Ramblings..., Reviews

Archive Reviews pt 1

Apologies for my absence of late – I’ve been a tad distracted as I have started the final module for my Masters Degree (sadly not food related).

As I’ve got a couple of reviews coming up in the next couple of weeks I thought I’d start to share my first few pieces for the excellent Brixton Blog – starting with a personal favourite of ours, Mama Lan, which is an awesome Beijing-inspired eaterie which started in the hustle of Brixton Village and now has a second branch in Clapham.

You can read my review of that second branch here.

Here are some extra pictures too – it is seriously awesome on every level.Perfect pork dumplings A true feast

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Mission: macarons pt.4

Macarons are potentially difficult little so-and-so’s to arrange. Due to their shape and their relatively fragile structure, you don’t want to put them in a big pile or try and delicately balance them on top of one another. As this was for a wedding (and not just any wedding after all!) we wanted something a little bit more elegant. My wife did some web-based research and eventually came up trumps with this:

The macaron stand of joy!

The macaron stand of joy!

OK, ‘stand of joy’ it’s real name but it was exactly what we needed – removable tiers and enough stability that it would happily sit for hours with our army of blue and cream macarons loaded on to the separate levels.

Not exactly the cheapest stand ever but the only one that would do the trick. And if you want one for yourself then you can get it here.

We were slightly worried at first as the plastic seemed a bit thin but it was light and easy to assemble. And we didn’t really have any other option at this stage so there was no point arguing.

Originally we were both going to go to the venue on the morning of the wedding and set it up then I was to head back to Mum’s so I could get changed and then come with my sister in the wedding car. However it became clear that this was a massive waste of time and also added an extra element of stress to my day which I could well do without, so my excellent wife offered to take the macarons and set them up, thus enabling me to go straight home and get myself sorted.

And I am very glad I did – it turns out that due to general venue madness, she wasn’t able to finish setting up the macarons (which took well over half an hour to do) until after 1.30pm – the wedding was at 2pm!!!!

Phew!

The wedding itself was wonderful – the weather held and the bride and groom both looked happy and smiling all day long.

But I was desperate to see those sodding macarons.

My wife showed me a picture and they looked amazing but I was incredibly impatient to see them for myself and, finally, after canapes, drinks, photos, and general wedding times, we were invited in to the barn for our dinner.

And I was greeted by this:

Ta da!

Ta da!

 

What a beautiful display!

After all the work we’d done, the ruined batches, the recipe finding, the filling, the stand hunt, I have to say I was bursting with pride when I saw it. Absolutely bursting.

Both bride and groom were thrilled with it and it drew the required number of ‘ooh’s and ‘aaah’s from the guests. And by the end of the night there were only a few left!

So there you go – a year in the researching, a good two days in the baking, and nearly an hour of building. I give you – the macaron wedding cake!!!!

Blimey.

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Mission: macarons pt.3

Preparing for a wedding is stressful. Even if ‘all’ you have to do is fill some macarons, write a speech, and give your sister away. Not as a gift you understand. Anyway…

With all the shells happily sitting in the freezer, the matter of the filling was being sorted. The blue ones (which had a few drops of strawberry flavouring) were to be filled with some kind of white chocolate-based excitement and the cream ones with a lemon curd butter-cream. We toyed with the idea of making a white chocolate ganache for the blue macarons but, partly due to time, partly due to not wanting an over-runny or over-thick ganache (and because ganache does have the tendency to ‘sweat’ when standing around), we decided to cheat and buy some white chocolate spread which, although obviously made for spreading on toast, even said on the label that it was ideal for filling cakes or similar baked goods. Perfect. Although Mum hasn’t quite forgiven me for making her go to ASDA to buy it. Deary me.

We had decided in advance not to attempt to fill the shells at Mum’s – there would be chaos in the forms of nieces and nephews as well as general pre-wedding madness which is not conducive to creating delicate French treats – instead we had elected to do the task at my mother-in-law’s house which would not only be calmer but was actually closer to the venue which made transporting them much simpler.

In the time since I was at home, Mum had made a couple of extra batches as promised and this was all dutifully packed in to a big box alongside icing sugar, butter, lemon curd, and the aforementioned white chocolate spread. A large pot of coffee was brewed, and we unpacked to survey our works. It looked rather daunting.

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Many macarons to fill…

We hadn’t counted the shells at this stage – afterall, we had no idea how many would actually make the grade so instead we decided to make a load of butter-cream and make a start then see what we ended up with. Although quite my good lady-wife decided to mix 500g of icing sugar, 250g of butter, and a pot of lemon curd by hand is still something of a mystery…

How much filling to put in each one was also something that needed to be worked out. We didn’t want it to ooze down the sides but neither did we want it to be so small that no-one would taste it. The insides of some of the macarons were quite delicate and the white chocolate spread was a bit thick to start with so we had to be very careful and, in the end, it worked out at a generous teaspoon of filling for each with a bit more for some of the larger, flatter ones.

