The Lowdown on Almond Flour

If you've been on facebook lately, you may have noticed that my raspberry macaron recipe was a success! My friend, Ian Bailey, who has been kind enough to take pictures for this blog, posted a collage of our macaron  photo shoot, and one of the editors at Foam Magazine even instagrammed a shot of the cookies I brought into the office.

But, before I post the recipe and give you all the details, I thought we might spend a minute talking about almond flour. Almond flour is one of three primary ingredients in the macaron shell. It is absolutely essential, yet it can also be very expensive:
  • At my neighborhood Vons, it cost a whopping $9.99 for a small bag.
  • At Trader Joe's, the same size bag costs only $3.99; however, I wouldn't recommend using it for macarons because it will give them a speckled look. While most almond flour on the market is made from blanched, slivered almonds that are finely ground, TJ's almond flour seems to be made from regular almonds -- and they grind up the darker, outside portion of the nut as well. I've used it as a topping for blueberry muffins and it worked great, but when it comes to macarons . . . not so much.
So, what's a girl to do?

The best option I found was to simply make it myself. A bag of blanched, slivered almonds is roughly the same price as the almond flour at Trader Joe's. I bought a bag, threw the nuts in the food processor, and voila: my own homemade almond flour! 

The difference in color between my homemade almond flour (right) and Trader Joe's almond flour (left).

Still feeling unsure? Check out this awesome YouTube video for step-by-step instructions:

The Lemon Macaron Debacle

Before I begin telling the story of the utter disaster that resulted from my attempt at making lemon macarons this week, allow me to introduce you to the newest member of my kitchen: The lovely and talented Kitchen Aid mixer my cousin sold me for the bargain price of $25!

A few weeks ago, I mentioned on Facebook that I was in the market to buy a used model, and in true Facebook fashion, word spread through my younger cousin, who talked to my older cousin, who talked to my mom and said they had one they were looking to get rid of. I was happy to take it off their hands; yet, even my sleek new kitchen toy was no use for tackling this week's complicated cookie recipe.

I never expected that making French macarons would be the easiest thing I'd ever do. Many blogs, bakers, and even pros call them "finicky" on a regular basis. Even TK (Thomas Keller) says, "The macaron shell isn't difficult to make, but it can be a little tricky . . ."

Translation: The first time you try, you will probably fail.

Indeed, I did. The macaron shell is primarily made of almond meal, powdered sugar, granulated sugar, and whipped egg whites. After whipping the egg whites until they are foamy, most online recipes say to add granulated sugar and continue whipping until they form stiff peaks. TK, on the other hand, says to create a syrup in a sauce pan with water and sugar and a candy thermometer that needs to read 248 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the syrup reaches the proper temperature, it gets added to the egg whites and whipped into peaks. That's not exactly what happened when I tried:

Problem #1: My syrup never reached 248 degrees. The needle climbed all the way up to 225 Fahrenheit, and then it just sat at that temperature for what seemed like an eternity. Granted, I'm not the most patient person in the world, but after watching the needle rise and rise and rise -- only to plateau at 225, I turned the burner up to high, waited a little longer, and then lost faith it would ever get any warmer.

Problem #2: I couldn't get the egg whites to form peaks. Like ever. After 20 plus minutes of whipping, they were still a loose frothy mess. I'm a firm believer in working with what you've got, so I tried combining the egg whites with the almond meal/powdered sugar mixture and baking the cookies anyways, which resulted in a gooey, inelegant science-experiment-gone-wrong.

At that point, all I could do was laugh. And be grateful that powdered sugar and eggs cost next to nothing. That's the beauty of baking -- you can throw everything in the trash, start anew, and rest assured that although you may have wasted time, you haven't wasted money. But even my time wasn't exactly wasted. I learned that I need to do some extensive research on the art of making macarons, and perhaps consult a few YouTube videos.

I'm determined to master these "finicky" cookies, and next week I have the opportunity to do just that because I'm scheduled to bake them one more time! When I was writing out my baking schedule for this blog, I must have intuitively sensed I would need a second go at it.

Until then, I wish you all a happy Easter, and hope you'll join me next week for another valiant attempt at baking macarons. With any luck, they'll actually look like cookies this time, and be pink and lovely and raspberry-flavored :)

Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookie Recipe

"Is there anything better than butter? Think it over. Anytime you taste something that's delicious beyond imagining, and you say, What is in this?? The answer is always going to be butter. The day there is a meteorite heading towards the earth and we have thirty days to live, I am going to spend it eating butter."

--  Julie Powell, Julie & Julia

It's probably no secret that this blog was heavily inspired by the movie, Julie & Julia. Whenever I'm having a bad day, or feeling creatively stuck, I pop it in the DVD player and am instantly inspired by watching Meryl Streep and Amy Adams struggle their way through the unanswered questions of life while finding solace in their love of food and cooking. 

I'll explain further in a later blog post, but for now, I just want to focus on the one aspect of Julie & Julia I couldn't help but recall while making this week's recipe. And that is BUTTER.

In the opening scene, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is eating lunch with her husband in a Parisian cafe, and as her dish is brought out to the table, she takes one whiff of the fish that's still bubbling and sizzling in the cast iron pan, and the first line of dialogue that escapes from her mouth is one single word: "Butter," she says, with a look of blissful anticipation.

Indeed, butter may as well have its own line in the credits. Julie Powell (Amy Adams) sings it praises in her little diatribe quoted above. She even transports a stick of it all the way from Brooklyn to Washington D.C. in the closing scene where she and her husband visit the replica of Julia Child's kitchen at the Smithsonian Museum. "For you Julia," she says, placing the butter on a plate, as though making an offering to the gods.

