Don’t assume it means that you know what you’re doing! It could be beginner’s luck.
My daughter once said that she wanted to skip the part where she had to practice something and jump to the part where she’s awesome at it. She somehow manages to do that with most things.
In reality, with most things you DO need practice. I blithely wandered into baking macarons (not to be confused with macaroons), not realizing they’re notoriously tricky to make. Macarons are French melt-in-your-mouth concoctions made from sugar, beaten egg whites, air, and magic. Or perhaps chemistry (same thing).
They’re so cute!
They had no added food coloring nor flavored filling (I forgot the food coloring, then decided to keep the filling simple). I used a recipe from TheSpruce.com. They turned out remarkably well. They were small, as I’ve no experience piping and just made random blobs of different sizes, not using a template.
I got to use my beater’s whisk attachment
Yes, that’s my popcorn ceiling – I’m holding it upside down!
But they baked right, and the texture was amazing. I went easy on the butter cream filling, since I prefer less of that sort of thing. They were delicious. I’d beaten the egg whites like crazy, even trying the hold-the-bowl-upside-down trick to be sure they were beaten enough. Then I realized I hadn’t added sugar, so I beat them a bunch more. Maybe that’s why they turned out so good.
I jumped to the conclusion that I was some kind of Star Baker (see Great British Baking Show) and made more the next day. This time I tried a chocolate macaron recipe which adds a little cocoa powder. I created my own filling using leftover butter cream from the previous day. I added a little cocoa powder and some extra strong coffee to create a mocha butter cream. It was absolutely delicious.
Ok these look gross
Determined to make uniform sizes, I used a small glass to draw circles on the parchment paper. I think the circles were too big. And I probably shouldn’t have done a spiral design with the piping instead of a blob. They turned out weird. The texture wasn’t right. I don’t think they baked long enough. During the previous day’s bake I had lowered my oven temp a bit, since I’d been learning that it tended to run hot.
But I shouldn’t have messed with the temperature, and the macarons were too big – they did not have that light, airy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. I also made a batch of green ones, adding a few drops of food coloring (the liquid; I didn’t want to spend yet more money on food color paste since the almond flour was so darned expensive!). I made my own lime butter cream filling, with a little lime zest and fresh squeezed lime juice. It tasted good, though not as good as the mocha.
Edible but not great lime and mocha macarons
Overall, I learned not to be so darned cocky just because I succeeded from pure dumb luck the previous day! I am still impatient with long processes, and baking is largely about precision; one small change in the procedure can ruin the result.
I was still stewing about my disappointing bake when I came down with a cold. While home sick, I saw a segment of the Barefoot Contessa on TV; she was making salted caramel nuts. It looked fantastic! I had leftover nuts from previous projects, and I decided to use up leftover dates from last week’s Sticky Toffee Pudding.
The whole point of this Barefoot Contessa episode was making things that are notoriously tricky. I knew this going in, as I had tried to make my own caramel a couple times before, from white sugar, for flan (the flan turned out great; the caramel not so much), and the brown sugar caramel sauce that had been disappointing for my Sticky Toffee Pudding.
I watched her explain how to swirl the pan, not stir, as the sugar and water turned into caramel. It looked so easy! When I tried it, I had the same problem I’d had during my flan making. The sugar crystallized, entirely skipping the step where it turns nice and brown and looks like caramel! I was really frustrated. I was swirling my heart out. I kept adding water. I was swearing at the saucepan enough that my boyfriend came to the kitchen to see what was going on. Begging for help, I showed him the recipe from the Barefoot Contessa website and explained what I’d seen on TV. The short video online entirely skipped the swirling step. He seemed skeptical.
This is not working
After lots of heating, stirring, wrangling, swirling, more swearing (mine), he came to a number of conclusions about why it wasn’t working. Firstly, my boyfriend suggested that the pan might be at fault. It was a stainless steel saucepan with high sides, and the sugar kept climbing up the sides and crystallizing. He also thought I needed more water than was in the recipe. And he suggested that I wasn’t letting it boil long enough before I started swirling it around.
