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 Sprüngli 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?


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - No comments

The Great London Macaron Crawl: Part One



Paris may be the macaron capital of the world, but as the backdrop for my first ever macaron crawl, London far exceeded my expectations.

In case you didn’t read my previous post about the macaron crawl or have no idea what crawling has to do with little French cookies, let me enlighten you.  You’ve probably heard of a pub crawl - an event (sometimes organized, but more often spontaneous) during which participants move progressively from one drinking establishment to another, partaking at each stop along the way.  A food crawl is simply the edible version.  Urbandictionary.com defines a food crawl as “a multi-stop investigation of the best restaurants, meals, or specific items on the menu.  As in, ‘Bro, let’s do a taco crawl next week and find the best carnitas in town.’”

My dear friend Jessica was my taste-testing partner for the Great London Macaron Crawl.  Jess and I have this fun, global sort of a friendship.  We went to the same elementary school in Canada at the same time but never met each other until we shared a bunk bed at school in Tennessee.  Following our years down south, we both moved overseas, but layovers, visa runs and plain old “it-would-be-fun-to-see-you” trips have allowed us to meet up several times in our second homes of Turkey, Germany, and England.  

This time around, I was on my way to Scotland for a retreat, but since flying into London was much cheaper than flying straight to Glasgow, I decided to stop in and see Jess, who lives in Harpenden, England.  We had a whole Friday to spend exploring London, and I decided it would be fun to experience the city through a macaron crawl, sampling as many macarons as we could find in between checking out world-famous landmarks and royal residences.  Not that there was ever any doubt, but Jessica’s willingness to bring herself to the edge of a sugar coma for the sake of the Crawl proved to me that she is a true friend indeed.  

The plan was to try macarons from several different sellers and then do a proper taste-test, with ratings and comments.  I’d scouted out three spots for us to purchase our “specimens” and we were delighted to accidentally run across two others I hadn’t found online.  We bought all-day train/tube passes and plotted our course based on which iconic sites one should see on a first visit and which tube stations were closest to our macaron locations, leaving most of those for after dark when we would be done with posing for photos in front of monuments and ready to sit down with a cup of coffee and plate of pastries.

We decided on a rating scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “knock-your-socks-off amazing”, and 1 being “what were they thinking?”  Our ratings took into account the texture, freshness and colour of both the macaron’s outer shell and the cookie itself, the flavour, thickness and “oomph” of the middle ganache layer, as well as the balance and overall taste experience of the whole package.

We started our morning with the Tower of London and a stroll over the Thames on the Tower Bridge, then headed down to the destination I was most excited about:  the Borough Market.  Tucked under one end of London Bridge, this collection of stalls was, as promised, a foodie’s paradise.  We sampled our way through the market, nibbling everything from strawberry balsamic truffles to garlic venison chorizo to mango ginger chutney, making sure to save a little room for a falafel wrap and some seriously frothy cappuccino from Monmouth Coffee.  


At the Comptoir Gourmand stand, nestled among the buttery croissants and the most massive meringues I’ve ever laid eyes on, we happened upon our first unplanned macarons of the day.  That inaugural raspberry macaron, followed by a coffee one, was the first macaron ever to pass across Jessica’s lips, marking not only the commencement of our Macaron Crawl, but of Jess’ newfound side-career as a macaron connoisseur.  While she didn’t feel qualified yet to make an educated judgment on it, she was pleasantly surprised by the softness of the cookie (she’d been expecting something drier) and the amount of flavour packed into its jam-filled centre and declared herself officially excited about the macarons to come.  

Jessica's first macaron 
As a (slightly) more experienced macaron sampler, I was pretty impressed by the texture of the ones from Comptoir Gourmand - a slightly crisp outer shell leading into a chewy cookie and pretty decent layers of jam and ganache, respectively.  I was disappointed by how little coffee flavour there was in the latter - it needed more of an espresso kick to really get my attention.  


