For a variety of reasons too personal and too mundane to relate, I have had a harder time this year summoning up any holiday spirit. I’m not quite bah-humbugging, but I’ve been decidedly meh about the post-Halloween happenings, and I’m actively participating this time in His Lordship’s annual anti-giftgiving and no-carols grinchery.
That said, something, however limited, did finally awaken over the weekend, because I stayed up on Saturday night turning the overpriced and underwhelming quinces I bought at Thanksgiving into jam, complete with sterilized jars and heat-sealing. I also brought our one box of holiday decorations up from the basement and threw together a minimalist arrangement of blue, silver and white ornaments in our front window, and filled a few vases and bowls full of the remaining ornaments and scattered them around the house.
I can probably attribute it to the fact that we had our first snowfall on Saturday — to be more precise, it was our first encounter with the evil and invasive form of precipitation known as “wintry mix”. The finger-numbing cold and the dusting of white on the ground, however momentary, were enough to flip the switch. I’m also not discounting the effects of peer pressure, since a third of the residents of our very small block had already gone Full Metal Christmas by the time we left the house on Black Friday to catch a noon matinee, and we’re at over half the block lit up and garlanded a week later.
Whatever combination of factors it was, I can’t deny that it’s really and truly happened, because I followed the jam-making and decorating spurt by getting up Sunday morning and kicking off the cookie baking, and I didn’t do it by halves, either. I came up with the most insanely ambitious use I possibly could for the leftover egg whites that had been sitting in my fridge for a week, making my first-ever attempt at a cookie that came out of nowhere a few years back and rapidly become so common on food blogs that it’s practically played out. I speak, of course, of the macaron.
I imagine at least a few people will be shocked to learn that I had never had a macaron before. It is, in fact, possible for me to miss a food fad, although I smugly pride myself on having been-there-done-that with quite a number of things years and even decades ago that people are now acting like they invented, like dulce de leche, Mexican Coca-Cola, Peking duck, panettone, and salads made of fresh fennel, whole milk mozzarella, and/or roasted beets. (Along with the exponentially amplified teen angst and the unrelieved sense of never quite belonging anywhere, there are some advantages to growing up in a peripatetic immigrant household.)
This fad, though, I let totally pass me by. In part this is because my obsession with madeleines has always been too all-consuming to permit any French cookie rivals. The love affair began in Proustian manner when I chose one in a mid-afternoon cafe stop during my first visit to Paris when I was 14, and no tuile or sable has ever been able to turn my head since. I still mourn the loss of the one bakery I ever found in the U.S. that could produce a truly acceptable madeleine, which His Lordship used to bring me during my grad school exams, making regular expeditions for these much-needed fortifications in beribboned cellophane bags. Besides my madeleine monogamy, I also disdained macarons because they seemed like too much bother for not enough payoff, and since I never had one during any of my visits to France, I would have no baseline to tell whether I had succeeded or not.
However. I had this bowlful of egg whites that had been sitting in the fridge since their corresponding yolks had gone into Thanksgiving leftovers quiches, and I had an unexpected burst of energy. I could have wussed out and made plain old macaroons, or even my beloved cacao nib amaretti, but instead my crazy holiday brain said, “Hey, why not finally try macarons?” There was no one to act as the voice of reason, so I charged forward.
Because there are a million supposedly fool-proof recipes out there that end up being plenty fallible in the comments, I defaulted to David Lebovitz’s recipe because I figured if anyone had it both right and feasible, he would. The prominent involvement of chocolate in his recipe didn’t hurt either. I still made changes, starting with doubling the recipe because I had four egg whites to use up, and because I knew the likelihood of cracking, splitting, and myriad other disasters was so high that I would need many extras. I also decided to tweak the ganache filling because I’m compulsive that way, and because what goes with chocolate and almonds? Coconut, of course. Luckily for me, I’d already gone down the coconut ganache road before.
