Sunday, June 26, 2016

Baking Club - The Early Months

May 2015 (Kristi hosted) – Brownies

Best brownies were a tie…between the same recipe. Annie made Alice Medrich's Best Cocoa Brownies . And since Heidi wasn't able to join, Kristi made her go-to recipe -- Smitten Kitchen’s Best Cocoa Brownies -- which are “adapted from” (but basically the same as) Alice Medrich’s recipe. And we all agreed Ghiradelli boxed brownies tasted like they had no flavor after sampling so many good homemade recipes, especially the cocoa brownies, which were so easy.

July 2015 (Katie hosted) – Chocolate Chip Cookies

Trena’s butter-based Tollhouse with an overnight refrigerator aging of the dough was the clear winner.

September 2015 (Trena hosted) – No Bake Desserts

January 2016 (Heidi hosted – Apples)

Kristi brought an apple crisp from King Arthur -- doubled the topping for good measure.

April 2016 (Kristi hosted) – Biscuits and accompaniments

Best biscuits were Kristi’s from Mark Bittman, which are equally good with yogurt or buttermilk, and all purpose or whole wheat pastry flour. And everyone loved Heidi’s Lime Curd from Ina Garten.

We also did a butter tasting. Land-O-Lakes was the clear winner, with Kirkland from Costco a close second. Kristi was very disappointed that Aldi's brand was the worst (very funky after taste), and everyone was surprised that Plugra & Kerry Gold were solidly mediocre.


Clockwise from footed tray: Katie's, Annie's, Heidi's (center), Bondurant's, Trena's, Kristi's

The debate of the day was French v. Italian.  In the end, Annie got the edge with her Italian macaron from Bouchon.

Katie is a macaron pro, and used the French method to make both a traditional and an Earl Gray.  For the Earl Gray, she opened two tea bags and added the contents to the almond flour/confectioner's sugar, then sifting out the large pieces.  For the color, she used one drop of blue liquid food coloring.  Her recipe uses volume, and not weight.  It resulted in a nice loft and a soft bite.  The club was amazed that her unfussy recipe (no sifting for the traditional flavor, volume measurement, unaged egg whites, liquid food coloring) resulted in such a perfect result.

Kristi tried French, Italian, and a vegan version with aquafaba.  All had wildly different instructions on baking temperature and time, and the aquafaba version required letting the macarons sit in the warm oven with the door open for 10 minutes afterward.  Because of a time crunch, they sat in the oven for 6 hours.  This may have contributed to them being firm.

This was Annie's first time trying macarons and she nailed them.  She used an Italian method recipe from Bouchon, which involves making a syrup and pouring the syrup into whisking egg whites to make a stabilized meringue, which is then folded into a paste of almond flour, confectioner's sugar, and unbeaten egg white.  The Bouchon recipe recommended letting the piped macaron batter sit for only 10 minutes, compared to up to an hour for other recipes.  Her macarons had an impossibly high loft, a soft bite, and were filled with a divine salted caramel.

Heidi made two batches of French macarons, turning to Martha Stewart after finding that the first batch showed the piping lines and cracked.  She found Martha's recipe more reliable, except for the recommended 13 minutes bake at 350, which was both too hot and too long.  She went with a cardamom shell and pistachio filling that was a lovely combination.  She sifted the first batch four times, and the second batch only once--but the second batch came out better.

Light pink: Italian; Orange: French
Trena made both French and Italian macarons.  For the Italian she used a recipe from Anges de Sucre.  While the result looked and tasted good, it was chewier than expected from a macaron.  For the French recipe she turned to Sally's Baking Addiction, which had a number of helpful tips.  As with Kristi's experience, the two recipes were very different in oven temperature and time.  The Italian macarons were baked at 335 for 15 minutes and were very dry, while the French were a tiny bit underbaked at 325 for 10 minutes.  She decided to try 325 for 11 minutes regardless of what recipe she tries next.  She didn't flavor either shell, and filled them both with a grapefruit curd from Martha Stewart in order to use up her egg yolks.

Bondurant relied on America's Test Kitchen, which normally turns out perfectly engineered scientific recipes.  The steps to making the batter were simplified compared to other methods, and it called for very large 2 inch circles.  The cookies were more like sugar cookies without the crisp skin and high loft of a traditional macarons.  Her improvised buttercream filling was delicious.

Topics of Discussion

-Baking Time and Temperature.  The recipes varied in the time, temperature, and baking method.  Temperatures ranged from as high as 350 (with the oven heated to 400 before putting in the macarons) to as low as 225.  For those who made multiple batches, the consensus was that the best temperature is somewhere in the low 300s for 10-12 minutes.

-Blending and Sifting.  Most recipes called for blending the almond flour and confectioner's sugar in the food processor followed by sifting to have the finest grain possible.  Trena did not use a food processor, and sifted once.  Most of the others did both, but sifting ranged from one time up to four times.  Katie didn't sift at all.  The consensus is that a single sift is sufficient with good quality ingredients.  Everyone in the club used Bob's Red Mill almond flour.

-Aging Egg Whites.  The superstition of aging separated egg whites in order to allow some moisture to evaporate dominated the recipes, and most dutifully aged their egg whites from 10-24 hours.  However, Annie and Katie did not, and both had excellent results.   On the topic of separating egg whites, all agreed that a 3 bowl method is best:  crack the egg, separate the white into a small bowl, pop the yolk into another small bowl, and only after the separation is successful dump the separated egg whites into the bowl for egg whites.  This means that if you break a yolk, it's contained to the egg white in the small interim bowl, rather than contaminating the whole batch of egg whites.  

-Resting Piped Batter.  Another dominating technique in the recipes required the baker to pipe the batter onto a silicone baking mat or parchment paper and then rest the piped circles for up to an hour to allow a skin to form.  Annie's recipe called for resting only 10 minutes.  She said her first two trays came out perfectly, but the third exploded with violently cracked tops.  There's no saying if resting had anything to do with this.

-Piping Technique.  Bakers tried both the "swirl" technique--rotating the piping bag in a circular motion--and the "swell" technique--holding the bottom of the piping bag very near the piping surface and letting the batter swell around the tip until it is the desired size.  The "swell" technique was agreed to be better.  Katie shared a tip of wetting a fingertip and using it to smooth the peak from pulling away the piping bag.  Kristi and Trena agreed that a piping tip isn't needed, just cut the tip off the piping bag.

-Weight versus Volumetric Measurement.  Only Katie used a volumetric recipe while everyone else used recipes that called for ingredients by weight, though Kristi's Mary Berry recipe gave measurements for the dry ingredients by weight and then called for "four egg whites," rather than a weight.  Given that the participants found the weight of egg whites per egg was unpredictable, this inconsistency in the recipe was a frustration.  Though Katie had a great result, the rest of the club is too scared to abandon the kitchen scale for such a delicate operation.

As you can see, there was a lot to talk about with macarons--we chatted non-stop for more than two hours and kept almost entirely on topic.  A couple of us had failed macarons in our past and were thrilled to find success this time.  Were we charging retail, we produced hundreds of dollars worth of macarons.  Kristi picked up "control" macarons from a beloved local bakery and we agreed that the most successful of ours were just as good.  We may have found a new addiction.