Jess didn’t rate her first macarons, but my ratings were as follows:

Comptoir Gourmand

Raspberry: 3
Coffee: 2


As we made our way up to the London Bridge tube station, a pastel rainbow laid out on a table in front of a pastry shop caught my eye.  More unexpected macarons!  The flavours at Patisserielila were pretty standard - chocolate, vanilla, various fruity ones, and lavender, which seems to be a must at most macaron shops.  A sweet Italian girl who spoke very little English helped us select our next specimens:  blueberry, peppermint and strawberry.  The flavours of our previous macarons hadn’t quite faded from our palates, so we decided to hold off on eating them just yet.  


It took some careful maneuvering to protect our delicate treasures amidst the crush of bodies on the subway, but they survived more or less unscathed.  We dove into the package on the sidewalk in front of Parliament, just across from Westminster Abbey.  Although I am more a fan of a macaron with some substance to it, these ones, while thin, were admittedly bang on in texture as well as shape.  I’ve read that proper macarons are supposed to be perfectly flat - rounded tops are a no-no.  These ones were smooth with a nice crispy shell.  The “feet” (that bit of airy frill on the inner surface of the cookie) were well formed, although there wasn’t nearly enough filling for our liking.  

The strawberry one, when compared to the raspberry we’d bought at the Market, had much more of a “real fruit” taste to it.  The inside tasted just like strawberry preserves.  The colour of the blueberry cookie was a little unnerving - that sort of bluish gray that results from mixing too many colours of paint together.  It didn’t taste very blueberry-ish at all and was rather a let-down.  The peppermint one was a bright, unnatural blue and while the flavour of the filling was closer to peppermint patty than it was to toothpaste, it was still a bit overpowering even for a mint lover like me.  (Maybe if the outside had been chocolate....)

Now that Jess had two macaron experiences to compare, she jumped in on the ratings.  (Hers are first, mine second.)

Patisserielila

Strawberry: 4 / 4
Mint: 3 / 2.5
Blueberry: 2 / 2

We needed some time to walk off the Borough Market samples and the cookies we’d consumed, so it was perfect timing for the “royal stroll” bit of our tour.  We made our way from Westminster Abbey up past Churchill’s “War Rooms” and the Royal Mews from which Will and Kate emerged in their wedding day carriage.  St. James Park was alive with fall colour (and hopping with hungry squirrels!) and the walk up to Buckingham Palace was a stretch of leaf-kicking bliss.  The queen wasn’t home (according to the absence of “her majesty’s flag” on the roof) so we didn’t pop in for tea.  (I imagine she would’ve enjoyed a macaron with her Earl Grey, though!)  Instead we headed through the autumnal beauty of Green Park and down to the Underground to make our way to the first of our scheduled macaron destinations:  La Maison du Chocolat at Selfridges on Oxford Street.

Oxford, one of London’s poshest high streets, was crowded and alive with early Christmas cheer and the buzz of brand name bag-swinging pedestrians.  Selfridges was a whole department store’s worth of sensory overload.  We stuck to the main floor, weaving our way through the massive cosmetics hall and “edible novelties” section to La Maison du Chocolat’s counter.  

We were greeted by a refined gentleman in a suit named Barnabas.  He spoke softly and oh-so-politely, making us feel like we were wealthy, Selfridges-worthy customers and not simply chocolate-craving tourists.  His crisp British accent had the slightest hint of something foreign underneath, and Jess pegged him for a German in disguise.  

Our personal chocolatier patiently explained to us the various chocolate-themed macarons behind the glass.  They all had exotic names like Maracuja (dark chocolate and passionfruit) and Rigoletto (salted butter caramel.)  His personal recommendation was the new and as-yet-unnamed coconut one, so we included that in our purchase of a box of four.  The truffles in the display case looked amazing, but we stayed focused and stuck to our mission.  Goodness knows we didn’t need any other sweets!  

As we were paying, we explained our Macaron Crawl to Barnabas, detailing the ones we’d already consumed as well as the ones we planned to buy on our next two stops.  With a raised eyebrow and a smile, he told us to be sure to eat some real food in between so as not to pass out from the sugar high.  Point taken.

