

And while you are on the internet, check out Lori's custom jewelry website, Simply Yours Creations, or her wonderful blog, We Bloom Where Planted. Lori is an inspiring athlete, blogger and artist I met through 30 Days of Biking. I'm constantly amazed at what an impact 30 Days of Biking made on my life - not just fact that I set a goal to bike every day for 30 days and and did it (four times now!) but because through 30 Days of Biking I met so many wonderful people - like Lori!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Winter Vacation Traditions

We had a wonderful Christmas with family and are now enjoying some time off from work and school. We're all kicking back and reading, playing games, eating too much and, since we're having unseasonably warm weather, have been on a few long walks with Rocket the Dog.

Today we plan to do some work in the hangar finishing up our shop and I hope to finish a photo book that I started ages ago. But more than anything I'd like to curl up with a good book (Rose got me The Last Wife of Henry VII for Christmas from Northfield Middle School's wonderful Tattered Pages shop) or take a nap. It is vacation, after all, so reading and naps are a must!

Another must during our winter vacation is our annual (usually post-Christmas) trip to downtown Minneapolis via the light-rail train. In the last few years we've made it a tradition to eat at Brit's Pub - a British Pub & Eating Establishment that features, you guessed it, British fare like Bangers and Mash, Cornish Pasty, Cock-a-Leekie Soup and Sausage Rolls. We love Brit's. In the summer months you can even sit outside up on the roof next to the Lawn Bowling green.
Owen and his Cornish Pasty with peas and Ryan with his Brit's Kings Wings
We take great care to order something fun when we go to Brit's. We started with an order of Scotch Eggs. Rose ended up with a mini-pizza from the kids' menu (very non-British but one of my kids always gets the pizza). Ryan ordered Brit's Kings Wings and Owen the Cornish Pasty. I ordered the Sausage Rolls. Brit's Sausage Rolls used to be my favorite but Brit's changed up the recipe to a breaded and deep fried roll instead of a little sausages rolled up in a flaky pastry. I don't think I'll order them again. The breaded rolls just aren't good enough to suit me. That said, we still enjoyed our meals and the Brit's experience. And, as usual, I ordered a side of Branston Pickle with my meal - a pickle relish that looks rather strange but, I think, tastes great! A trip to Brit's, in my mind, isn't complete without a pot of tea and a side of Branston Pickle.
Rose and her mini-pizza. Me and my Sausage Rolls with HP Sauce, Branston Pickle & Honey Mustard
Our trips downtown used to include a trip to Macy's to see their 8th floor auditorium Christmas display. The animated display has been a tradition at Macy's (then Dayton's) since 1963. I remember going to the display when I was a little girl. We didn't go every year but the memories I have of the times I went to Dayton's with my Mom and big brother are some of my favorites.  When Owen and I had kids we decided to make the 8th floor Christmas display an annual tradition for our family. And, other than the year the display was Harry Potter and the lines were too long, we've made a trip downtown to see the display since 1999 when Rose was a baby.
Rose & Ryan in 2007 at the 8th Floor Christmas Display - The Nutcracker was the theme that year.
That is, a trip to Macy's used to be our annual tradition. Macy's has done the same display the last four years - A Day in the Life of an Elf. We saw the Elf display in 2008. It was delightful. The kids loved it. But when we went in 2009 the display was once again A Day in the Life of An Elf. Granted, if my kids were tiny they wouldn't have remembered that they were seeing the same thing as the year before. But even at ages 7 and 10, they knew the display was the same.  And, even though it was still a treat to see the characters and fun to walk past each scene, we were all a little disappointed to see the same display.
Rose and Ryan checking out The Day in the Life of an An Elf in 2008
Guess what Macy's had for a display in 2010? Yep. Same thing. The Day in the Life of An Elf. And the same Elf display in 2011 (Read an interesting blog entry - "DeBlog: Macy's is Doing The Same Xmas Display AGAIN?"). So we skipped the display this year and last year. Hmmm, we skipped the display which also means we didn't spend any money shopping at Macy's...seems like a poor move on Macy's part. Having a new display each year keeps people coming year after year. Not having a new display sure kept us away and it sounds like we're not the only ones skipping Macy's this Christmas. There's even a Boycott Macy's Facebook page.

Come on Macy's - if you won't do a new display every year at least rotate in another display or two. We'd love to make the 8th Floor Auditorium Christmas Display part of our family tradition again.

Well then...In the time we could have been shopping at Macy's we visited a lot of other shops instead. We made two trips to Barnes & Noble and had a blast looking at books and Rose did some Nook research. We went to Target to look at TVs and Electronics. We visited shops in the IDS Building and Gaviidea Commons. We even found a lovely little shop that sold French Macarons - Cocoa & Fig - so we HAD to stop for a treat. I had a Salted Caramel French Macaron. Rose had a peanut butter cake pop and Ryan had a peanut butter cookie sandwich. They were all yummy!

Speaking of treats - I'm going to share a great appetizer recipe with you in the next day or two.

As for right now? Working in the hangar has slipped to the bottom of my to do list. I think it's time to read a book. Or take that nap. I wonder if I can manage to do both...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mad About Macarons!

A couple of weeks ago I discovered a macaron cookbook, Mad About Macarons! Make Macarons like the French, through a comment posted on my Macaron Madness blog. Turns out the author of the book, Jill Colonna, stumbled upon my blog and posted a comment. Jill is originally from Scotland but now lives in France and is a serious fan of macarons -  a "macaronivore," she says. And I think Jill may be my first blog comment poster from France. Cool!

