The Mighty Macaron

French Macarons, from bottom: Chocolate with Bittersweet Ganache
and Raspberry Preserves, Almond with Blood Orange Curd,
and Chocolate with Bittersweet Ganache and Caramel au Beurre Salé
One of the most tangible side effects of having discovered foodblogs is the expansion of horizons it brings (along with the expansion of waistline, but that’s another story). Before foodblogs it was very easy to exist in my own little bubble, reading the cookbooks I already knew, cooking the types of things I had cooked for years and all the while thinking myself well-acquainted with most things food-related. Obviously new things would enter my radar, but it was usually a slow and gradual process, usually brought about by word-of-mouth or a chance encounter while traveling. The day I discovered foodblogs, however, all that changed in the blink of an eye – suddenly I had immediate, graphic representations of local food as it was being cooked/bought/eaten in countries all over the world, and overnight I realized how much I didn’t know. It was a bit like going down the rabbit hole and waking up to discover that the world is full of things you’ve never even dreamed of: nama and balut, Kouign Amann and Rinquinquin… And best of all, things like those little crispy-yet-chewy, almost tooth-achingly sweet but entirely addictive confections called macarons.

Wait, I hear you saying, isn’t ‘macaron’ just the fancy French spelling for ‘macaroon’? And if so, where’s the coconut? We all know the American conception of macaroons, surely – little misshapen mounds of sticky coconut baked into a moist mass everyone insists on calling a cookie. When I had the good fortune to be allowed into a bakery as a kid, I stayed as far away from the macaroons as possible – they were definitely not crunchy yet also not really soft, incredibly sweet but still somehow lacking taste, and they always required an inordinate amount of chewing to break down all those woody coconut shreds. They were definitely not on my hit list and I’m reasonably certain that to this day only the most die-hard of coconut fans eat them regularly. But anyway, back to the question. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that macaroons and macarons are actually one and the same – they stem from the same parent confectionary and share the same root in their name. Technically, they are the same cookie. Or are they?

History has conflicting stories on the origin of the macaro(o)n. Most people seem to agree that the original item comes from Italy – possibly from the Veneto region, but nobody’s sure – and baked for the first time around the 14th or 15th century. Linguistically the macaro(o)n shares the same root as the word for a particular kind of elbow-shaped pasta, which interestingly used to be the catch-all term in Italian for anything made from a flour-and-water paste, a.k.a. macaroni or maccheroni. Maccarone (from the Venetian dialect) were given their name because they were based also based on a paste, this one being comprised of egg whites and nuts. Maccarone weren’t so much a recipe for a cookie as a type of preparation, actually; across Italy many different kinds of egg-white-and-nut confections surfaced, including almond-based amaretti and ricciarelli as well as similar things made with pistachios, hazelnuts, pine nuts and walnuts.

It’s how they spread beyond the shores of Italy, however – and particularly how they came to be so different in France and North America – that’s most relevant here. The story goes that macaroons found their paths out of Italy in two ways. The first way was thanks to Carmelite nuns seeking refuge from the French Revolution in Nancy, France, who began baking little almond and egg white cookies from a recipe they’d brought from Italy to pay for their upkeep. The second was by Italian Jews who spread the recipe to the Ashkenazi in Eastern Europe, who in turn embraced the flourless cookie as a Passover delicacy and took it with them wherever they emigrated. The macaroon as Americans know it was undoubtedly introduced this way, though at some point along the line coconut was substituted for the almonds. Over time this coconut variation became the standard ‘macaroon’ on sale in North America, whereas in Europe the nut-based version still reigned supreme, particularly in France, where those little nuns single-handedly managed to spawn a national obsession. Today the two cookies couldn’t actually have less to do with each other: while the American macaroon has stuck firmly to its roots as a homely, humble and vaguely tropical bakery standard, the French macaron has taken the egg-and-nut formula and launched itself into the orbit of haute cuisine, if not occasionally fine art.
The basic formula for a French macaron is more or less the same wherever you go: two small almond flour-based cookies, usually no more than an inch and a half in diameter and usually sporting attractive colors and added flavor essences, encasing a thick and creamy filing of often – but by no means obligatory – corresponding flavor and color. The standards, available almost anywhere, are things like chocolate, vanilla, coffee, pistachio, lemon, and raspberry. On another plane entirely, however, are creations by such legendary pastry-artisans as Pierre Hermé, who with his combinations of Campari and grapefruit; pistachio and apricot praline; chocolate and fleur du sel-caramel; rose, litchi and raspberry; and chestnut and green tea, has quite literally revolutionized the macaron playing field. And there’s no question that people go crazy for them – every year experts get together and hold a competition to discover the best macarons in Paris, judging the output of hundreds of establishments on things like taste, appearance and creativity, and every day the famed Parisian house of Ladurée sells upwards of 12,000 of them.