Pierre Herme, the second official stop on the agenda, also had a counter in Selfridges, so we headed there next.  I had read a lot about Pierre, how he used to work for Laduree (Paris’ original and most famous macaron shop) and later struck out on his own, opting for more daring (and sometimes downright bizarre) flavour combinations.  Being a fan of unusual flavour juxtapositions myself, his were the macarons I was most eager to try.  

Unfortunately, it was a “no photos allowed” situation - I would’ve loved to have captured the variety of cookie-jewels laid out before us.  (Not to mention it would have helped us figure out which macaron was which when we ate them!  Thankfully their website could assist us with that.)

Our box of seven macarons was covered with fun little drawings of London landmarks as well as one of Pierre himself.  We filled it with a couple variations of caramel and chocolate, a mint one (to compare with that of Patisserielila), an olive oil (risky, but I’d read good reviews online), a Metisse (carrot, orange and Ceylon cinnamon), an Eden (peach, apricot and saffron) and the smooth-sounding Truffe Blanche et Noisette (white truffle and hazelnut.)

From Oxford, we hopped back on the tube and made our way to Knightsbridge, home of the famed Harrods department store.  This was one London attraction Jess had yet to visit, so it was fun to be first-timers together.  But before we went in, we heeded the wisdom of Barnabas (and the sound of our rumbling stomachs) and grabbed a couple of 3 Pound meal deals at a Sainsbury’s grocery store across the street.  We sat down on the sidewalk opposite Harrods, admiring the seven storeys of Christmas lights and the “grown-up Disney Princess” jewelry displays in the windows.  To passersby, we probably looked a little like homeless people camped out on the pavement, eating our picnic suppers.  Though I suppose homeless people don’t often eat cranberry and Brie sandwiches.  Nor do they usually have Selfridges bags by their sides.

It took us a fair bit of wandering and asking before we located Laduree in Harrods, partly because we were searching amongst the confection counters in the food hall when it actually had its own separate cafe in a back corner.  The decor itself was intoxicatingly sweet, like a sophisticated version of Candy Land, all pink and frills.  As Laduree is sort of the “mother ship” of the macaron world, we had pretty high expectations of their quality, even if the flavours were a bit lacking in imagination.  We chose lemon, chocolate, salted butter caramel, and, the most intriguing one of the bunch, “Cassis et Violette” - blackcurrant and violet.

It would’ve been fun to sit and sip some tea and take in the ambience while we sampled our macarons, but we didn’t think they’d take kindly to us pulling out samples from their competitors, so we decided we’d do our taste-testing at the Starbucks across the street.  I stood in line while Jess did some strategic hovering to score us a table in the crowded cafe.  Armed with our coffees, a plate and knife (for ease of sampling) and a cup of water (to cleanse the palate between bites) I headed upstairs and joined Jess, who was as eager as I was to dig into the “big guns” of the macaronisphere.  (Not to be confused with the macaroni-sphere....)


We started off with the fruity macarons from Laduree and worked our way around the plate, moving through the caramels and finishing with the chocolate ones.  Jessica discovered that she much prefers fruity to fudgy, and somewhere towards the end she was uttering phrases like, “I’m going to have nightmares when I hear the word ‘caramel’ now...”  For someone who doesn’t even take sugar in her coffee, eight intense cookies in one sitting was a bit much.  Like I said, a true friend, sacrificing comfort for the cause.

With the exception of the Caramel a la Fleur de Sel, (which was, in Jess’ words, “Just like a melted Mackintosh Toffee....but too much salt, too much butter, too much caramel”) we were definitely fans of the Laduree flavours, impressed by how much punch they were able to pack into such a small space.  The “citron” was seriously like a mouthful of lemon meringue pie, aided by the fact that the texture of the cookie is pretty close to meringue.  It brought back memories of licking the pie filling bowl at the bakery where I worked in high school.  :)  Jess liked the plain chocolate more than I did, preferring its subtle flavour to the intensity of the ones from La Maison du Chocolat.  We both “mmmmm-ed” out loud when we bit into the Blackcurrant and Violet.  It was such a full flavour - tangy and sweet, but not too sweet - and we loved the way the jam seeped into the cookie, filling up far more of the internal space than we first guessed.  That one was a winner all around.