I decided to order Colonna's book which was recently released in the US and Canada. I called Jerry at my local book shop, Monkey See Monkey Read, to see if he could get the book for me. He said "yes" and ordered it right away.
The book arrived within a week and last Thursday I picked it up. At quick glance I could see the book itself was a treat with many beautiful pictures of macarons.

I couldn't wait to really delve into the book so after dinner I brewed a pot of tea in my Paris tea pot (it has a picture of the Eiffel tower on it), sat down on the couch with my tea and a couple of chocolate orange macarons and read Mad About Macarons! cover to cover.  The book is wonderful! There are 37 macaron recipes (including a nut-free recipe for those with nut allergies) with such fun flavor combinations as "Whiskey MacCoffee" and "Thai Green Curry" in addition to the more standard Vanilla, Almond and Chocolate. In addition, Colonna suggests tea and wine pairings for each recipe, comments on presentation and packaging and has a few recipes for your leftover egg yolks.
No surprise - I decided I had to try one of Jill's recipes but with macaron making you can't do things quickly. First off, Colonna suggests "aging" your egg whites for four to five days in the fridge. So I cracked and separated my eggs and put them in the fridge.

In the meantime I had some work to do to prepare for my first Mad About Macarons! recipe.

Since the recipes in the book are all in grams (precise measurements are a must) I headed to The Measuring Cup, my local cooking store, and bought a digital scale. I also headed to Penzey's Spices  in hopes of finding Bitter Almond Extract, one of the ingredients for the almond macaron recipe I wanted to try. I couldn't find bitter almond so I decided that I would try the recipe with regular almond extract.

There are a few other things in the Mad About Macarons! cookbook that are a challenge to find here. Custard powder is one, though I happened to have some Bird's Custard tucked away in my cupboard. My local grocery store and co-op don't carry custard powder but Byerly's does. I have yet to find Vanilla powder though the people at Penzey's suggested I might find it at a craft store that sells cake decorating supplies. (note added 12/12/11 - I discovered that The  Measuring Cup and Byerly's both carry Vanilla Powder - expensive stuff but worth it!) Jill suggests using "a flexible plastic patisserie scraper" for preparing the macarons - I didn't find one at The Measuring Cup so will keep looking.

Also there are several things that I had to double check to make sure I knew what they were. The basic macaron recipe calls for eggs, ground almonds, caster sugar and icing sugar - here caster sugar is granulated sugar and icing sugar is powdered sugar. Some recipes call for "full milk" which is the same as whole milk yet another recipe calls for whole milk and not full milk. Not sure what to make of that. One recipe calls for "single cream" and I still have to figure out what that is. There are other little things that puzzle me in the cookbook but I'm sure I'll figure them out as I go along.

Finally, on Sunday night with my ingredients figured out, my scale ready and my eggs aged (or almost - I couldn't wait and only aged them for three days!) I started making Almond Macarons (Macarons aux Amandes - Colonna includes the French names for each recipe. I love it!).

I decided to make the shells turquoise blue simply because I've been wanting to make blue macarons.
Guess what? My shells baked up perfectly! I was so excited. Then I made the custard-based almond filling.
Making a custard-based filling wasn't as easy as I would have liked it to be. I followed the directions but still ended up with lumpy custard sauce. So I sieved the custard - I've always wanted to say that I sieved something. It sounds far more glamourous than "I squished the custard through a strainer to get the lumps out."

In the end, I was a little worried about the custard filling tasting too custardy. I almost gave up and made a buttercream instead. But I filled all of my beautiful blue shells with the almond custard and tucked them away in the fridge. Then I  waited - according to Colonna macarons need to sit for 24 hours before eating "as this lets the filling infuse into the shell."

Once again I struggled to wait for the entire length of time I was supposed to but I got close! I tried my first Blue Almond French Macaron on Monday afternoon and all I can say is WOW! It was better than good - it was wonderful. So I tried another. And another. And shared a bunch with a couple of friends. I was hooked on French Macarons before but now I really am!
And guess what? Tonight I'm cracking a few more eggs to get them started on their aging process so I can try another Mad About Macarons! recipe.

I'm thinking I will make Dark Chocolate Macarons (Macarons au Chocolat Noir) next. Or Chocolate and Lapsang Souchong Macarons (though I think I will substitute Earl Grey tea for the Lapsang Souchong). Or maybe Tutti-Frutti Macarons (Macarons aux Fruits Rouges).

Ah - so many macaron recipes to try and so many little bites of heaven to share with my family and friends. Life is good indeed!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Porcelain Painting and a Mini Pilgrimage

One of the fun things about writing stories is that I get to meet neat people and explore new places. I just spent two days in Northern Iowa - which may not sound like an exciting place to visit but the area is full of treasures and at less than two hours drive from Minneapolis is a reasonable option for a day or weekend trip.

Right now I'm writing a story about a group of women from the Forest City area who have been gathering together twice a week for about 30 years to paint porcelain. Porcelain painting is a nearly lost art and I discovered these women through a distant cousin of mine, Carolyn, who runs a bed and breakfast in Forest City, Iowa. I actually met Carolyn when I was in Forest City for a Sons of Norway meeting where my mom was a guest speaker and, well, it gets to be a long story. Suffice it to say this is my third trip back to Forest City since late summer and the second time I have been a guest at Carolyn's lovely inn, The Elderberry Inn B&B.
My suite at the Elderberry Inn - The Berrymore Suite

I wanted to watch the porcelain painting ladies in action so Carolyn invited me to join the group for one of their Tuesday painting sessions. I decided to head down a day early to spend some time checking out nearby Clear Lake, Iowa, so drove down Monday morning.

Clear Lake, I'd heard, is a cute lake town, somewhat touristy in the summer months and still a good place to visit during the off season. It's home to the Color the Wind Kite Festival in mid-February, the largest winter kite festival in the Midwest. It's also home of the Surf Ballroom & Museum where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, played their last concert before dying in a plane crash in the wee hours of February 3, 1959.

