Monday, July 30, 2012

Makin' Macarons!

Have you discovered macarons yet? Not macaroons, those "eh" coconut cookies. Macarons.

Yes? Welcome! You're among friends here.

No? If you're in Pittsburgh, get yourself to Paris 66 on Center Ave. near the new Target pronto!

Go visit!
They are essentially a half-dollar sized sandwich of almond flour (ground up blanched white almonds) based meringues filled with some kind of filling, depending on the flavor and texture you're going for. Some are a little on the crazy side -- check out some of the creations at Pierre Hermé (lychee, vanilla basil, rose).  And some are just plain delicious, like coconut, salted caramel, and my personal favorite, lemon. You'll find the more "standard" flavors at La Durée, which has been around since 1862.

But what was really neat was the opportunity to take a mother-financed (thanks, mom!) amateur cooking class at the school run by Le Nôtre, one of France's premier pastry and prepared food shops. They have two amateur school campuses: one in a beautiful building at the beginning of the Champs d'Elysses, and the other waaaay the heck on the east side of Paris in a bit of a sketchier neighborhood.

When I got the bright idea to sign up for one of these classes, I was, as it turns out, not the first to do so. All the English classes at other cooking schools were filled, as were those at both Le Nôtre campuses. So then, I thought, "Okay. I want to do this, so how about looking for classes in French?" I switched over to the French language class lists, and wouldn't you know, a three hour macaron class at a time I could do it! Sadly, it was at the east Paris campus so I had a super long metro journey, but it w worth it.

Our pastry chef and instructor of the evening, Alain, and his sous-chef led my class of four (which included a pastry chef from Dijibouti) through the recipes for coffee and chocolate macarons. He demonstrated through most of the coffee recipe, giving us smaller tasks like sifting the almond flour and powdered sugar together (which are the solid in the cookie part of the macaron) but we were pretty much in charge of the chocolate.

They are tough little guys to make! I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that they are a genuine mixture of science and art.

The results! Coffee and chocolate macarons made by my class
Science: our recipe includes precise temperatures (the filling for the coffee macarons is heated to 82 degrees C on the stove, before cooled down to 30 degrees through whipping it in the stand mixer) and Alain busted out a laser thermometer (MIND BLOWN!) to check the temperature of the filling while it was mixing away inside the stand mixer bowl. Also, you need a really precise oven to do these things, which means I am going to be co-opting my mom's kitchen because my oven is usually about 25° off...

Art: at each stage of the process, the macaron batter needs to be at a certain texture that you have to know "by feel." Alain taught us some tricks to check the consistency, but it's still one of those things that is probably only going to come with lots and lots of practice and guinea pigs to test them on.

They look pretty good, right? They are, but there's a definite difference between how well the coffee ones turned out (made mostly by Alain) and how the chocolate ones fared (made mostly by the class), with the coffee being better.

Up close and personal with the results

In Paris, I have been on a little bit of what I like to call the Tour de Macarons. As you know, the Tour de France finished up last Sunday (and made for difficult traveling around the city for my visitors and me). While those lads were biking around this fine country, I have been walking around this fine city and sampling these little darlings where and when I find them. I'll be revealing the results of the Tour at a later date!

Au revoir et bon appétit!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Don't Drown Your Fish

More French wisdom rolled into charming idioms starring animals: 

I drafted a short and sweet response to a client about a question. My colleague told me that she wanted a little more meat to the response, but without "drowning the fish." What is "drowning the fish" I asked? 

Apparently, the expression originates from the twentieth century and means to hoodwink, confuse, bamboozle, distract someone from the real issue or make him forget it. It is a reference to the fishing industry,  where fishermen repeatedly pull hooked fish in and out of the water to wear them out, I guess so they don't flap about as much when you finally pull them out for good. (Translated from with my charming commentary at the end).

Pretty good advice for presidential candidates? I think so. 

Stop drowning the damn fish!!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Squirrels and Three-Legged Yorkies

My neighbor is enjoying this fine July evening by watching Jersey Shore at full volume with his door open. I figured, might as well write you folks a blog post, complete with two stories. One takes place at the laundromat, the other at the work lunch table.

I. Bastille Day...schizophrenic weather made planning an actual activity rather difficult. Did some grocery shopping with the masses, and heard but didn't see actual fireworks. Bummer.

