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My December technical skills challenge was french macarons. I did sucessfully make macarons a year ago but having tried to make them again and met with major disaster I didnt think I could honestly say I had mastered the technique. It turns out I needed another three messy attempts to get the hang of the macaronage, piping and my oven and I have a lot of tasty but hideous empty macaron shells in my freezer to use in a crumble or something else in which they can hide their unattractive faces.

One batch were such a chewy castastrophe they didnt even make it into the freezer but finally I landed up with a socially acceptable batch of orange macarons, which I filled with a balsamic meringue filling. This was another attempt at creating some new extraordinary flavours and although I had an idea of the end result and could picture the two working well, the balsamic  meringue turned out even better than I thought. It has a sweet burnt caramel flavour that isn’t vinegary at all and I’m dying to try it with strawberries and cream.

Orange and Balsamic Macarons

I dont see any point in writing another guide to getting your macaron technique correct as there are already so many good ones out there but I will say that although they arent as scary as some will have you believe it does take a few attempts to get them just right and it is worth reading a few of the guides before you start. My recipe is adapted from the basic french macaron recipe in Les Petit Macarons by Kathryn Gordon and Anne E. McBride.

Shells

  • 165g almond flour
  • 165g icing sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 150g castor sugar
  • 115g egg whites (from about 4 eggs – I dont bother to age them and it doesnt seem to make any difference)
  • 3g cream of tartar or a few drops of lemon juice
  • few drops orange (or a mix of yellow and red) food colouring
  • 1/4 tsp orange essence

Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C (200 fan) and line 2 baking sheets with baking parchment. Blend the almond flour and icing sugar in a blender, sift and repeat a few times until they are as finely ground as possible. Whisk the egg whites, sugar and cream of tartar/lemon juice together and then continue to whisk with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form (about 11 min).

Fold the almond mixture into the meringue with a spatula until almost incorporated. Add the food colouring and orange essence and finish folding until the mixture is homogeneous and drops off the spatula in a lava like consistency. You dont want the batter to be too stiff or too runny so you have to be careful.

Spoon the batter into a piping bag with a 1/2 inch tip and pipe round discs onto the baking sheets (using a circle temple under the baking paper makes this a lot easier). Slam the baking sheet on the worktop to remove air bubbles and leave to sit for 20-30 min which allows the shell to dry out. Place in the oven for 3 minutes and then turn the heat down to 160 (140 fan) and bake another 6 minutes. I found the initial increased heat along with the right batter consistency helped feet to form and stopped the shells being uneven or bursting.

Filling

  • 3 egg whites
  • 400g golden syrup
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1g salt
  • 200g butter cubed (optional – it makes the filling nice and creamy but if i was using the meringue for something else or wanted to cook it I might leave it out)

Put the vinegar in a saucepan and simmer until reduced by about half and syrupy. Add the golden syrup and bring to the boil. Continue to boil until the mixture reaches 115 degrees C.

Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Once the syrup is ready, slowly pour it into the eggs whites whilst whisking continuously. Keep whisking until stiff peaks form and the meringue has cooled (about 8 min). Add the salt and butter and whisk until smooth and fluffy.

Place in a piping bag, pipe a small amount onto half the macaron shells and top with the other half. Store in the fridge for up to three days or freeze for up to three weeks.

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Success! After last week’s disastrous attempts I was sceptical about whether or not I was going to be able to say that.

Technical skills challenge

Thanks to a lot of encouraging advice from friends and family after my plea for help, I summoned the strength to try again on Saturday. So out came the blackberry crème patissiere (which I had to stash in the freezer while I regrouped – turns out it freezes very well by the way), piping bag and other paraphernalia and off I went again. This time I used a recipe with slightly less water (thank you Judy!) and  made a few other tweaks which I’ve highlighted in the recipe and as soon as the choux buns went into the oven I could tell this batch was going to behave itself.

So I have conquered my first technical challenge which should bring with it some sense of achievement… but the other thing I learnt this month was that profiteroles and I still don’t quite get on.

With most things you bake, the sense of  satisfaction hits as soon as they come out of the oven, risen and golden and just as you hoped. With choux pastry, the pressure only increases when they come out of the oven. Then one has to endure the excruciating process of waiting for the last possible moment to fill them and hope that somebody eats the last one before the pastry goes all soft and frankly, inedible (I can’t bear to throw pastries in the bin, its like abandoning children). So profiteroles just don’t have that soothing effect that one gets from preparing cakes and the like and knowing your work here is done.

Having said all that I am still just a little proud of myself, and I think I’ll make them again, as more of a pudding, with a hot sauce and ready and waiting mouths to eat them all at once, which I think is how best to enjoy them.