I arrived in Clear Lake without much of an agenda. I was hungry so found a place called Sevens on Main Avenue for lunch. I ordered a salad, soup and 1/2 sandwich lunch special for $7.77. I visited several cute boutique-type shops and antique stores and walked along Clear Lake a bit. Then I decided to visit the Surf Ballroom - I'm glad I did.

Walking into the Surf is like stepping back into time. I love ballrooms and this one is a gem even without the history attached to it. It's been beautifully kept up and most of it, I understand, is original and looks like it did back on the night when Holly, Valens and Richardson played their last concert. I definitely want to go back and visit again with my kids - I think Rose and Ryan would enjoy this glimpse of rock and roll history.

After the visit to the Surf I decided to drive out to the site where the ill-fated charter flight crashed and Holly, Valens, Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson lost their lives. As a pilot, I tend to stay away from crash sites. As a music and history lover, though, I wanted to see the site and the memorial and pay my respects.

The site is on private farm land and the directions to it are kind of funny in a way - where else but in farm country would directions have you follow the first fence row just past the grain bins? There's a huge pair of Buddy Holly type glasses marking the spot to start walking the fence row out to the site. I parked my van and started walking. It was less than a half mile out there. The sun was setting, the air crisp, and I was glad for my scarf and gloves.
Roadside marker at the fence row that leads you out to the crash site & memorial
Visiting the site was kind of eerie but I'm glad I walked out there and would visit again.
Memorial marker for Holly, Valens & Richardson, aka The Big Bopper

After my day in Clear Lake and my mini rock and roll history pilgrimage it was time to drive to Forest City for a stay at the Elderberry Inn and some time visiting with Carolyn. I arrived at 6:00 on the dot and we had dinner together and homemade pie (sweet potato pie for me!). After dinner we were invited to the home of one of the  painting ladies who is also a quilter. She knows I'm also a quilter so wanted to share her quilt collection with me. What fun! She showed us over 50 quilts and served us coffee and treats before Carolyn and I headed back to the Inn for the evening.

I must confess I slept in on Tuesday morning - and it felt good to do so. Come one o'clock the painting ladies came over and set up their things at the dining room table and began to paint. Carolyn is one of the youngest of the group of six. The oldest is 92, I think, and looks and acts much younger. It was a treat for me to see the ladies paint, to watch them help each other with their projects and to see white china turn into beautifully painted pieces of art work. These ladies are lovely and full of positive energy and enthusiasm for life - and for painting. I'm honored that they invited me to join them and made me feel so welcome.
A plate painted by one of the porcelain painting ladies, Dolores, age 92

I'll keep you posted as to when my porcelain painting story runs in Womeninc Magazine  - it's scheduled for either May or June 2012.

I plan to head back to Clear Lake, Forest City and other points in Northern Iowa soon. There's so much to see and do there!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Macarons - A Visual Treat!

My last blog posts, Macaron Madness and French Macaron Recipe Recap, have been long and wordy - so this time you are in for a visual treat! I'm going to post pictures of the French Macarons I've made so far along with a few notes on each kind.

French Macarons come in just about any color and flavor you can imagine. It's fairly simple to change up a basic recipe and create new color/flavor combinations. If you google "French Macaron" you can come up with some wonderful pictures of them. Try it. You'll have fun!

It's pretty easy to make different colors and flavors - Basically, you add whatever food coloring you want to the meringue mixture to make different colors. For the different flavors you can add a bit of flavoring to the meringue mixture if you'd like (most recipes I see don't add flavoring to the meringue but I've tried it a couple of times) but mostly just change up the filling. Fillings are generally some sort of ganache, buttercream or jam. I have yet to make any filled with jam but I've tasted a few. I've even had a macaron from Patisserie 46 that had BOTH ganache and jam in it. Frankly, though, my preference for fillings is chocolate ganache. Yum.

I'm no food photographer so what the macarons really look like doesn't always match how they look in these pictures. Oh well, you'll (hopefully) still enjoy looking at the pictures and dreaming of eating macarons. It's fun to note that some of the best pictures were taken by my 12 year old daughter, Rose. She loves taking pictures and does a nice job with the camera.

Okay, here we go. Sit back and enjoy!

Raspberry Chocolate French Macarons
I made my first macarons over a year ago from this recipe - Raspberry Chocolate French Macarons - and have made them two times since. I love raspberry and chocolate together so think these are pretty much perfect.
Shells: For the light pink color I added a drop of red food coloring.
Filling: I followed the recipe - which called for making a chocolate ganache with raspberry extract

Lavender French Macarons
I love lavender and grow it in my garden. There's something so wonderful about the smell and the color. I tried the Lavender French Macaron recipe for these and found them a bit sweet. Still, they were yummy! I'd like to try lavender again but maybe fill them with a chocolate lavender ganache instead of buttercream. Or maybe lavender and Earl Grey tea?
Shells: I added some purple colored gel food coloring. If I made these again I might sprinkle some lavender flowers on top.
Filling: I used the buttercream recipe as written in this recipe, which uses lavender flowers (I can find them at my local co-op, Just Food). I added some pink gel food coloring at the suggestion of my daughter. 
Photo by Rose

Double Lemon French Macarons
Ah yes, my first "creation" - Double Lemon macarons. I decided to try lemon macarons so looked around for recipes but ended up sort of creating my own. These were yummy!
Shells: Added a wee bit of lemon extract and yellow food coloring to Lavender French macaron recipe
Filling: I actually threw a bunch of stuff together for the filling. I mixed some lemon curd and cream cheese together then realized I didn't have enough filling to found a recipe (8 oz cream cheese, 1/4 C powdered sugar, juice and zest of one lemon) and mixed everything I had together. 
Photo by Rose

