Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday, December 14, 2012 - 4 comments

Let Not Your Cookie Cutters Rust

You wouldn’t normally think of a cookie cutter as a sign of hope.

A friend once told me how she had one special gingerbread man cookie cutter that she’d bought for the day when her daughter would be old enough to make Christmas cookies with her.  I picture it as shiny and silver, with those nice sharp edges that make for a well-formed edible man.  It would produce whole families of gingerbread people, complete with silver bead eyes and crooked royal icing smiles and cinnamon heart buttons on imaginary coats.  

The thing was, my friend didn’t have a daughter.  She didn’t even have a husband.  But she did have hope.  I imagine that every year when she pulled out her cookie cutters, that little gingerbread man one caused a bit of a twinge in her heart - a reminder that the thing she most longed for still sat out of reach.  And yet, at the same time, that cookie cutter is a symbol of her unwavering trust in the One who knows the desires of her heart inside out and has the power to bring them to life.  

I, too, have a set of cookie cutters.  A Christmas tree, a gingerbread man and his son, a big star, and some tiny angels and candy canes in which the dough always seems to get stuck.  I also have an ever growing collection of pastry bags and icing tips, sprinkles and markers with edible ink.  And today, they’re coming out of the cupboard to make their annual appearance.

My love for decorating cookies started when I was little.  My Grandma used to have me and a friend over most years for a big cookie decorating extravaganza.  She’d have plenty ready when we got there, and the oven would keep running all day to keep up with our need for “more stars” or “another tray of those chocolate ones.”  We’d sit at the kitchen table, up to our elbows in icing, intently focused on our sugary works of art.  She was always into the latest fancy recipe she’d seen Martha Stewart making, but we were never big fans of the nutty ones or anything that couldn’t be slathered with colourful icing.  :)  

At my eighth birthday party, my mom was brave enough to set a whole sleepover-full of girls loose with bowls of icing and licorice nibs and Smarties and candy corn.  I distinctly recall my cookie resembling a city with tightly packed skyscrapers - the more I could fit on there the better!

When I was in high school, I worked at a bakery, and I remember being so excited when I was finally trusted to write on cakes or do the chocolate smiley faces on our iced happy face cookies.   Halloween was the best because you got to get creative with the Jack-o-lantern ones. :)

Once I grew up, I started to look forward to the day when I would be the one popping tray after tray of cookies into the oven while my own little ones shook sprinkles onto iced cookies and decorated little gingerbread outfits.  But, like my friend with her prized cookie cutter, I am still hoping toward the day when that dream is a reality at my own kitchen table.

In the midst of the waiting, though, I have learned a precious lesson.  It is far better to spill out my storehouse of “mama love” now than to save it up for “someday” when I have my own kids.  I don’t have to fear it running out if I spend it on other people’s children.  But I might fear it going sour inside of me if I were to keep it all locked up.  Instead of letting my cookie cutters rust while mourning the fact that I don’t yet have a family of my own to make traditions with, I’ve decided to be thankful for the “family” around me and enjoy those traditions now.

And so it is that I have a Christmas cookie decorating party at my house every year.  

The group around the table changes every time.  Once it was a trio of pre-teen girls who giggled and sang their way through who knows how many dozen cookies and then took their treasures home to share with their families.  Last year it was several of us twenty-and-thirty-somethings and one of the no-longer-so-pre-teen girls reliving sugar-sprinkled childhood memories and then cozying up to White Christmas with mugs of minty hot chocolate.  And tomorrow, it will be said nearly-graduating girl (who is now closer to “friend” than “kid” in my books) and I teaching her two little sisters and their two best friends the fine art of squeezing a piping bag.

These kiddos have been a part of my life for almost six years now, since before two of them could really say anything intelligible.  They’re like siblings to each other and are the closest thing I have to nieces and nephews, and I adore every one of them.  They are a great source of hugs and entertaining stories, and it is my delight to pick out presents for them when I am back in Canada and cheer from the audience as they recite nationalistic poems and dance with pompoms at their school programs.  They are old enough now to be trusted with sprinkle shakers and food colouring and I am super excited to watch their creative juices flow.  

And so, as I head to the kitchen for the Cookie Day Eve baking marathon and take my gingerbread man cutters off their shelf, I can honestly say that my heart is full.  It’s full of  10% wistfulness and longing for “someday” and 90% gratitude for the people who have been placed in my life to love on now, today.  I look forward to a day of laughter and milk-moustaches and sprinkles and sugar-buzz induced silliness.

And I know that when I do have kids of my own, I will have raised them up some amazingly creative cookie coaches.  :)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Saturday, December 08, 2012 - 1 comment

The Great London Macaron Crawl: Partie Deux

For Day Two of our Macaron Crawl, we recruited two more taste-tasters  - Lisa and Erin.    After a wander through the Saturday Market in the quaint old town of St. Albans, we settled in at - where else? - Starbucks and prepared to dive in to Pierre Herme’s macaron creations.