He was right on all three counts. I abandoned my crystallized sugar and used a non-stick flatter sauté pan. I added a lot more water. I put the flame to medium high heat as before and let it cook a good long time, watching carefully. The recipe had NOT indicated how long to boil before it would turn brown, nor do I recall the TV segment showing a long process (damn those editors!). I resisted the temptation to swirl it and waited. And waited. It took a really long time, but by gum it worked! It actually turned brown. I was delighted.
That’s more like it!
I added the vanilla and swirled some more, plus kosher salt, then mixed in the pre-toasted nuts and dates. Then I spread it on a parchment-paper covered pan to cool, with a little final sprinkle of salt. It looked and smelled delicious. It is really good, though something you can only eat in small doses, for fear of breaking your teeth.
My final baking project for the month seemed the most daunting: croissants. I used a recipe by the Great British Baking Show’s Mary Berry for Raspberry and Almond Croissants. I’d never made pastry before. I recalled watching the bakers on the show pounding and rolling out the rectangles of butter to lay on the dough, folding, rolling, folding, chilling, etc. in several steps to create the flaky pastry you expect of a croissant. I was ready.
Wow did it take a long time. But it was fun. I enjoyed beating the butter with my rolling pin to flatten it into a rectangle. I tried to measure to the recipe’s specifications, but I wasn’t terribly precise about it (I’m a bit lazy and impatient). But overall I followed the directions pretty well. Until nearly the end.
Turns out it’s REALLY hard to roll out butter and dough that’s been in the freezer for 10-15 minutes. It takes a LOT of elbow grease to turn that into a large, thin rectangle. I was very tired by the time I’d gotten it about right, so tired that I wasn’t reading the directions carefully. I cut the rectangle the wrong way (what’s the opposite of “lengthwise”?). My triangles were clumsy and not uniform.
The raspberry and almond paste, I knew, would not be quite right. You needed to use raspberry powder, which I learned rather late was hard to find. I should’ve ordered it online weeks ago. It’s made from freeze-dried raspberries, which I might have been able to find at Trader Joe’s but didn’t bother. I looked online for substitutions and learned that raspberry jello powder might work, so I tried that. It mixed with the almond flour, almond extract, sugar and egg yolk to make a paste, which then had to be rolled into sausages (don’t have a picture of those; may have skipped because my hands were so sticky) and then put in the triangles to roll up into croissants. I’m not good at rolling, and too tired to take much care. It’s so much easier to pop open those tubes you get at the grocery store!
The croissants had to prove again before baking. I didn’t notice much growth this time, so I worried they wouldn’t turn out. When baking, the egg wash brushed on top of the croissants turned brown quickly, so I was concerned about them burning. I turned the temp down a bit and watched carefully. They were only supposed to bake for 8-10 minutes but now I worried that they were not baked inside. I let them bake a couple minutes extra before taking them out.
They actually looked okay, though not uniform. Some had puffed out more than others. Once they’d cooled enough to eat, I was pleasantly surprised. Some were not cooked enough in the middle or bottom, but others were better. There was a lot of really good flakiness created by all those layers of folding, rolling, folding … which made it worthwhile! The paste inside was less successful. Its texture was grainy. Next time I’ll just try plain croissants and take a bit more care. The taste of the pastry was actually good, and they were even better the next day, nice and buttery.
What did I learn from all this? You need precision, patience and care to make something really good. There’s also an element of luck. You can’t always control the level of heat or humidity or other factors. You can hedge your bets by paying attention to what you’re doing. And it helps to follow your instinct sometimes, instead of slavishly following directions. The trouble with something like baking is that if you don’t do something well, it can render your product inedible, or at least a lot less satisfying. I noticed the hosts of the Great British Baking Show using the word “perfection” quite a lot.
After all of this worry about precision and perfection, I’m going to shift gears for July. I’m going to try to get myself to play more, and NOT worry about perfection at all. Join me for my next arty creative endeavor!