Mint Chocolate French Macarons
I love the pairing of mint and chocolate just as much as I like raspberry and chocolate together so decided to make Mint Chocolate macarons. I've made these three times now (twice with green shells, once with pink shells). They are a favorite!!! I plan to make theses for Christmas in both green and red, possibly with a white chocolate ganache for the red ones. 
Shells: I added green or red to the meringue. I added peppermint extract to the meringue one time. I like the mint in the shell but it's not necessary.
Filling: I added a bit of peppermint extract to a basic chocolate ganache recipe
Photo by Rose

Chocolate Kahlua Mocha Buttercream French Macarons
I decided to try a recipe with a chocolate shell and found this recipe. Anything with coffee and kahlua has to be good, I figured, so I gave this recipe a go. It's a good one! I'll make this recipe again.
Shells: This recipe has you add some cocoa powder to the almond meal/powdered sugar mixture. It also has you add a drop of red food coloring (for a nicer color).
Filling: This is a basic buttercream with the addition of 1T cocoa, 1 tsp Kahlua and 1 tsp instant coffee granules

Rose French Macarons
I had to try this recipe because my daughter's name is Rose and I love roses. Plus I really wanted to make more pretty colored macarons and these sure are pretty. These are not my favorite because it turns out I'm not real keen on rose flavor. I still might make them again and try a bit less rose water in the ganache and see how I like them.
Shells: I added a bit of a muted pink colored food coloring gel for the pink. A wee bit of red would also do. The recipe I found for the filling said that you could put a little crushed crystallized rose on the tops. I didn't have crystallized rose petals (but discovered I can find them at The Measuring Cup, my local kitchen store) so found some rose petal sugar I had in my cupboard. I crushed up the rose petals in the sugar and sprinkled them on top along with the rose infused sugar. 
Filling: I followed a recipe for a white chocolate ganache and added some rose water (found at my local co-op, Just Food) and some bright pink food coloring.

What's next? Well, I'm not sure but I do plan to make Chocolate Orange at the request of my chef friend, Karl, who actually tried my very first batch of Raspberry Chocolate French Macarons - and liked them! I plan to use the Chocolate Kahlua Mocha recipe for the shells and then fill them an orange zest buttercream. I also want to make some more colorful macarons - maybe turquoise blue? bright green? orange? Oh and I definitely want to make salted caramel. Oh boy, the possibilities are endless!

Friday, November 18, 2011

French Macaron Recipe Recap

In my last post, Macaron Madness, I promised to share a French Macaron recipe - I'm actually going to post links to three and give you some feedback on my experiences with each. (Warning - long blog post ahead!)

Many of the recipes I find are written using grams for measurements. I have a recipe from my husband's cousin's daughter in Australia that I want to try but have yet to do so because I don't have an adequate kitchen scale. Her recipe uses a totally different method for making macarons and I'm excited to try it! The three recipes I'm sharing, however, use US measurements.

I've made seven batches of French Macarons so far (or more, I've lost track) and have only had one recipe flop. That time many of the shells cracked, stuck to the parchment and didn't form adequate "feet" (see below under Sitting time for an explanation on "feet"). Still, most were good enough to eat. So I ate them (I shared some, too). This doesn't mean that I actually have French Macarons figured out. I'm a total French Macaron amateur and I have yet to find a recipe that I like 100% and never know if each batch is going to turn out or not.

Here's some of my notes on making French Macarons. If you are impatient for the recipes, simply scroll down to find them.

Almond Flour - at first I processed my own almonds but, for simplicity, I've started buying Bob's Red Mill Almond Meal/Flour and am having good luck with that. If you make your own flour the recipes call for blanched almonds and some specify "non slivered." I have yet to find blanched almonds that are NOT slivered. I've used slivered blanched almonds to make almond flour and have had fine results. 
Almond meal/flour and baking stuff
Sifting - several recipes call for sifting the almond meal and the powdered sugar. I've been doing this. Sifting sorts out larger bits of almond in the almond flour which, I believe, gives the macarons a more consistent texture.
Egg whites (with a drop of red food coloring) beaten until stiff peaks formed
Egg Whites - some recipes call for you to "age" your egg whites up to three days. I haven't seen a huge difference when I have aged my whites and when I have not - but I'm no expert so probably don't know what I'm looking for and haven't actually aged any egg whites for a full three days. It's been a time issue for me. I have aged them for a day or two but never three.
Ryan helped me make my last batch of macarons. Here he's folding the almond/powdered sugar mixture into the egg white mixture. 
Rocket always hangs out with us when we're baking - here he's literally "underfoot"
Pastry Bags - recipes call for you to pipe the meringue using a pastry bag. Some recipes say to simply use a gallon zip-lock bag as a pastry bag - you just cut a small hole in a corner for the batter to come out. I don't have a pastry bag and have had good enough luck using a zip-lock baggie. 

Parchment - recipes suggest baking the meringues on parchment. Some suggest silpats (a non-stick baking mat) I don't have any silpats so use parchment.

Baking sheets - I use insulated baking sheets. When I run out of those I layer a smaller sheet inside a larger one. I have good luck with insulated sheets.
The macaron shells sit for about a half hour before they are baked
Templates - some recipes suggest using templates so your macarons all come out the exact same size. I have made my own templates by simply drawing circles on the back side of my parchment. I find drawing 40 circles on parchment to be a lot of work so usually just wing it and pipe the macarons. After piping somewhere around 300 of them I'm getting pretty good at making them about the same size.

