Southwestern Corn & Bean Salad

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I was walking through Central Market the other day and for some reason glanced at the poblano peppers and it occurred to me that I hadn't had fresh corn in a long time. Of course I've got my Rancho Gordo beans around, too, that I'm always looking for an excuse to cook up, so I whipped up this quick Southwestern / Mexican influenced salad.

Southwestern Corn & Bean Salad

When I work on tricky things like macarons these posts might be interesting reads and hopefully inspire people to try their hand at more technically challenging stuff, but obviously most of my day-to-day cooking is not like that. Most of what I cook, since I am single and don't have a ton of free time, is designed to keep well in the fridge, or freeze, and be easily repurposed for other dishes, transforming its way through the week. This salad is a good example of that. When you have leftovers?
  • Mix a cup of whole milk or light cream and 2 tablespoons of butter together in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted, add 2c of the salad and turn the heat down to medium; simmer it all together until everything softens and flavors and colors mix a bit into a hearty chowder.
  • Flatten a chicken breast by pounding it between layers of plastic wrap, and layer some of the salad on top. Roll it up and tie it with kitchen twine. Coat with panko or some other coating, and roast at 350F until the chicken is cooked through and juices run clear when cut, roughly 20-30 minutes.
  • Puree a can of tomatoes and mix with the salad to make a thick salsa; serve with chips.
  • Mix some salad with chopped cooked chicken, some reduced chicken stock, and a bit of flour and spread in a prepared pie crust for an impromptu chicken pot pie.
The only remotely "technical" things about this salad are the removal of the corn kernels from the cobs and then the cooking of the beans. Getting the corn kernels off is easy; just use a knife and run it down the side. It's easy to tell if you're cutting into the cob (because it's about ten times tougher than the kernels!) so get as far in as you can to try to get the kernels intact without cutting into the cob.

Slicing Corn Kernels

Then, flip the knife over and run the back of the blade down the ear to get out the corn scrapings, the bits of kernel still left in the sockets and a lot of juice from the ear itself.

Scraping Corn

You can do that in advance of making the salad. Then leave the corn in a bowl in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it.

I cooked the beans very simply in this; I just sweated the shallots and poblano and garlic in some oil to soften them up a bit, added the corn kernels for a few minutes, then dumped them out of the pot and cooked the beans in their soaking liquid in the same pot without washing it (so some of the garlic and pepper made its way into the beans as they cooked.) If you're not comfortable cooking a pot of beans, I recommend starting with the Rancho Gordo cooking page; about halfway down where it says "Master Recipe List", they have their basic instructions, and now a video, too!

The only modification there is that there's no explicit mirepoix here because the beans are going into the salad. The flavored oil left in the pot should be enough.

Many people will tell you various things about cooking beans with or without salt, acids, calcium, or sugar, saying that all of those things can keep the beans from becoming fully tender. In my experience, beans come out much more tender when soaked and cooked in filtered water (I use the soaking water as the cooking water, another controversial topic -- it has never caused me any problems.) And I don't often make sweetened bean dishes (like baked beans with molasses, although they are delicious) so I can't say for certain what sugar does to the beans.

As for acids and salt, though, I have not found any substantial difference in cooking beans with or without salt, and when I cook beans with acid like tomatoes, they still become tender but the skins tend to stay more intact. For this recipe, if you're concerned about appearances, you might add some acid to the beans halfway through cooking to help keep the skins from splitting and keep the beans cohesive in the salad. I liked the idea of them getting a little mushy and adding some creaminess to the salad, so I just cooked them in plain, unadulterated water.

I used the Rancho Gordo Vaquero beans, handsome black-and-white beans, the skins reminiscent of the RG Calypso beans I fondly remember cooking several times in San Francisco. The Vaqueros are warm, meaty and assertive, with mostly deeper flavors, not a lot of green taste, a nice hearty addition to this salad, offsetting the light sweetness of the corn and slight bitterness of the barely-cooked peppers.

Here's the full spread of ingredients for the salad. Except I forgot to put in the ham. If you're so inclined, chop up a slice and throw it in with the beans as they cook. My current favorite ham is the Vande Rose Farms artisan ham; as you can see in the image, it's nicely marbled, a good slightly-cured pink color, and the texture wonderful; just fibrous enough to pull apart but elastic enough to be nicely chewy. And it's from happy, well-cared-for pigs.

