Thursday, May 20, 2010

Macarons and my crazy world


My ex-colleague T used to tease me that I looked pissed when I was busy working.
"No, it is just my face! I am definitely not unhappy even though I am not smiling. I am just FOCUS!"
"oh, ok." to which he sheepishly replied and walked away. Not before stealing a cookie from my cookie truck.

When there's a long list of things to get done by the end of the service, or when I was far behind the tickets that never stopped coming in, the last ounce of energy was saved to propel myself to work faster.

Smiling was not anywhere near the bottom of my priorities. However, when the task involved making macarons, no one could do anything to remove the silly grin on my face.


Making macarons never fails to cheer me up. Well, when they turn out well, that is. My heart was broken so many times when the shells had no feet or crack. And my head almost exploded troubleshooting what went wrong.

Since I moved back to Atlanta, a few batches of macarons have been made. In the beginning, the recipe worked for me. And then 2 weeks ago, when I started using almond flour from a different source, things started to go downhill. The macaron shells wont dry even after resting for an hour, there was no distinct feet after baking at the same conditions as previous batches. 3 failed batches later, I was still in the rut.

Looking at these successful batches now made my heart a little sad. Will I ever get it right again?


Welcome to my pastry world. I spend a lot of time pondering about things like how protein coagulates in the oven using different meringue making methods and the effect of almond particle size on macaron shells. Good thing that OCT is a scientist, so he doesn't think his wife is crazy.

And speaking of crazy, I landed a job on the spot yesterday. The pastry chef told the HR manager that he liked me. Apparently because I was crazy, so I would fit perfectly in his team. I thought I usually conceal my craziness pretty well during interviews. Anyway.

What are you crazy about?


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

My first strawberries picking


The strawberries season at the south has officially began a few weeks ago. Like a child going to Disneyland for the very first time,I was very excited about my first strawberries picking. On the first weekend that the closest farm opened its door for U-Pick, I was ready to jump into the car. With a picnic basket full of macarons and homemade croissants.

Except that the extremely bad weather left us no choice but to postpone our plan for another week.

Sometime in the middle of the week, a bakery that I have applied called and asked me to go in for an interview on Saturday.

"Do you have anything going on this Saturday?" The head baker asked.
"I was planning to go for strawberries picking, but I guess I should still have time to get to the farm after the interview" I replied.

strawberry picking

It was a grey and cloudy Saturday morning, my interview went well. I was asked to stage, which was the last step in landing the job. I was happy and relieved at the possibility of working at a place I like. Until the head baker mentioned the hours. The shift starts at 2 a.m till noon.

I told him that I needed time to consider that. Meanwhile, I needed to make a move before all the strawberries were picked by others.

He looked a little amused at this crazy Asian girl, who has her mind set at strawberries picking on the same day. Nothing could stop her.


At its peak season, the picking was easy.Ripe and red berries were everywhere. I tugged one and tentatively bite into it. Like a sunshile. I couldn't help smiling. This was how strawberries should taste!

I remembered those flats of big red strawberries the hotel got during winter months. They tasted as if water has been pumped to make them so big and yet so tasteless! Not these jewels I was holding on my hand. They were the sweetest berries I had tasted.

It didn't take us long to fill up both our buckets with ripe and beautiful strawberries. At which point I was a little sad at the prospect of leaving. I wish I could continue picking, but I knew the 2 buckets we picked would be more than enough for all my baking projects.

I freeze most of the strawberries after making a strawberry cake to bring to a friend's party. I have plans to turn them into strawberry sorbet and strawberry jam soon!
strawberry cupcakes 2
These strawberry cupcakes were made on a whim to use up the buttermilk and strawberry buttercream I had from another baking project. Although they tasted lovely, I could only imagine how great it would taste when I make them again with my homemade strawberry jam!

strawberry cupcakes

I promise myself that I will make the jam soon. Perhaps I will make some macarons with the jam too. Wouldn't that be a tasty idea!

Buttermilk Cupcakes with Strawberry Buttercream

For the cake
2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 sticks(10 tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk

To make the cake,
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350F. Line muffin pan with cupcake liners.

Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Working with a stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugar and beat for another 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one by one, and then the yolk, beating for one minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla; don't be concerned if the mixture looks curdled. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients alernately with the buttermilk. adding the dry ingredients in 3 additions and the milk in 2 (begin and end with the dry ingredients); scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed and mix only until the ingredients disappear into the batter. Fill the cupcake liners till they are 2/3 full.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes,rotating the pans at the midway point. When fully baked, the cakes will be golden and springy to the touch and a thin knife inserted into the centers will come out clean. Transfer the cakes to a rack to cool completely before frosting.