Size - most macarons I've seen are around the size of an Oreo cookie. This is a nice size. Some are bigger, about 3" round. I made my last batch really small, just over an inch round. They all taste good.

Sitting time - after you pipe your meringues you are supposed to let your meringues "sit" for awhile until the tops are glossy and have formed a slight crust. This sitting time is also essential for the meringues to form "feet," the frilly look around the edges.
Finished product! Note the "feet" around around the edges of the meringue shells.
Baking temperature - I'm having good luck starting the oven at 375 and, once it's preheated, turning the temp down to 325 to bake. This is the method used in the Lavender French Macaron recipe. Each time you put a new pan of meringues in the oven you need to preheat the oven again - and be sure to turn it down. I ruined a batch once when I forgot!

Baking time - for the size of macarons I'm making (1" to 1 3/4") 10 minutes in the oven seems about right. 

Now here's the links to the recipes I've tried.

Raspberry Chocolate French Macarons: This is the first recipe I tried. I over baked them and thought they meringue shells were ruined but added the ganache layer anyway and stuck them in a Tupperware and left them on the counter overnight. In the morning the kids found them asked me if they could have a cookie. I figured they could try the awful things if they wanted. They ran upstairs to tell me they were the best cookies ever. I ran down to try one. The over baked shells had softened overnight and they were indeed the best cookies ever! 

I find the recipe easy to follow and had decent results with it. If you try it I suggest lowering the bake time to ten minutes and then watching them carefully so the tops don't burn. I just bake one sheet at a time so don't switch racks like the recipe suggests. For the almond flour I just took a 6 oz bag of blanched almonds and processed them in my food processor until as fine as possible. 

Lavender French Macarons: This recipe introduced me to aging the egg whites, to templates and techniques for piping the meringue shells. I have good result with the meringue though I find them a little sweet. I wasn't thrilled with the buttercream recipe (though my shortening was a bit old, that might have been a problem) but you could use any buttercream recipe you'd like. I also added pink coloring to the buttercream. This blogsite links to two other macaron recipes - just click on the "French Macarons" tag. Uh oh, he has a recipe for Salted Caramel - I'm going to have to make them now!

Chocolate Kahlua Mocha Buttercream French Macarons: I discovered this recipe just two days ago and love it! I like the simplicity of the ingredients - 1 C almond flour, 2 C confectioner's sugar, 3 T cocoa powder, 3 egg whites - something nice about the 1-2-3 in the numbers there. I like the buttercream recipe (or maybe I like it because there's Kahlua in it, mmmm). Note that this recipe calls for piping 3" meringues and baking for 15 minutes. I made mine 1" and baked for 10 minutes at oven preheated to 375 then turned down to 325 (except for the batch when I forgot to set the timer. Near flop. Totally under baked so, figuring they were ruined, I stuck them back in the oven and baked again. They turned out fine).

This is a loooong blog entry so if you read this far you should get a prize - a French Macaron. If you know where I live I'll give you one - or more.

Oh, and I feel I should make some kind of disclaimer statement - I am not a professional baker or macaron maker. The notes above are just my own notes based on my so-far-so good baking experiences. You might follow every recipe to a T and follow my notes but your macarons still may flop. Just saying. Don't get mad at me if they do (and try to eat them anyway, they usually are still kinda good).

I think my next macaron blog entry will simply be pictures and talk a bit about flavors. A visual treat!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Macaron Madness

I have some other writing work to do but have decided that I will write about French Macarons instead. After all, I'm at a perfect spot to write about French treats, I'm sitting at Patisserie 46 in Minneapolis with a writing friend of mine and I'm about to purchase one of Patisserie 46's wonderful salted caramel macarons so I can taste test it - taste testing is essential to my macaron research, you know.

I admit, I will probably buy one of their mocha French macarons, too, and maybe one of the raspberry ones. Oh, and there was lemon one I could try and pistachio and...

Okay I limited myself to three. The salted caramel, a white chocolate filled with dark chocolate ganache and a chocolate filled with Earl Grey infused chocolate ganache and orange marmalade.

I've been on a French Macaron quest of sorts. (I must like baking quests. I was on a quest for the perfect chocolate cake awhile back). I'm not entirely sure why I'm on this French Macaron quest other than I love eating them and find great comfort in baking things.

I suppose I should talk a moment about macarons just to be sure you don't think I'm writing about cocoanut macaroons. French Macarons (pronounced as though you are saying "macaroni" without the "i" at the end of the word) are a wonderful little almond merangie sort of sandwich cookie filled with good stuff like chocolate ganache and flavored buttercream. Yum. I'll post a link to a recipe or two in the next few days. I've tried three recipes so far. I have yet to find a favorite and fool-proof recipe but am getting close.
I made these last night. They are chocolate with a Kahlua/mocha buttercream filling.
I gave some to my brother, Joel, because I like him. He said "mmmmm" when he ate one.

To get a better idea of what they are and the history behind them, it's worth reading this wonderfully fun article about macarons, "Macarons, Macaroons, Macaroni." Thanks to Doug Bratland for telling me about the article. (Doug, by the way, is a fabulous musician and all around cool guy with a beard. ).

To get a better idea of what French Macarons taste like and why it's worth spending tons of time and energy making them (and blogging about them) you'll simply have to try one for yourself. 

I think I'd better take a break and do that now. Salted Caramel French Macaron, here I come!
Patisserie 46 Macarons - The white chocolate/dark chocolate macaron is on top.
Earl Grey chocolate with marmalade on the bottom left. Salted caramel on the bottom right.

Oh yes, did I like the macarons from Patisserie 46? Why yes, yes I did. I felt it was essential to eat all three of them because I knew you would want to know which one was best. Here's the results of my research....

