Macarons: recipe

The challenge: Eat a classic pastry from a top pȃtisserie in Paris and, using it as inspiration, create a similar recipe that can be made easily at home.
The pastry: macarons
The pȃtisserie: Dalloyau, 101 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75008, Paris
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a masterclass by Christophe Michalak, one of the top pȃtissiers in France. At the beginning, he went round the group asking people what they liked to bake and home and what they wanted to be able to bake. One woman said, ‘I would love to be able to bake macarons, but …’ and everyone else in the room, Chef Michalak, included, gave a knowing sympathetic look.
Macarons are to France what cupcakes are the the USA. However, unlike cupcakes, they have a mystique surrounding them based on their supposed difficulty to make. A recent episode of Le Meilleur Pȃtissier contributed to this mystique when almost every contestant completely bodged their macarons and more ended up in the bin than before the judges.  They consist of two almond meringue shells with a flavored filling sandwiched between. The shells are colored to reflect the flavor of the filling.
Almost every eatery in Paris, MacDonalds included, serve macarons. Two boutiques in particular, Ladurée and Pierre Hermé specialize in them and are often have queues the length of which seem proportional to their prices. It would have been obvious to have visited one of these for this challenge, but instead, I chose what is supposed to be one of the oldest pȃtisseries in Paris, Dalloyau.
Dalloyau, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré
From 1682-1789 four generations of the Dalloyau family served as master pȃtissier to the kings of France at the palace of Versailles. As the macaron was popular even then, it seems inevitable that Dalloyau would have baked them for Queen Marie-Antoinette, and it is for this that I chose them. After the revolution, in 1802 the Dalloyau of his day set up a pȃtisseriein the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré which is where I found them ready and waiting. Later, the shop was responsible for the introduction of another Parisian classic, the Opéra Cake, but that’s a different challenge.
I chose four different flavors of macaron from Dalloyau: pistachio, pink grapefruit, raspberry, and caramel fleur de sel. They all had a delicately crisp outer shell, with a gooey interior and fillings that I would say were competent rather than inspiring. I would have liked for the raspberry filling to have been more tart.
For my macarons, I chose to fill them with a home-made lemon curd as I adore the deliciously sour flavor that adds to the comfortingly sweet almond shells. For the recipe below however, I concentrate on the shells, as you can really fill them with anything you like but it’s the biscuits themselves that fill people with dread. However, like any baking, if you are meticulous about the measurements, oven temperatures and baking times, then you will master the macaron in no time. 
Note: I have written the recipe in weight measurements as they are more exact than volume measurements and for macarons, you have to be exact. The method is an amalgam of advice I have collected from top french chefs and cookery writers and a bit of trial and error from myself. However, for me, this produces perfect macarons every time. 
Macaron shells
Coque de macaron
Active time: 15 mins
Total time: 2 hrs
125g /4 1/2 oz ground almonds
225g / 8 oz icing sugar
¼ tsp food coloring powder
30g / 1 oz caster sugar
110g / 4oz egg whites
1. Heat the oven to 150° C / 300° F . Place the almonds on a baking tray and toast them for 10 minutes. Allow them to cool completely. Then pass them through a sieve, discarding any pieces which are too large. Sift them, together with the icing sugar, into a bowl.
2. Mix the food coloring with the sugar. Place them in the bowl of a stand mixer and add the egg whites. Using the whisk attachment, beat until they form stiff peaks. The consistency should be such that if you hold the bowl upside down, the mixture will not fall out.
 3. Add the egg whites to the almonds and icing sugar. Using a plastic spatula, scoop the almond mixture over the egg whites twice, and then flatten the mixture and slightly turn the bowl.  Continue to scoop, flatten, and turn until all the ingredients are combined into a smooth mixture. As soon as the ingredients are combined, draw a line in the mixture with your finger. If it closes up again, the mixture is ready. If not, continue to scoop, flatten and turn once or twice more until it does.
 4. Place the mixture in an icing bag. Then pipe small disks onto a silicon mat placed on a baking tray.  Lift the tray about three inches off the work surface and drop it to knock out any air bubbles. Do this three times. Then leave the macarons to dry at room temperature for one hour.

5. Heat the oven to 160° C / 320° F. Bake the macarons for 12 minutes. Then gently press the tops of the shells with your finger. If they are still soft, give them one more minute. Remove from the oven and allow the shells to cool completely before carefully removing them from the silicon mat. Refrigerate overnight before filling them.

