Archives for December, 2010

The Time Capsule

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

The Time Capsule

“The more you celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.”

WOW!  Christmas is less than two weeks away.  Where did this year go?  It’s been so busy this year; I hardly noticed it whooshing by.  I guess its right what they say, that time seems to go exponentially faster when you have kids.  Lately my life seems like a runaway train and that I’m chasing behind it like Yosemite Sam on a hand powered cart. 

Every year, Marko and I argue over when to put out the Christmas decorations.   Me, like any other red-blooded American, wants to put them out the day after Thanksgiving.  However, he is steadfast in saying that they should not be put out until after Sinter Klaas (December 5th).   So we usually meet in the middle and I end up putting out some non-obtrusive Christmas decorations here and there the last week in November and then properly decking the halls December 6th.   Usually every December 7th, my house looks like Santa’s workshop exploded with decorations everywhere. 

I don’t know what’s wrong with me this year, but I realized just yesterday that I don’t have any decorations up except for the sparse notions that I put up at the end of November.   Am I so busy that I don’t have time to haul out the holly this year?  It’s time for a remedy.  Rallying the kids together, we trudge to the attic and drag down boxes of decorations.  

Excitedly, the kids begin unpacking as if it were their own Christmas presents, inspecting every item and asking details about every one of them.  “Gee, Mom, I never saw this one”, says my youngest daughter, Lara, as she holds up a ceramic snowman.  “That was given to me years ago by my Aunt Luci.  You never met her but she passed away this year.” I explain to her as I suddenly remember my dearly departed aunt.  Understanding, she takes the snowman carefully between her two hands and puts it in a place of honor on the shelf.  Our reverence is broken by a squeal from Rebecca, “This is mine!” she says as she holds up a brass rocking horse ornament with her name on it. “Baby’s First Christmas 2001” is inscribed on it.  Yes, it is.  It’s hard to believe that it was 9 years ago already that we celebrated her very first Christmas. I remember that time, her at 6 weeks old, the first grandchild, being passed around between family members and friends, all gazing at her with admiration. I think of how our family has changed since then.  I feel thankful for my loved ones still on this earth and suddenly miss those no longer with us. 

This year, unwrapping our Christmas decorations was like opening up a time capsule.  Mere trinkets of nearly no monetary value offering invaluable memories that I can share with my own children.  Gifts from treasured people in our lives and reminders that marked special occasions.  Even an ancient box of faded and cracked ornaments left to us years ago had its own stories to tell.  Each piece wrapped in the local newspaper  from 1977.  Smoothing the crumpled paper, I  scan the news of that day. Even though the news is hardly noteworthy,  I think of how fun it is to read about what happened  33 years ago.  A spot in time. 

I’m content to have spent this time reminiscing with my kids.  I think it will be a tradition for us from now on.  It will be a time for us to stop and remember.  It all goes by so fast.

This weeks recipe is the favorite Christmas cookie of my mom. 

Sonia Henie (Thumbprints) Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) walnuts, chopped
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
2/3 cup fruit preserves, such as raspberry or apricot

1. Position the racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and preheat to 350°F.

2. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the butter until creamy. Add the brown sugar and beat until light in color and textur. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla. Using a wooden spoon, gradually mix in the flour to make a soft dough. Chill dough for 1 hour. Using a scant tablespoon, roll the dough into 1-inch balls.  
4. In a small bowl, beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt until foamy. Pour about one-third of the chopped walnut mixture into a shallow bowl. Dip each ball of dough in the egg whites, roll in the walnut mixture to coat, and place 1 inch apart on nonstick cookie sheets. Press an indent about ½ inch and about 1/4 inch deep. Repeat with the rest of the balls.  Spoon about ½ teaspoon of preserves into the indent. You can also use maraschino cherries instead. 
5. Bake until the cookies are set and slightly browned, about 12-15 minutes. Cool on the baking sheets for 2 minutes. Transfer to wire cooling racks to cool completely. The cookies can be prepared up to 1 week ahead, stored in an airtight container at room temperature. Can be frozen too. 

 Happy Holidays with Love from the Hoven Family!