Note that this photo is for a double batch of the recipe; it made an enormous amount, so in the recipe I've halved everything to make it a more reasonable yield.

Corn & Bean Salad Ingredients

I'm in love with queso fresco these days, too; Central Market has a panela barra white cheese that fries without melting; it slumps a bit but never liquefies, and it browns nicely and has a good, dense, chewy texture. (McGee observes that fresh cheeses were historically known as peasant meat, having a similar dense chewiness and with good protein and fat, but much less expensive, since the cheese is quick and easy to make.) I fried a bit, either in little slices as garnish or as cubes to mix in with the salad. It's not as salty as the more crumbly fresh cheeses, and primarily adds some welcome texture and creaminess.

Southwestern Corn & Bean Salad

Serves 8, as a salad
1/2lb dried hearty beans (black, pinto, or similar), cooked (or about 2 cans)
2T olive oil
1 small shallot, medium dice
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 poblano pepper, chopped
Kernels and scrapings from 3 medium-sized ears of corn
pinch of cumin seed
large pinch of epazote (optional; said to reduce gas from the beans)
1 small heirloom tomato, large dice
soft Mexican fresh cheese such as panela barra

Soak the beans for at least 2 hours, and up to 6 if they are older. Pour the olive oil in the bottom of a large stock pot over medium heat, and add the shallot, garlic, and chopped poblano pepper and sweat them for a minute or two, until the shallot is translucent. Add the corn kernels and cumin seed and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes, until the corn kernels soften a bit.

Pour the veggie mixture into a bowl, but leave the oil in the pan. Add the beans with their soaking liquid and enough extra water to cover them by 2", stir in the epazote (if using) and turn the heat to high, and bring the pot to a strong boil for 5 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium-low, low enough that the pan is still simmering, but barely. Cook until the beans are tender. This will depend strongly on the variety and age of the beans and length of soaking time. Taste a bean after 45 minutes and then every 15 minutes thereafter until its flesh is pleasantly tender but the skin has not disintegrated. Remove the pot from the heat and drain off most but not all of the remaining cooking liquid (don't strain the beans, you want some liquid left to mix into the salad.) Salt the beans to taste.

Mix the diced tomato with the veggie mixture, and then toss in the beans gently, trying not to smash anything in the process.

Fry slices or 1/2" dice of the cheese in a dry, non-stick skillet over high heat, flipping to get all the sides nicely browned.

Serve the salad in bowls, garnished with the fried cheese.



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Fresno Chile & Chevre Macarons

Friday, September 21, 2007

I've been interested in making macarons that are a bit more savory. All the ones I've ever had are dessert cookies, fragile rosewater, pistachio, raspberry, chocolate, that kind of thing.

At first I wanted to make a savory hazelnut dacquoise and fill it with whipped gorgonzola cheese, but I've made enough of these little guys now to know that you can't really have dacquoise without the sugar. They are rather inseparable. And so I set off to try something else.

I had some chevre left from my chicken sandwiches over the past week, and thought, chevre goes well with chile peppers; chile peppers and sugar might team up well; why not try that?

My first attempt was a learning experience (I heard, recently, "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you wanted." That's kind of what I mean, here.) I minced a Fresno pepper (bright red, fruity with only a mild heat) and a little bit of jalapeƱo for heat, and tossed them in a dry skillet over medium heat, hopefully to dehydrate them enough to mix with the nut flour and sugar. I used cashews - why not? - and did everything as described in my prior post about macarons, modifying weights and whatnot to make sure everything still added up.

It didn't work at all. The resulting "flour" was actually a paste with the exact consistency of marzipan.

Chile & Chevre <i>Macarons<i>

I knew I was in trouble but figured, why not finish the exercise? Maybe I'll learn something. I folded the paste into the meringues:

Chile & Chevre Macarons

It didn't fold well. The best I got was a sagging, orange meringue with big chunks of paste in it. I gave in and whisked it until it combined, at which point the meringue had totally collapsed and it was just a bowl of thick liquid.