Macarons filled with lemon curd

Pȃte sucrée (sweet pastry): recipe

It’s not part of the next challenge, but today, it being December and me being British, I made some mince pies and decided to use traditional french pȃte sucrée instead of the usual shortcrust. You have to roll the pȃte sucrée thinner than shortcrust and then it develops a delightful, delicate, crispiness that makes you feel that it’s OK to eat more than one mince pie. But then, in December, it’s always OK to eat more than one mince pie. This is based on the traditional french recipe, but I have adjusted the measurements a little by trial and error.

Pȃte sucrée

155g / 1 1/4 cups plain flour
60g / 1/4 cup butter
60g / 1/4 cup
1 medium egg

1. Place the butter in a bowl; sift in the flour and sugar and rub the butter into the mixture with your fingertips. Keep going until the mixture has the consistency of rough breadcrumbs.
2. Add the egg, and mix with your hand until everything comes together to form a dough.
3. Allow it to rest in the fridge for at least two hours before using. 

Religieuse: recipe

The challenge: Eat a classic pastry from a top patisserie in Paris and, using it as inspiration, create a similar recipe that can be made easily at home. 

The pastry: religieuse

The pâtisserie: Cyril Lignac, 2 rue de Chaillot, 75016, Paris

In Catholic Europe, it is no surprise to find food and beverages named after members of the church. In Italy, for example, the cappuccino, takes its name from the capuchin monks, who wear coffee colored robes and always seem to have long white beards. France is no different, where one of its most traditional cakes is la religieuse, which literally means nun. A large choux bun, filled with coffee flavored crème pâtissière, with a smaller one, stuck on top by means of a cream necklace, and both buns covered in chocolate ganache, la religieuse is a common site in pâtisseries all over Paris. 
I am no big fan of chocolate and coffee in pastries, so I visited Cyril Lignac’s patisserie in the trendy 16th district of Paris, since I had heard he did a raspberry religieuse that sounded intriguing. Originally from the south-west of France, Lignac came to Paris thirteen years ago, and trained and worked with some of the best chefs in the city, namely Alain Passard, the Pourcel brothers, and the legendary Pierre Hermé, and Alain Ducasse. He now owns three restaurants, including Le Quinzieme, which holds a Michelin star, and two pâtisseries, all in Paris. 
Lignac is a common sight on French TV, where he is currently one of the hosts of Le Meilleur Pâtissier, the French version of the BBC TV cult, The Great British Bake Off

Cyril Lignac’s shop on the Rue de Chaillot, Paris 16ème
Lignac’s religieuse was quite extraordinary. He used red choux pastry, which gave it an original look, reminiscent of a cardinal, but which was clearly a woman, in her Sunday best all ready for church. She wore a collar of chocolate which had been colored a metallic bronze, and her raspberry hat was topped off with gold leaf—an extremely elegant touch. The pastry was filled with a rich chocolate cream with mouth-wateringly tart raspberries throughout. I remember thinking, as I ate it in a nearby park, in full view of the Eiffel Tower, that it was one of the most exquisite things I had ever tasted—a truly religious experience. 
I decided to make my version to suit my own taste. Out went the milk chocolate, and in came white, combined with strawberries, my favorite fruit since childhood. I kept the red colored pastry, but decided to try and make it look like a cardinal, dressed up for a grand Vatican ceremony. To achieve this, I used white chocolate ganache as his surplice, and cut a strawberry in the shape of a mitre on top. To keep it simple to make at home, I abandoned the necklace, as this would have required piping skills and voilà the result. Not so stylish as Lignac’s but impressive for a family gathering or as a dinner party dessert. I am going to work on refining the presentation and will give you an update when I have, but remember, the challenge was to prepare something that could be made quickly and easily at home. So, how did I do?
The recipe follows after the pictures. 

