Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tempest in a pastry bag

I'm beginning to hate Saturdays.

Sure, I'm as giddy as the next person when Friday afternoon rolls around, happy to be leaving the office for a whole two days in a row. But by Saturday morning I'm starting to suspect it is just a racket, this so-called day free of all obligations. In fact, obligations abound: a trip to the market, to the supermarket, to the driving school, miscellaneous errands around town (crammed into one day, because everything is closed on Sunday in France), toddler chasing, chores that are guiltily put off until Sunday but haunt me all day nonetheless, and then, quick, we need to go do something fun before dinner just to prove the day wasn't a complete loss. That's when we all pile into the car and drive somewhere outside of Paris, to either enjoy a nice walk in the woods or stomp around in the mud and get caught in the rain.

Today we got back to the car just before it started to rain in earnest, and since we arrived home well before dinner time, I decided to make macarons. I'd just taken a class at a local cooking school -- a birthday gift this year from someone who knows me well -- and I was dying to try the recipe out at home. It was starting to obsess me, in fact; last night I dreamt I was making lemon macarons in a bath tub, using jacuzzi jets to whip the egg whites into oeufs en neige. In my dream, the macarons were a failure and the egg whites collapsed, but I remember that the bubble bath I took in the batter left my skin silky soft.

I first made the lemon curd filling. Perfection. Then I carefully mixed together the ground almonds -- ground organic almonds from Spain, thank you very much -- and powdered sugar. I tried to sift them through a fine meshed sieve like we did in the class, but it was too time consuming, so I gave up and "sifted" by hand. Then I hooked up the electric mixer and started beating the egg whites.

I was absorbed, concentrated, at one with the bowl and the mixer. Bubbles started to form, the liquid started increasing in volume. I tilted the bowl and continued to mix. It dawned on me that this was the part of the class I hadn't followed closely; I'd had trouble hearing the instructor over the hum of the electric standing mixer. I couldn't for the life of me remember exactly what the egg whites were supposed to look like. They seemed stiff and shiny enough to me, but I had my doubts, especially since this was undoubtedly the most delicate step of the operation.

I folded the almond mixture into the egg whites, then spooned it all into a pastry bag and piped out round islands of batter onto three cookie sheets. I ceremoniously dropped each sheet onto the counter as I'd seen demonstrated in class (to break air bubbles, they explained), let the sheets sit the requisite ten minutes, put them into the oven and watched. And waited.

Meanwhile, my husband prepared dinner, doing his best to stay out of my way. It was late, almost eight-thirty, and we still hadn't eaten; typical dinner time in France is at eight, but le Petit was already grumpy and hungry. My husband poured himself a glass of Riesling and watched my frantic activity in the kitchen with amusement.

"They don't look right!" I opened the oven door and peered inside.

"What do you mean 'not right'?" he queried skeptically. My husband is used to my overreacting in the kitchen and elsewhere, declaring failure at the first sign of trouble.

"They don't look like macarons! They don't have the collar!"

"The what?"

"You know, the thing around the bottom. The thing that makes them a macaron. And they aren't puffed up."

I pulled out the first sheet and frowned. There were small, rounded lumps that looked nothing like macarons but strangely resembled Nilla wafers. La Durée I was decidedly not. I shoved the cookie sheet onto the counter and joined the rest of the family at the dinner table, where I grumbled and complained for the duration of the meal that yet another pastry experiment had ended in disaster. My husband got up and went to the kitchen to taste one of my so-called-macarons.

"Amazing! It tastes just like a macaron! They're a little small, but the taste is perfect!"

"Yeah, but the texture... they're all flat and rubbery, not airy and crisp. You can see for yourself," I protested.

"But they taste good!" he insisted.

"They're too sweet."

"I like them."

"But they're not macarons. I was making macarons."

"I don't care, they're good. "

"They're not macarons! They're edible, I guess, though they're too sweet, but they're not macarons!" I started to raise my voice.

"Pas des macarons! Pas des macarons!" repeated le Petit.

Then my husband and I started to argue in earnest, yelling at each other about a) whether the darn things were macarons, b) whether that mattered, and c) whether I had a right to be upset about it. I stomped off to kitchen to sulk. I was pulling the cookies off the sheets and dumping them in the trash when my husband came in, fished them out, threw them in a tupperware, and told me that he would eat them if he wanted. He left the kitchen, I emptied the tupperware in the trash, and hid the cookies under a cabbage leaf.

A few were spared the trash. Maybe I'll find them edible tomorrow morning, with a good cup of coffee and the perspective that Sunday brings. I don't know why Sunday is better than Saturday -- after all, the stores are all inconveniently closed, the housework must finally be confronted, and a return to the office looms the next day -- but somehow my expectations are more reasonable.

I've decided my next baking attempt will be on a Sunday afternoon, right after I've finished the dreaded vacuuming. And I'll make sure I know what the heck I'm supposed to be doing with the egg whites this time around.


paola said...

I know exactly how you feel! I have made countless cheesecakes that don't harden, litres of tiramisu that doesn't set ( notice I use the word 'litres')and it's thorougly disappointing considering the effort you put into it.

But then my lovely husband or kids tell me how delicious it is. OK, so hubby calls the cheesecake a semi-freddo 'cos I resort to freezing the damn thing so we can eat it, or the tiramisu a 'crema', but it does get eaten and enjoyed, even if it clearly is not what it started out as.

p.s I'm sure your macarons will be perfect with a bit more practice ( unlike my tiramisu and cheesecake!!)

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@Paola, I love it, that makes me feel much better! I love your idea to throw the cheesecake in the freezer and call it a semi-freddo. Instead of lamenting our culinary disasters, we should be grateful we have husbands and children who will happily eat them, right?

For the record, le Petit dragged his stool into the kitchen to reach the plate of "macarons" on the counter, then ran around the house eating them and singing 'C is for Cookie'! It was pretty darn cute... even if it didn't quite justify spending all that time beating egg whites and piping out batter, but anyway...

I think the problem was in the sifting of the almond powder (or the lack of sifting, to be exact). I ordered a sifter on Amazon today. I'll try again next week, darnit.

Cloud said...

Have you read Julia Child's autobiography? She confesses to several culinary disasters, and had a rule to never apologize for what you've made. I've tried to adopt that rule.

But I, too, have thrown out perfectly edible- good, even- cakes because they weren't "right".

Jamaican Princess said...

I LOVE MACARONS! keep trying, you'll get it.

caramama said...

Man, I know just how you feel with baking not turning out the way it should! In fact, I've had a lot of trouble with meringue, so I stopped trying. I shouldn't stop. I really think it was an issue with the beaters. I should try again. YOU should try again! And then you should share the recipe. Mmmmm... macarons...