It was pretty time-consuming – after 3 hours we were only just over half-way through but the ones that were filled were looking pretty good.

A box of lemon curd filled macarons ready to be packed away!

A box of lemon curd filled macarons ready to be packed away!

There were of course, some casualties. A fair few of some of the more, ahem, interesting batches had become so fragile that although they may have looked great, there was little more than air and sticky filling in the middle and we ended up losing (and indeed scoffing) more than I’d originally thought. Although it should be pointed out that it was certainly not unexpected.

Casualties of war...

Casualties of war…

But, three pots of spread and the whole batch of butter-cream later (and several cups of coffee complimented by a couple of glasses of wine) we were finished and, after a final count, were the proud creators of 245 multi-coloured macarons.

Time for a sit down and some more wine….

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Mission: macarons pt.2

I think it’s fair to say that to attempt to make catering-sized amounts of anything is always going to be a challenge.

When I ask anyone who works in the food industry about how to get around the challenge of producing tasty treats on a large scale they always tell me that timing is important, organisation essential, and help irreplaceable. If I’d tried to make going on for 130 macarons myself I would have had to allocate a whopping chunk of time and an even bigger amount of patience to complete the task, and given how well I know a batch can seemingly completely unexpectedly go utterly wrong, I was well aware that the final number would have to be closer to 200 to allow for spoilage, breakage, and other problems. I also knew that using my Mum’s larger kitchen and workspaces would make everything a whole lot easier, and the fact that she wanted to help turned out to be a godsend.

We had, in theory, enough ingredients for 5 or 6 batches. We had four baking trays, two ovens, and all the requisite colourings and flavourings that were required – my sister had asked for blue and cream macarons – so after a large vat of coffee, we started work.

The ingredients are ready!

The ingredients are ready!

The recipe says to blitz the almonds and icing sugar together in a food processor and then passing through a sieve to get a smooth mixture but after recent practices, I had introduced the extra step of running the ground nuts through a spice grinder first – far fewer chunky pieces left in the sieve and an altogether finer mix. This also added a few minutes extra prep onto the production time – something which can ultimately add hours to a day in the kitchen.

But we worked together weighing, measuring, sieving, and folding the ingredients until our first batch was ready to be piped. The baking trays were lined, the piping bag prepared, we were ready to go. I filled the piping bag (we opted for Mum’s traditional one rather than disposable ones – the older one was bigger and easier to fill) and confidently began piping the first discs of our mission. Which promptly slopped across the parchment and ran into each-other, creating a series of blue pools and splodges. Hmmmmm…..

The second tray looked a bit better but the mixture was far too thin and I was (I have to admit) fairly disheartened – if the second or third batch had gone a bit wrong I wouldn’t have minded so much but the knowledge that we would probably only get four or five usable macarons from the first batch was slightly depressing.  As well as the mix being too thin, I got the impression that my piping nozzle was a bit wide so we found a slightly smaller one to use for the next attempts – the recipe says to use a 1cm nozzle. However, sweeping any gloomy thoughts aside, I tapped the trays on the worktop (vital to help form a decent ‘foot’ on the baked macaron) and left them to rest for 20 or so minutes.

This was actually a later (and better) batch but you get the idea...

This was actually a later (and better) batch but you get the idea…

As I was weighing out the next set of ingredients we suddenly noticed we’d totally overlooked a rather important aspect of the production line – baking trays. The macarons have to rest before baking – this forms a slight skin which is key to the success of the bake and the shiny, smooth top of the finished product. So while the first batch rested we couldn’t do much more than weigh out the icing sugar and almonds. This was going to slow things down considerably. Thankfully, Mum lives within walking distance of the town-centre so she rushed off to get four more trays while I put the now-rested first batch into the oven to bake. It wasn’t a total disaster but, as predicted, we got a measly three or four usable pairs of macaron shells to start our pile.

Armed with new baking trays, we soon found our stride and had a good few hours working together. The second and third batches were much more successful and the whole task looked as if it would indeed be achievable in time for the wedding (which was the following weekend). Using the smaller nozzle was paying off and we were pleased to find a second piping bag which meant we could clean and dry one whilst using the other. We’d even got the perfect blue that had been asked for.

Some of the better baked blue macarons...

Some of the better baked blue macarons…

I was, however, slightly worried at the concept of making cream-coloured macarons – every attempt I’d made at paler colours always looked, well, a bit anaemic and unappetizing and I’d tried several times to persuade my sister that a rich yellow was the shade she wanted. She didn’t. She wanted cream and that was that.

Fair enough.

So we decided to try adding literally three drops of yellow food colouring to the mix and seeing what we got.

