Season's eatings

Visions of sugarplums are alive and well at my house. For the past week or so, I’ve been baking my ass off. (Unfortunately, I’ve been putting it right back on again and then some with all the sampling and taste-testing I’ve been doing. Got to maintain quality control.)

I’ve been clipping recipes for cookies and holiday-related treats for weeks now, and am trying my darnedest to work my way through them. For starters, I whipped up two batches of peppermint meringues late last week. It’s really pretty amazing how many cookies you can get out of three egg whites and a little bit of sugar. And since they’re light as air, you don’t have to feel bad about eating a whole slew at a time. (Hence, the need for a second batch.)

Next up, I got a notion to try my hand again at some macarons. The other day, I found finely ground almond flour at Whole Foods (for $12.99 a bag – ouch). I bought some and got down to work. Tweaking the bake time and temperature was the bane of my existence for pretty much an entire day as I tried and tried yet again to achieve the perfect balance of chewy yet airy texture. I wanted the macarons to bake through, but not to the point of drying out completely like a meringue. Not as easy to do as it sounds. The batches I made were probably a little overly dry in the end, but whatever. They tasted good. I also discovered that my piping technique needs some work. Every batch I made came out a different size.

macaron madness

I had originally intended to take the macarons to a holiday party I was invited to last night, but I knew there would probably be some serious foodies in attendance and I felt a little pressured to make sure whatever I brought was as close to perfect as possible. The macarons were good, but not quite there, so I changed up my game plan at the last minute and made mini-cupcakes instead — a chocolate mint variation and a snowy nutty coconut.

chocolate mint and nutty coconut mini-cupcakes

I was pleased with the way they turned out, but as is my usual M.O. when cooking, I made way too many and am now trying to figure out what to do with the two dozen or so extras currently chillaxing in the fridge.

It’s been a good baking season thus far, but I think it may be time to give the oven a little break to regroup before the next wave.

After MUCH trial and error, here are the basic recipe formulas I go to for the above sweet treats. Be creative and flavor them however you like by adding cocoa powder, extracts, a little coffee, whatever floats your boat.

BASIC MACARONS

(makes about 60 to 80 small shells)

Ingredients:

2 c. powdered sugar

1 c. finely ground almond flour

1/2 c. egg whites

3 T. sugar

pinch of salt

Directions:

In a small bowl, thoroughly combine the powdered sugar and the almond flour. Most recipes say to sift, but this is a big pain in the butt and I found it unnecessary if you’re using the finely ground almond flour from Whole Foods. If you’re just using ground almonds from Trader Joe’s or elsewhere, you might need to go ahead and sift, though. They aren’t as finely textured as the almond flour.

In a large bowl using a hand mixer, whip the egg whites with the sugar and salt until they form stiff peaks. Other recipes will suggest aging the egg whites for a day or two, but I skip this step and it doesn’t seem to make much difference.

Gently fold the almonds and powdered sugar into the beaten egg whites until just mixed (about 50 strokes or so). The eggs will deflate a little bit, but the batter should still be very light.

Carefully spoon the batter into a pastry bag fitted with a plain tip, or do what I do and cut the very corner off of a large plastic food storage bag instead. Pastry bags are a bitch to wash, and I like being able to just toss the Baggie in the trash when I’m done with it. If you don’t have a sous chef around to hold the bag for you, standing it up in a tall glass makes it easier to fill.

Pipe your macarons in 3/4 inch blobs onto a parchment paper-lined insulated baking sheet, then let the rest for about 30 minutes until the surface is dry and no longer sticks to your finger when touched. They will spread a little bit and should not have a peak on top.

Now comes the tricky part. You’ll have to experiment to find the best baking time and temp for your particular oven. In my kitchen, this comes down to about 14 minutes at 315 degrees. Don’t try to cheat and crank up the temp. These babies will turn brown and burn faster than you can say “disco inferno.” You want them to have a firm top, but a little moisture still in the middle when they come out of the oven. If you’ve done everything right, they’ll rise up enough to form a little “foot” on the bottom, the sign of a truly well-made macaron.

Filling is a matter of preference, and the choices are endless. I like to use a quick ganache of melted chocolate chips, or buttercream frosting. Other options include your favorite jam or preserves, lemon curd, caramel or hot fudge ice cream sauces, or even in a pinch, canned frosting.

BASIC MINI-CUPCAKES:

(makes about 4 dozen)

Ingredients:

3/4 c. butter (1 1/2 sticks), room temperature

1 c. sugar

3 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 1/2 c. flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

pinch of kosher salt

1/2 c. buttermilk

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix until smooth.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients and the buttermilk to the batter and mix until just combined.

Line a mini-muffin tin with paper cupcake liners. Fill each cup about 3/4 of the way up with batter (I use a mini ice cream scoop to do this and it works like a charm). Bake for 12-14 minutes, just until the tops are golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove to a baking rack and cool completely before frosting.

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