Patisserie 46's French macarons have a lovely, crisp shell (mine get a somewhat crisp shell but I have yet to replicate the perfection of Patisserie's). Biting into them is a wonderful experience. At first you'd think the shell is going to be crisp all the way through but no, you quickly hit the melt-in-your-mouth light texture of the meringue. Then, oh the best part, you get to the filling and a totally new texture, thick, rich and oh so good! 

My favorite of the three, hands down, was the salted caramel. Second the white chocolate/dark chocolate and last but not least the Earl Grey/Marmalade. I wanted to like the Earl Grey best, because I love Earl Grey tea and it sounded so good, but I found the flavor perhaps a bit too strong for my taste. Still, I would happily eat a dozen of them because even my least favorite macaron from Patisserie 46 was divine. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Round 4 Wrap up

Well, Round 4 of 30 Days of Biking came to a close last Friday - just in time for me to get sick with a terrible cold. Ugh. I'm not happy about the cold but am happy I finished 30 Days of Biking for the fourth time.

The weather for Round 4 was almost perfect. I didn't have to bike in the snow like I did last April or in the pouring rain like last September. Instead, save for some light drizzle here and there and some killer winds, the weather was great. Completing Round 4 of 30 Days of Biking -  though still a challenge - was not too hard this time around.

Looking on my Dailymile history it looks like I logged more miles on my bikes during this month than I ever have before. So, in light of that accomplishment I'm going to share some highlights of Round 4 of 30 Days of Biking.

Here they are (in no particular order):

•I biked 317 miles during September
•Owen did the 30 Days of Biking challenge with me again. This was his third round
•Two other friends of mine also joined in on the challenge - Paul and Anne
•I got to ride a Salsa Mukluk and get some mountain bike training thanks to Ben from Milltown Cycles
•My family hosted a "bike-in" social at our place. 17 members of the Cannon Valley Velo Club biked out to our place for snacks, coffee and fine conversation
•I rode with the Northfield Pedalers, a group of bicyclists from the Northfield Senior Center, twice
•I rode the 60 mile route of Jesse James Bike Tour and finished with energy to spare
•On three Thursdays I joined the Twin Cities Bike Club group for Thursdays on the Cannon, a group ride on the Cannon Valley Trail
•I discovered that riding gravel roads is great fun - especially when my daughter, Rose, joins me
•On one of my gravel rides I tackled "the big hill"


•At the recommendation of Curtis from Milltown, Owen and I had a date night at the Minnecycle custom framebuilders show in Minneapolis. We discovered we know very little about custom bikes but had a great time anyway. Thanks to Dave from Anderson Custom Bicycles for answering all of our questions. And thanks to Ben from Milltown for the recommendation for dinner - True Thai (boy, Curtis and Ben are helping us with date planning - now that's a full service bike shop!)

Click here for a nice recap of Minnecycle written by one of the builders, Dan Bailey of Pallas Athena Custom Bikes
And click here to see a bunch of his pictures of the show.

I haven't been on my bike since the last day of 30 Days of Biking. Very sad state of affairs, especially since we've had perfect weather for bicycling, but once this cold is done I'll be back on the bike.

Round 4 Wrap up

Well, Round 4 of 30 Days of Biking came to a close last Friday - just in time for me to get sick with a terrible cold. Ugh. I'm not happy about the cold but am happy I finished 30 Days of Biking for the fourth time.

The weather for Round 4 was almost perfect. I didn't have to bike in the snow like I did last April or the pouring rain like last September. Instead, save for some light drizzle here and there and some killer winds, the weather was great. Completing the challenge, though still a challenge, was not too hard this time around.

Looking on my Dailymile history it looks like I logged more miles on my bikes during this month than I ever have before. So, in light of that accomplishment I'm going to share some highlights of Round 4 of 30 Days of Biking.

Here they are (in no particular order):

•I biked 317 miles during September
•Owen did the 30 Days of Biking challenge with me again. This was his third round
•Two other friends of mine also joined in on the challenge - Paul and Anne
•I got to ride a Salsa Mukluk and get some mountain bike training thanks to Ben from Milltown Cycles
•My family hosted a "bike-in" social at our place. 17 members of the Cannon Valley Velo Club biked out to our place for snacks, coffee and fine conversation
•I rode with the Northfield Pedalers, a group of bicyclists from the Northfield Senior Center, twice
•I rode the 60 mile route of Jesse James Bike Tour and finished with energy to spare
•On three Thursdays I joined the Twin Cities Bike Club group for Thursdays on the Cannon, a group ride on the Cannon Valley Trail
•I discovered that riding gravel roads is great fun - especially when my daughter, Rose, joins me
•On one of my gravel rides I tackled "the big hill"
•At the recommendation of Curtis from Milltown, Owen and I had a date night at the Minnecycle custom framebuilders show in Minneapolis. We discovered we know very little about custom bikes but had a great time anyway. Thanks to Dave from Anderson Custom Bicycles for answering all of our questions. And thanks to Ben from Milltown for the recommendation for dinner - True Thai (boy, Curtis and Ben are helping us with date planning - now that's a full service bike shop!)

I haven't been on my bike since the last day of 30 Days of Biking. Very sad state of affairs, especially since we've had perfect fall weather for bicycling, but once this cold is done I'll be back on the bike.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Big Ride 1 & Big Ride 2

Road bike or gravel riding?
How about both?
How about two of the best rides I've ever had in less than a week?
Yep. I'll take that. I think I'll call them Big Ride 1 and Big Ride 2.

I'm going to start with Big Ride 2 because I just got back from riding it.

