Vanilla Macarons with Lemon Curd

Apparently, the third time really is the charm. This was my third attempt at macarons, and they finally turned out the way I had hoped, with feet and crunch tops and all.

I’ve spent literal months thinking about macarons. Readers of this blog will know that’s not hyperbole; after all, I spent years perfecting honey cake and honing my go-to buttercream. Macaron attempt 1 yielded batter that was far too stiff; the cookies tasted great, but looked nothing like the elegant cookies you see in bakery windows.  Attempt 2 got closer, but the macarons were underbaked, though they had great flavor. Attempt 3, after watching this incredibly helpful video from Tasty, yielded the best results.

Note: I measured most of the ingredients for this recipe by weight, rather than volume, which I highly recommend. The recipe below is a hybrid of a few I found online, including Tasty via Buzzfeed and Sally’s Baking Addiction.

Ingredients

  • 120 grams egg whites, at room temperature (about 3 large eggs)
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 40 grams superfine sugar, sifted (about 3 tablespoons)*
  • 200 grams powdered sugar (about 2 cups)
  • 100 grams almond flour (about 1 cup)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Gel food coloring, if desired
  • Lemon curd, for filling

*You can make superfine sugar by placing granulated sugar in your food processor and pulsing it until it becomes like sand. 

Preparation

Line three large baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine powdered sugar and almond flour and pulse for about 30-45 seconds. Sift into a large bowl, discarding any large bits, and set aside.

Place egg whites and salt in clean, dry, grease-free bowl. Using the whisk attachment, whip egg whites on low speed, then increase to medium/medium-high speed and whip until egg whites are foamy and no longer translucent. Slowly add superfine sugar, about 1 tablespoon at a time, whipping until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla extract and a small amount of your desired food coloring; I used red for a light pink color. Whip again to combine, but be careful not to over-whip; you still want stiff peaks but don’t want to take the meringue too far and have it become grainy.

Add 1/3 of your dry ingredients at a time and fold in with a spatula, turning the mixture about 15 times with each addition, being very careful not to over-mix. The batter is mixed enough when it is sticky and smooth, and you can make an unbroken figure 8 with the batter as it drips off your spatula.

Place batter into a large piping bag fitted with a plain tip. Holding the bag upright, pipe rounds of batter about 1 1/2 inches in diameter onto the parchment, leaving about 2 inches between each circle. Gently tap or drop your baking sheets onto a counter top or table to release any air bubbles.

Let batter sit for about 30-60 minutes; the tops will form a skin that becomes dry to the touch.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Bake macarons, one sheet at a time, for about 17 minutes, checking halfway; the macarons should form “feet” on the bottoms, but have smooth tops. Remove from oven and allow to cool on the baking sheets.

Once macarons are cool, flip half the macarons onto their tops and spread lemon curd on the bottom, then top with another macaron. Store in an airtight container at least overnight before serving. Fully disclosure, though: Mike and I both at a macaron as soon as they were cool and they were quite tasty.

Makes about 36 macarons.

 

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Christmas Sugar Cut-Outs

Per usual, I went a bit overboard with Christmas baking. Gingerbread and shortbread for colleagues, pear tart and spice cake for Christmas day dessert, and these sugar cut-outs and some Russian tea cakes for my trip to Deep Creek to see my cousin Barb and her family this past weekend. I’ve eaten an inordinate amount of sugar in the past few weeks, even for me.

These Christmas sugar cut-outs may be a bit over the top, but seriously, how can you resist a cookie that looks like this? I also made some trees and stars, but the houses pictured here were my best creations. I used a gingerbread house cookie cutter and decorated them to look like little village houses, complete with snow-covered rooftops and evergreens.

Ingredients

For the cookies

  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla

For the frosting

  • 1/4 cup shortening
  • 1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • Red, green, yellow, and black food coloring (gel coloring is best)

Preparation

Stir together flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.

Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg and beat well. Add vanilla and about half the flour mixture, beating until combined; beat in remaining flour. Form dough into a ball, then flatten out into a square; refrigerate until just barely firm, about 20-30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

Roll dough to about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thickness and cut into desired shapes; I made stars, trees, and houses. Place same-shape cookies on each baking sheet to ensure even baking. For example, make all the stars on one sheet and all the houses on another so you don’t burn the stars while the houses are still baking.