Zen and the Art of French Baking

Scenes from my last post:  Alas we see our heroine (played by me) confronting her fears and, with a bit of careful instruction, succeeding in deboning a turkey.  To tell you the truth, this task was never really more than a bit of drama then an actual fear.  I actually looked forward to learning how to skilfully fillet that beast, preparing by carefully sharpening my knives like a serial killer with an evil grin on my face.  No, this was no fear. I enjoyed it waayy too much.

 Over the years, I’ve taken on many culinary challenges with equal zeal; Baguettes, croissant lacquered dough, soufflés, home made cheese, etc… except one. 

 This summer, we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary in the Alsace region of France.  Anyone lucky enough to visit this region will be greeted by its famous steely white wines and hearty cuisine. One Saturday afternoon while walking through the medieval streets of Colmar, we come to Patisserie Gilg.  In its modern interior every sugared creation was showcased on its own special pedestal, some even with dramatic lighting.  It looked more like the Museum of Modern Edible Art than a pastry shop, all works too intricate and artsy to actually eat.   Marko and I walked studiously around the store admiring each piece; a few steps back, pondering, while thoughtfully rubbing our chins.   “This cake has influences of Mondriaan.  Yes, I am seeing a bit of Frank Lloyd Wright in that one.” we joke to each other. 

Actually, I consider myself a baker, but I would never try to replicate any of these creations.  They are way too fussy for me. I prefer things that people will actually eat not wear as a hat. So my admiration is justified but I’m just not intrigued.   As we walk around, we come to a refrigerated case.  In this case, glowing under its own special lighting, I see my next obsession.  Perfect little buttons in a bevy of vivid colors and flavors, each filled with its own special genache and encircled by little lacy collars: French Macarons. 

Now I must try these!  Bite-sized bits in the most intriguing flavors like ‘Pommes d’Amore’.  Translated this means ‘Apples of Love’.  How romantic is that?  When I get home, I search to find that this is what the French call those red cinnamon candy apples.  I love the French! They can even make a sickly sweet carnival treat sound like food of the Gods.  I decide to try two flavors:  Chocolate and Caramel.  After I express my selection to the handsome young man behind the counter, he does something completely unexpected.  Instead of grabbing a pair of tongs and sticking them in a bag like every other bakery on earth would, he ceremoniously dons a pair of white cotton gloves and carefully slides each cookie in their own tiny clear plastic bag and packs them together in a small white box.  WOW! A cookie that gets the white-glove-treatment!!  Suddenly, I begin to feel intimidated.  How difficult can these be?  At a-euro-fifty apiece for an inch and a half cookie, they better be good though!! 

And they are. Marko and I find a café and order coffees.  When our coffees arrive, I gingerly place the box between us. With a deep breath, I open the box and remove the bag with the caramel cookie inside.  Let’s start with the one with the lightest flavour, I said as if we were at a wine tasting. Taking the cookie between my two fingers, I take the ever-so-slightest nibble. “And? And?”, Marko asks.  Sweet, almondy, with a distinct taste of caramelized sugar. Their extra fine texture as light as air with their filling giving them substance. Yes.  I HAVE to make these.

When we get home, I google to find to the recipe only to discover that these are some uber-trendy rage at the moment.  RAGE!?  Have I been living under a rock or something?  I’ve never seen or even heard of these until just last week?  Am I a day late and a dollar short on this one?   I always consider myself on-top of the latest culinary trends. Maybe I’m just too close to the fire here. 

All my obsessions start with a bit of research.  I have to warn anyone doing research for a French recipe, it’s just as intimidating as French cooking itself.  I found all kinds of warnings, and signals and techniques as to what temperature the ingredients must be and how to whip the egg whites just so. Do you let the formed buttons sit overnight to get a shiny crust or just wack ‘em in the oven?  What do you have to do to get those nice collars on the bottom?.…failure and success stories abound.  UGH!  I don’t want to have to make these 20 times!  I just want to try them once maybe twice.  Geez, I totally psyched myself out now. 