And thankfully, it turned out to be the perfect pale cream that was required.

Cream macarons

Cream macarons

That was lucky.

But the fifth batch were hilariously thin and refused to come off the parchment.

And the sixth batch (back to the blue) went a strange green-turquoise colour in the oven.

Mysterious.

By mid-evening (we’d started at about 11.00am) we’d had enough for the day and carefully packed the fruits of our labour into Tupperware boxes and put them in the freezer – you can freeze the un-filled shells for a couple of months and they defrost quickly and perfectly, very handy if you’re making a large number.

The next day we thought we’d bash out a couple of extra batches for luck and, either through cockiness or under-whisked eggs (or both) we had some very flat, very delicate and sticky macarons to try and wrestle off the baking parchment. Oh well.

Our final count of usable, roughly matched pairs was 188, with nearly equal numbers of cream and blue. Mum said she would try and do a few more over the coming week to bulk up numbers – there wasn’t a chance for me to make more, nor did I fancy trying to transport them – and I would return the day before the wedding to fill them and then take them to the venue for assembly.

The clock was ticking….

Boxed and ready to go...

Boxed and ready to go…

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Mission: Macarons pt.1

About a year ago I rather rashly offered to make my sister’s wedding cake. Not completely rash – I hear some of you cry – ’tis only a matter of fruit cake and royal icing! Indeed, but the cake I was so casually accepting to create was to be make entirely of macarons. Multi-coloured macarons. Ah.

I can do bread. I can do quite complicated bread like sourdough and proper pain de campagne but I’ve never quite had the same knack for sweet things. So why I had let myself in for this became increasingly baffling, especially when you consider that my kitchen isn’t exactly built for hardcore confectionery – we have a workspace of about 60cm and that is about it. I had attempted to make these fiendish French fancy almond meringues before with varying degrees of success – some looked like strange alien shells of goo and other almost looked like the ones in the pictures. Once Mum and I went hell-for-leather and tried to make pistachio ones but quickly realised we should possibly master the standard almond versions first. The strange green gunge that we created was delicious however. I needed to find a recipe that worked and that I could rely upon ( and also it had to work in ovens other than mine as the chances were that I wouldn’t be making them at home) so I trawled through a variety of books and magazines to see if there was one I could get to grips with. People very kindly gave advice (and occasional reading material) – don’t use baking parchment, don’t use French meringue, keep the oven door slightly open during cooking, don’t even bother trying because you’ll go mad – and I very diligently investigated the truths or non-truths behind their claims. The Italian meringue version almost worked but the piping was wrong, the silicone baking sheet was the right size but the mix was wrong, the mix was right but the cooking time and oven temperature weren’t. Ad infinitum.

However, eventually, the research paid off and I decided to ignore the anti-French meringue crowd (not because Italian meringue is rubbish, but because I haven’t got the space to pour sugar syrup into egg-whites) and found a recipe that seemed to work every time (or almost every time). The recipe itself is simple and doesn’t try to overcomplicate the process (some of the versions I’d tried before required nearly a day to prepare the kitchen) but, more importantly, it works on mix consistency, oven temperature, and cooking time. It can also be scaled down to make smaller batches – something that became essential when practising. I also quickly learnt that doing one batch at a time was paramount as any lower down in the oven did not bake properly, and that the ‘rest’ time should be as long as possible otherwise the shells don’t rise to create a proper ‘foot’.

All good and jolly.

And some of the ones we made when practising were, even if I say so myself, quite jolly.

 

Strawberry macaroons for fillingChocolate and caramel flavour macaroons

As the months went by and the date drew nearer I decided to go to Mum’s and try a batch in her oven to see if I could get the same results. One thing I had noticed when making them at home was that I usually lost about 20% to either breaking or sticking to the tray (silicone sheet or baking parchment seemingly making no difference here except in saving on washing up) and I’d read somewhere that you shouldn’t try and pull the baked macaroons off but gently release them using a palette knife. I don’t own a palette knife – we use a cheese-slicer with excellent results – but I mentioned this to Mum as something to consider when making them en masse.

We made a quick batch – only a small one. And every. Single. One. Was. Perfect.

That had never happened before.

Ever.

We’d even used multiple trays in the oven.

Hmmmm….

I went home and mused on this and made a small batch myself.

And they all went hilariously wrong.

Oh well.

Mum rang to say she’d made a second lot using the same trays and multiple cooking and had had the same success as before and thus the venue for our big bake was settled. I have to admit, I was a bit worried about trying to transport around 130 macaroons using the tube and train network so making them in a kitchen that is only a short drive from the wedding venue was always going to be a plus.

And so, a couple of days ago, I packed my piping nozzle and white chocolate filling (pre-bought I have to confess – there won’t be much time for fancy fillings the day before the wedding) and headed home….

 

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