Meringue, humidity, and chocolate ganache

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Yes, it’s been a while. I’m very aware that the last time I blogged was two months and three countries ago. Sorry, but sometimes life just gets in the way even when I’m not elbow-deep in a work project in a far-off land. And sometimes I just need a while to get back into the swing of things. (Also, I've been blogging for more than decade now, so cut me some slack, eh?) Having been away from London for 39 of the 52 weeks in 2018, I’ve mostly just been enjoying being back and puttering on the boat. I’m also getting a new show started. Oh, and I celebrated a pretty big birthday, which I did in fine fashion with a visit from my best friend Karen.

After the resounding success of our Prague trip, Karen and I decided to have another vacation-within-a-vacation, this time by catching the Eurostar to Paris for a long weekend. We managed to fill our time there very usefully, mostly with equal portions of walking and cheese, reasoning that if you’re racking up 14km per day on your feet then by God there had better be cheese at the beginning, middle and end.

Karen and the Cheese Plate to Rule Them All. (Clarifying note: This cheese was not all just for us. The giant platter was simply moved from table to table in the restaurant as each set of diners reached the appropriate point in the meal. The procedure was to slice off pieces of whatever cheeses looked enticing (ie: all, especially the one covered in raisins and the super stinky runny one), and then the waiter would take the whole platter to the next people. Such a good system.)

In between cheese plates we fit in a few galleries, some casual sightseeing, a bit of shopping and some long distance viewing of inchoate gilets jaune protests, complete with armoured cars and mounted police. One highlight was a long stroll through the Bastille Market on Sunday morning, which was very conveniently located near our AirBnB, and where we bought the ingredients for an amazing lunch. Also where it’s possible we may have got hot sauerkraut and sausages as a snack to fortify ourselves so we could power through the cheese, charcuterie and token vegetable purchases to come.

Waiting for the sausages

But one of our main activities in Paris was a class in baking macarons. (Another from the increasingly varied list AirBnb experiences, similar to the one Karen and I did in Prague.) For those who have not had the pleasure of encountering a French macaron, I pity you. They’re a lovely sweet treat made up of two meringue biscuits that sandwich ganache or jam or buttercream icing. The meringue shell manages to be both ethereally light in the crust and satisfyingly chewy on the base, and they’re usually made in a rainbow of bright colours matching the flavour, most of which is in the filling, though sometimes the meringue also has a subtle flavour. Popular offerings are vanilla, chocolate, fruit, pistachio and coffee, with more outré forays into matcha, rose, liquorice and even sea buckthorn. (Mon Dieu!)

In a first for this blog series, we’re repeating a photo! This is an encore presentation from back in 2011. Good grief, I’ve been blogging for a loooong time...

Our lesson started a bit too early in the morning for people who were on vacation, but we mitigated the earliness of the hour with a pitstop at the local bakery (Bien sur!) while en route to the apartment near Bastille where the class took place. There we met our host Nomar, who turned out to be from Venezuela, which seemed a bit odd considering we were in Paris to learn about one of the most iconic French delicacies. Then again, she was clearly the most experienced macaron-maker in the room, so we followed the instructions, even when they raised a few eyebrows, as we shall see.

The set-up, ready to go.

Nomar and her partners run a few different classes, including ones for crepes, chouquettes - another classic French treat that’s basically small balls of choux pastry covered in chunky sugar - and even one on traditional Venezuelan arepas. But our plan was to make classic chocolate macaron filled with ganache, so the first task was the ganache. I’ve seen this done countless times on The Great British Bake Off - enough to know that it looks simple, but also enough to know that anything to do with chocolate can be fiendishly fickle. There are traditionally just two ingredients that make up ganache: good quality chocolate added to hot cream, though it’s sometimes made even more shiny and gorgeous by adding butter (because: France!). However, Nomar’s method was a bit different - starting by melting the chocolate alone on double boiler on a very very very low heat (judging by the time it took I think it was only slightly above body temperature). Once the chocolate was finally ready, she incorporated the cream with a technique that involved pressing the back of a rubber scraper/spatula (let’s not get into that, ok?) into the mix and sort of mushing it together, as opposed to simply stirring. I’m sure she had her reasons, but it did seem odd. And it did actually result in the ganache splitting. (For the uninitiated splitting or breaking is what happens when the oils in the chocolate separate out leaving the ganache uneven, gritty and unusable.)