Ever since I started riding gravel (I've probably ridden it only ten times since last fall)  I have wanted to ride what I call "the big hill." Today I set out with a goal of riding 5 miles of gravel and took off and hit just about every gravel road and dirt path near my house. I rode five miles and kept going. At about 7 miles I was ready to head home but the big hill was there. I decided to go for it.

The big hill is actually two big hills - a big one down into a valley then a big one back up the other side. Then of course I have to ride back down and up again to get home. I thought the first "up" was going to be a challenge but I managed it pretty well. Then I turned around to head back home and noticed the hill back up was going to be a tough one.

The Hill - the first half. Taken last April before things greened up

It was. The gravel was soft and deep. I got off once and walked my bike about six paces. Biked some more then got off again and walked my bike to the other side of the road where the gravel was better. But, save for about 20 paces, I biked the whole thing.

From the top of the first hill - the hill back to home. Much prettier at this time of the year.

The hills have been a goal of mine - and today I rode them.  At this moment I am tired but feel incredibly strong. It's a good feeling.

Big Ride 1 happened on Saturday. I rode my longest ride to date - 64 miles made up of the 60 mile route of the Jesse James Bike Tour (which is actually 62 miles) plus a couple of miles of biking from my van to ride start to equal 64.

The day of the JJBT was gorgeous, a bit warm but no wind and a perfect day for a ride. Owen and I set out around 7:30 am. The ride from start to finish went well. I smiled almost the whole ride and had fun talking to Owen and to people along the route and at the rest stops.

Owen and I just after tacking one of the hills near the Carleton wind turbine on the 2011 Jesse James Bike Tour.
Photo by Scott Davis - Davis Portrait Studios

I did not cry at mile 45 like I did last year (it was very windy the whole ride last year and the hill at mile 45 just was too much. The ride was so hard I never had the energy to blog about it. I did finish the ride, though, and stopped crying by mile 46). Instead at mile 45 I was feeling darn good and stopped to chat a lot at the rest stop in Faribault, especially with Ben Witt from Milltown Cycles who was set up there offering mechanical support to riders who needed it.

The final leg of the ride, the last 15 miles, went well. I had way more energy than I thought possible for such a long ride. At ride end we found our friend, Steve, who rode the 60 mile route as well. And we found a bunch of guys we know who set out 15 minutes before us and rode the 100 mile route and still finished well before us. They are fast. I am not. And this is okay.

The fast riders inspire me and it sure was fun to see them whiz past me in their brightly colored team jerseys and hear how quickly they biked 100 miles - but my biggest inspiration on the JJBT was a woman named Deborah who I met at the first rest stop. She was perhaps a little older than me and not in what I'd call tip-top shape. She was riding the 60 mile route alone and on a hybrid - it's a bike that is comfortable but not the fastest or best bike for a long ride. Riding alone on a hybrid on a long ride is pretty amazing but what really inspired me was her attitude. We talked about people passing us and she said something like "everyone passes me"and we both chuckled. Then she said something like, "But who cares? I could be at home on the couch watching tv like other people but I'm out riding instead."

Yep. I like that attitude.
Get off the couch and ride a bike.
It's a bit of work sometimes but it's awfully fun.

By the way, I saw Deborah shortly after she finished her 60 mile ride. She was smiling :)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Can't Stop Smiling - Riding the Salsa Mukluk

This morning started in the most fun way possible - After I got the kids on the bus for their second day of school I drove down to Milltown Cycles in Faribault where I met Ben, the shop's owner, for a morning mountain bike ride on a Salsa Mukluk fat bike.

I'm not a mountain biker. I've never ridden trails and, save for riding gravel a dozen times, have only ridden on paved roads and paths. I never thought I could be a mountain biker or ride on anything but roads. But after an hour on the Mukluk I am hooked. Absolutely hooked. And I can't stop smiling.

At first I was smiling just because the Mukluk is such a funny bike - it looks kinda odd with the big tires and the feeling of riding it is so different at first it just made me laugh.

Once we hit the trails and I was faced with all sorts of stuff I've never ridden over before I was smiling because, despite my lack of experience, I was actually riding mountain bike trails with success. I never thought I could ride trails and there I was riding up and down hills and over rocks and tree roots pretty well. 

Without Ben to help me I doubt I would have taken the Mukluk over the terrain we did this morning on my own. I know I wouldn't have, actually. But with Ben guiding the way and teaching me in his easygoing, laid back way, I felt way more confident than I expected. I found myself laughing my way down steep hills and asking to do them again. 

We rode for about an hour, mostly on trails through the nearby nature center. It was a gorgeous morning for a ride - my only regret is that I didn't stop to take pictures along the way. A picture of the Mukluk back in the shop will have to do.

Salsa Mukluk in their smallest frame size and set up to fit me

I'm not qualified to actually test drive a bike and do a review but here are a few comments on my ride :

The Mukluk's big tires made the ride smooth whether we were on tar or gravel or a rocky downslope. I would call them "forgiving" - where a narrow bike tire would slip or slide on the gravel the Mukluk's tires just truck on over everything. The top tube slopes downward so it was easy to get on and off of the bike. I rode with regular tennis shoes and flat pedals. Ben put a women's specific WTB saddle on the bike - I've had a ton of trouble finding comfortable saddles and the WTB worked well for me. 

Big Tire on the Salsa Mukluk - picture taken by Milltown Cycles

All in all the Mukluk was comfortable to ride and a whole lot of fun! 

If you're looking for a bike that will keep you smiling - it's hard to beat a fat bike :)

Salsa Mukluks - another picture taken by Milltown Cycles

Thanks to Ben and Curtis from Milltown for letting me test drive the Mukluk this morning. And Ben, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to ride with me and teach me new stuff. I appreciate it!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

30 Days of Biking - Round 4

Well, it's time for the fourth round of 30 Days of Biking and I'm doing it again.