It was the first week for the Red Cups and Starbucks was packed out with shoppers indulging in Gingerbread Latte breaks.  With our table right beside the counter, we had a perpetual audience of curious onlookers, stealing glances at the silly North Americans taking pictures of their cookies but too politely British too say anything.  :)

Erin and Lisa took their inclusion in our scientific study very seriously, and they both reminded me of wine tasters, “swirling” their macarons, biting in carefully and then waiting for the full flavour to become apparent before making their comments.

We decided to take the opposite approach as the previous day and start with the chocolate and caramelly macarons first in hopes of allowing Jess’ tastebuds to finish on a happy note with the fruity ones.  This would also allow us to go through the more familiar flavours first and save the more intriguing ones for last.  

First up was the Porcelana (Dark Chocolate with Caramel a la Fleur de Sel).  The first thing that impressed me about Pierre’s macarons was their texture.  They were very present and “all there” - the cookie wasn’t too airy and the thick ganache layer filler the space in between nicely.  They cut cleanly and didn’t fall apart in your hand, either.  The top cookie of the Porcelana was chocolate while the other was caramel with granules of salt right on it, and there were chocolate chunks in the filling, which was a sort of fudgy caramelly mix.

Jess’ first comment was that it brought back traumatic caramel-tainted memories of the night before, but then the chocolate layer swooped in and redeemed it for her.  Lisa liked how the caramel flavour came through later, which surprised me since I was overwhelmed (in a good way) by the caramel right away.  We laughed when we realized that that was because “one of us” had eaten ours upside-down!  We all agreed that the  slight bitterness of the dark chocolate cut the sweetness of the caramel nicely, and while Erin loved it, she held off on making any judgements (besides “YUM!”) until she had another macaron to compare it to.

Porcelana (Dark Chocolate with Caramel a la Fleur de Sel):

Jess: 3 
Me: 3
Lisa: 4
Erin: 5

Next up:  Infiniment Caramel.  Just hearing the name caused Jess to shudder.  She was a trooper, however, tasting every last caramel macaron we had purchased before swearing that she would never go near one again.  The caramel filling, which seemed twice as thick as usual, was decidedly less buttery than the Laduree counterpart, which was a plus.  Jess found it TOO salty and TOO caramelly (surprise, surprise) and Erin didn’t like the way it squirted into her mouth when she bit in.  Lisa and I, clearly the caramel lovers of the group, both gave it two thumbs up.  It had just the right amount of salt, though I couldn’t quite give it a five because it still didn’t hold a candle to the Canadian Bacon and Salted Caramel macaron from Kitchening With Carly that I experienced this summer.  (I feel like my tongue is ever searching for a repeat of that flavour and never quite coming up satisfied.  No pig, no five, I guess!)  

Infiniment Caramel (Salted Caramel):  

Jess: 1
Me: 4
Lisa: 5
Erin: 2.5

Our third specimen was the Menthe (Mint) - a very artificial-looking green macaron with an incongruently natural taste.  We were all expecting something along the lines of a Peppermint Patty and were surprised when it tasted more like fresh mint you’d buy at the market to put in your salad or add to your iced tea.  Pierre is all about breaking stereotypes, it would seem, and biting into this macaron was akin to expecting Christmas and tasting refreshing summer instead.  It wasn’t necessarily a flavour we wanted in a cookie, but it was fun to be caught off guard nonetheless.

Menthe (Mint)

Jess: 2
Me: 3
Lisa: 3.5
Erin: 2.5

Having not written down which macaron was which when we bought them, we had a bit of a hard time identifying Pierre’s sometimes oddly coloured creations by sight and it wasn’t until we’d bitten into the last four that we really sorted out which was which.  That said, each first bite was a surprise - and not always a pleasant one.

None of us would have pegged the Olive Oil macaron for what it was, except that the process of elimination declared it so when it was the only unidentified one left when we’d finished them all.  I would’ve wondered if the girl had put the wrong one in the bag had I not seen her pull it from behind the Olive Oil sign myself, but even then, I couldn’t tell you what else it might be.  It was a pale green on top and a peach-ish colour on the bottom, with a sort of shiny yellowy filling.  There was a decided note of citrus - lemon, perhaps? - and a shocking bit of jelly in the centre of the ganache.  We all went in prepared not to like this one, and then were pleasantly surprised when we did....probably precisely because it didn’t taste a thing like olive oil.  (And, really, olive oil in itself has a nice flavour, but it always brings to mind olives, and that is just NOT a flavour you want to find in a macaron!)