Nomar was ready to start a fresh batch of ganache, because only once in her experience had a course participant managed to bring split ganache back from the dead. However, your humble blogger was undaunted. So while Nomar measured out the chocolate again and cranked the stove back up to 98.6 degrees, I had a go at the split ganache by simply whisking the hell out of it for a few minutes. This was completely successful, so that new qualification is now going straight into my online dating profile: Meet Pam - inconsistent blogger, International Woman and Mystery, and Ganache Whisperer.

Next stop: meringue (also notoriously skittish). There are two meringue options available for the macaron chef - French and Italian. Obviously any Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Reader knows the difference, but humour me while I pad things out with a quick explanation. French meringue is made by whipping egg whites to a stiff peak and then carefully adding sugar. The beaten eggs therefore remain uncooked until the meringue is baked. French meringue is apparently a bit airier but more fragile than its cousin, Italian meringue, wherein the eggs are whipped first and then the sugar is added as molten syrup, thus cooking the meringue as it forms. Italian meringue is supposedly a bit tougher, and it doesn’t require additional cooking before it’s safe to eat. (There’s also Swiss version where the sugar and eggs are heated together and then beaten. It’s all explained here.) Nomar chose Italian meringue, which involved making the sugar syrup on the stove while the Ganache Whisperer tried her hand at beating egg whites. Sadly, the results were less than spectacular.

Two attempts at Italian meringue, both failures.

Popular myth is that it’s tricky to make meringue on a rainy day, so perhaps we can put that down as the reason why two different bids with a hand mixer resulted in bowls of white gloop instead of perky meringue.

It wasn’t until Nomar broke out the big KitchenAid mixer that we managed to tame the meringue and add a flash of bright pink to highlight our eventual success.

Next we combined the meringue with a mix of ground almond and sugar into the final batter for the meringue shells (that’s all that’s in macaron shells - ground almond, egg, meringue and colouring). Again, there was an odd pressing/mixing technique that looked well-designed for knocking air out of meringue, which didn’t really seem like the point. Nonetheless, we ended up with something that went into a piping bag and then onto a specially marked silicone baking sheet.

Action shot!

The tray of shells went into the oven for what turned out to be an unexpectedly long time, and I ended up having to rescue the ganache again, since it stiffened up considerably while we faffed with the meringue.

The Ganache Whisperer, Part Two

Luckily, while we waited for the shells to come out of the oven and cool a bit, there were a few distractions.

Like this.

And this!

Eventually, everything was ready for final assembly and managed to put together a plate of quite decent looking chocolate macarons. To be completely honest, the flavour and texture were not up to the standards of Ladurée, but for a first attempt on a rainy day I thought they were not bad.

Yes, there are a few wonky ones. But they all tasted the same with pink champagne.

We each left with a small package of our own macarons. And we left with directions on how to get to the specialist baking shop where they sold little jars of the powdered colour used to tint the meringue shells, which Karen bought in six shades and schlepped back to Canada. She’s also got one of the specially marked silicone baking mats on order, and claims she’s got all the other ingredients too, so no more excuses!

The successful patisseurs. Next stop: Lunch!

So that was the macaron lesson. It was a fun way to spend the morning. And though we had some issues, we certainly left with a lot more practical knowledge about the intricacies of the process than we had when we went in. I’m expecting insta-worthy photos of homemade macarons (in at least six colours) from Karen any minute now. I, meanwhile, will be squandering my ganache talents and concentrating on fixing the latest leak in the boat engine cooling system and getting ready to take the Lucky Nickel out of the marina and back onto the towpath en route to some much more extensive mechanical work that involves actually taking the boat out of the water.

What could possibly go wrong?

1 Comment:

Kathryn said...

Yay. Glad you had a fun adventure for your birthday!

Post a Comment