Monthly Archives: February 2011

How to Become a Macaron Goddess

You can do it. BE NOT AFRAID. The only thing to fear is fear itself! And improperly ground almonds! Or just plain bad luck!

Nonetheless, you too can be a macaron goddess.

Elaine and I ogled macarons endlessly when we worked together in Vienna, but we never tried because it seemed too intimidating. My best advice to you would be to read as much as you can ahead of time, and then arm yourself with endless fortitude and an electric mixer. (Beating egg whites by hand is endlessly tiring.) And if you really want to succeed, find yourself a friend who’s really good at baking and become their assistant. (Read: Anna.) Then there’s nothing but five hours of continuous work and THE HAND OF DESTINY standing between you and becoming a macaron goddess.

Here are some links to articles that helped or inspired me:

Another really fantastic tool in my artillery is the book you see below: i love macarons by Hisako Ogita. My Nonna got it for me for Christmas along with a box of Wilton pastry bags and tips. This book is really incredible. It gives you tips and tricks for every step of the process (22 for the cookie part alone, if you follow her instructions). Some of the tips are a little extreme, including, for example, “on rainy days, it helps to dehumidify.” However, we followed the instructions pretty much to the letter and ended up with our best macarons to date, so I’ll vouch for their effectiveness.

Here’s the basic recipe:

  • 2/3 cup ground almonds (85 g mald mandel)
  • 1.5 cups powdered sugar (150 g florsocker)
  • 3 large egg whites, at room temperature (it helps to age them overnight) (3 äggvitor vid rumstemperatur)
  • 5 tablespoons (65 grams) granulated sugar (65 g råsocker)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean (vi använde en tesked vaniljsocker istället)

Instructions (Abbreviated and without Hisako’s tips. You’ll have to go buy the book!)

  1. In a food processor, grind almonds and powdered sugar together to a fine powder. Sift the mixture through a sieve twice. Set aside. (We didn’t have a sieve, so we didn’t sift. Still came out fine.)
  2. In a stainless-steel mixing bowl, beat egg whites on high speed until they reach stiff, glossy peaks, gradually adding the granulated sugar to the egg whites.
  3. Add vanilla, stir lightly.
  4. Add half of the sifted flour mixture. Stir it with a spatula while scooping it up from the bottom of the bowl.
  5. Add the rest of the flour and mix it lightly in a circular motion. DO NOT OVER-MIX.
  6. When you run out of flour, press and spread out the batter against the bowl’s sides. Scoop the batter from the bottom and turn it upside down. Repeat this process about 15 times. (DO NOT OVER-MIX. We only did this press-and-spread method about 5 times and then quit in favor of not allowing all the air to escape.)
  7. When the batter becomes nicely firm and drips slowly as you scoop it with a spatula, the mixture is done. (I don’t know if ours has gotten this firm, actually, but it gets close.)
  8. Pour the batter into a pastry bag with a round tip. (By the way, if you’re following along with Hisako’s instructions, we are now at step 12.)
  9. Squeeze the batter onto parchment paper on a baking sheet in small circles. The batter tends to spread out after being squeezed. (Hisako recommends using tracing paper to outline perfect circles, but we haven’t done that. However, we use rapseed oil, rapsölja, to very lightly grease the parchment paper. You can also use corn oil or any other flavorless oil… no olive oil, no butter.)
  10. Rap the baking sheet firmly against the counter or another flat surface. This helps the macarons hold their rounded shape and helps the pied, or foot, to form. This also allows air bubbles to rise to the surface before baking so that they don’t crack in the oven.
  11. Dry the batter at room temperature, uncovered, for 30 minutes. A slight crust should form on top. (We let them sit for a little less time.)

Here’s where we diverge slightly from Hisako’s method. She says to bake at 375°F (190°C) for 15-18 mins. We have been baking our macarons at a lower heat for longer, at 300°F (150°C) for 30 minutes. When I cooked them at the higher temperature, my macarons were much flatter. The macarons Anna and I rose much higher and became much puffier. I kind of like that look, but if you want the flat, smooth look, go for the higher temperature.

Hisako has a very special approach to baking the macarons which involves multiple baking trays and more time and patience than I have. Ours came out really well anyway.

