Sunday, July 29, 2012

Macaron Madness!

When it comes to baking, there are some goodies that are just notoriously hard. Of course of anything I could make, these things are the ones that I want to try the most, just to see if I can make these "impossible" treats. I guess I just think if I can make these, I can make anything!

One of these "impossibilities" is, of course, macarons. Every dessert blogger worth talking about has made them at one time or another. I'm no exception, with the difference that my first time was a failure, so I never really told anyone about it and I never tried again. Until now.

My failed first attempt at macarons.
The flavour was ok, but the texture was all wrong!
My friend Jacqui from Fashion & Pho and I occasionally have baking days, which usually end up being pretty successful. You might remember such delicious Jacqui and Jenny creations as our Baklava, and of course the infamous Gingerbread Mausoleum. Obviously with such past achievements, when Jacqui suggested that we make macarons, it seemed like a recipe for success!

First things first, we had to dress the part. Jacqui brought these fabulous frilly pink aprons for us to wear, complete with pink lipstick. The aprons look really girly from a distance, but if you look closely, this is the pattern!

We started with this recipe from Not So Humble Pie (on a recommendation from another baking friend, thanks W.B.!) but the only problem was that we didn't have a scale, so we ended up making some educated guesses on the amounts. I know guessing is usually a recipe for disaster when you're baking, but it worked anyway! We also added about 1/2 tsp of raspberry extract, to go with the pink colour we chose.

Jacqui totally looking the part of the 1950's baking housewife,
complete with frilly apron and pearls!
After I'd whipped the egg whites and added the sugar, food colouring, and flavouring, we folded the dry ingredients that Jacqui had mixed (and spent a loooooong time sifting) into it. This was weird, because it was almost like they stayed separate for the first several folds. I don't know how to explain that any better, but it was strange.

Then I piped it out onto the silicon baking mat that I bought at home, which Jacqui cut into pieces that would fit my two small baking pans.

The only problem here was that the pans are far too small to fit all the macarons we made, so I piped more out onto parchment paper, but I wasn't very prepared and I ran out of parchment before we had them all piped out! We couldn't just leave it and pipe more after we'd baked the first ones, because they have to sit for an hour or so before you bake them. So Jacqui went searching on the internet, and came up with the fact that cupcake liners can be used instead of parchment.

So that's what we did, but they were far less successful than the others due to the papers moving around while I was trying to pipe them. We ended up with some pretty funny shapes!

When we had them all piped out, we counted them so we'd know just how many we had. The recipe says it makes about 100 halves, and strangely, when we counted we discovered that we had EXACTLY 100!
After leaving them to sit for an hour so they can form a kind of crust over the top, we baked them for about 15 minutes. One of the signs of a good macaron is a "foot" that it grows on the bottom as it's baking. If you look at the picture of my first attempt, you'll see that there's no foot, so you can imagine my excitement when I looked into the oven after about 5 minutes and saw our macarons growing feet!

Unfortunately, although the funny shaped ones did grow feet, they were not exactly picture perfect!

Also, in case you were wondering, cupcake liners do NOT make a good substitute for parchment. Most of these stuck to the paper pretty badly.

So, after all of the baking was done, it was time to fill them! We chose to make two different filings: a basic chocolate ganache with a bit of hazelnut flavouring, and a lemon buttercream.

Jacqui's about to sample the first one, filled with chocolate!

We probably should have let the ganache cool down more before we filled them, because it was still too runny and we couldn't put much in, but we just couldn't wait!

When we had all of the nice looking ones filled, we looked at the deformed ones and the amount of fillings we had left, and decided they didn't need to be sandwich cookies, and that they didn't need to be shared with anyone else. We put both chocolate hazelnut filling AND lemon buttercream on each one, and then concluded that we should have done that with ALL of them, because it was soooooo good!

We were pretty happy with our macaron attempt. The dangerous thing is that now we know we can do it, and the possibilities for flavour combinations are ENDLESS!

