Monday, January 20, 2014

Sur La Table Cooking Class

In 1972, the first Sur La Table store opened in Seattle's Pike Place Market. It was a place where serious cooks found a surprising selection of culinary tools from around the world, with helpful, knowledgeable employees who loved cooking, too. With more than 100 stores across the country now, Sur La Table has a website and catalog viewed by millions of people each year and a highly regarded cooking class program. I recently attended a class at the Pentagon Row store and wanted to recap my experience below.

As a Christmas gift, Keith purchased me a ticket to the Festive French Macarons class. The description stated: "Visions of peppermint candy, sweet ginger and dark chocolate will warm up the wintry holidays when you create these colorful and delicately crisp holiday meringue cookies. Take a bite and when the macaron melts away in a sweet bite or two, revealing richly flavorful and smooth filling. This special French confection is a culinary world favorite, and now you can learn professional tips and tricks for creating your own bakery-quality macarons at home. We'll also explore a variety of flavorful fillings so that you may create your own tempting variations on a delicious classic."

Chef Annie welcomes the class.
The class was lead by Chef Annie Clemmons.  She introduced us to important macaron terminology and went over the common French batter mixing method versus the cooked Italian method.  Today, we focused on the French method also known as cold meringue.  She also described the ingredients needed for these cookies, and her personal tips for making the perfect macaron.

The ingredients already prepped and ready for us.
Chef Annie then lead a full demonstration, which allowed us to watch each step from start to finish before attempting it ourselves.  She stressed the importance of pulsing the almond flour and powdered sugar in the bowl of a food processor four times, for four seconds each time. (If you do it for too long the mixture will get pasty.)

Left: sifting the dry ingredients; Right: checking the peaks of the meringue.
Next, sift the dry ingredients over a piece of parchment paper. Repeat for a minimum of four times - again, Chef Annie stressed you cannot over sift.  Make sure the holes of your sifter are not too large or it will result in lumpy macaron tops!  

Place the cream of tartar (can substitute with lemon juice or white vinegar) and aged egg whites in the bowl of your electric mixer. Whisk on medium-high speed until foamy.  Gradually add the granulated sugar.  Increase speed to high, whisking until glossy stiff peaks form (about 8-11 minutes).  If you are adding food coloring or liquid flavoring, make sure to add right before the glossy peaks form.  Be careful not to deflate the peaks.  A good test to check if your meringue is ready, is to hold the whisk upside-down. It should look like a Dairy Queen curly cone tip. You can also tell your meringue is ready when the whisk leaves deep tracks in the bowl when rotating.

The macaronnage stage.
With your spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the meringue until you reach what is called the "unique macaronnage stage."  It is important to fold the different components just enough, but not too much, or the macarons will crack. To make sure that you have reached the right point, once the ingredients appear combined, lift some of the mixture a few inches above the bowl with the spatula. If it retains a three-dimensional shape, fold it again. When folded just enough, the mixture should fall right back into the bowl, with no stiffness, in one continuous drip.

Pipe the macarons 1½ inches apart on a silicon baking sheet. Keep the tip directly straight up and pull back 90 degrees to release - this helps ensure a flat top when baking.  Slam the baking sheet onto a flat and stable surface to remove the excess air. If you like, you can dip your finger in water and smooth the tops even more. Then set the tray aside for 15 - 20 minutes, or until the skin forms. This helps form the feet.

Once your skin has formed, place macarons in the oven for 10 minutes. (You may need to add a minute or two depending on how large you piped your shells.)  To test if the macaron is done, carefully try and lift one macaron off the baking sheet. If it just lifts, but sticks a little, your macaron is ready to go.

Our pretty cookies cooling fresh out of the oven.
Cool completely before removing and filling. If the macarons darken too quickly, put a wooden spoon in the door of the oven to prop it slightly open. If you overcook your macaron, don't fret. Overcooked is better than undercooked - undercooking leads to sunken tops. If you have trouble removing the macarons from the baking sheet, try placing a few drops of water under the silicon mat. If that still doesn't work, place the macarons in the freezer for fifteen minutes. They should pop right off.

Check out my Vanilla-Ginger Buttercream recipe.

Then fill them, and enjoy.  We made several variations in our class: mandarin orange with orange buttercream filling (orange); mint with dark chocolate ganache (green); vanilla with peppermint candy cane buttercream (blue); and spiced with candied ginger buttercream (pink).

I mixed and matched my cookie flavors!
Left: vanilla with peppermint candy cane; Middle: mandarin with orange; Right: mint with candied ginger

This class was super fun and Chef Annie was an attentive instructor. She was very clear in her instructions, took time to check on everyone, and moved us along at the right pace. At $69 per person, the price was a bit high, but all the equipment and ingredients are provided in the 3-hour hands on class. Plus you are able to eat or take home whatever you make.  Our class was fairly crowded, and we may have burnt a couple batches, so I only got to take home 6 macarons.  The class was really fun and engaging and a great event for couples, singles, or mother-daughter teams. Check out the other classes offered by Sur La Table.

Check out my French Macaron recipe.

Also, here are tools that are highly recommended for making your own macarons at home:

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