With relatively few bumps and wiggles here and there on the surface, these macarons were pretty uniform, with the cookie and ganache equally proportioned.  They had the feel of being the descendants of a long line of macarons hailing from an old and very precise recipe.  Makes sense, as Laduree is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

We rated Laduree as follows:

Lemon: 4 / 4
Salted Butter Caramel: 2 / 2.5
Chocolate: 3.5 / 2
Blackcurrant and Violet: 4.5 / 5 (The only 5 of the day!)


It seemed like the Maison du Chocolat macarons all had basically the same filling of chocolate ganache (fitting for a chocolatier), so the main flavour variations came in the cookies themselves.   The outer shells sorta fell apart as soon as you took a bite, in contrast to the Laduree ones, which really held together nicely.  The middles were thick and dense and seemed to take up a lot of space inside the cookie, which I loved.  (I was always the kid who always ate the icing and left the cake.)

The coconut was so-so, leading us to believe that our Barnabas, in true German form, preferred the “safe” flavours.  It had a smooth, balanced flavour (translation: boring) and didn’t really “wow” us.  We both agreed it should have had a chocolate outside and a coconut middle, more like a Bounty Bar, instead of the other way around.

I loved the description of the “Rigoletto” on the store’s website:  “The sweetness of lightly salted caramel with the milk chocolate ganache gently charms the palate.”  My palate was certainly charmed, though I would have preferred an even stronger caramel flavour.  Jess, on the other hand, found the filling to be a bit too much like pudding and wasn’t a fan at all.

The Quito seemed a bit like a brownie disguised as a macaron - it had the feel of a gooey Brazilian chocolate cake that you love but can’t take more than two bites of because it’s so rich.  I liked the slightly bitter aftertaste, with the chocolate decidedly on the darker side.  Jess, proving again to have a much more delicate palate than I, just thought it was too much all around.  (I don’t suppose this being the seventh one in half an hour helped!)

We both chose the Maracuja as our favourite from La Maison.  The chocolate flavour hit first, with the sweet tang of the passionfruit building slowly behind it.  Not as much “wow” factor as the Blackcurrant and Violet from Laduree, but definitely noteworthy.

Ratings for La Maison du Chocolat:

Coconut: 2.5 / 2
Rigoletto: 2.5 / 3
Quito: 3 / 3.5
Maracuja: 3 / 3.5

By this point in the evening, we’d probably exceeded our sugar limit for the whole week (and I was worried Jess might go into a sugar coma on the train ride home) so we decided to leave Pierre Herme until the next day to give our tastebuds a chance to recover. 

Stay tuned the verdict on the best macaron of the Great London Macaron Crawl of 2012 in Part 2, coming soon!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Monday, November 19, 2012 - No comments

Our Daily Bread


One recent Sunday morning, as I walked up the lane to our corner bakery, I paused to say hi to a neighbour.  

“Where are you off to?” she asked.

“The bakery.”

She squinted at me.  “What for?”

“To buy bread.”  I laughed.  That’s all they sell - what else would I be going for?

Her jaw dropped.  “Since when do you buy bread?  In all the years you’ve lived here, I’ve never once seen you go to the bakery.”

I smiled.  “And I’m not starting now.  I’ve been invited to someone’s house for breakfast and they asked me to pick it up on the way.”

“Ah.”  Now I made sense to her again.

......

It’s true, I am quite an anomaly around here.  No Turkish table is complete without bread - the usual allotment being half a loaf per person.  But I pretty much only buy bread when we are going to a Turkish home or having Turks over.  (And even then, it’s often not until we sit down to eat that I realized it’s missing and have to send one of the kids on a run to the bakery!)