Check out Jacqui's blog post about our macaron-making day HERE.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fruity Fridays - Sapodilla

This Friday's fruit: Sapodilla
Also known as: zapote, naseberry, chikoo, plus many others
Vietnamese name: hồng xiêm
Cost in the market outside my house: I think I paid about 20,000 dong for a kilo, but it was a while ago so I'm not sure!
Season in Northern Vietnam: I bought these in April when they seemed very plentiful, although I just read something that said sapodilla trees fruit all year, and I have seen some recently!
Interesting facts: This fruit and various part of the tree it grows on seems to be used in all kinds of ways to cure all kinds of ailments. Also, the tree produces a lot of latex, from which a lot of chewing gum is made. In India it's called chiku, which is how Chiclets got their name!

I bought them when they were quite hard, but left them out for a few days and they softened up pretty quickly.

When you cut them in half they have this brownish pulp inside, which has a slightly grainy texture a bit like a pear, and tastes sweet with a hint of brown sugary flavour.

It's pretty easy to eat, you can scoop out the insides like you might with a kiwi, but be careful of the big black seeds inside! Apparently sometimes they have a little hook on them, so if you accidentally swallow one it can get caught in your throat and become quite unpleasant.

I tried eating one of these fresh, and it was ok but honestly I wasn't a big fan of the taste or the texture. Somewhere I read that they're better cold, but I decided that instead of waiting for one to chill, I'd just bake with it.

I scooped out all of the insides....

....mashed it up....

...and used it in place of banana in my mom's amazing Banana Bread recipe.

It was a bit juicier than mashed banana, so this Sapodilla loaf was wonderfully moist and delicious! The only modification I made to the recipe was to add a tiny bit of ground cloves, because it seemed like they'd go well with the sapodilla's brown sugary flavour. And oh yes they did!

I'm sure there are plenty of other things you could make with sapodillas, and in fact has a couple of yummy looking recipes for Sapodilla Souffle and Sapodilla Kulfi (Indian ice cream). It also suggests stewing them with lime juice and ginger (which I'm thinking would be great on vanilla ice cream), battering and frying them, or fermenting them to make wine. There's also a recipe floating around for Sapodilla Pie. It seems they can also easily be used in any recipe where you'd normally use apples or bananas, so go nuts!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Circus Mexicus XXI - Tacos and more!

While I was on my trip home to Canada a few weeks ago, I took a side trip to Mexico for a concert. All the way to Mexico for a concert, you say? Are you crazy? Well, yes, I might be, but this is not just a concert, this is Circus Mexicus!

Ok, here's the story. Waaaaaay back in '96 there was this band called The Refreshments, which had a hit single called Banditos. I immediately fell in love with it, and them, and was a pretty big fan until they dropped out of view a couple of years later. 

After a while, I did a quick internet search for this band I used to like, and found that they had broken up and re-formed into Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers (otherwise known as RCPM) Roger Clyne was the same singer/songwriter and thus I loved them just as much so I was hooked! (if you're interested, their website has a few tracks you can listen to, and if you click here there are FREE downloads of The Magnificent Seven, part Uno and part Dos, which are songs that fans voted for as representative of the band's sound)

Soon after they released their first album as RCPM they released a live album called Real to Reel and I went to the CD release party in Mexico! It happened to coincide with a time when my Dad wanted to go to Arizona for a holiday, and I went with him. On one condition...that we see RCPM along the way, and that I go to Mexico to see them. We did see RCPM (Dad was a fan by then) and I met up with a couple of strangers and had an awesome weekend in Mexico at what is now considered the very first Circus Mexicus!

Circus Mexicus has been a tradition since then. Once or twice a year this band goes to Rocky Point (Puerto Penasco), Mexico, and does a massive show that people come from all over the continent to see. Last year I went, to Circus Mexicus XX, and reunited with Paula, a girl who I'd met at that very first one in 2000. Amazing!

The thing is, it's not just one concert. It's a whole weekend. Not just RCPM, but various associated bands that are also pretty fantastic, and a whole lot of fun, friends, sun, sand, tequila and beer.
 Ok, this is far more information than you need. The point is, after being a fan of this band for so many years, and going to Circus Mexicus last year, of course I had to go again this year! And it was not only about the music, it's about Mexican FOOD!
So this year, I flew to Phoenix, and met up with a few people, some of whom I'd met in the UK (yeah, I've been a lot of places to see this band) and some of whom I was meeting for the first time.