After settling on a recipe from  Pure Gourmandise, a French site with recipes for all kinds of macarons (check out the McAron,  a cookie that looks like a hamburger.  Oh so cute) ,  I cut and paste the entire recipe into a French to English translator. The ingredients are simple enough; egg whites, ground almonds, sugar and some flavouring.  Viola!  I’m going to follow this to the letter.

About two months ago, I prepared the dry ingredients in full hopes of trying this. To this day, I still hadn’t tried it.  Besides a small drop of intimidation,  I don’t know,  maybe the mood wasn’t right.  I just wasn’t in the right place mentally.   There was always something; too rushed, not in the mood, something else to make.  Me, the recipe, and the ingredients just weren’t at ‘one’.   Today, I’m forcing myself in a bit of a state of Zen.  All the ingredients are laid out before me. The translated recipe taped to the wall in front of the counter where I’ll be working.   Ommmm, Be the cookie, Ommmm

 As I follow the recipe, I realize that it is much simpler than I expected. It really is just a lesson in how to beat egg whites to the correct consistency. Many of the warnings/ recommendations  are actually  unnecessary and that by following a few simple principles and a bit of luck, you will have a reasonable chance of success.  

These principles are:

  1. Make sure your utensils and bowls are absolutely fat free. 
  2. Make sure all your ingredients are room temperature.
  3. Make sure your oven is exactly 350F (175C).  Test your oven with a good thermometer. 
  4. For inch and a half (3cm) buttons, bake the buttons for exactly 11 minutes. 

 Macarons au Chocolate

Adapted from Pure Gourmandaise

 3 Egg whites
200g (1 Cup) regular white sugar
125g Almond powder (made by putting blanched almonds through a food processor, then a fine sieve)
15g cocoa powder
30g Powdered/Confectioner’s sugar

To make genache:

120g  Dark(pure) chocolate
80g Butter  (I used salted butter)
30g Heavy cream

 Hardware

3 identical baking sheets, a food processor, a mixer with a whip attachment, a sieve, a measuring cup, household scale, parchment paper, a pastry bag with a wide, round tip, spatula

Instructions:

The dark chocolate ganache

1. Melt chocolate, butter and cream over low heat (or microwave). Mix well and smooth. Cool.  It will become a thick paste.
 

Chocolate macaroons

Preheat oven to 350F/175C

2. Mix cocoa with powdered sugar and almond powder in a food processor until fine. Sift through a sieve.

3. Add a small pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat  until stiff,  adding a spoonful of sugar when the whisk leaves a mark, then putting in the rest and whisking at full speed until it reaches a soft-peak stage.  This is when you lift the beaters (or whisk) you will see peaks that will fall slightly over after a few seconds. The eggs will be bright white and glossy. It will look like cake frosting.   

4. Sprinkle the powder mixture gradually  into the whites and mix with the  spatula. The mixture should be shiny, smooth, and form a ribbon when falling back into the bowl.  It will look like cake batter.

5. Prepare a sheet of parchment on a baking sheet.  I pre-drew 3cm circles with a pen before starting.

6. Put the batter in a pastry bag and form small 3cm domes onto the parchment on a cookie sheet.

 7.  While it is recommended to wait 20 minutes or even overnight before baking, I just put them in the oven right away…and the earth continued to revolve.   Apparently waiting a bit also helps in removing from the parchment.  Mine stuck a bit but nothing serious. 

8.  This is going to sound weird but it really works in order to get that classic lace collar:  Stack the cookie sheet on two other  identical cookie sheets (yes, you will have a stack of 3 cookie sheets) . Bake for 11 minutes at 175 ° C. (13 to 17 minutes for larger buttons).

Assembly

9. Let the buttons cool a few minutes on a wire rack, then take off the buttons from the parchment. If cooked properly, they should come off easily, if not bake a minute or two more.

10. Paste the buttons in pairs with a dollop of chocolate ganache in between.

Storing

To be the best tasting, it is advisable to let them cool in the refrigerator at least a day before. Of course, this is not always easy to resist the temptation …

It can also be frozen and they thaw very well at room temperature. But remember that they can be thawed then refrozen!

 AHHH….The stars are all aligned and I am at one once again with the culinary universe.