So naturally for someone food-obsessed like me, the logical step after discovering macarons and tasting a couple of prototypes was to attempt to make my own. Macarons are in fact notoriously difficult to make: too airy and they dry out and crumble, too dense and they become tough and gluey. The tops must be smooth and lightly domed, the bottoms should be dimpled and airy with ruffled ‘feet’, the filling should be soft and flavorful and the whole thing pleasantly chewy. Luckily I found some words of advice from a more seasoned macaron baker, so I knew to watch for things like the batter texture and the formation of a skin. The macarons I produced were naturally not perfect by any means – the tops could have been a little smoother, the feet a little more uniform, the centers a little more tender – but all things considered they weren’t bad, and I’m particularly fond of their sporty little feet and satisfying crunch. The thing I was least satisfied with, however, was the filling – buttercream is traditional, as it’s dense and firm enough to support the two cookie halves, but the result I got when paired with the macarons was verging on almost inedibly sweet. I also experimented with the other, less-sweet possibilities – a tangy blood orange curd (which worked very nicely), tart raspberry preserves, and a lightly-sweetened creme-fraiche and yogurt mixture (based on a macaron filling from Gordon Ramsay) which unfortunately ended up too soft and runny to sit still between the cookies. In any case, there’s still a lot of experimenting to be done, and since I doubt I’ll be prostrating myself in front of Pierre Hermé to beg for his secrets anytime soon, I’ll just have to assume that practice makes perfect!


Basic Macaron Batter
Source: based on Clement’s recipe here. He recommends that you mix the egg whites and almond mixture together gently until it ‘flows like magma’, or until a peak in the batter will slowly sink back down to a flat surface.

1 1/4 cups icing/powdered sugar
4 oz (1 cup) almond flour or finely ground almonds (if grinding yourself add some of the icing sugar to keep them from getting gummy)
2 large egg whites
pinch of salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon extract of choice: almond, vanilla, orange, lemon, pistachio… (optional)
few drops food coloring (optional) 

On three pieces of parchment, trace 1-inch (2.5 cm) circles about 2 inches apart. Flip each sheet over and place on baking sheets.

Sift almond flour and icing sugar together into a bowl. In a large clean, dry bowl whip the egg whites with salt on medium speed until foamy. Increase the speed to high and gradually add granulated sugar, extract and coloring (if using). Continue to whip to stiff peaks – the whites should be firm and shiny.

With a rubber spatula, fold in the icing sugar mixture into the egg whites until completely incorporated. The mixture should be shiny and ‘flow like magma.’ When small peaks dissolve to a flat surface, stop mixing.

Fit a piping bag with a 3/8-inch (1 cm) round tip, or take a medium-sized plastic sandwich baggie and snip off one corner. Fill the piping bag or baggie and pipe the batter onto the baking sheets, in the previously drawn circles (I found spiraling out from the center to work best). Tap the underside of the baking sheet to remove air bubbles. Let dry at room temperature for 1 or 2 hours to allow skins to form.

Heat the oven to 160C/325F and bake for 10 to 11 minutes, or until set and firm on top. Rotate the baking sheets after 5 minutes for even baking.

Remove macarons from oven and transfer parchment to a cooling rack. When cool, slide a metal offset spatula or pairing knife underneath the macaron to remove from parchment.

Pair macarons of similar size, and pipe about ½ tsp of the filling onto one of the macarons. Sandwich macarons, and refrigerate to allow flavours to blend together. Bring back to room temperature before serving.