Again, I soldiered on, at least out of curiosity to see what Frankenstein's monster would emerge from my oven. I whipped another egg white into a stiff foam and folded it in. I piped the mutant batter onto the cookie sheet and baked them, and got just about what I expected:

Chile & Chevre Macarons

They bear a vague resemblance to macaron dacquoise, but only in a fleeting, ephemeral way. In reality, eating one was like chewing on a paper towel.

I tried again tonight. I debated between totally punting and sticking with dried chiles or simply keeping the fresh chiles but folding them in separately at the very end. I opted for the latter, since I wanted the fruitiness of the fresh peppers, and also because the cookies are dirt cheap and don't take long to make, so I didn't lose much by trying. Here are the dry ingredients and the minced, pan-fried chiles, happily separated. Oh, and I added about 5g of cocoa powder to this batch, just because it occurred to me that it would taste good.

Chile & Chevre Macarons

Then I piped them onto the sheet. I'm getting better at the piping! I still can't quite get rid of that little peak, though, the one that forms when I lift the pastry bag away. Still, these are much improved.

Chile & Chevre Macarons

Fifteen minutes later, I pulled them out of the oven to find, to my delight, perfect little shells.

Chile & Chevre Macarons

I kept the filling simple, just mixed chevre with 2% milk maybe 3 parts chevre to 1 part milk, just enough to soften it but keep it firm enough to stay in place when spread. Depending on your chevre this might differ. The Cowgirl fresh chevre would be the perfect texture as-is; it's softer, creamier, and lighter than anything I've found in Austin.

Chile & Chevre Macarons

I like the reddish-brown hue of the shells, and the sugar in the meringue goes very well with the chiles. They actually taste fairly savory, in spite of the large quantity of powdered & baker's sugar in the shells.

I think I'm happy with my macarons for now. Time to move on to something else. I'm happy I made these, though; they're tasty and were a fun experiment.



At September 29, 2007 8:54 AM , Blogger Brilynn said...

Wow! These sound amazing, I love the combo!


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Fig & Anise French Macaroons

Monday, September 17, 2007

These cookies are my submission for Sugar High Fridays #35: The Beautiful Fig.

Anise & Fig Macarons

I remember the first time I had a French macaron, which I suppose should be "macaroon," but most people hear "macaroon" and think of a dense, moist mound of coconut, perhaps half-dipped in chocolate. Those are good, too, but the French macaroon? Divine.

I was at the French Laundry with my sister and aunt. It was late. We'd already eaten probably 9 courses, but they just wouldn't stop bringing food. I felt like I was going to burst. And then they brought a plate of these perfect, glossy little sandwich cookies, pale yellow with golden filling. I bit through it, and my teeth first broke the crispy outer shell, then sunk into the chewy-but-fluffy, caramelized center of the meringues, and then through the milk caramel buttercream filling. I was in heaven. I closed my eyes and savored the cookie as it melted slowly in my mouth. The next day we went to Bouchon and bought a whole bunch more. My sister intended to bring them home to share, but confessed later that she ate almost all of them herself.

No other cookie I've had provides the same textural depth and perfect balance of richness, fluffiness, and crispness. They're elusive, too; in San Francisco you really just had to go to Miette in the Ferry building to get good ones, and then they were several dollars apiece. And so I thought, all this time, that they must be impossibly difficult to make and full of prohibitively expensive ingredients.

Well, they are a fair amount of work, and they do require more technical skill than any other cookie I've ever made, but like anything, it just takes practice. When I spotted SHF #35 I'd already been practicing my macaroon-making, and so I decided to take the opportunity to try another batch.

As for the flavor combination, I once made the fig, roasted pepper, and fennel salad from the French Laundry Cookbook, and it was fairly easy and delicious, the figs and peppers marinated in balsamic vinaigrette and served with a variety of fennel: shaved, powdered, and infused in oil. The flavors worked well there, in a savory dish, so I thought, I bet anise and fig would go well together.

I've based all my macaroon-making so far off of David Lebovitz's extraordinarily useful post on the subject. So go read that first, if you haven't already, and then come back. Back? Good.

Oh, and before you try to make meringue, it's worth reading Heidi's excerpt from Madam E. Saint-Ange's detailed notes on whisking egg whites.

And, last but not at all least, Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking contains an exceptionally detailed chapter on eggs, including a big section on egg white foams. Reading that will take your understanding of eggs to a whole new level. If I could only have one book on cooking, that would be it. No question.