Strawberry and white chocolate religieuse

Active time: 45 mins
Total time: 2 1/2 hrs
1/2 tsp red powder food coloring
12 strawberries
50g / 1/4 cup white chocolate
50g / 1/4 cup cream
1. Pre-heat the oven to 250°C / 480°F. 
2. Prepare the choux pastry, but mix 1/2 teaspoon of red powder food coloring with the flour. When it is ready, put it in a piping bag and pipe six large and six small buns. Turn the oven off and place the buns in the oven for 25 minutes. Then turn the oven on to 160°C / 325°F and cook the small buns for 10 mins and the large ones for 20 mins. Leave to cool completely on a wire rack. 
3. Prepare the creme pâtissière. When it is ready, chop 6 strawberries into small pieces and stir into the cream. 
4. Break the chocolate into pieces and place in a glass bowl. Boil the cream and then add it to the bowl. Leave for 10 mins and then stir to incorporate all the chocolate. Leave to cool. 
5. Make a small hole in the top of the choux buns with a skewer. Place the creme pâtissière in a piping bag and fill each of the buns. Then dip the large buns in the white chocolate. Pipe a small amount of creme pâtissière on the top of each large bun. Dip the bottom of the small buns in the white chocolate and then stick them, upside down, to the large buns using the creme pâtissière. Cut the remaining six strawberries into mitre shapes, and then place on the top of each small bun. 

Cupcakes and the City

American cupcakes

Cupcakes on parade at American Cupcakes, San Francisco, CA

On July 9 2000, the world changed forever. HBO’s popular drama Sex and the City, addressed racism and dating a smoker in the same episode. And as Carrie Bradshaw, announced what was to be her biggest relationship that season, viewers watched her grappling with the biggest cupcake in New York City and a nation experienced collective food envy.

The “homme du jour” was a carpenter called Aiden: the “plat du jour” a yellow cupcake, topped with raspberry frosting, from the Magnolia bakery on the lower West Side. Carrie’s fidelity to Aiden lasted four weeks: America’s fidelity to the cup cake is still going strong, and unlike Mr Big, even the sexy French macaron couldn’t dull America’s appetite for these red velvet devils.
In the thirteen or so years since, the cupcake has made a bid for world domination. This is partly due to the fact that, unlike the delicate gallic marvels, the supersized American cupcake can be easily baked at home, providing the housewives of the world with a kind of personal gratification the writers at SATC weren’t thinking of. 
The SATC cupcake was plain sponge, topped with pink buttercream frosting, piped in a simple swirl. The class of 2013 features flavors such as caramel fleur de sel, s’mores, as well as the ubiquitous red velvet, which has become more American than apple pie, (also available in cupcake form).
Back in 2009, I made a late-night pilgrimage to Magnolia on Bleeker Street, still busy at a quarter of midnight. And on a recent Sunday morning in San Francisco, the sunny city serenaded with foghorns from across the Bay, I decided to pay a visit to three of the city’s finest.

 First stop was American Cupcake, on Union Street, the sci-fi interior, adding an ultra-violet tint to my red velvet cupcake. My senses further confused by the incredible scarlet of the moist chocolate cake, I began to wonder how many “e numbers” (or their American equivalent) I was consuming, until I was slapped in the face by the lascivious saltiness of the cream cheese frosting.  This had never been my favorite, as I had always found it a bit sour, but the salt added a new edge, which I am keen to recreate, and added an intense enhancement to the chocolate sponge.

Red Velvet cupcakes at American Cupcake

Next was Kara’s Cupcakes, the quieter branch on Scott Street, rather than the Ghirardelli Square location. Here, I chose fleur de sel: chocolate buttercream on a chocolate sponge, with a salty caramel interior. Maybe it was the temperature it was served at, but this just didn’t do it for me. The buttercream was hard and bland, the cake fell to pieces in my hand, and the caramel interior popped out like an eyeball on to the plate.
Chocolate and Red Velvet at Kara’s Cupcakes

Finally, came Susie Cakes on Chestnut Street. The shop interior had  much more of a mom’s-kitchen atmosphere than the other two and so did the cakes. The raspberry cupcake, was of the original Sex and the City generation: an ordinary sponge, but topped with a deliciously tart strawberry buttercream.
Traditional cupcakes at Susie Cakes

With the general availability of cupcakes worldwide (even Zurich has its first dedicated store, where English is spoken for the benefit of bored ex-pat banker’s wives) it was great to revisit the cupcake on home soil. Even if American Cupcake’s menu (featuringI kid you notchicken deep fried in red velvet batter) suggests that stores are beginning to branch out to keep custom, I found the great American cupcake alive and well and living at the foot of Pacific Heights.