That first night in Phoenix a few of us went to a bar to see Los Thieves (a combination of a guy from Los Guys and a guy from Tramps and Thieves) and I was served this enormous margarita!

To go with that margarita I had shrimp tostadas and BBQ chicken wings:

We left early the next morning to drive down to Puerto Penasco, and along the way stopped in the wonderful (insert sarcastic face here) town of Gila Bend for gas and snacks. Thus, the breakfast of champions:

Hey, cranberry juice just doesn't exist here in Hanoi, so that was exciting, ok? On the way we stopped in Ajo, where there is this beautiful mission church.

A hill full of saguaro cacti!

As soon as we got to Rocky Point, we went straight to the concert venue, Wrecked at the Reef, to pick up our wristbands and get some food!

Mmmmm first Tecate of the trip!

Beer, chips, and salsa. Can you get more Mexican than that?

And all the hot sauce you could ever want!

And that's all before the meal comes!

Shrimp tacos....

...and of course beans and rice.
Finally, we got to the condo. It had a 1000 square foot patio, with this wonderful view!

This bird was protecting the patio.

That night we went to JJ's Cantina for the "Hot Dog and a Smile" show - a charity hot dog BBQ put on by the drummer, PH Naffah, which benefits a local orphanage.

The view from JJ's.
Entertainment that night was provided by various bands, such as Shurman, Sons of Bill, and the ultra-talented Jim Dalton.

The next day I went to the Old Port area for some shopping with a few of the girls. Afterwards we went up to a restaurant on a hill, called La Casa del Capitan. As usual, we started with chips and salsa!

I had a combination plate of a taco, an enchilada, and a chile relleno. It was delicious! (I'm going to add a little aside here, that the food always looked so good that I usually forgot to take a picture until I'd already had a few case you're wondering why the dishes look partly eaten!)

There was a great view from up there, with all of these cute frog statues on the lamp posts!

I loved the edging of the restaurant's walkway!
There are little food stands everywhere! So much to try!

That day Vicki made her pumpkin and pecan cake, which was super yummy and apparently very easy to make!

Then it was finally time for the big show. The stage was set up facing the ocean, so I just kicked my shoes off and stood in the sand!

This boy was standing just outside the fence
with his puppy, no doubt wondering just what
was going on!

These girls were standing behind me for a while, wearing
these awesome, cheesy homemade sombreros!

On Sunday we went back to JJ's for the Mañanathon. This, again, consisted of several of the same bands playing, along with a meet & greet with RCPM.

JJ's is also on the beach, and when the tide's in the water comes all the way up to the retaining wall. However, when it's out there's a big ledge of rock that anyone can drive on!

Food vendors....
....anglers and souvenir sellers!

Some of the ladies setting up camp for the afternoon at JJ's.

Me with Steve and Alec, two guys I had previously met in the UK!
The first act of the day was this guy, but some of us aren't
 the biggest fans of him, and might have fallen asleep!

I think he forgot his guitar!
Ok, back to the food! Lunch that day consisted of delicious fish tacos from the taco stand outside!

The guys asked for drinks, and they got these fruity pink things.
Not quite what they were expecting, but they seemed to love them!

 That night we were invited to a house party, where Shurman was playing once again! They must have been exhausted, but like the troopers they are, they kept on going!

Best belt buckle ever!
For food, they called up a guy they knew who had a taco stand. He pulled up in his truck, unloaded and within half an hour had set up everything right in front of the garage!

They give you tortillas and meat, you choose the fixings!

I think these were the best tacos I had on the whole trip!

This is Andy, showing you the beverage selection.

And finished it all off with a jello shot!

Here's some of our happy crew - perhaps somewhat
sunburned by the end of this weekend!

So Monday morning it was time to go. Back into the car, and back to Phoenix we went. The saguaro cactus were all blooming, which I'd never really seen before. The flowers are so cute!

Back in Phoenix I stayed the night with my dear friends Peter and Ruth, and their two gorgeous kids!

We went to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner, and I had this ENORMOUS (but delicious!) BBQ Ranch Chicken Salad.

It was so big I had to take pictures of it from both sides!

And we finished it off with a piece of raspberry chocolate cheesecake!