OK, enough with the preamble. On to the recipe! I started with the recipe from David's post, modifying it a bit to make the dacquoise shells taste of anise instead of chocolate. (Dacquoise is a nut meringue; macaroon shells are always meringue with nut flour of some kind.) Cocoa powder is somewhat starch and somewhat fat, so I compensated for it by adding ground star anise and boosting the volume of nuts. Because the recipe calls for dutch cocoa powder, which is treated with alkali to neutralize its acid, I didn't need to compensate for that (I almost missed that and added some cream of tartar, which I suppose wouldn't have been the end of the world.)

For the filling, I wanted a very thick fig jam. I bought some black mission figs, and at Lulu's suggestion, diced them very small:

Anise & Fig Macarons

This took a bit of time. Here's a hint: no matter how sharp you think you keep your knife, go ahead and sharpen it right before doing this. It really speeds things up.

I mixed the diced figs together with sugar in a saucepan over medium-low heat. My figs weren't as ripe as I would have liked, so I mixed 8oz figs with a little over 1/4c of sugar. With very ripe figs I would have used a bit less.

Anise & Fig Macarons

I let them cook for a while, and when they started to release their juices, I added a splash of red wine vinegar, several generous coarse grinds of black pepper, and the flesh from a quarter of a navel orange, minced fine to break up the starchy membrane.

Anise & Fig Macarons

I turned the heat down to low, covered the pan, and let it cook while I made the shells.

To make the shells, I took about 10 grams of star anise and ground it up in a mortar & pestle (10g comes to about a heaping tablespoon when ground)

Anise & Fig Macarons

It's not necessary to get it completely powdered in the mortar & pestle, because the blender will finish some of that. The key is to get it broken down enough for the blender; it'll be in the blender with the nuts, and if you put the star anise in the blender whole, it'll mostly just get flung around. In the time it would take the blender to grind it to powder, the nuts would have gone past "nut flour" to "nut butter."

I asked a pastry chef over at the new (and awesome) Oakville Grocery Austin if he had any tips for making these shells, and he said, "Throw a pinch of flour in with the nuts to help absorb the oil when you grind them." It really helps a lot. I put the ground star anise in a canning jar with 65g of nuts (which is maybe 1/2c or so of whole almonds) and a generous pinch of all-purpose flour. The threads on canning jars fit on most blender bases, which is handy for things like this where quantities aren't large enough to use the full blender jar.

Anise & Fig Macarons

I ground that down in the blender until it was a relatively coarse meal. You don't want to overdo it or the oils in the nuts will take over and it'll get really goopy.

Then, as per David's recipe, I mixed the powdered sugar in with that, being grateful that it all (barely) fit in the jar I picked:

Anise & Fig Macarons

Then I blended it all together. This time I ground it further, so it was the texture of a flour. The powdered sugar and especially the cornstarch in it (an anti-caking agent) absorb some of the oil, making it possible to grind the nuts down further while keeping things dry.

I sifted the resulting dry mix through a coarse wire-mesh sieve into a bowl. A lot of home cooks I know treat sifting of dry ingredients as some kind of joke, like an absurd detail to be skipped. But there's nothing funny about it.

The oils in the nuts, even with the sugar and cornstarch and flour and all that, will still cause clumping in this dry mix, and when you mix this stuff into the meringue, every spatula-stroke counts. By sifting this, you break up those clumps, filter out any debris that didn't get ground fine enough, and aerate it all so it's nice and fluffy and easy to mix into the meringue.

Anise & Fig Macarons

Nerdy-but-important detail: When left with little clumped pebbles, instead of pressing them down against the mesh to break them up, I grab a pinch of them at a time, lift them off the mesh, and roll them around in my fingers to break them up. Pushing them against the mesh risks pushing through other stuff you don't want, like coarse splinters of star anise. Don't be afraid to throw stuff like that away (there shouldn't be very much of it, if you ground it all properly.)

After that, all that remained was the meringue. I took the 2 egg whites at room temperature (that's critical: cold egg whites won't whip as well) and whipped them in my Kitchenaid mixer at top speed for maybe 1 minute, until the mass was solid white, glossy, but still soft. Without stopping the mixer I poured in the 65g sugar -- I used baker's sugar, so it's granular but extra-fine -- and continued whipping until the meringue was as stiff as possible without losing its gloss.