For the coffee flavored macarons, we added 1.5 tablespoons of ground up instant coffee powder to the macaron batter. When we made chocolate and black tea, we divided the batter into two and added just a little less than half of cocoa powder and ground black tea. The possibilities seem endless, to be honest, and I am so excited to make them again… but it will have to wait until I can muster the energy to take the whole thing on again. It’s way more fun doing this with a friend, by the way. The one time I tried to do it by myself, I ended up totally frazzled and worn out. This is a project that is definitely improved by having another person around to talk to and hang out with while you slave over teeny-tiny French delicacies.

And if you’re wondering, the macarons are actually worth all the effort, precisely because they’re so delicate and can go wrong so easily. They are delicious, of course, but there are lots of delicious cookies that take a quarter of the time and the effort. What makes this such a fun project is the feeling of mastery you get when they come out well. When we finished our last batch and the macarons had risen and developed feet and looked exactly as they should, Anna and I were so proud of ourselves. I’ve been giving them away in little glass jars as gifts to people, and it feels so good to say, “I made that.”

Be strong of heart! VENTURE FORTH unto the promised land of MACARONS!

Macaron teaser

I’m up far too late because some VERY EXCITING DEVELOPMENTS may be in the works for me and I am too wound up to go to sleep now. So in the meantime, I’m posting some of my macaron pictures because I’ve been meaning to tell you all about them but waiting until I had enough time to do it justice, if you know what I mean.

three little macarons, sitting in a tree. k-i-s-s-i-n-g.

a tray of kaffe (coffee) flavored macarons.

batch number two included black tea macarons (svart te), which turned out to be totally delicious.

the macaron factory in action.

Anna and I are now the queens of macaron land, at least in our own heads. We made dozens of them in miniature with the following flavor combinations:

  • coffee with raspberry
  • coffee with blood orange
  • chocolate with blood orange
  • chocolate with butterscotch (the real alcoholic kind)
  • black tea with lemon
  • black tea with butterscotch

Along the way, there was much eating of butter and egg whites. More later… including recipes!

Quotation of the Day

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.

Martin Buber, 1878-1965


drinking the world round.

Good old Economist, coming up with infographics to answer the questions I really care about.

The Economist pulls from a recently published World Health Report to write:

The world drank the equivalent of 6.1 litres of pure alcohol per person in 2005, according to a report from the World Health Organisation published on February 11th. The biggest boozers are mostly found in Europe and in the former Soviet states. Moldovans are the most bibulous, getting through 18.2 litres each, nearly 2 litres more than the Czechs in second place. Over 10 litres of a Moldovan’s annual intake is reckoned to be ‘unrecorded’ home-brewed liquor, making it particularly harmful to health. Such moonshine accounts for almost 30% of the world’s drinking. The WHO estimates that alcohol results in 2.5m deaths a year, more than AIDS or tuberculosis. In Russia and its former satellite states one in five male deaths is caused by drink.

The Sweden section of the report reveals that

  • Between 1961 and 2006, consumption of “spirits” has been in continuous decline and has been surpassed in popularity by both wine and beer. (I blame the Systembolaget, which taxes alcoholic beverages based on the percentage of alcohol in the beverage.)
  • You have to have below a .02 blood alcohol content to drive a car. (Which is why the designated driver really doesn’t drink at all.)
  • The rate of “alcohol use disorders” in Sweden is slightly higher than in the United States for both men and women (6.32% Swedish men: 5.48% American men; 2.27% Swedish women: 1.92% American women).
  • The percentage of “heavy episodic drinkers” (defined as having consumed at least 60 grams equivalent of pure alcohol, at least once weekly) is far, far higher in the United States. Compare 13.0 % of US men and 3.4% of US women to 2.6% of Swedish men and .4% of Swedish women. I blame frat parties.

If you’re interested in reading more, you can check out the index of country profiles. I also found out that Americans drink way less wine than I would have imagined, while (unsurprisingly) alcohol consumption in Italy is 73% wine. Italian women are also far more likely to be “heavy episodic drinkers” than either American or Swedish women at 10.1% consuming more than 60 grams equivalent of pure alcohol, at least once weekly. How many glasses of wine is that, really? However, the rate of alcohol use disorders is ridiculously low for both Italian men and women at .50% and .41% respectively. Also, there’s no excise tax on wine in Italy, even though there is excise tax on both beer and liquor. Interesting.

Happy Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day, or Alla Hjärtans Dag (All Hearts’ Day) in Swedish. I was going to publish this yesterday, but I didn’t have time to finish it before I had to run on to the next thing.