Strawberry Buttercream
adapted from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook
make 5 cups (you dont need this much for the cupcakes, so either half the recipe or keep the rest for another baking project)
4 large eggwhites
1 1/4 cupgranulated sugar
3 sticks butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) strawberry jam

In a heatproof bowl of the stand mixer, set over a sauce pan of simmering water, combine egg whites and granulated sugar. Whisk constantly until the sugar has completely dissolve and the mixture is warm to touch. ( about 160F).

Attach the bowl to the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk under medium high speed till the mixture hold stiff peak. Lower the speed and continue to beat until the mixture is cool.

Switch to paddle attachment. With the mixer on medium low speed, beat in the butter, a few tablespoons at a time. Making sure all butter has been incorporated before adding more. If the mixture separates after all butter has been added, beat on medium high speed for a few more minutes, the buttercream will become glossy and smooth again. Beat in vanilla and strawberry jam in low speed to eliminate air bubbles.

If you want the buttercream to have a darker color, add red food coloring. The recipe makes a big batch of buttercream, keep the leftover in an airtight container and chill in cooler.

When ready to use, bring the buttercream to room temperature and rewhisk it either by hand or a mixer to bring it to pipe-able consistency.


Monday, May 03, 2010

My first fondant cake for a very special friend

One of the objectives I set for myself during this period of unemployment is to practice my cake decorating skills. For people who know me, they know how much I hate and suck at doing that. All the pipings, sugar flowers making and fondant work is my achilles' heel.I absolutely couldn't sit down to decorate cakes with buttercream and fondant.If given a choice,I would rather make cakes with multiple components anytime.

But cake decorating is such an important part of being a pastry chef, so I am determine to better my skills in this aspect.
baby shower cake
So when my friends Cindy and Rika asked if I could make a safari theme baby shower cake for our dear friend Grace, I said yes.

The first thing I did upon accepting the assignment was to look up the safari related pictures on the internet. The cakes that other talented cake decorators made, the shower invitation cards, party decoration materials and everything else. I decided to make something simple since I have zero experience in making a real fondant cake.

Since Grace is going to have a baby boy born in the chinese zodiac year of tiger, I decided to make a tiger gumpaste figurine, among other animals. Then I wanted to cut out some rolled fondant animals to put on the sides of the cake. They were monkeys, giraffes,hippo and elephants. Fairly simple animals to make.
in the making
A simple sketch was drawn as a guide.


Although the fondant animals I chosed were just some simple designs, it still took me a whole afternoon to make them. Then I went on to make leaves of different sizes.

016 copy

I was certain that I would have enough time to put everything together on Saturday night after I made the cake and filling. After applying a thin layer of buttercream coating I let the cake rest in the cooler. An hour later, I rolled out the fondant to cover the cake. I decided to leave the base white, which I regretted later. It looked like an empty canvas! OCT commented that the cake looked like an incomplete piece of work with the white base.

020 copy
But it's starting to get late and I was having difficulty smoothening the sides of the cake, so changing the base color was not an option. Up till this point, I have only covered fondant over cake dummies in school which were hard, solid and fairly tolerable to vigorous pressing and smoothening.

With a REAL cake with filling and all, I wasn't too sure of the pressure I could apply. And the thought of destroying the cake at the 11th hour was too stressful. So I tried to do my best and made more grass to cover the bottom of the cake.

animal figurines for baby shower cake
When OCT saw my gumpaste figurine, he commented that it didn't have the feature of a tiger. So I made another figurine after putting on all the fondant cut outs on the cake. It was already 2am when I got to that. And it took me a good 30 minutes to make the tiger. Since my first gumpaste figurine was not going to be a tiger, I turned it into a baby bear. Can you see the letter B on his chest? B = BABY also B = BOY! I let the second figurine dry overnight before painting  it.

his or mine?
The next day when we got up, OCT who claimed to be a better artist offered to add the details and paint the tiger. Now that we have 2 figurines, I couldn't decide which one to use. Clearly OCT thought his tiger was better, but I thought my baby bear was really cute too. So I put the two of them in a different container to let Grace choose which one she preferred as the topper. :)

baby shower final

In the end, both of them were put on the cake! It's a happy ending. :)

On hindsight, I should have added more details on top of the cake. But I was trying not to be over ambitious with my first attempt.

It was definitely a good learning experience and I am glad that I did it.:)

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