Anise & Fig Macarons

Meringue is kind of like whipped cream when it comes to folding things into it. The more you whip it, the fluffier it is, but also the harder it is to mix with other things. This makes sense, intuitively: the more you whip either foam, the more air bubbles and the thinner the liquid membrane encasing all the bubbles, and hence the harder it is to get it all in contact with whatever you're adding.

Nonetheless, you want the meringue for the dacquoise as fluffy as possible. It just means that when you fold the dry ingredients in, you have to be extremely patient and very careful not to crush the meringue. I took my meringue, sifted half the dry ingredients over it, and folded them in very gently. The technique is this: slide the spatula down through the center of the meringue, sideways, so the blade edge goes in and you're not mashing the meringue. Then, draw it back towards you, scoop up as much of the meringue off the bottom as you can, and flip it so you deposit it on top of the rest of the mix in the bowl. Then, rotate the bowl a quarter-turn or so, and repeat.

Anise & Fig Macarons

It will seem at first like nothing is happening, and the meringue and dry ingredients are just getting piled on top of each other. It will be very tempting to press the broad side of the spatula down through the meringue to smash it and mix the dry ingredients in. Resist the temptation. Doing that will crush the air out of the meringue and your cookies will lose some of their lightness with every bubble that bursts. Keep on folding, trusting that eventually it will start to genuinely combine.

After about half of that mix was integrated with the meringue, I sifted the rest in and finished folding it together. I still get a minor reduction in meringue volume from doing this, but every time I make it, it's better and better.

Anise & Fig Macarons

I scooped that batter into a pastry bag -- David's recipe calls for a broad tip, I just leave it tipless, with about a 1/2" hole at the top -- and piped them onto baking sheets lined with parchment. They ought to be about 1" around. They won't settle, rise, or change shape much at all while cooking, so whatever size you pipe them is the size you'll get in the finished cookie.

I've made these shells on a number of different surfaces now. On a Silpat, thanks to silicone's non-stick property, they're certainly easy to remove, but thanks to its heat-insulating property, they end up a bit too chewy because the bottoms don't get enough heat for my liking. On parchment on an insulated baking sheet (one of the ones with the double layer of metal with air in between) I find they're just about perfect. On parchment on a single-layer baking sheet, the bottoms get a touch too brown.

Anise & Fig Macarons

My piping, as Lulu gently observed, could use some work. The reward for a perfectly-folded batter with a very lofty meringue is that it doesn't settle at all, but the downside is that it will reveal all the imperfections of your piping work. If you screw up and flatten the meringue a bit as you mix, it'll settle more during cooking and the shells will, aesthetically speaking, be more forgiving of your poor piping, but then of course the texture of the cookies suffers. This time I kept the batter loftier than ever before, but unfortunately it does show up my mediocre piping skills. It's something to work on for next time!

David mentions rapping the sheet firmly on the counter before baking them to help flatten them out, but I found that my batter was too stiff, and that had no effect at all.

I popped those in a 375F oven for 15 minutes. I find that any less than 15 minutes and they are a bit too chewy; more than 15 and they brown too much. 15 is the magic number, for me. I also have had poor results trying to bake multiple sheets at once on different-level oven racks. I strongly suggest baking them one sheet at a time with the oven rack in the center.

When the shells were done, I took them out of the oven and lamented my poor piping skills, but celebrated the perfect development of the little, crispy "foot" a good macaroon cookie has at the bottom:

Anise & Fig Macarons

Something I've found in my macaroons that surprised me -- I hadn't read it anywhere else -- is that the shells will not have the proper texture after cooking (or, at least, mine never do.) When you let them cool, the bottoms and interiors will seem too crisp, the insides too full. A finished macaroon should have the crispy outer shell, but then a big air pocket and a softer, moister meringue towards the filling. I worried at first that my cookies were overcooked, the bottoms were so crispy, the insides so solid.

Not to fear. After filling the macaroons and letting them sit in an airtight container on the counter overnight, their texture dramatically changes. The meringues absorb some of the moisture from the filling and the insides of the meringue fall towards the filling. It's surprising how significant that change is, even with a relatively viscous filling like this one.