I know I’m the only person in the entire world who still enjoys this holiday. The commercialism! The consumerism! The conundrum of compulsory romance! I don’t care. I’m a total sucker for mushy Kodak moments, even if they’re not mine, and I actually really like both flowers and chocolates. Plus, even if you’re single, you get to see all these loving couples holding hands and exchanging tender glances all over the place, and then you feel a little flutter-flutter in your heart all the same, unless you’re totally cynical and bitter which I guess is also possible. Or maybe it’s just me that feels that little flutter-flutter.

Let’s reframe this. Even if you’re single, no one looks at you strangely when you go through the check out with a giant box of chocolates and a bottle of red wine. Home safe.

I also have really good memories of Valentine’s Day from when I was growing up. My dad always woke up really early and was usually on his way to work by the time the kids were getting up, but when we went downstairs for breakfast, each of us would find a heart-shaped box of Russell Stover chocolates and a single flower in a vase. My mom would have a giant bouquet of red roses waiting for her, too. Then when we went to school, we all got to pass out valentines to each other, and then we got to eat a ton of candy, and then we got a pass on doing anything productive for the rest of the day because we were all crazed by sugar and running around like wild animals. What’s not to like?

Valentine’s Day is not as big a deal here with the crazy shopping specials and Hallmark Valentines, but the signs were there… There were a lot of special restaurant menus being posted, and roses were being displayed front and center in flower shops. So it’s not just me, the crazy American, arbitrarily expecting romance on demand.

As for gifts… if you want to know how a gift is going to stack up in a girl’s mind, check out the following infographic from The Frisky.

The only controversial item on that graph has to be the Dyson vacuum. My dad actually got my mom a Dyson for Valentine’s one year (a very nice purple and clear plastic model), and while I thought it was the most un-romantic and ridiculous Valentine’s gift of all time, she loved it. A couple of years later, he followed up with a new washer and dryer set in candy apple red. They’ve been married for forever, and they’re still in love, so I guess he knows what he’s doing. I also happen to know that my middle sister would probably swoon if she got a Dyson for a Valentine’s, but she has a love for cleaning products that cannot be shaken. (I don’t even know how many different kinds of instant hand sanitizer she’s gotten in her stocking over the years.) Even the author of the infographic wrote: “Note to any future boyfriends of mine: I would actually love a Dyson. But I am a clean freak and not your average chick.” So there you have it.

Then we have the world’s best e-card, courtesy of someecards.com.

I also really like these ones.

All Valentine’s Day themed cards from someecards can be found here.

Alright, and finally… a poem I actually really love that’s about love. Hope you enjoy!

Picnic to the Earth

by Shuntaro Tanikawa, translated by Harold Wright

here let’s jump rope together
here let’s eat balls of rice together
here let me love you
your eyes reflect the blueness of sky
your back will be stained a wormwood green
here let’s learn the constellations together
from here let’s dream of every distant thing
here let’s gather low-tide shells
from the sea of sky at dawn
let’s bring back little starfish
at breakfast we will toss them out
let the night be drawn away
here I’ll keep saying, “I am back”
while you repeat, “Welcome home”
here let’s come again and again
here let’s drink hot tea
here let’s sit together for awhile
let’s be blown by the cooling breeze.

Sweden’s Master Chefs (part one: GNOCCHI)

I know I should have more to show for myself than my accomplishments in the kitchen, but I have to say… this was a banner week for yours truly in terms of cooking awesomeness. First, Simon and I got inspired to tackle homemade gnocchi. Two days later, Anna and I took on macarons again, with dazzling results.

The inspiration for making gnocchi came entirely from being snarky while watching a cooking show. Simon and I are watching Sweden’s Master Chef (Sveriges Mästerkock), a sort of American Idol-style cooking competition. Last week’s theme was Italian food, and a lot of the contestants were really lame. As in, “Oh, I’m going to make tomato sauce with pasta. It’s a classic!” Yes, it’s classic, and I do love me some tomato sauce and pasta. But seriously, people. Are you master chefs or what?

On the flip side, there are a couple of contestants that are ridiculously annoying with the complicated dishes they just breeze through. “Oh me?? I’m just making  fresh pasta… saltimbocca… gnocchi from scratch in the next hour. No big deal!” I’m sorry, but who knows how to make gnocchi from scratch off the top of their heads?