Whenever I tell a Turk I don’t really eat bread, their shocked response is always, “Then how do you get full?!?”  Well, with other food.  (Perhaps a lesson on stomach volume might be in order here....)  

I imagine a lot of it is an economic thing - it is certainly cheaper to fill a belly with bread than it is meat.  And I am grateful I can afford to fill mine with more than just fluffy white carbs.  But more than just a money-saver, bread is a central part of Turkish culture, and it’s taken very seriously.  When we lived in Istanbul, one of my American friends, who also lived with a Turkish family, got yelled at for throwing bread away because it was “a sin.”  (She eventually got creative and started putting her leftover crusts under other garbage in the trash can in her room!)  I always have to chuckle when, at the dinner table, I hear a Turkish mom tell her kid to “finish your bread” much the same way mine would have told me to “finish my vegetables.”

The exception for me was the season in Istanbul when we had a kapıcı (door man) who would come by every morning and afternoon with a basket of hot, fresh bread.  Sometimes us girls would buy a loaf, pop open a tub of garlic yogurt and dunk our way through the entire thing in one sitting!  But even then, it was more about the yogurt than the bread.  To me, bread is not much more than a vehicle for something else to dip it in or spread on it.  I can take it or leave it, and in the end, I’d prefer a cracker.  Why waste precious space in my stomach when there are so many other good things to eat?

I say all this to explain why I was so surprised to find myself eating bread at least once a day while I was in the UK last week.  Granted, the place I was staying served only toast and jam for breakfast, and most of the meals revolved around bread - flatbread with hummus, rolls dipped in soup, deli meat subs - so the option was either to eat it or go hungry.  

But what shocked me was the fact that when I was out and about, I purchased sandwiches of my own free will...on several occasions!  (This is so, so unlike me!)  They sucked me in with those darned meal deals at stores like Marks and Spencer, Boots and Sainsbury’s - 3 pounds for a sandwich, drink and snack.  When we were out exploring London or when I was getting ready to board a train or a plane, they were always right there, calling my name.  They took all the flavours I miss in Turkey and stuck them between two slices of bread, and for that price, I couldn’t resist!  

I had to laugh at myself and wonder if I’d become a complete convert when, just before I got on the plane to come home from Glasgow, I found myself inexplicably drawn to a sandwich cooler in the WH Smith by my gate.  There, in all its yummy glory (and on the one Pound discount shelf, no less!) was the mother of all sandwich deals - the “Christmas Triple” with three sandwiches in one box:  

Turkey and Stuffing (turkey with pork, sage and onion stuffing, cranberry chutney, mayo and spinach on malted bread)

Brie and Cranberry (brie cheese with cranberry chutney, mayo and spinach on oatmeal bread)

Prawn Cocktail (prawns with cocktail sauce and lettuce on oatmeal bread)

And suddenly, as I was standing there with a full stomach (from the turkey and stuffing sandwich I’d just purchased pre-security) looking for an excuse to buy this amazing trio, it occurred to me that, since my roommate had also been away for a week, there would be no food in the house when I got home.  Excuse found!  

And so it is that my British sandwiches found their way onto both my lunch and dinner plates once I was back in Turkey.  And, man, they were good.

I might just become a regular at the bakery.

Monday, November 19, 2012 - No comments

There's No Taste Like Home

I wonder if you can go to jail for illegally bringing pistachios into the UK.  I eyed the drug-sniffing customs dog warily.  I’m going to get arrested over a baggie full of pistachios, and they aren’t even mine.  The worst part is, I don’t even like pistachios.  

“You’re sure you don’t have any food in there, right?”  I pointed to her duffel bag, the one I’d tied onto my suitcase so she wouldn’t have to carry it.  “Like meat or cheese or fresh fruit or something?”  I could just picture them opening her bag and finding it full of mandarins (“From my garden”), pomegranates (“They’re in season, you know”) and bottles of the salty yogurt drink ayran (“They don’t sell it in England and my daughter misses it so much.”)