Bake for 8-10 minutes, until just golden. Cool on a wire rack.

To make the frosting, in a mixing bowl, combine shortening, vanilla extract, water, and 1 cup powdered sugar. Mix on low speed, then increase to medium-high and beat for 10 minutes, until smooth. Add remaining powdered sugar and additional teaspoon of vanilla extract, beating until smooth.

Reserve a portion of untinted frosting for snow, windows, and doors of houses. Divide remaining frosting into small portions for your other colors; I used yellow for my stars, green, yellow, and red for my trees (which featured stars and garland), and red, white, green, and black for my houses. Fill piping bags and decorate as you like; I used a star tip to make the snow and evergreens on my houses above and plain tips to pipe the windows, doors, and window/door outlines.

Allow frosting to set before storing cookies between sheets of waxed paper in airtight containers at room temperature. Makes about 2 dozen, depending on cutter sizes.

Spice Cake with Maple Buttercream and Pecans

Just in case my pear and frangipane tart turned out to be a disaster, I needed a backup Christmas dessert. Enter this delicious spice cake, with maple buttercream frosting and a ring of toasted chopped pecans. Fortunately the tart was great, so we had plenty of tasty desserts around the house last week.

I’d made this spice cake before as cupcakes with a maple cream cheese frosting, but decided on a maple buttercream this time. The chopped toasted pecans add a nice dimension of flavor, as well as some crunch. The recipe below made one 8-inch layer, but you could easily double it for a fancier two-layer cake.

Ingredients

For the cake

  • 1 cup flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • heaping 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
  • heaping 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • heaping 1/8 teaspoon ginger
  • heaping 1/8 teaspoon cloves
  • 2 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 6 ounces sour milk*

*Place 1/2 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice in a glass measuring cup and add enough milk to equal a total of 6 ounces. Stir, then let sit for 5 minutes before using. 

For the frosting

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3-4 tablespoons maple syrup
  • About 2/3 cup chopped toasted pecans

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray an 8-inch round cake pan with baking spray and line the bottom with a parchment circle.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. You’ll note that the measurements for the spices are heaping, so seriously, don’t hold back.

In a mixing bowl, beat butter and shortening on medium speed for about 1 minute. Add sugar and vanilla and cream together until well-combined, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Add flour mixture and sour milk alternatively, beginning and ending with the flour and beating until just combined after each addition.

Pour batter into cake pan and bake for 25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan for about 1 hour, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the frosting, in a mixing bowl, beat butter on medium speed for about 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and add the powdered sugar, all at once, then beat on low speed until the sugar is fully incorporated into the butter; this will take several minutes.

Add vanilla and 2 tablespoons maple syrup, then beat on medium speed for about 3-4 minutes, until very light and fluffy, scraping the sides of the bowl very well at least a few times. Taste; add 1 to 2 more tablespoons syrup to reach your desired flavor.

Place the cooled cake on a serving platter and frost the top only, then sprinkle toasted pecans around the edge.

Makes about 8 servings.

Pear and Frangipane Tart

Still drawing on my inspiration from the Great British Baking Show, I made this pear and frangipane tart for Christmas. Frangipane (say it with me: fran-gee-pan) is a fancy-sounding word for a delicious mixture of ground almonds, butter, eggs, sugar, and almond extract, which gets combined with any number of jams or fruits in various tarts.

I found this recipe at Williams Sonoma and adjusted it slightly to be alcohol-free; there was a bit of rum in their frangipane, but mine just uses water. I also kept my pears in halves, rather than quarters, to give the option of frangipane-only slices for those of us who don’t tend to like cooked fruit and skipped the part where you brush the baked tart with melted apricot jam to give it some shine. The next time I make this, I’ll chill my tart dough a bit longer; it turned out very well, but started to tear a bit as I worked with it and could have likely used another 30 minutes or so in the fridge.