Well, umm…. after all that attitude, now I do. I got all snarky when the guy announced his intentions to make gnocchi, but when he actually succeed to make a good gnocchi dish within an hour, I got intrigued. We were already planning on having Simon’s parents over for dinner, so we decided to do a little experiment.

We ended up using this recipe from 101 Cookbooks: “How to Make Gnocchi Like an Italian Grandmother.” As it turns out, gnocchi is one of those foods that is both incredibly simple in composition and incredibly time-consuming to make. There are only three ingredients for your standard potato gnocchi—potato, flour, and egg—and there’s a big divide whether you should use egg should even be included. As usual, the easier option (using egg) is considered to be kind of cheating. We used egg. If you’re interested in making gnocchi yourself, though, I really recommend checking out the following two articles as well and then taking all suggestions with a grain of salt. It’s all well and good to want to make totally authentic food (gnocchi included), but there’s no reason to stress yourself out about buying imported flour or going crazy trying to over-analyze every step. Common sense will take you far.

“Gnocchi di patate viole” (purple potato gnocchi) by Simona Carini, Briciole blog

“Six steps to reaching gnocchi nirvana” by Paula Wolfert, Food and Wine

Simona is the one who told me that

“Water in the potatoes must be balanced with flour, so the less water, the less flour you need, the lighter the gnocchi will be. Adding flour is a bit of a balancing act: not enough and your gnocchi will disintegrate in the water; too much and they will be pasty. I have been baking potatoes to make gnocchi for years. However, I have found that baking can lead to hardened spots that must be removed. The quest for the cooking method that would dry the potato without making hard spots, brought me to try the pre-set potato program on my microwave, whose cooking time is 3’55″. Cooking the potatoes in the microwave, one at a time, scrubbed, pierced in a few places with a blade (to avoid explosion), and wrapped in a paper towel, gave me an unexpectedly good result. The potatoes were cooked evenly, without hard spots, without any water added, and in less time than in the oven.”

We had pretty good success cooking our potatoes in the microwave, but it took a lot longer than 4 mins, and we did have some hard spots anyway. She also quotes Mario Batali’s instructions for when to take the gnocchi out of the pot:

“The lumpies will be fully cooked not when they float to the top, as most people incorrectly believe (have you held such a belief?), but only when ‘they’re aggressively trying to get out of the pot.’”

It doesn’t get much more specific than that, and I don’t think I’m really good at telling when they’re cooked because Simon gave the stink eye to some of the gnocchi I had transferred to the serving plate and returned them to the pot for more time. I was getting hungry by that point, though, and I blame the desire to eat for my impaired judgment.

The gnocchi came out delicious. Check it out:

Welcome to the gnocchi factory. (The tray with round flat disks is full of cookies, not gnocchi.)

You make the dough, roll it into logs, cut the logs into gnocchi-sized pieces, roll the pieces along the inside of a fork to give it some ridges, and then into the bath it goes. Cook, then transfer to serving dish. That’s it!

Freshly cooked gnocchi waiting to be dressed.

Here’s the result of the first batch to go into the pot. (Our recipe probably made about 100 gnocchi pieces, more than enough for four people.)

We were almost done eating by the time I thought to take a picture of the final product.

We went for a simple dressing of parmesan cheese, sage, salt, and pepper. It was delicious.

Next blog post: macarons. Anna and I outdid ourselves. Incredible!

You raise the bar for indulgence!

Super Bowl update, in brief (following up from Le Superbowl, Le Non-Sunday)

10 Swedes and I watched the Super Bowl until 4 in the morning. We were not privy to commercials. We actually watched the game instead! (Weird.) We ate massive amounts of candy, chips, and cookies as well as 3 am tacos. The tacos tasted really good. The game was exciting, actually. The commentators spoke in a deliberately-paced monotone the whole time.

This is what one of the commentators looked like.

In honor of the Super Bowl and all my dearly beloved long lost Super Bowl commercials, here are two of my current favorite Swedish commercials.

You raise the bar for indulgence.

These women C’EST MOI!!!

Juditone

Apparently, these women have been selling Com Hem broadband for forever now. They’re singing about how fast, stable, and “very very good” Com Hem is. Awesome.

Quotation of the Day

“Scratch a traveler and you’ll find a masochist underneath.”

Ciao, America! by Beppe Severgnini



Le Super Bowl, Le Non-Sunday

THE BIEBS! oh, and Ozzie Osbourne. This is Super Bowl-related. Seriously.

