Monday, August 5, 2013

Oatmeal, you get me

Dear Matthew Inman,

I have long been an avid reader of your snarky, George Grosz-esque* comics. As a guinea pig-owning vegetarian, I can't really identify with your sage observations on dogs and bacon, but this, this really spoke to me. I don't lift to get pretty**; I lift to be able to chow down on large amounts of fresh-baked bread with aioli and avocado and oil-doused eggplant.

Extremely hot weather is actually a detriment to bread-baking, especially for those of us without thermostats. Bread rises and proofs very quickly in a humid apartment, and running the oven at 475 for 40 minutes requires ozone-slaying doses of AC. Even Peter Reinhart's advice couldn't keep me from over-proofing this one. Andy chowed down on a third of the loaf in one sitting anyway.

No need for a recipe, other than to tell you to use lots of paprika
and put lime juice and black garlic in the aioli!

Oh, and macarons. I will eat all my protein calories from macarons, and let me tell you, at what I estimate to be just under 2 g protein per, that's a lot of cookies! I made a big batch for the end of my EM sub-I. They're not as showy as my first EM rotation's Ativan cupcakes, but a. I used clinical equipment to make them again and b. they let me do this:

Komm, süßer Tod, Part VIII: Abram Aronovich Slutsky

Most readers of this blog never had the privilege of experiencing the USSR firsthand, but Komrad Slutsky certainly did. After a humble birth to a Jewish family in the Parafievka (which I believe is in modern-day Ukraine) and taking part in the bitter fighting of World War I, Slutsky joined the Bolshevik party. The Bolsheviks' October Revolution was, of course, a great success, and Alexander Kerensky's Russia gave way to the (theoretical) rule of the people. Slutsky focused his efforts on securing Soviet authority in central Asia and quickly had a meteoric rise to head of the foreign department of the OGPU. Apparently, this was aided by several shady economic dealings directed against the poor, vulnerable Swedes. From there, it was a short leap to leadership of the whole kit and kaboodle!

Slutsky's tenure in the OGPU was illustrious. He managed to infiltrate Britain with the Cambridge Five and extort false confessions to Stalin's content. Unfortunately for him, the purges spared not even the highest-ranked. One day, Mikhail Frinovsky, deputy head of the secret police (by that point the NKVD... I know, it's complicated), invited Slutsky into his office for some nice, strong Russian tea. One thing lead to another, and soon Frinkovsky's own deputy was summoned... only to find Slutsky dead in his chair. Frinovsky claimed Slutsky died of a heart attack, and indeed Slutsky was known to have had heart trouble for a number of years. He was interred, and everything proceeded smoothly (if you count engineering mass assassinations and the starvation of millions smooth).

But mysteriously, two months after his death of very natural causes, the Party expelled Slutsky from its ranks as an "enemy of the people." Sure enough, just before Frinkovsky's own execution, he admitted that the chief of the NKVD himself had ordered Slutsky sedated with chloroform and injected with cyanide. The chief, Nikolai Ezhov, confirmed this upon his own execution.

The connection: macarons are made from almond flour --> bitter almonds --> cyanide. Almonds are also cool because almond trees are susceptible to aflatoxin-producing fungi. Aflatoxin can either cause acute hepatic necrosis or, on a long-term basis, liver cancer. Neato!

Since this post is already quite lengthy, I might as well extend it more and give you my spiel on macarons. They're light, slightly chewy almond-flour cookies filled with, well, anything! These are plain almond macarons with chocolate-salted caramel ganache. The filling was a little heavy for me, actually, since the cookies are so light.

Macarons require a lot of technique to get right... but the techniques required aren't actually that difficult, manually speaking. You just can't skimp on any of the steps. I'll provide a recipe for the cookies, but first, here are some helpful tips:

1. A scale is pretty much essential. I'll explain why throughout this list.
2. For the cookie batter, use powdered sugar and VERY finely ground almonds. Sift the ground almonds before weighing, especially if you grind your own! Mix the weighed/sifted portion with powdered sugar, and sift in small portions into the beaten egg whites. Here's one place a scale is essential, since all that sifting will give you variable volumes of almonds and sugar (if you're just going by cup measures).
3. Age your egg whites. This just means letting them sit, covered, at room temperature for 6-8 hours or overnight (it gets rid of some of the moisture). Weigh them both before and after aging! Most recipes call for somewhere between 90 and 110 grams of egg white, which may be pre- or post-aging. Pay attention to which it is!
4. Use a gel or powdered food coloring only (I used a few drops of leaf-green Americolor). Water-based dyes will make your batter too sticky, and the cookies will sink.
5. In my experience, letting the piped macarons sit before baking isn't necessary. Smacking the baking sheet firmly on the table is. That way, you get those pretty macaron feet!
6. Finally, DO NOT under any circumstances open the oven after putting the macarons in until you're confident they're at least 90 percent cooked. Opening the oven will crack all your cookies, guaranteed.

The Recipe
100 g egg whites, post-aging weight
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
pinch salt
50 g granulated sugar
100 g almond flour (post-sifting weight)
200 g confectioner's sugar
Optional: 1/4 tsp extract of some sort
Optional: 1/4 tsp gel (or equivalent powdered) food coloring

In a food processor, clean spice grinder, or clean coffee grinder, combine the almond flour and confectioner's sugar. Grind together for about 2 minutes or until very fine. Set aside.

Beat the egg whites with the salt and cream of tartar until foamy. Slowly add the granulated sugar while beating until the whites are stiff; add in the food coloring and extracts just at the end, if using. At this point, begin to preheat your oven to 300 F.

Sift in about half the almond/sugar mixture. With a spatula, swiftly swirl the mixture into the egg whites only about five times. Sift in the rest of the almond/sugar mixture, and GENTLY fold everything together until the batter is homogeneous. DO NOT overmix this. The batter should fall in ribbons that meld together in about 30 seconds.

Line baking sheets with parchment paper. With a piping bag fitted with a round tip (or a 100-cc syringe with the tip cut off), pipe even 1-inch circles about 2 inches apart. They need plenty of space for air circulation! Rap the baking sheet very firmly against the table 5-7 times to get out the air bubbles (if you see them rising, help them along by popping them with a needle or toothpick). Resting the batter isn't necessary, but go for it if you really want.

Bake for 10-12 minutes. DO NOT open the oven until at least 10 minutes have elapsed. Cool on the parchment paper, then gently use a thin metal spatula to lift them off. Fill as desired.

*get it? get it?
**Okay, so this part rings true as well. I'm not an inbred baked potato, but I am a ravening thigh monster.

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