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.