She clucked her tongue and raised her eyebrows.  “Just pistachios.  And hazelnuts.  And dried figs.”

They’re going to ask me where I got the pistachios, and I’ll have to tell them, “That lady gave them to me.”  And they’ll ask how I know her, and I’ll have to tell them how I just met her half an hour ago, and that she gave me this little bag of nuts and told me to put them in my backpack.  They’ll ask why I ignored the warnings about carrying things in for other people and I’ll tell them it was a gift and they’ll open the nuts and find cocaine inside the shells and I’ll never see daylight or my mother again.

It all started when I was standing in the “other passports” line at Gatwick Airport.  They asked if anyone spoke English and Turkish, and I stepped forward and was hired on the spot as (Un)Official Translator for Turkish Teyzes (aunties/old ladies).  

She wore a long brown coat and a matching headscarf, tied under her chin in the village way.  There was a large mole on her right cheek with a long hair growing out of it.  She looked terrified.

“Could you please ask her how long she’s staying?” the immigration lady asked me.  

She had an open ticket.  “One month.”  Her accent was thick, from the east.  “Maybe two.”

I translated this back.

“Who is she visiting and what do they do here?”

She told me she was visiting her daughter and grandkids.  “My son-in-law is unemployed.  He used to be a barber, but....he’s out of work.  You don’t have to tell her all that, do you?”

I winced.

Back and forth we went.  Why didn’t she have a return ticket?  Had she been to England before?  Did she understand that her visa would expire in March and she absolutely could not overstay it? 

“I’ll need to call her daughter.  Does she have a phone number for her?”

She did.

“Could you tell her she can just go sit on that blue bench over there while I call and then I’ll come get her?  I’ll process you quickly and then you can go on through.”

I looked at her, gripping the paper with her daughter’s address on it tightly, apprehension in her eyes.

“Is it okay if I wait with her?  I think she’d feel better that way.”

And that’s how I ended up sitting in “the pen.”  We took our seats on the blue benches in the roped off area set aside for those who are “questionable.”  So this was what it felt like.

“Where are you from?” she asked me.  

“I live in Turkey.  But I’m from Canada.”

“Near Pazarcık?  Oh, I have relatives there!  Who do you know?”

“Uh....it’s a big country.  I’m from Vancouver - on the far west side, by the ocean.  Do you know where that is?”

She just stared at me.

“Where’s your hometown?”  I asked her.  

“Kahramanmaraş.”

“Oh, I’ve been there!  Great ice cream.  What did you bring your daughter from Maraş?  I’m sure she misses the food there. ”

“Well, we live in Antep now.  I’m coming from there, not Maraş.”

“Gaziantep?  So you’re bringing her pistachios, then?”

She brightened.  “Yes, pistachios.  Help me unzip this, will you?”

I helped her with the zipper on her duffel bag.

She pulled out a plastic LC Waikiki shopping bag, and there they all were.  Little baggies of pistachios - probably a dozen of them.

“Here, take one.”  She held out a baggie.  “You’ve been so kind to me.”

“Oh, I couldn’t.  Your daughter should have them.”  And I don’t really like them anyway.

She laughed.  “Look how many I have!  Take it, take it.”

I took it.

“They’ve been in the freezer and now they’ve thawed, so they’re a bit wet.”  

Great.  Wet pistachios.

Not wanting to be rude, I gingerly extracted one from the bag and followed her lead, squeezing it to set it free from the soggy outer skin, then cracking the shell between my teeth and eating the nut inside.  Not terrible, I suppose, but I certainly prefer roasted to raw.

“Here, take the rest with you, for your family.”  She tied up the baggie and handed it to me.

I glanced around, sincerely hoping we weren’t breaking some law by eating raw nuts here, in the immigration hold.  All the officials were busy with other travelers and didn’t seem too concerned with us.  I accepted the baggie and shoved it into the side pocket of my backpack.