If you don't know what 30 Days of Biking is it's, in short, a challenge to ride your bike every day for 30 days. It was started by two guys from the Twin Cities who challenged their Twitter friends to ride their bikes every day. The challenge went viral and several hundred people from around the world participated in the first 30 Days of Biking.

I was one of them. I rode my bike every day in April 2010.
And, though it sounds over-dramatic to say this, 30 Days of Biking changed my life.
I became a much more active person. I realized I could do things that seemed impossible. I met a bunch of positive, fun people. And I really started "loving the bike," as my friend, Darryl from Loving The Bike likes to say.

Since that first challenge there have been two more and I've done them all. Owen and the kids joined me for Round 2 last September. Owen joined me for Round 3 in April and I had the fun of being a member of Team Loving the Bike for a fun competition with a group over at Bicycle Radio.

I'm a huge fan of 30 Days of Biking! But, I will admit, when the announcement went out that Round 4 was starting on September 1st I was a little less than keen on doing the challenge again. I'm not really sure why. Maybe because I know that I can in fact ride my bike every day for 30 days in a row. Or maybe because I was feeling sort of tired of riding my bike. Or something.

But I decided to ride Round 4.

Well because doing 30 Days of Biking makes me feel great!

When I'm biking every day I feel happier - probably because of the exercise and also, I think, because each day is an accomplishment and I like accomplishing goals.

It also feels wonderful to be a part of a big bicycling community made up of people from all over the world. Each time I do the challenge I "meet" so many fabulous people and reading their tweets and Facebook comments about the challenge is inspiring.

30 Days of Biking also reminds me that bicycling is more about having fun along the way than it is about going far or going fast.

So here I go again with Round 4 of 30 Days of Biking!

And here's a fun video from last September when it rained a lot - but we still rode our bikes every day!

On a related note, 30 Days of Biking introduced me to a very cool bicycling blog, shebicycles. I follow the blog and entered a contest to win a YMX bicycling jersey. Guess what? I won - and Cassi at shebicycles asked me to write my "bike-ography" for her blog. Read my bike-ography if you wish and be certain to read the blog. It's wonderful and, as an added bonus, the pictures are awesome!

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Knitting Story

A new yarn shop is opening in Northfield soon and I had the fun of writing a story about the new shop - Yarn Store to Open in Downtown Northfield - for Northfield Patch. The shop, Northfield Yarn, is due to open in September and owner Cynthia Gilbertson is excited to not just open a store but to create a welcoming community for fiber lovers of all skill levels.

Talking to Cynthia got me thinking about when I used to knit, back to when there was a yarn shop called Cottage Industry in town. Cottage Industry has been closed for several years now but when it was open there was a wonderful feel of community in the place. The owner, Jessica, and one of her employees, Amy, welcomed me the first time I walked in the store. I wasn't a knitter at the time and had no desire to start but I loved the yarn and found myself feeling both content and inspired to be creative whenever I walked in there.

Eventually, inspired by the beauty of a certain turquoise yarn and with encouragement from Jessica and Amy, I decided to see if I could knit. And knit I did! I knit scarf after scarf after scarf and a sweater. I found the process of knitting fun and relaxing. When Cottage Industry closed, though, I pretty much put down my needles. So I'm excited that Northfield Yarn is going to open soon. Even if I don't start knitting again, I know I'll be able to walk in and look at the yarn and I'm betting I'll feel both content and inspired to be creative when I walk in there.

It's funny how creativity works - when I started knitting I started remembering how much my Grandma used to knit and crochet things for me and my brother when we were young. And, inspired by the memories, I wrote a story about knitting and how it connected me to my Grandma even though she's been gone for many years. The story, Sammy the Snake, was published in the June/July 2008 issue of Minnesota Moments and in the October 2010 issue of Womeninc. Magazine.

Sammy the Snake

If you feel like reading Sammy the Snake, you can find the story online at Womeninc. if you click HERE.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Miles of Motivation

Numbers associated with my bicycling sometimes frustrate me - like when I realize that my average pace still hasn't gone up as much as I'd like or when I realize that the numbers related to my weight haven't gone down even though I'm biking a ton. But when I get close to reaching a mileage milestone, numbers don't frustrate me - they motivate me instead!

I really like seeing my bike computer's odometer turn over to big numbers. When I first got my road bike last April, it was a big deal to see 100 on my odometer's screen. Later that year when the odometer turned over to 500 and I realized I had biked 500 miles on my road bike it was another big deal. Whenever my computer turns over to a number with zeros after it I let out a whoop, smile and ride on - and start logging miles towards my next hundred mile milestone.

Today I woke up with the goal of kicking that road bike's odometer over the 1,000 mile mark. I knew I was close -  within 40 miles of reaching the goal - so Owen and I loaded the bikes and headed for the Cannon Valley Trail with plans to ride from Cannon to Red Wing and back - a total of 40 miles - and reach my mileage goal.

We got to the trail and got ready to ride. I turned on my bike computer and discovered I only had to pedal 22 miles to reach 1,000! So I did. And when my computer clicked over from 999.9 to 1,000 I let out a whoop and I smiled. I stopped to take a picture of my odometer reading for proof - and then I pedaled back to Cannon Falls and started logging miles towards my new mileage goal of 1,100 total miles.
1,000 miles!

Then the next goal will be 1,200.
Then 1,300...and 1,400... keeps going on and on and on.

I just realized this mileage goal thing pretty much never ends as long as I keep riding my bike. But instead of frustrating me, the fact that every hundred miles I can reach a new milage goal motivates me to keep on riding. 

That's miles and miles of motivation.
I like that.