Thursday, July 27, 2006

My "more than a food blog" Food Blog

I've spent all morning installing a voice recognition software, the Cantonese Voice Writer, on my computer so I can write traditional Chinese characters with just my voice, how cool is that! The only glitch is I better not catch a cold with a bunged up nose from now on.

I had needed an apparatus like this since I started, not long after our wedding, a travel column for Next Magazine (a publication based in Hong Kong). My Chinese typing is much slower (at snails' pace to be precise) than my writing so this pen 'n' paper girl had been faxing her pages through at a local locutorio (shop with IDD phone booths, fax and internet) every week for the past year.

After I started this blog, I became reluctant to sit down with a pen; this, I call a modern disease. My articles took longer to finish and were sent in less frequent intervals, I started feeling embarrassed even emailing my editor in Hong Kong. I offered to translate my blog but he thought most postings were too personal or political, etc. He thinks his readers would prefer a rose-tinted guide to Argentina (yes, I'm capable of that too; I just need to put on my Armani sunglasses). So this nifty little gadget, from Zoe, is my timely saviour.

With this positive mindset generated by my new toy, I am not going to blog too much about the city today but to tackle a recipe which has been sitting in my too-hard bin, gathering dust...

Being the greedy wannabe gourmand that I am, I've found the variety of petits fours rather limited here. There are mini alfajores (little cornflour biscuits sandwiched with dulce de leche), then more mini alfajores dipped in compound chocolate (a cheap brown substance with high percentage of vegetable oil, often mistaken as chocolate) or icing sugar, and corn flour biscuits with a drop of dulce de membrillo on top (quince jam, usually tastes more of sugar than quince, the biscuit is similar to a jam drop).

If delicate morsels cannot be bought in this city, the only option is not to moan but be self-reliant. Inspection of my pantry last night yielded a jar of pistachios I had stashed away not long ago and had forgotten about(this is a frequent occurrence with me, not limited to unperishable organic apples).

These brilliant green gems are relatively expensive and not easy to come by in this town so they are just perfect for some luscious macarons. The little French biscuits are characterised by their smooth and paper-thin, dome-shaped shell. Underneath is a chewy, cake-like layer, and underneath that, is a ruffled skirt.

I have read many accounts of failure in the world of food bloggers; hence I had been waiting for the day when positivity and courage swell within me to make my first attempt. Since it has a French provenance and is a patisserie item, who else would I turn to for advice but the maestro, Pierre Hermé. He has made these little bursts of flavour sexy; so much so that a macaron fad has now swept across Asia.

The simple and short list of ingredients is pure deception as to how difficult it is to get it right. Stir the biscuit batter too little, and your macarons won't have the quintessential ruffled skirts but a peak on their tops. But stir too much, and you'll end up with tough and chewy biscuits.

I have adapted the recipe a little, using pistachios instead of almonds.

Macaron Batter:
1 ¼ cups icing sugar
1 cup finely ground pistachios*
slightly more than ¼ cup egg whites, at room temperature
pinch of salt
¼ cup granulated sugar

Allow egg whites to thicken by leaving them uncovered at room temperature overnight.

On three pieces of parchment, use a pencil to draw 1-inch (2.5 cm) circles about 2 inches apart. Flip each sheet over and place each sheet on a baking sheet.

Push ground nuts through a sieve, and sift icing sugar. Mix in a bowl and set aside. If the mixture is not dry, spread on a baking sheet, and heat in oven at the lowest setting until dry.

In a large clean, dry bowl whip egg whites with salt on medium speed until foamy. Increase the speed to high and gradually add granulated sugar. Continue to whip to stiff peaks – the whites should be firm and shiny.

With a flexible spatula, gently fold in icing sugar mixture into egg whites until completely incorporated. The mixture should be shiny and has a lava consistency. When small peaks dissolve to a flat surface, stop mixing.

Fit a piping bag with a 1 cm round tip. Pipe the batter onto the baking sheets, in the previously drawn circles. Tap the underside of the baking sheet to remove air bubbles. Let dry at room temperature for 1 or 2 hours to allow skins to form.

Bake, in a 160C oven for 10 to 11 minutes. Use a wooden spoon to keep the oven door slightly ajar, and rotate the baking sheet after 5 minutes for even baking.

Remove macarons from oven and transfer parchment to a cooling rack. When cool, slide a metal offset spatula or pairing knife underneath the macaron to remove from parchment.

Pair macarons of similar size, and pipe about ½ tsp of the filling onto one of each pair. Sandwich them and refrigerate to allow flavours to blend together. Bring back to room temperature before serving.

Italian Buttercream:
2 egg whites
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp granulated sugar
120g unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into slices
3 tbsp finely ground pistachio*
In an electric mixer bowl, whisk together the egg whites and sugar. Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water and heat the mixture, whisking often, for 3 to 5 minutes, or until it feels warm and sugar has dissolved.
Transfer the bowl to the electric mixer and whip warm egg mixture on high speed using the whisk attachment until stiff and shiny, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the butter, one slice at a time, and continue to mix until all the butter is thoroughly incorporated.
Add ground pistachio and refrigerate for 1 hour or until it becomes firm. The buttercream can be kept, covered and refrigerated for up to 1 week.
* If you have to ground the pistachios yourselves (like I have to) make sure you peel the soft husk off as much as you can.

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