Variation: Chocolate Macaron Batter
Using the master recipe above, add 4 tablespoons of good-quality cocoa powder to the almond-sugar mixture before sifting; increase the sugar to 1 3/4 cups and the egg whites to 3.


Basic Buttercream Filling
Recipe from epicurious here
4 large egg whites at room temperature for 30 minutes
Rounded 1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup water
1 1/3 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 sticks (2 cups) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces and softened
2 teaspoons vanilla or other extract
Special equipment: a candy thermometer 
Combine whites and salt in a very large bowl. Stir together water and 1 1/3 cups sugar in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan until sugar is dissolved, then bring to a boil over moderate heat, without stirring, brushing any sugar crystals down side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in water.
When syrup reaches a boil, start beating egg whites with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until frothy, then gradually add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and beat at medium speed until whites just hold soft peaks. (Do not beat again until sugar syrup is ready.)

Meanwhile, put thermometer into sugar syrup and continue boiling until syrup registers 238 to 242°F. Immediately remove from heat and, with mixer at high speed, slowly pour hot syrup in a thin stream down side of bowl into whites, beating constantly. Beat, scraping down side of bowl with a rubber spatula, until meringue is cool to the touch, about 10 minutes in a standing mixer or 15 with a handheld. (It is important that meringue is properly cooled before proceeding.)

With mixer at medium speed, gradually add butter 1 piece at a time, beating well after each addition until incorporated. (Buttercream will look soupy after some butter is added if meringue is still warm. If so, briefly chill bottom of bowl in a large bowl filled with ice water for a few seconds before continuing to beat in remaining butter.) Continue beating until buttercream is smooth. (Mixture may look curdled before all of butter is added but will come back together by the time beating is finished.) Add vanilla and beat 1 minute more.

Bittersweet Chocolate Filling

1/2 cup whipping cream
5 oz bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup (4oz) unsalted butter, diced

Bring the cream just to a boil in a medium saucepan (or in the microwave). Remove the pan from the heat. Add the chocolate and butter and whisk until smooth. Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate covered, for at least 30 minutes, or until the filling is firm enough to hold its shape when spread.

Salted Caramel 
I used the recipe from here
Blood Orange Curd 


Zest from 6 blood oranges (if blood oranges are unavailable, use any type of tangerines or clementines)
8 ounces blood orange juice, strained (6-8 oranges or tangerines)
6 eggs
6 yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
8 ounces butter

few drops red food coloring (optional)

Bring a pot of water to a simmer. In a bowl fitted atop the pot, combine eggs, sugar, yolks, zest and vanilla. Whisk well until mixture starts to warm. Add orange juice and allow to thicken, whisking occasionally. When mixture coats the back of a spoon thickly, it is ready.

Take off the heat and purée it well with an immersion blender and pass it through a fine-meshed strainer. Allow to cool to room temperature. Add butter in pieces and optional red food coloring and whisk or blend with the immersion blender until smooth. 


TV Dinners

Fig and Prosciutto Pizza with Ricotta, Walnuts and Rosemary 


Back in the early days of our relationship, dinner was always a big deal. When Manuel and I were lucky enough to find ourselves together (this was a long-distance relationship, after all), we made up for lost time by having elaborate and sumptuous meals every night. We’d think nothing of spending days planning meals and shopping for the right ingredients, we’d try new recipes like they were going out of style and just generally enjoy our food in a way we couldn’t do when we were alone. When we were in Germany, despite the fact that Manuel lived in a small studio apartment with no real dining area, we purchased a beautiful wooden table from Ikea and made it the focal point of the tiny room. Every night we’d sit down with candles lit, music playing and a nice bottle of wine as we lingered for hours over the food. Everything was made from scratch, and as far as I recall the terms "quick" and "easy" didn’t even exist in my vocabulary. Oh, and the TV? I can’t even remember if we had one*.

Then, of course, real life happened. I started working, we got married and moved to Scotland, and dinner started sometimes being more of a chore than a pleasure. And also despite our best efforts, little things started eating away at our evening traditions. First it was the box of candles that got used up and never replaced. Then it was the infrequency of that bottle of wine – alcohol being an expensive libation in our new country of residence. Then it was the simple enjoyment of sprawling out on the sofa and watching television after a long day of work. And finally it was the strange new roles our table started taking on: wet-clothes hanger, mail and magazine repository, general junk-collector. One night I walked out with hot plates of food only to realize that the table was completely covered in drying bedsheets. "What are we going to do?" I asked Manuel. "Well, we can eat on the sofa." And of course if you’re sitting on the sofa you might as well be watching television. And that’s how our TV dinners were born.