Extraordinary Flavours

You’ve probably also noticed that these little guys are flaunting a fairly unorthodox flavour combination, because this is my November “extraordinary flavours challenge” entry as well. This idea started with Whittards flavoured tea again but this time it was a bag of Amaretto fruit infusion that got me thinking. The infusion is made up of dried almonds, rose hips and blackberries amongst other things and the fruity and yet aromatic wafts off a cup of this brewed with hot water made me think about winter fruits and warm spicy flavours and how well they support each other (think cinnamon and apples). So my brain wandered from there through various potential combinations until my stomach arrived at blackberry and chai. It definitely works… and makes you sound awfully posh in front of your guests when combined with the word profiterole. If you like the flavour idea but you don’t want to make profiteroles or you want to make something to give as a gift that has a bit more shelf life then you could just as easily use the same  idea for biscuits or cupcakes. Flavour the base with either the fruit or the tea and use the other one for the filling/icing.

The recipe

Adapted from a choux pastry recipe collected by my aunt Judy from a South African Fair Lady Magazine. The basic crème patissiere recipe is adapted from this one.

Pastry

  • 50g butter
  • 125ml water
  • 70g sifted flour
  • 2ml salt
  • 2 medium eggs

Crème Patissiere

  • 50g butter
  • 3 tbsp castor sugar
  • 1 egg and 2 egg yolks
  • 400ml milk
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • half a cup of freeze dried blackberry powder
  • 1 tbsp Whittards Amaretto fruit infusion (optional – it gives the filling an extra nutty floral flavour and it was the inspiration for this recipe but not essential)

Chai topping

  • 100g white chocolate
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 spiced chai teabag and a little milk or cream

Make the creme patissiere first. Put the cornflour and sugar in a bowl and stir in the eggs to make a paste. Add the split vanilla pod and the fruit infusion if using, to the milk and bring to a simmer. Sieve the milk into a bowl to remove the dried fruit and pod and scrape any remaining vanilla seeds into the mixture. Pour onto the eggs, stirring constantly, then return to the pan and stir over a low heat until the mixture thickens. Pour into a bowl and mix in the blackberry powder.Cover with cling film and leave to cool before chilling in the fridge.

For the choux pastry, put butter and water into a saucepan and gently melt the butter.  Bring to the boil, take off the heat and tip in the mixture of flour and salt. Return to the stove and beat for 1-2 mins or until mixture is smooth and leaves the sides of the saucepan.  Leave 5 – 10 mins to cool.  Add the eggs a little at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition (with an electric mixer to beat in enough air) to make a smooth , shiny paste that will hold its shape.

Pipe 7cm circles onto a baking sheet lined with parchment and bake at 200C for 20 -30 minutes, or until well risen and golden. If you have a hot oven like mine then turn the oven down after 10 min to about 170C so that they don’t burn. Remove from the oven and make a slit in the side to release the steam. Dry out for another 5 min in the cool oven if necessary (I found they didn’t need it this time round).

To make the topping, melt the chocolate in a pan over a pot of boiling water. Infuse the chai teabag in just enough cream or milk to soak the tea bag and stir over a low heat to concentrate. Drain the teabag and add about a tsp of this to the chocolate, not too much or it wont set. Stir in the spices and cool slightly. Dip the top of each profiterole in the ganache and sprinkle with blackberry powder. Set aside to cool and set. You can do this before you fill them as it doesn’t seem to soften the pastry too much. If you were making this as a pudding you could also add more cream or milk to make a warm chocolate sauce and pour over the profiteroles at the last minute.

Pipe in the filling just before you serve them (ideally no more than an hour beforehand or they will get soft) by poking the nozzle through the bottom of the profiterole or by cutting them in half and replacing the lids after you have filled them.

Here are the lessons I learned so that you can avoid the same initial misfortune:

  • Use the ratio of water to flour as I have above and keep stirring the flour/water mix over the heat for 1-2 min to remove some of the moisture
  • Be careful with your oven temperature – you don’t want the initial heat to make them rise but if your oven is hot you need to turn it down to avoid burnt outsides and soggy deflating insides
  • Use an electric beater if you have one to mix in the eggs otherwise you don’t get enough air and a stiff enough batter
  • Try to pipe or spoon them as neatly as you can as lopsided piping or upward tails makes them go a bit wonky when they rise (although if this is your only problem then you are doing fine)

I’d love to know if this recipe works for other people so please let me know if you try it and even better send me your own flavour ideas! Next month I’ll be posting my challenge subjects at the beginning of the month so that you can enter your own versions if you’re feeling competitive!

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