Sunday, I finally ran out of clean sheets and towels and forced myself to go to the laundromat. It's about a 10 minute walk, if that, and it's in a pretty chi chi neighborhood across from a famous covered market. I read the instructions, written on the wall and surmise that I must pay separately for laundry detergent. I go over to the central pay station and type in the number to have it vend me laundry detergent. I put in my euro, and clonk, out pops a wrapper with a coke brick of laundry detergent. Having never seen a brick of cocaine, and after just googling it, I have discovered that a brick is a kilogram! Who knew? So, it was probably more like 1/16 of a brick of laundry detergent wrapped in foil.

I put my stuff in the littlest washing machine (you pay depending on the size of the washer) and drop in half of my laundry detergent powder brick with my sheets. I set the temperature, trot back to the central paying machine, type in the number of my washing machine and put in my €4.20 (extortion!). I sit back with my kindle and prepare to wait. Then, I notice on the wall, in a different section than where I read the instructions, is a little diagram of a square with four sections, and it says laundry detergent, pre-wash, fabric softener, and something called "javel" (which word just told me is bleach). I am confused. Where is this little square, I ask myself? I keep reading, hoping that my laundry will get clean.

Then a rather well-dressed fellow arrives and flips this little silver lid on the top of the washing machine. Lo, the little square in which one is to deposit one's detergent! It's a front-load washer, so I was not really paying attention to the top of the washer. Humph. I note that my washer still has another 40 minutes (!) left, and does not look particularly sudsy. Oh well.

I duck out to a bakery I know that's open and get a lemon macaron. They have macaron "individuel" that are larger sized than the half-dollar size ones that you usually buy in batches of 6 or so. Or, as my husband calls them, hamburger macarons. In fact, they are slightly smaller than palm sized, so not really hamburger-size, but close enough.

After going back to the laundromat, I began nibbling on my macaron, at which point A rather iffy-looking woman with numerous missing teeth and a flashy pink hoodie walks in with a yorkie under her arm. She looks at me and says, "Bon apétit," in kind of an unhappy though I deign eat in her laundromat. All this in front of a sign that says "We remind you that dogs are forbidden." She attends to her laundry, and in follows another yorkie.

First thing I note is his face. He appears to be missing teeth on the right side of his face, so his tongue is lolling out in that direction, no longer confined to his mouth by pesky teeth. He is wet from the recent rain and I hear his owner call out in French that he should stay there and dry himself out. He turns in profile to me, revealing that he only has three legs. He starts to shake himself off to dry, and loses his balance and falls flat on his butt. As my husband aptly asked, "How do you say 'hot mess' in French." Three-legged toothless yorkie in a laundromat, that's how.

Owner puts down the other yorkie, who is clean, fully limbed, and well-brushed with a ponytail on the top of her head. I come to learn that the ponytail wearing yorkie is named Inès, and our mangy friend is Jude.

Meanwhile, this woman in a Prada raincoat looks on impassively. You always get a pretty good cross-section of the population in a laundromat, I guess.

Today at work I had my first really amusing misunderstanding.

My coworker, A, is telling a story about going to the US last fall for an all-firm meeting of the litigation group with a then-pregnant colleague, C. Apparently, the city that they went to just smelled of food everywhere, even in the airport. With all the weird smells, C was super put off of food. In French, I heard the word "ecureuil," which means squirrel.

I'm thinking to myself, oh that kind of makes sense. Squirrels don't eat that much and the French have all kinds of expressions about animals ("poser un lapin à quelqu'un," literally put down a rabbit on someone, means to stand someone up), so be a squirrel probably means just being put off food. The conversation winds down and I ask A, what does "blah blah ecureuil" mean?

She looks at me blankly. I explain, "You said C was pregnant and she was ecureuil because of the food smell." Then, A goes, "OH, ecœuré!!! That means disgusted, grossed out, sickened!" The whole table is cracking up at my misunderstanding, and one colleague, F, I think was crying. I explain that I thought being a squirrel was an expression and how I thought I had learned something new and idiomatic! F said that she really liked the image, so maybe it will catch on as an expression now. ;)

So, in case you ever feel grossed out, just say you're being a squirrel.