At first I always treated having our dinner in front of the television as a slightly exciting anomaly. I would get tingly from the thought that we were doing something naughty – eating while watching TV being absolutely forbidden in my house growing up. But the more frequently we did it, the more normal it seemed. We even started planning our meals around what we wanted to eat during our favorite shows: sweet potatoes and CSI, polenta and Desperate Housewives, spaghetti and reruns of Seinfeld.  Eating on the sofa necessitated a fundamental change in cooking style as well, as there are many things that are just too hard to eat cleanly while semi-reclining and balancing a plate on one’s lap. Large pieces of meat are most definitely out the window, as is anything requiring two hands or messy sauces. One-dish meals of pasta or risotto are perfect, along with big bowls of crunchy salads and stir-frys. And then of course there’s pizza, which goes with on-screen entertainment like a fish goes with water and comes in so many delicious variations you could easily spend a lifetime eating it and never get bored. In fact there’s a whole slew of new recipes in my arsenal now that I may have never come across if I wasn’t looking for things that were quick and mess-free, like this mindbogglingly good combination of figs, ricotta, prosciutto and flatbread. It certainly raises the bar on the concept of a TV dinner, if it doesn’t obliterate it completely.

Don’t worry, we do still occasionally eat at our table. After all, there are some nights we just can’t find anything good on TV. 

Fig and Prosciutto Pizza with Ricotta, Walnuts and Rosemary
Serves: 2
Note: All quantities here are approximate – add as much as you like to each individual pizza. You can easily make this vegetarian by leaving out the prosciutto – just substitute something else salty such as kalamata olives, crumbled feta or roquefort cheese. Also, I like to sprinkle each slice of fig with a pinch of sugar before putting everything in the oven to get a nice caramelized effect – this also helps the flavor if they’re not naturally very sweet.

2-4 plain naan breads or other chewy flatbreads, depending on size (or your favorite pizza base, fresh or pre-baked)
1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese, drined in a cheesecloth for a couple of hours if very wet
2 oz/70g prosciutto, torn into shreds
4 ripe figs, sliced 1/4-inch thick
handful walnut halves
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves chopped
olive oil
salt and pepper 

pinch of sugar to sprinkle on figs (optional) 

Season the ricotta to taste with salt and pepper. Spread it evenly on the flatbreads, and cover with the prosciutto, fig slices, walnuts and rosemary. Drizzle with a little olive oil, sprinkle with a little additional salt and pepper (and sugar on figs, if using) and pop into a 450F/220C oven for about 10 minutes.

 *Okay, okay, we had one. But we hardly ever watched it, honestly! (Of course that might have been due to the fact that everyone on it was speaking German…)


The Watermelon Whisperer

Watermelon Salad with Feta, Pine Nuts and Basil

After endlessly insisting that I didn’t come from a very food-centered family, it’s time for me to come clean. The truth is that there are corners of the culinary universe that certain members of my family dominate with awe-inspiring mastery and skill; corners containing things that I would pay a king’s ransom to be able to do myself. Take my dad, for instance. It’s no secret that he has an inordinate fondness for fresh produce of all shapes and sizes; beyond that basic preference, though, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s not particularly picky about what gets tossed into his shopping cart or how it ends up on his plate. As long as it’s fresh and healthy, he seems to be happy, and he’s certainly more than willing to defer to me in all matters culinary whenever I’m around – whether that be in the supermarket or in the kitchen. Nevertheless, there is one thing that he always insists on procuring himself. This is a food he loves so dearly that in order to only buy it at its peak he’s spent a lifetime training himself to decipher its mottled signals and understand its complex clues. There’s no hasty once-over in the supermarket where this food is concerned, but instead a long, time-honored selection ritual that takes a good part of an afternoon and draws stares of curiosity from other customers. And despite the fact that I’ve been witnessing this ritual for 27 years, it’s an act in which I have never even dreamed of interfering, such is the complexity and sophistication of the technique. This food, my friends, is the watermelon, and when it comes to picking out a watermelon, my dad has a trick or two up his sleeve.