As it is in the movie, so it is in the recipe for Thomas Keller's peanut butter sandwich cookies.
There is an unavoidable, overwhelming amount of butter. There's butter in the cookies, butter in the filling, butter oozing out of every side and crevice the moment you bite into it.

And to be honest, it completely freaks me out.

I sort of hate butter.

No, perhaps hate is too strong of a word. I think that butter can taste good in very small doses -- like on popcorn, for example. I even recognize its necessity in virtually every baked good on the planet. Making cookies without butter seems downright bizarre, and I probably wouldn't try it. However, consuming little bits of butter that have been baked and combined with flour and sugar and eggs and such is completely different than taking a piece of bread and slathering the top of it with whipped butter.

That, I simply cannot do. I'm one of those weird people who doesn't butter her bread. I'll eat it dry, or dip it in olive oil, but never, ever will I deign to add it on top.There's a greasiness that comes with eating this substance and I am hyper aware of it. I can feel it coating the inside of my mouth, and this makes warning signals flash inside my brain telling me I probably shouldn't be eating it.  

You can imagine my horror when I realized this cookie recipe called for a butter cream filling. I could feel the butter coating my throat even as I was whipping it up, but I did it anyway because I am that committed to this blog.

In the end, I fought the good fight, pushed past my fear, and even ate two of the peanut butter cookies -- filling and all. The flavor really was quite amazing. It was rich and gooey and salty and sweet. However, I probably won't make these cookies again unless I can find some sort of butter alternative. I'm already in the process of doing research, and will let you know what I find.

In the meantime, here's the recipe for Thomas Keller's butter-filled Better Nutters:

Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies 
(i.e. Better Nutters slightly adapted from the Bouchon Bakery Cookbook)

Unsalted peanut halves      30 grams, or 1/4 cup
All-purpose flour               198 grams, or 1 1/2 cups
Baking soda                      9.1 grams, or 1 3/4 tsp.
Baking powder                 3.8 grams, or 3/4 tsp.
Unsalted butter                 210 grams, or 1 1/2 cubes
(at room temperature)
Creamy peanut butter        86 grams, or 1/3 cup
Brown sugar                     106 grams, or 1 1/3 cups
Egg                                  1
Vanilla paste                     8.5 grams, or 1 1/2 tsp.
Old-fashioned oats           106 grams, or 1/1/3 cups

Necessary Tools

(From left to right): Candy thermometer, pastry tips/bags, 2 inch round biscuit cutter
Preheat the oven to 325 Fahrenheit. Spread the peanuts on a small cookie sheet and toast for 15 minutes, or until they turn a light, golden brown. Let them cool, and then coarsely chop them.

Place the flour in a medium bowl and whisk in the baking soda and baking powder.

Use a stand mixer, or hand mixer to cream together the butter and peanut butter until it has the consistency of mayonnaise. Add the brown sugar and mix for 2 minutes, until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla paste and mix for an additional 15-30 seconds.

Add the dry ingredients in two additions, stirring each addition until evenly combined. Stir in the chopped peanuts, and then transfer the dough to a large piece of plastic wrap. Form it into a 5-by-7-inch block, wrap it up, and then refrigerate it for 2 hours.

Unwrap the dough, and roll it out on a floured work space until it's about 1/4 inch thick. Use a 2 inch round cookie cutter, or biscuit cutter to make little, round cookies and place them on a cookie sheet. Once you're left with a bunch of scraps, form the leftover dough back into a ball, re-roll with more flour, and then use the cutter to continue making more round cookies until all the dough has been used up. Wrap the cookie sheets in plastic wrap and put them in the freezer for 2 hours.

Position the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 Fahrenheit. Bake the cookies until they are golden brown -- about 16 to 18 minutes.

Peanut Butter Filling

Egg whites                 37.5 grams, or 1/8 cup
Granulated sugar        75 grams, or 1/3 cup + 2 Tbsp.
                                 16 grams, or 1 Tbsp. + 1 tsp.
Water                        21 grams, or 1 1/2 Tbsp. + 1 tsp
Unsalted butter          1 cube
(cut into tiny pieces)
Creamy peanut butter 175 grams, or 1/2 cup + 3 Tbsp.
Kosher salt                1 pinch

* Note: If you don't have a Kitchen Aid-style standing mixer, you may want to find a friend to help with this part because making butter cream requires lots and lots of mixing -- along with candy thermometers, and the ability to do more than one thing at one time. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer. Next, place the 75 grams of sugar in a small sauce pan and add the water. Stir until the sugar is moistened, and then bring it to a simmer over medium-high heat. Continue to let it cook, stirring occasionally, until it turns into a syrup and reaches 248 Fahrenheit.

As the syrup is cooking, add the remaining 16 grams of sugar to the egg whites, and beat them on medium speed until they begin to form loose peaks.

Once the syrup reaches the proper temperature (248 degrees), remove the pan from the heat and turn the mixer to medium-low speed. As the egg whites are still mixing, slowly add the syrup, pouring between the sides of the bowl and the whisk. Increase the speed to medium-high and whip for 15 minutes, or until the whites hold stiff peaks.Reduce the speed to medium and add the butter, a few pieces at a time. Next, add the peanut butter and Kosher salt until everything is evenly combined. Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag with a #867 French star tip.


Once the cookies have cooled completely, turn half of them over and pipe a spiral of peanut butter filling on each one. Top each with a second cookie and press gently to sandwich them.