I was grateful that, at least, the people I was going to be visiting used to live in Turkey.  I could pawn the nuts off on them.  It would probably make them feel nostalgic.

“Where did you say you were from again?  A village near Pazarcık?  Maybe you know my relatives.”

“Um, no.  I’m from Vancouver.  It’s in the western part of the country.”

“How far is it from Gaziantep?”

Here we go.  This is going to be one of those conversations where I have to explain that you can’t take a bus to Vancouver from Turkey.

“Uh....maybe 24 hours, depending on how long the layovers are.”

She squinted at me.  

“You know, it’s just north of America.”

More squinting.  

Then, all of a sudden, the light went on.  

“Oh, you said ‘Canada!’”  She slapped her knee.

“Yes......”

“I thought you said ‘Kandilli!’  Canada!  No, I don’t have any relatives there.”

Ten minutes and several pictures of the grandkids later, the immigration lady returned and told us she had spoken with the son-in-law, who was waiting outside, and that we were free to go, but would she please be sure to buy a return ticket next time to avoid the hassle.  

She promised she would.  “Who knows?  There might not be anyone here to translate for me next time and then I’d have to sit on those blue benches all day!”

I shouldered her heavy duffel full of all those wet pistachios and set off, teyze in tow, for the baggage claim.  

“You shouldn’t carry something this heavy, teyze!”

“Yes, and I have rheumatism.  But my daughter does love pistachios....”

We collected our suitcases, by now the only two going round and round on the carousel, and headed towards customs.  

“What are the dogs for?”  she asked.

“You know, they look for drugs and stuff.”

I shifted her duffel to my other shoulder and eyed her big red suitcase.  I prayed that these dogs liked wet pistachios as little as I did.

Imagining how it would look if things went south and I was the one holding the bag containing the illegal edibles, I decided being up front was a better approach.

“Excuse me, sir.”  I motioned to one of the customs officers.  “I was helping this lady at immigration - but I don’t know her - and she’s got pistachios in her bag.  Is that okay?”  I left out the bit about them being fresh off the tree.

“Just pistachios?”

“And some other nuts.  But no cheese or anything - I asked.”

“No, love, that’s fine, she can take them through.”

Whew.

When we got to the front of the line, my little teyze started heading for the escalator.

“Ma’am, please stop right here,” said the customs lady.

“Hold on!” I called after her in Turkish.  “You need to wait!”

She kept walking.

This is the part where she uses her selective hearing, leaving me to stand here with her duffel while the dogs discover what’s really inside!

The dog barely gave her suitcase a sniff as she passed and then aimed his nose at me.

Here we go.....

I lowered the duffel nonchalantly.

He sniffed it once, disinterested, and then moved on to the bag behind me, which must have had sausage links inside it.  I exhaled.  He clearly preferred pork products to my apparently legal wet pistachios.  I didn’t blame him.

I caught up with my teyze at the top of the escalator.  She had just caught sight of her grandson and had begun to squeal.  

I deposited her safely with her son-in-law, who shook my hand and thanked me profusely for taking care of his wife’s mother.  She kissed me on both cheeks and asked if they could drop me off anywhere, but I assured her I was fine with the train.   

As I headed towards the station, the sound of her grandson’s giggles fading into the distance, a rumbling in my stomach and the prospect of an hour-and-a-half journey sent me into Marks and Spencer to grab a snack.  

As I perused the dizzying array of ready made salads, sushi trays and wraps, I caught sight of something that made me smile out loud, if such a thing is possible.  Cranberry and Wensleydale cheese sticks for 60 pence each!  We’ve got nothing of the sort in Turkey and it’s something from home that I love.  I grabbed four sticks and headed to the check-out.

Sitting on the train, I carefully unwrapped the first of my treasures and took a bite.  Amazing.  I imagined a Turkish woman who was about to have her whole year made by the arrival of a blue duffel bag full of wet pistachios and I smiled.  

I knew precisely how she felt.