Going on a watermelon-buying expedition with him is a bit like throwing yourself into a bargaining session at a foreign market: it takes lots of time and patience, and many things are happening that you don’t quite understand. He begins with a deliberate glance over the offerings, looking at things like size, color and shape. When he’s spotted a likely candidate, he picks it up, cradling it in his arms like a baby, and shifts it into a comfortable position in the crook of his left arm. With his right hand he then begins a series of tapping motions, using his thumb and forefingers alternately in a kind of thwacking rhythm as if he were playing a bongo drum, all the while bending his head over the melon to listen intently to the sounds this produces. After listening for a few minutes, his face wrinkled in concentration, he’ll set the watermelon down and try another. This ritual continues indefinitely until the perfect melon has been found – and usually until he’s tapped and thwacked every melon on display. Don’t even try to ask him what he’s doing, though – the only answer you’ll get is ‘trying to find a good one.’

After years of patiently watching this display, it was inevitable that at some point my culinary braggadocio would surface. One day this summer we were standing in the supermarket; I was watching idly as he tapped and listened, tapped and listened, when suddenly arrogance and impatience won out and I spoke up.

"Don’t you know about the netting criteria?" I asked, trying to sound casual.
"Nope," he replied.
"Oh, see I recently read in one of my cookbooks that you can actually tell the sweetness of a watermelon by the amount of brown netting it has visible on the skin. It has something to do with the sugar content." I pointed to a melon he had just discarded which had a large amount of serpentine netting near the stem end. "Like this, see? It’s that simple. This one should be perfect."

He examined the melon I had pointed to, running his fingers over the brown marks. My pulse quickened – maybe I had just imparted the piece of crucial information that would seal the coffin forever on the interminable tap-and-listen.
He looked thoughtful for a minute, and then spoke. "But that only tells you about the sweetness, right?"
"And what about the juiciness, and the crispness of the flesh? What if it has a texture like wet cotton? Sweetness isn’t everything, watermelons are very complex."
"Oh, well, I didn’t think of that, " I said, my voice trailing off, instantly sorry I had opened my mouth.
He smiled wistfully. "I think I’ll stick to my way." And he went back to tapping.

I don’t know if it’s the feel of the flesh of a just-ripe watermelon under his thumb, or the particular sound it makes when he thumps it, or the melon’s weight, balance or smell, but somehow he’s figured out that secret language watermelons use to tell us they’re perfect. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true that in all my years of melon shopping with him he’s never brought home a dud. And usually the ones he picks out are so good, there’s nothing better than to eat them plain, ice-cold from the fridge in big, thick wedges. In fact, I was well into adulthood before the thought even crossed my mind that there was anything else one could do with a ripe watermelon besides just scarfing it down like that. Fortunately, though, I’ve discovered a couple of new uses for watermelons that are just as delicious even when I bring home the inevitable less-than-stellar specimen, as without the benefit of his help I often do.

I used to assume that one day he would get around to indoctrinating me into the ways of his secret melon methodology. But after seeing that mischievous glint in his eye that afternoon as he dismissed my prized new technique, I’m now quite sure he secretly enjoys having me one-up when it comes to food, even if that only extends to picking out watermelons.

Watermelon Salad with Feta, Pine Nuts and Basil

Watermelon and feta may sound like a strange combination to you, but it’s eaten this way all over the Eastern Mediterranean – the salty-sweet combination works really well. Combined with the crunchy pine nuts and fragrant basil, this has become one of my favorite ways to enjoy this beautiful melon, and it’s reliably delicious whether I’ve managed to pick a perfect one or not.
Serves: 4 

about 1/2 medium-sized watermelon, flesh cubed or cut into slices and seeds removed
8oz/200g good-quality feta, crumbled
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
handful fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces
a few spoonfuls of extra-virgin olive oil
freshly-ground black pepper 

Combine the watermelon, feta, pine nuts and basil leaves in a large bowl or platter. Drizzle with some extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with pepper. Eat immediately.