Speaking of the filling, where did we leave that? Yes, I'd set it on the stove to cook. I checked on it periodically, stirring it, and it was very low in moisture so I generally left it covered while cooking, and just as I put the meringues in the oven I checked and it seemed about perfectly done. The skins didn't quite break down as much as I'd hoped, though, so I pureed it just a little with a hand blender to smooth it out without destroying the crunchy fig seeds. Then I mixed in some chopped orange zest to taste, and the result was a very thick, sweet, sticky, perfect fig jam:

Anise & Fig Macarons

I smeared some jam on a cookie, pressed another cookie on top of it, and repeated until I had a nice little pile of macaroons.

Like I said, it takes several hours of sitting for them to develop the right texture. Resist the urge to bite into one as soon as you've filled them. The cookies will be too solid and crisp and it'll just squeeze them together and squirt filling out the sides. Instead, take a deep breath, put them in a tupperware container, leave them on the counter overnight, and then bite into one in the morning, and claim your reward:

Anise & Fig Macarons

Result? These are delicious. The flavors combine exceptionally well. As for what I'd do differently, well, I'd certainly work on piping them into perfect little domes next time. I'd also probably cut the anise by a little bit, maybe to only 6 or 7 grams, adding almonds to compensate, and also put more fig jam in each one (I was worried I'd run out, but in fact I had some left over.) The fig is a noticeable flavor in these, but the anise is a bit bossier than I expected.

This recipe is, like I said, a modification of David Lebovitz's, here.

Fig & Anise Macarons

For the batter
1 cup (100g) powdered sugar
1/2c (65g) whole almonds
1T heaping (10g) pulverized star anise
generous pinch all-purpose flour
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
5 tablespoons (65g) granulated sugar

For the filling
8oz black mission figs
1/4c sugar (more or less depending on fig ripeness)
generous splash red wine vinegar
flesh of 1/4 of a navel orange, minced
2t fresh, coarsely-ground black pepper
orange zest, to taste

Preheat the oven to 375F (180C).

Cut the figs into small dice. Combine the figs and sugar in a saucepan and heat on medium-low until the figs begin to release juices and the sugar is dissolved. Add the red wine vinegar, orange flesh, and pepper, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the figs break down. Depending on the ripeness of the figs, this will take roughly 30-45 minutes.

In the meantime, put the almonds, star anise, and flour in a blender and chop it, pulsing the blender, to a coarse meal. Add the powdered sugar and continue pulsing until fully combined and ground finer, nearly the consistency of flour. Sift the mixture into a bowl.

In a mixer, whip the egg whites until they are glossy and form soft peaks. Add the
granulated sugar and continue whipping until the whites are very stiff and firm, but still glossy, 2 minutes or so.

Sift half the dry mixture over the whites in the mixer bowl and fold carefully with a spatula until mostly combined. Sift in the remaining dry mixture and continue folding until barely combined, when no streaks of pure white are visible and all the dry ingredients are integrated.

Scrape the batter into a pastry bag with a 1/2" circular tip and pipe onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Each cookie should be about 1" in diameter, roughly 1T of batter, and cookies should be 1" apart.

Bake for 15 minutes on the center rack, 1 baking sheet at a time.

When the jam is fully reduced and thick, puree it with a hand-blender until the skins are broken up but the seeds are still intact. Mix in the orange zest to taste.

When the cookies have cooled for a few minutes, remove them from the parchment and fill them, spreading a bit of the jam on one with a butter knife and sandwiching another on top.

Seal the cookies in an air-tight container and leave at room temperature for several hours, preferably overnight.

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At September 18, 2007 4:26 PM , Anonymous Ivonne said...

I envy your dinner at The French Laundry. I was in SF two years ago but couldn't get a reservation.

Your macarons are just gorgeous and making them with fig is very creative!

Thanks so much for taking part in SHF #35!

At September 23, 2007 6:44 PM , Blogger the pastry princess said...

yum! i will most definitely have to try that recipe. the flavor combination is absolutely wonderful...i added a star anise to my fig jam!

At October 19, 2007 6:22 AM , Blogger Amy said...

That fig jam looks amazing!

I'm not a piping pro by a long shot, but it looks like you need to use a slightly larger tip (or, if you aren't using a tip, just a larger hole in your bag). Then hold your bag perpendicular to your pan. Release the pressure when the macaroon is the diameter that you want it to be.

