Baking is my Cardio

As a human being, I find a lot of things terrifying. Coffee grinders, flushing toilets on airplanes, Peter MacKay, etc. As a baker, the list is considerably less terrifying. I’d choose making my own puff pastry over peeing on an airplane any day (especially when it involves bringing your own Tim Horton’s coffee cup I’m looking at you Air Canada Express). I would most certainly choose puff pastry over hanging out with Peter MacKay, who would probably be quite pleased to see me back in the kitchen, let’s face it. However, the list of baked goods I’ve yet to attempt is pretty long. I’m not terrified so much as intimidated, and kind of lazy. For example, I know that making pie pastry makes me cry, and drinking coffee for two hours in front of the Food Network doesn’t. Hence, I often choose the latter. But just like working out, sometimes it takes a good buddy to motivate you to get your ass on a treadmill, or in this case, turn off the television, turn on the oven and make some French macarons.

I’m fortunate enough to call Joanne Middleton of Paradise Cakery a very dear friend. We’ve known each other since our high school days in Labrador West. We were hard core teenagers, who expressed our rebellion by baking deep dish pan pizzas while listening to The Phantom of the Opera and daydreaming of opening our own bakery-cafe. Our parents were puzzled by the fact that we weren’t drinking in the woods like every other teenager, and only became suspicious of us after we almost burnt Jo’s house down by baking pizza in a wooden-handled frying pan. Yeah, we were pretty bad-ass. I have a distinct memory of hanging out at Joanne’s house the night before my very first date. We rented The Scent of a Woman, ate popcorn, swooned over Chris O’Donnell, and rewound the tango scene five times. Joanne helped me pick out the Northern Refections t-shirt that would best suit my red glasses and high-waisted jeans and gave me advice when I asked her questions like “What do I do if he tries to hold my hand while we’re watching Schindler’s List?” Go ahead and laugh, but I couldn’t ask the internet for advice BECAUSE IT DIDN’T EXIST. And there was one theatre in town with a single movie playing at a time. But I had a pretty deadly collection of Northern Reflections t-shirts, so it wasn’t an entirely deprived teenagehood.

Joanne’s been running her cakery for about as long as I’ve been writing a food blog. She’s rocking it, and I’m still trying to turn off the television and cook things instead of watching them. A couple of months ago we decided to stop putting off the baking date we’d been talking about for ages and actually do it. The day was almost sabotaged by a pothole the size of Mike Duffy’s expense account that nearly took the arse out of my car on the way to Paradise. But the baking gods were smiling down upon me (the city of St. John’s certainly wasn’t) and I made it to Joanne’s place in one piece.

We had tea and chatted for an hour and a half before we even got started. Pretty normal for the two of us, but obvious that we were delaying what we thought would be a disaster. What happened next was a pleasant surprise for both of us. Maybe not so much for Joanne, who tackles new recipes the same way I tackle cookie dough ice cream and a Say Yes to the Dress marathon. Jesus, I know, I can’t help it. I have a weird love of watching women pay thousands of dollars for the same strapless mermaid dress over and over again. It somehow justifies me dropping fifteen bucks on a wedge of fancy cheese.

Paradise Cakery French Macarons (adapted from Canadian Living)

1 cup icing sugar
1/2 cup ground almonds
2 egg whites, room temperature, completely free of yolks
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1-1/2 tsp meringue powder

Optional: very small amount of gel food colouring paste or 2 tbsp Dutch processed cocoa powder

Filling: buttercream icing or jam of choice

Preheat oven to 325ºF. Before starting, ensure that the bowl and whisk you are using for the egg whites are entirely clean and free of any grease. Wiping around the bowl and whisk with a folded paper towel dampened with a dab or two of lemon juice will do the trick. Trace 1-inch circles, 1-inch apart onto parchment paper cut to fit onto baking tray. Place sheet, marker side down, onto baking tray. In food processor, pulse icing sugar and almonds until very fine. Sift through a fine sieve into bowl; set aside. Discard any coarse leftover grinds. Sift cocoa powder into almond mixture (if using). In a large bowl, beat egg whites (with an electric hand mixer or stand mixer) on medium speed until foamy. Tint mixture with gel colouring (if using).

With mixer on high seed, gradually beat in granulated sugar and meringue powder until stiff peaks form (when you take the whisk out of the bowl, the beaten egg whites will not flop around but rather stand on end…think lemon meringue pie). Fold in almond mixture, one-third at a time, with a large spatula, until blended. Mix only until almond mixture is blended in. Using piping bag fitted with a one-inch tip, pipe mixture onto the 1-inch traced rounds of the parchment paper. Let stand for 20 minutes.

Bake until puffed, smooth, and cracked around the bottom edges, 12-14 minutes. Let cool on pan on rack. You will know when they are fully baked when you try to lift one off the parchment paper and it lifts easily without sticking. Let cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet and then transfer to wire rack to cool completely. Spread or pipe a little of your favourite buttercream or jam on one side of the macaroon and sandwich it together with another.

They taste wonderful the day they are made but they turn into heavenly delights if they are left to “age” in an airtight container overnight. Just make sure not to crowd them in your container of choice. To make-ahead, store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

We took a deep breath, took our time, followed the recipe exactly…and the macarons were lovely. Maybe not perfect in the way that we would beat a pastry chef perfect, but light and fluffy and crispy-chewy. The purple ones fell a little flat, but only because in our excitement we forgot the food colouring and put it in a little too late (after the almond mixture was folded into the egg whites instead of after the beaten whites were foamy). Not a complete tragedy, just a whole lot of purple flat clouds of awesomeness to snack on while we waited for the pretty ones to bake. The cocoa managed to make it in at the right time, and if there was a problem with the chocolate macarons, I couldn’t figure it out after eating eleven of them.

This is the pared-down, simplified macaron recipe that maybe you’ve been waiting for. Also, the gluten-free treat of your dreams or the dreams of your pals who are gluten intolerant. Show up on their doorstep with a little box of these and you’ve basically reached hero status. Don’t make them when it’s raining or too humid, apparently that affects the texture or the egg whites, or something. Yeah, science hey? Pretty weird. Save the rainy days for the gym. Or cookie dough ice cream and Say Yes to the Dress.