How to make an almond smile

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This is a story about macarons, and an awesome book called “Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee” (amazon). This book wastes the first half of it’s paper on coffee (that’s just my opinion, though). It talks about beans, sourcing and roasting. These people care about coffee, and Iris tells me it’s really good coffee. I don’t drink coffee. The other half of the ink is about coffee shop snacks though. They put as much passion into those as they do the coffee. That’s where the fun is for me. 🙂

I’ve written about a number of cookbooks now, and with most of them I’ve made the claim that an unskilled amateur would find them approachable. This isn’t one of those books. This is a book full of recipes that sweat the details, and involve more complicated steps.

The macaron recipe is amazing, tasting like something straight out of a Parisian café, but it starts with making the almond flour with non-alkalized cocoa (chances are you don’t have that in your cupboard), then has you beating egg whites to soft peaks while monitoring syrup as it gets to soft-ball stage, so that everything can come together at the right time. A second pair of hands is invaluable to get through this one. This recipe has many, many ways to fail. 4-5 pages of fine print worth, along with plenty of debugging tips. That said, the failures are still pretty tasty. Trust me, I’ve tried them.

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Here are a few tips:

  • At some point, I bought a macaron kit with a silicon baking sheet with ridges that formed a nice template. It wasn’t worth the money. I expected the mix to be worthless, but so was the silicon pad. The macarons lift off parchment easier, and the silicon slows the cooking, making it trickier to get the bottoms cooked without making the tops too crispy.
  • Don’t make the macarons too small. The book calls for one-inch rounds, but next time I’m going with something closer to 2 inches (but not too thick).
  • Chocolate filling is the best part. I have two favorites:
    • If you have access to Recchiuti‘s sauce, it’s second to none. They’re a small San Francisco operation though, and hard to come by elsewhere (if you do have access to their chocolates, their fleur de sel caramels are also not to be missed).
    • The close runner up is Fran’s dark chocolate sauce. Fran’s distributes much more broadly, and is local for us, so this is what I usually have around.

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One last parting shot, since I know a few of the folks that drop by are also amateur photographers. I recently picked up a used Nikon macro flash set (R1C1) and have been playing around with it a bit, as hopefully shows in the photos this week. Usually I’m just capturing cell phone snaps for expedience.

Here’s the setup for the chocolate sauce picture above:

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I split the output to the two flash units about 80-20, with most going to the unit shooting through the diffuser on the right, and the one on the left pointed mostly at the background. There are is a can of Zevia ginger root beer and a bag of almonds in the background that are almost unrecognizable, but provide some nice texture. This was one of about 6-7 variations, and stood out as having the most interesting composition and contrast. The final shot is nearly unedited, aside from one spot-removal that was driving me bonkers.

– Ben

Cookbook: Simply Ming One-Pot Meals

Here are some things to keep in mind that you might not easily glean from the title:

  • “Simply” applies to “Ming”, not “Meals”. While these are generally not multi-day preparations, they’re also not 20-muinite meals.
  • It’s amazing how creatively you can stretch the definition of “one pot”. Many of the dishes in this cookbook require re-using said pot multiple times in a single preparation.
  • Although each recipe only uses one pot, there are many different vessels that are called for. Casserole dishes. Woks. Skillets. Saucepans. Roasting Pans (those are pots?!)
  • Strainers, bowls, and other such accoutrements are not pots. Therefore any number may be called for without exceeding the one pot limit.

Once you come to terms with those rules, this is a great “everday” cookbook with reliable, achievable results. The ingredients aren’t exotic, but most recipes will require thinking ahead. They tend to require at least one item that you’re not likely to just have in the cupboard. Prep time varies quite a bit and may require a little planning ahead, but none of the recipes required a culinary degree to follow.

We’ve worked through quite a few recipes in the book. We’ve adjusted seasonings here and there, and like many of our favorite cookbooks, its starting to get nicely marked up with notes. The fundamental construction of every recipe that we’ve tried has held up well, though.

Among others, we’ve tried mom’s famous vinegared shrimp, a chow mien and a kung pow chicken. While the book is largely Asian-inspired, it ventures across quite a few cuisines, and shines most on some of the more creative dishes. Black bean scallops and zucchini was an unexpected combination that worked very well.

One dish that we were pleasantly surprised with was the gingered pork with leeks. I’m not a fan of leeks, but much like a good curry powder covers up the gaminess of lamb, the serrano chilies and Worcestershire sauce compliment the leeks in a way that makes them … I’m almost embarrassed to say… pleasant.

Speaking of lamb, I’m still looking forward to trying the Moroccan spiced lamb shoulder, as well as a few of the other roasts. It’s the right season for that sort of dish.

As a physical item, the book works well. Print is large enough to read from the far side of a mixing bowl, but barely. The photographs of every dish are clean and pretty, but don’t demonstrate great creativity in their treatment of the various dishes. The margins are a bit small for notes, but most pages have some whitespace below the instructions that works well enough.

Cookbook: Weeknight Fresh and Fast

Cookbooks are tricky to try to write about. You need to work through a few recipes before you can really get a feel for whether it’s a good one, and that takes time. There are other factors too… does the cookbook teach the essential techniques or assume you’re a chef? Does it stick to it’s goal or theme? Is it authentic or convenient? I’ll try to answer all that.

I picked up the Williams Sonoma Weeknight Fresh and Fast (Amazon*) cookbook to use as specified: easy after-work meals.

This is a cookbook of recipes that are, presumably, quick and easy to prepare. The book has about 100 recipes arranged by season, mostly themed around the available produce in each season, though summer definitely favors more grilling. Most recipes use ingredients that are easy enough to find year-round that you don’t need to stick to the recommendations, but who wants to make a roast or a heavy stew on a 100-degree summer day? It’s a medium-sized book with beautiful pictures of every recipe, and plenty of room in the margins to write in. I love this format.

I’ve worked through about a half-dozen of the recipes in the book so far, and some of them multiple times. For the most part, the recipes are things you can do after work, but aren’t 20-minute wonder dishes. They take a little chopping and prepping. Add in cook times, and I’ve found I typically need an hour to put together a full meal. Most recipes are meant to by a one-dish wonder, though we add a separate veggie dish most of the time. They just need a starch like rice or bread to accompany them. The recipes tend to be a bit strong in use of some flavors, especially citrus. I usually had to cut back on fresh lemon or lime juices or the citrus was overpowering the other flavors. So far I think our favorite was the broiled leg of lamb, just be judicious with the orange zest. We paired it with a red kale sautéed in ginger, garlic and olive oil, and it made a great compliment. The wine below is a Chateau Ste. Michelle sweet Riesling. It’s not a great pairing, but it is one of my favorite wines. Light, sweet and refreshing.

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As for technique, most of what you need to know to use this cookbook should be pretty basic. The book doesn’t have much in the way of explanations of technique or food handling, but the recipes don’t call for anything too fancy either. If you can sauté, grill, and use a kitchen thermometer, you’re in good shape.

Bottom line: this is one of my favorite weeknight go-to cookbooks now, though like any well-used cookbook, you’ll want to write plenty of notes in the margins as you find the perfect mix of flavors to match your own tastes.

* Purchasing through Amazon helps support our site.