**Post-Script:  After some further research, I discovered that this was actually an olive oil and mandarin macaron.  That explains the citrus taste and the jelly centre.  Makes me want to try another now that I know what it is!

Huile d’Olive a la Mandarine (Olive Oil and Mandarin):

Jess: 2
Me: 4
Lisa: 2
Erin: 3

The Metisse (Carrot, Orange and Ceylon Cinnamon) came out with the highest combined score of the bunch.  It tied for 15 with the Porcelana, but my guess is that it really came out the winner (at least amongst the ones from Pierre Herme) because it came later in the game when Lisa and Erin’s tastes had been sharpened and become more refined.

The cookie itself was orange, and the creamy yellow filling (which was as delightfully thick as that of the Infiniment Caramel) was speckled with fun little bits of real carrot.  (Pierre definitely gets points for adding “stuff” to his ganache.  It kind of reminded me of eating confetti cake as a kid....)  

Lisa was the first to bite into this one, and she sat there with her eyes closed, trying to taste each of the flavours, before she declared it to be “fresh and clean, like carrot cake meets lemon drizzle cake.”  We all loved the blend of citrus and subtle cinnamon, and this one got high praise from Jess, who said it was the only one of Pierre’s macarons she would willingly buy again.  

Metisse (Carrot, Orange and Ceylon Cinnamon): 

Jess: 4
Me: 4.5
Lisa: 2.5
Erin: 4

Remember when I said that sometimes the surprise of the first bite wasn’t a welcome one?  Yeah.  The Truffe Blanche et Noisette (White Truffle and Hazelnut) was very pretty - cream-coloured with a sort of glittery sheen that reminded me of the champagne Luxembergerlis at Spr√ľngli in Zurich.  But as soon as it hit her tongue, Erin’s face puckered and turned several shades of grey and Jess cried out, “Pierre, what were you thinking?!?”  Had we not been in a public place, we all would’ve spit this one out on the floor.  The chunks of what we first assumed were hazelnuts could very well have been garlic instead, and the whole package had the nauseating taste of cooked mushrooms.  

It was then that we realized our French had failed us, and that the “Truffe Blanche” was not white chocolate truffle, but truffle of the fungus sort.  GROSS!!!!!  We were all immediately grabbing for coffees and bottles of water - anything to get relief from that horrid aftertaste.  It was at this point that we wished the scale went down to zero.  One just seemed too generous a rating for this nastiness.

Truffe Blanche et Noisette (White Truffle and Hazelnut):

Jess: 1
Me: 1
Lisa: 1
Erin: 1

They're smiling now, but they won't be as soon as they bite into that Mushroom Macaron of Death!
When we’d finally cleansed our palates and, with the help of some Millionaire’s shortbread, recovered from the horror of that Mushroom Macaron, we were (hesitantly) ready to give Pierre one last chance to redeem himself.  The Eden (Peach, Apricot and Saffron) was definitely a good macaron to finish on, leaving a much better taste in our mouths than had we, heaven forbid, finished off with the deceptively shiny Truffe Blanche.  The peach flavour immediately exploded in our mouths in a happy sort of way and packed a wonderfully fruity - but not overly sweet - punch.  None of us really knew what saffron tasted like enough to pick it out, but it sounded exotic and we liked it.  

Eden (Peach, Apricot and Saffron): 

Jess: 3
Me: 2.5
Lisa: 4
Erin: 3.5

When compared to the four kinds of macarons we’d sampled the day before, Jess decided she and Pierre Herme were definitely NOT friends.  There was some base ingredient in all his cookies that just didn’t sit well with her, and besides, his wild attempts at creativity left her feeling like she couldn’t trust him and that he should “just leave good alone.”  

I, on the other hand, will likely go back for more.  I know now that anything that could possibly be mistranslated might in fact be dangerous and should be avoided.  But I liked all of Pierre’s fruity/spicy combinations and would totally be up for some of his more daring macarons, like Mango Chutney or Strawberry Wasabi.  As one who often sees noses turned up at my “creatively flavoured” recipes but then (sometimes) receives rave reviews by those brave enough to try them, I have a soft spot for Pierre and a respect for his courage.  

Overall, our favourites of the day were the Porcelana and the Metisse, but Jess and I both agreed that our absolute favourite of the whole Crawl was definitely the Cassis et Violette” (Blackcurrant and Violet) from Laduree.  Apparently the mother ship still knows how to win the heart of a macaron connoisseur.

Quotes from the girls following their first macaron experiences:

Lisa:  They were unlike anything I’d ever had before....pleasantly different.

Erin:  It was exciting...a massive sugar rush!

Jess:  I need pork.

I’ve scouted out several locations for The Great Istanbul Macaron Crawl of 2013, including a Laduree, and am now taking applications...... Who’s with me?