Starting with an infamous heartbreaker of a cookie and handicapping myself even further by changing the recipe pretty much ensured that the outcome would be pretty close to nothing like what proper macarons should look like, and so it was. Because I ground the almonds myself and was not yet crazy enough to bust out the piping bag (it takes clinical levels of insanity and literally nothing else to do all day for THAT to happen chez Disdain), I got rocky little boulders instead of satiny-domed hockey pucks. They were certainly crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, which I believe is what macarons are supposed to be like, but much too tall and craggy to use for sandwiching.
As I was staring down my sixty little brown comeuppances, His Lordship made the happy and face-saving suggestion of slicing them open, filling them with the ganache, and replacing the bottoms to make the truffly filling a surprise. That’s why they give him the big-deal engineering degrees and the letters after his name.
I seized the lifeline, and ended up with something that was not only quite tasty, but also reminded me of an Italian cookie, baci, which are a much less refined but no less legitimate variation on the ground almond and egg white cookie with a chocolate filling theme. When I took them to work the next day and called them that, everyone was wildly impressed with these bonbon-like, crackly-creamy bites and no one was the wiser about my culinary faux pas.
Incidentally, this is one of the most important lessons about success in the kitchen: a judicious culinary lie not only saves your ego, but ensures your guests’ enjoyment. When things look bleak, embrace your mistakes, then go out with a big smile and act like you meant to do exactly that. More often than not, everyone will win that way.
So am I going to try again with the macarons? Maybe, because I’m pigheaded and loath to admit failure, but to be honest, probably not. I still strongly suspect they aren’t worth the bother, and there are a million other cookies out there that don’t emulate Russian roulette. Besides, I can always use an extra excuse to visit Paris.
(Adapted — or shall we say botched? — from David Lebovitz’s recipe for French Chocolate Macarons)
Makes approximately 60 cookies
For the cookies:
200 grams powdered sugar
100 grams sliced almonds
50 grams Dutch-processed cocoa powder
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
130 grams granulated sugar
For the filling:
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
2.5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Line three baking sheets with parchment paper.
Place the powdered sugar, almonds and cocoa powder in a food processor and whiz until the almonds are very finely ground.
In a standing mixer fitted with a scrupulously clean bowl and whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until starting to form a stable foam. With the mixer running, gradually add the granulated sugar, then continue beating at medium-high speed until glossy and forming stiff peaks.
In two batches, fold the dry ingredients into the meringue. Fold until no streaks of white show, and the cocoa is starting to melt down and turn the batter shiny, but try not to overmix. Using a small cookie scoop, scoop the dough onto the baking sheets, leaving an inch between the tablespoon-sized blobs. There should be twenty per sheet.
Preheat the oven to 375. While the oven is heating, leave the cookies out at room temperature to dry and develop the skin that will create a crackly shell when baked.
Bake for 15-16 minutes, then set on racks to cool completely on the sheets.
While the cookies are baking and cooling, prepare the filling. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and coconut milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat and simmer for 6 minutes. Remove from heat, add the chocolate and butter, and stir until melted. Pour into a bowl and stir in the vanilla. Refrigerate until thick and spreadable.
To assemble, slice the bottoms off the cooled cookies with a serrated knife. This is best accomplished by sawing gently back and forth at the crack where a macaron would have a proper “foot” (which would make these pseudopods, I suppose) until they come apart of their own accord. You should have a bottom part with the chewy innards still clinging, and a hollow domed top. Fill the domes with a spoonful of the ganache and replace the bottom, pressing gently to seal.
Refrigerate the cookies in a tightly covered container until ready to serve, since the ganache is both perishable and, in my opinion, has a better texture when cold.
I’m leaving the units for the cookies in metric and by weight because everything I’ve read about macarons seems to reinforce this idea that if you even blink the wrong way at them, they’ll be an utter failure, so I did everything by weight to be as precise as possible, especially since I was doubling. If you’re braver than I am, follow the link to the original recipe, where he gives avoirdupois equivalents for the original amounts.
If you are less lazy and piping bag-averse than I, you could pipe the filling into the cookie tops, but I find that two teaspoons work just fine and don’t risk melting the ganache.
Since macarons supposedly freeze well, I imagine these would too.