Ingredients

For the tart shell

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tablespoons very cold water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch cubes

For the filling

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups raw unblanched whole almonds, finely ground*
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 2 Anjou pears, peeled, cored, and cut in half

*You’re making almond flour here and can grind the nuts in a food processor until they’re very fine and powdery. You can use store-bought almond flour if you like, but as it’s made with blanched almonds, you’ll have a slightly different color and maybe a bit of a different flavor than if you make your own from whole, unblanched almonds. 

Preparation

Prepare the tart shell: in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the flour, sugar and salt. Add the butter and beat on medium-low speed until the texture resembles coarse cornmeal, with butter pieces no larger than small peas. Add the egg mixture and beat just until the dough pulls together.

Turn dough onto a very lightly floured work surface and pat into a ball, then flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for about 30-60 minutes.

On a very lightly floured work surface, roll your dough to about 1/8 inch thickness; you’ll want to flatten the dough slightly before you start rolling and turn it every few rolls to keep it from sticking.

Fold the dough round in half and carefully transfer to a 9 1/2-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Unfold and ease the round into the pan, without stretching it, and pat it firmly into the bottom and up the sides of the pan; I use a small ball of excess dough to press it into the crevices in the sides so the dough doesn’t tear. Trim off any excess dough by gently running a rolling pin across the top of the pan. Press the dough into the sides to extend it slightly above the rim to offset any shrinkage during baking.

Refrigerate or freeze the tart shell until firm, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, position a rack in the lower third of an oven and preheat to 375°F.

Line the pastry shell with aluminum foil and fill with weights; I use dried beans. Bake for 20 minutes, then lift an edge of the foil. If the dough looks wet, continue to bake, checking every 5 minutes, until the dough is pale gold, for a total baking time of 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack. Leave the oven temperature at 375°F and position a rack in the middle of the oven.

While the shell bakes, make the frangipane: melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to the touch.

In a medium bowl, stir together ground almonds, sugar, eggs, almond extract, vanilla extract, water, lemon zest, and melted butter. Spread evenly in the shell.

Slice pear halves crosswise into slices about 1/8 inch thick, keeping them together. Arrange core-side down with the stem end pointing toward the middle of the pan.

Bake until filling is firm to the touch and golden, about 40-45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Almond Buttercream Pine Cones

My lemon almond Yule log was a big hit at our holiday get-together, and these adorable little almond pine cones were probably my favorite part of the cake. You could use them to decorate nearly any type of cake, or even round sugar cookies. I actually think chocolate frosting would make a more authentic-looking cone, but you can use any flavor you like. My almond buttercream worked very well.

I had five pine cones on my Yule log, and they each take about one tablespoon of buttercream and 12-15 almond flakes, so quantities will vary depending on how many you”d like to make, and how large they will be. My pine cones were small, about two inches high, but you could certainly make larger versions.

Ingredients

Preparation

Place buttercream in a piping bag with a large plain tip and pipe about 1 tablespoon of frosting per pine cone.

Starting at the top, place flaked almonds in descending rows for the scales; start with one almond at the top, then add two or three on the next row, and so fort. Gently press almonds into the frosting so they set.

 

 

Lemon Almond Yule Log

A traditional Yule log, or buche de noel, is a chocolate sponge cake with chocolate or vanilla filling. As migraine life doesn’t give me the option of chocolate, I decided to make one with my favorite flavors – almond and lemon – and jazz it up with some pine bough piping and almond pine cones.

While the flavors in this cake were delicious, my sponge wasn’t quite as light and airy as I’d like. The best sponge I’ve ever made was the spice roll with caramel sauce from Thanksgiving, so I’ll keep practicing this cake until I get the texture I want. That’s one of the many benefits of baking; you can keep working on something in order to perfect it, and still have tasty treats along the way.

Ingredients

For the cake

  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling and frosting

  • About 2/3 to 3/4 cup lemon curd
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 3/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon almond extract
  • 1/2 to 1 tablespoon milk
  • Brown food coloring
  • Moss green food coloring
  • Flaked almonds, for pine cones

Preparation

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a 10 x 15 x 1 pan with parchment. Place a lint-free tea towel on a heatproof surface (I use a cutting board) near your oven and dust it with powdered sugar.