At October 31, 2007 3:07 PM , Blogger 70% cocoa said...

Beautiful photos, mouth watering macaroons - aniseed and fig is a classic. I made a Spanish,'Pan de Higo' to accompany some Serrano Jamon - which uses dried figs, almonds and aniseeds with a touch of cinnamon. It's definately not as refined looking as those dainty macaroons though!

At December 5, 2008 2:21 PM , Blogger Tammy said...

I made the macaroons today (minus the fig filling) and the recipe worked flawlessly. Anise cookies are my husband favorite. Thanks for sharing!

At March 3, 2009 2:42 PM , Anonymous Tammy said...

I wrote a post on Chocolate Macarons and pointed back to your site and included the picture of your macs (giving you full credit of course) let me know if I need to change/remove it. Thanks. Tammy


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Caramel: By Way of Introduction

Friday, September 14, 2007

Hello, and welcome to my new cooking blog.

For a long time I've run my other blog and merely sat back as a passive reader of other food blogs, posting the occasional comment. At some point I realized my catch-all blog was more and more just about food, but it wasn't really a cooking blog, so I hesitated to really go more in-depth than, "I made this, and it was good."

No longer.

I picked the name Caramel Cook because, as a child, the thing my taste buds remember most fondly were the Christmas caramels my Dad always made, with the peculiar recipe handed down in his family, using strange substances like Milnot. Every year at Christmas-time I ate as much of that stuff as I could get away with. It was smooth, rich, sweet, but not cloying. The caramel flavors were intense and complex. Some years it tasted almost like fruit, with notes of cantaloupe. Some years it was more like molasses. Every year, it was heavenly. And so my love of caramel was born. Some people identify as "chocoholics." I appreciate good chocolate, but I think it's at its best when it's a vehicle for caramel.

That said, I'm certainly not going to talk exclusively about caramels, or even confections. Of course, caramel's more complicated than that: It's not just a candy. It's also a basic ingredient and a technique, all rolled up into one. Caramel plays a role in everything from creme brulee to dal toppings. And as versatile as caramel is, so is this blog. It's just Caramel Cook because, well, that happens to be one of my favorite things to eat.

I figured my very first post ought to be pretty exclusively about caramel, though. Conveniently enough, I wanted to make the site header image out of actual caramel, and so needed to make a pan. Two birds, one stone: Here's how that went.

I started with a basic caramel. With caramel, the basic process is the same, no matter how interesting your caramel. You cook the dairy a bit, you mix in the sugar, you cook to a particular temperature, and then you're done.

In the case of this recipe, because it uses granular sugar, you cook it down with water separately. Here are the two saucepans: the one on the right with the dairy and salt, already brought to a boil and now staying warm, and the one on the left with the sugar mix not yet fully dissolved.


As the sugar fully dissolves, crystallization starts to become a concern. We stop stirring the solution to stop smearing it up the sides of the pan, where it'll dry and crystallize, and instead gently swish it around. Furthermore, it's helpful to have a pastry brush and small dish of water; brushing water up the sides of the pans will dissolve the crystals and keep the caramel smooth. Furthermore, it does no damage to the caramel: if we poured in a lot of ice water, it would shock and disturb the fragile solution, but tiny amounts of room-temperature water are absorbed into the caramel with no ill effects.

The day I spent the $6 on a silicone pastry brush, my caramel-making became much more pleasant. No more goopy sugary bristle brushes to clean up afterwards!


In this recipe it's really up to us how long we cook the sugar solution before adding the dairy. The key is this: caramel's flavor comes substantially from browning reactions, but which browning reactions? There's sugar and there's dairy. A quick glance at Nina's neat temperature chart over at SweetNapa shows us that sweetened condensed milk begins browning at 212F, whereas sucrose doesn't caramelize until 320F. If that's true, now's our only chance to get sugar-browning, because once we add the dairy, we can't cook it higher than around 250F if we want it to stay chewy when it cools.