The Dilemma

So, as everyone in the United States knows, it’s almost Super Bowl Sunday. For American expats, this is normally a day for finding a sports bar that will show the game, gathering together to watch it, and then being the only group in the bar that (a) is drinking [heavily] on a Sunday (b) understands the rules of the game and (c) cares about the commercials. Which is a little bit how I expect this Sunday will go, except we won’t be at a sports bar, we’ll be in a one-room apartment. (The one I live in.) And instead of being a bunch of expats, it’ll be all Swedes, plus me. Oh, and the kicker… it won’t actually be on Sunday. Thanks to the 6:25 EST kick-off, we’ll be starting the game in the wee hours of Monday morning. 12:25 am, approximately.

The kick off time has created a serious dilemma for me. I mean, I like a good Super Bowl party as much as anyone else, but it’s never actually about the football for me. I just like the beer, the chips, the commercials, and the camaraderie. Plus, this one time, I won 5 bucks. So that was a highlight.

Normally, this would be a no-brainer, and as an American, I feel this certain calling to be on hand for important cultural events and traditions… to serve as an Ambassador, if you will.

But 12:25 starting time??????????? I really don’t know if I’m up for this.

We’ll just have to see how this goes. I might just have to go sleep on someone’s couch for the night. I hope that doesn’t make me the lamest American expat of all time.

Explaining the Super Bowl. A Cultural Perspective.

(stop laughing, guys.) (no, seriously, cut that out. stop laughing! i mean it! this is a cultural event!) (i’m serious, guys. it’s not funny.) (it is cultural.)

Have you ever tried to explain the rules of football to someone who hasn’t grown up with it? It’s really not that easy. The following rendering about typical.

Ok, so the quarterback got the ball snapped to him, and he’s throwing the ball to an open receiver. He has to be behind the line of scrimmage to throw the ball.

I don’t know what a scrimmage is. Anyway, it’s an imaginary line that marks where a player was last tackled, and that’s where the next play starts.  The goal is to move ten yards in four tries. Then your four tries start over again.

So they snap the ball, they give it to the quarterback, and he decides whether to throw it or hand it to someone who will run with it. Really anyone can throw the ball, but it’s the quarterback’s job to do it in most cases. And you can pass it backwards anywhere on the field… never mind. Anyway. Look, he’s throwing it to a receiver. The receiver guy is being marked by a defender. No, the defender can’t hit him until after the receiver catches the ball. Or touch him. That’s pass interference.

It’s hard, just trust me on this one.

And then there are a thousand other rules that I don’t actually fully know or understand, like why before the ball is snapped, one team can’t move, but the other can, except for the two guys that run from one end of the lineup to the other… not to mention, my knowledge of the actual football position names—and what they’re supposed to do in those roles—is slightly sketchy.

Then trying to explain what a typical Super Bowl party entails. “Well, there’s a lot of beer. Usually kind of cheap. And then we eat a lot. And we play betting games. And uh… yeah. Commercials! Commercials.” Inevitably, I get this look like, “Your country’s sporting event of the year is celebrated by milling around, eating, and drinking? No wonder y’all are so fat.” No comment.

But yeah… when I tried to think of typical Super Bowl food on my own, mostly what I came up with was red meat (chili), chicken wings, and brownies. But then I did a little surfing online, and I found artichoke dip, nachos, ribs, baked potatoes, cookies, etc. So if you’re searching for some Super Bowl food, you can find recipe suggestions at Epicurious, Serious Eats, or Pioneer Woman Cooks. Real Simple has some party ideas, and if you’re really dedicated, you could even make an edible stadium.

Truly a work of genius.

Last but not least, the most trying and the most recurring problem in explaining football: the name.

Yes, I know that the United States is just about the only place in the world that uses the word soccer for what everyone else calls football. Yes, I know you don’t play (American) football with your feet. I don’t know what to do about these inconsistencies. Yes, I also find it Confounding! Perplexing! Incomprehensible! And Utterly Irresponsible!

We have a Facebook event page going for our Super Bowl party, and someone posted this photo on the wall. What am I supposed to do with this? Indefensible.

More Super Bowl-related reading

What else?

Am I missing anything? Any insider information I need to pass on to my non-American friends? Traditions I’m missing? Let me know!

English language excellence in Sweden

In general, Swedish people are really good at English. So much so, that their upscale steakhouses can make puns like the following. I think it’s pretty much on par with the kind of pun any American restaurant would make.

BWUAHAHAHA, right?