In a small bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat eggs until foamy, then slowly add the sugar, beating on medium speed until the mixture is thick and a light lemon color, about 5-7 minutes; add vanilla and almond extracts just before you stop beating. When the batter is done, it will fall from the whisk in a ribbon, then mound on top of the batter before blending back in. Gently fold the flour mixture in (I used my whisk attachment for easy clean-up).

Pour batter into prepared pan, spreading with a spatula to create an even layer. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until the top is golden brown and you hear a crackling from the surface of the cake. Remove from oven, then quickly and carefully flip your cake onto the powdered sugar-sprinkled tea towel. Gently peel the parchment away, then starting at one of the short ends, roll the cake up in a tight spiral and allow to cool on a wire rack completely before filling.

To make the buttercream, in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter on medium speed for about 1 minute. Add powdered sugar and beat on low speed until the sugar is fully incorporated into the butter, about 3-5 minutes. Add vanilla and almond extracts and milk; continue to beat on medium-high speed for another 1-2 minutes. You can add a bit more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, if necessary to thin your frosting.

To fill, frost, and decorate: unroll the cake and spread with lemon curd; re-roll and place in the refrigerator for about 20-30 minutes for it to set.

Frost the cake to cover it completely, then use your spatula to make long bark-like markings along the top and sides and swirls on the ends. Tint a small portion of frosting brown and place in a piping bag fitted with a large plain tip, then pipe pine branches. Tint another portion of frosting moss green and place in a piping bag fitted with a medium plain tip, then pipe needles.

To make almond pine cones, pipe blobs of frosting, then place flaked almonds in rows to create the cone shape.

Carefully cover your log with foil and place it back in the refrigerator until about 20 minutes before you’re ready to serve it. Store leftover cake in the fridge.

Makes about 10 servings.

 

Gingerbread Dog House

Watching the Great British Baking Show will make you want to build something spectacular out of gingerbread. As I’m a gingerbread structure amateur, I decided to forego the Taj Mahal and Hogwarts Castle for a cute little dog house.

I recently bought the Wilton three-piece gingerbread house cutter set at the craft store and yesterday I tried it out. While it’s a very convenient tool, I wish I’d had a larger quantity of gingerbread from the recipe I used. Next time, I’ll either make smaller templates out of cardboard, or choose a larger-quantity recipe. Either way, this was a fun project. While I’d made a gingerbread house before, I wanted a better-tasting recipe this time, and I found this one at Food Network.I deviated from their instructions for baking a bit, but it turned out very well.

Ingredients

For the house

  • 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup light molasses
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons water

For the royal icing

  • 3 3/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 3 egg whites, at room temperature

Preparation

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter, brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and baking soda together until the mixture is smooth. Blend in the flour and water to make a stiff dough. Chill at least 30 minutes or until firm.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. On a very lightly floured surface, roll out dough to about 1/4 inch thickness. Using the cutter set (or your own templates), cut sides, roof panels, and front/back panels.

Place panels on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper a few inches apart; cookies will spread when baking. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the dough feels firm – the cookies can burn, so keep a close eye on them.

Remove from oven and immediately trim off any uneven sides; you’ll want your sides as straight as possible for construction. Place cookies on a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

To make royal icing, place sifted powdered sugar and cream of tartar in a mixing bowl fitted with the whisk attachment. Add egg whiles and beat on low for a few seconds to combine, scraping the sides of your bowl to get all the powdered sugar evenly incorporated. Whip on high speed for 7-10 minutes; you want the icing to hold peaks.

Working quickly, place icing in a piping bag; cover any unused icing with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out. Beginning with one of the side panels, pipe a line of icing on the bottom and side, then press it gently onto your platter or cake plate. It helps to have someone hold the panels for you so they stay upright during construction. Repeat with the front panel, then add another side, the back panel, and your roof. Decorate as you like; I added very simple doors and windows, along with some snow on the roof. And of course, the resident dog.

Store at room temperature; royal icing will harden as it dries, keeping your house upright (at least we hope so).