Indeed, we can confirm this first-hand: our sugar solution doesn't begin to change color until it gets very hot, as you can see here with the aid of my handy IR thermometer (no doubt the subject of a future post, I love it so much):


I like to let the sugar cook up that hot because I think it adds some extra complexity to the caramel to get some browning from the sugar and not solely the dairy. That said, it makes things a bit more, uh, exciting when we add the dairy, because the sugar solution is so hot that it very quickly boils the dairy mixture and froths and foams and expands dramatically. There's another important lesson: always use a large saucepan for caramel. Scorching-hot caramel boiling over and gushing all over your stovetop would be at best a giant nuisance, and at worst extremely dangerous.


If you've made it this far, all that's left is to cook the caramel to the right temperature and then stop it there. Still, easier said than done, sometimes. If you're not totally comfortable with your thermometer, and especially if you're relying solely on the cold-water test (though, really, you'd have to be very brave, very talented, or very foolish to make candy without a thermometer), keep the heat on medium-low, enough that the temperature will continue rising, but not quickly. Being caught by surprise by a rapid rise in temperature is nearly a guarantee of ruined caramel.

Oh, yeah. A note on cookware: I recommend using thin-bottomed pans to cook caramel. Why?

I have pretty lousy pans. I'd love it if I had a beautiful copper saucepan for making caramel, but I don't. My saucepans are either thick-bottomed aluminum core steel pans from Target or thin, flimsy stainless steel things from God-knows-where. At first, I used the thick-bottomed pans when making caramel to distribute the heat better, but after taking the caramel off the heat, the thick bottom of the pan had so much heat stored up that it'd cook the caramel up another 5 degrees or more -- disaster! I worked around that by pouring the caramel out of the pan immediately when it was done, which is fine if it's just going into a parchment-lined baking pan to be cut into candies, but can be a hassle if it isn't. Actually, no, it's a hassle either way. When you're making caramel you don't need any extra reasons to feel hurried.

Lo and behold, I tried using my flimsy stainless steel pans instead, and found that the heat distribution wasn't really a problem and that they worked very well.

Caramel has a relatively high specific heat, and doesn't scorch on the pan bottom as easily as something like plain milk. As long as you keep stirring it, the heat distribution isn't as critical as it is for most other things. Fundamentally, you're not cooking it for terribly long, anyway. And it's a big help with caramel to use pans that respond quickly to changes in temperature.

Here's the caramel, approaching completion:


As you can see, the dairy browns quite a bit at those low temperatures, so now we've got some sugar-browning flavors and some dairy-browning flavors in there. Delicious.

If you want the caramels to be solid, chewy candies, you probably want to cook them into the firm-ball stage, which is 245F-250F (again, see the cold water test chart.) If you live in a warmer climate, like them especially chewy, or need them to hold their shape impeccably, aim for the top of that range, or maybe even a degree or two above -- 252F or so.

In my case, I wanted a thick syrup that I could put in a squeeze bottle to draw letters, so I cooked it to 235F, right between thread-stage and soft-ball stage, so it would be about the consistency of very soft fudge, or very thick syrup.

And it worked out perfectly! I lettered the header with the caramel, and ornamented it with sugar, dyed blue, and sifted over a stencil:


... and then I ate it.

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At September 15, 2007 6:40 AM , Blogger steph said...

Sometimes the lengths you take to create something (like the caramel header) are scary. Scary, yet impressive. In any case, I like your new blog, and it will hopefully help me start cooking more complex meals. Nice job!

At September 15, 2007 9:10 PM , Blogger Lulu said...

Are you going to end all your posts that way?

At September 20, 2007 9:30 PM , Anonymous Nina said...

Huh, I tried posting a comment here a couple days ago, but I guess it didn't go through.

Oh well, it was basically -- great, detailed post about one of my favorite subjects, and welcome to the world of food blogging!

At October 1, 2007 7:22 AM , Anonymous clumsy said...

Hello! What a great new foodblog, I'm very excited to become a reader! Your pictures and posts are fantastic. :)

At March 17, 2009 1:25 PM , Blogger So Simple said...

Hi Just found you. I wanted some caramel tips I was making a gastrique which necessitated making caramel but I had the crystallizing problem. I did have a Teflon brush, so will have another go again today and try it. Thanks. The recipe I made was a mushroom Tatin. Even with the crystallizing it was pretty good. I will be posting it today if you would like to take a look.

At October 27, 2009 11:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cooked my caramel to long is there anything I can do with it now? Besides pull teeth out?


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