Macarons – easier than you think!

Macarons | ZoeBakes

The first time I had a true French macaron was while sitting at the now shuttered WD50 in New York City. It was the wild child restaurant of chef Wylie Dufresne, who was one of the first American chefs to deconstruct ingredients and synthesize them into new forms. It was all very mysterious and pretty tasty, but the most memorable thing we ate that night came out of my cousin’s purse. Samira works in the fashion industry and lives an impossibly global and glamorous life, which includes frequent trips to Paris. She and her brother, Riad, who was sitting with us, had a tradition of sharing a particular pastry from Paris every time she went. She pulled out the box and nonchalantly pushed it to Riad. This was so normal to them, that they barely acknowledged the act or the beautiful box as anything special. I, on the other hand, was near crazy with anticipation and finally told them to “open the &%$#ing box.” Inside were perfect, and I do mean perfect, macarons. They were like jewels. All different colors. Pink, gold, lavender and jade. They were delicate to the point of brittle on the outside and like a cloud on the inside, with a layer of super rich ganache or buttercream. I’ve made macarons, but they were never as ethereal as the one’s Samira brought home from Ladurée. This is no surprise. I was happy enough with mine and they were cheaper than a trip to Paris, but still not perfect. Then I watched Colette Christian’s Craftsy class on miniature French pastries and I figured out the small tricks I’d been missing. Turns out they are much easier than I thought. I’ve been making them constantly ever since.

This last batch I made for Passover and colored them purple to honor Prince. His passing has struck me in a deep way, deeper than I would have ever expected. His music was the sound track to my entire high school life and that was long before I moved to his home town. Back in the day I choreographed a dance to Little Red Corvette to audition for the dance program at my school. I danced my heart out to that song and got into the group. We were hardly Alvin Ailey, but it was my whole life at the time. I remember that audition like it was yesterday. I just hope Prince had even an inkling of his profound influence over so many people, not just musicians, but all of us who loved his music. I wish he could see how the world has exploded into a party to honor his legacy. Purple macarons and dancing in my kitchen are what I have to offer the celebration.

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Flaky Biscuits (plus, picking the right flour for all your recipes)

Flaky Biscuits | ZoeBakes (1 of 1)

Biscuits. Flaky biscuits. Nothing better!

There are three things that guarentee you will have tender, flaky biscuits every time. Flour, Fat and Folding. The type of flour you use will take your biscuits from tough to tender. I use a combination of cake flour and all-purpose flour, so that I have enough structure in my biscuits to create the flaky layers, but are tender when I break into them. I’ll talk more about flour in a minute. Then there is fat. You want it cold. It should be blended into the flour, but you also want some pieces to stay in tact to create the flakiness. This is just like making pie dough. Lastly there is folding. By folding the dough, you create even more layers and the biscuits are guaranteed to be flaky. (more…)

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Gluten-Free Maple Oatmeal Cookies

gluten-free oatmeal cookies | ZoeBakes 05

One of the most interesting things about writing a book on gluten-free breads, was learning about what grains are gluten-free and which are not. Oats are considered by many to be on the fence. It would seem that it would be a hard, fast line, but there is actually some gray area when it comes to gluten-free ingredients. Oats are 100% gluten-free, BUT they can be contaminated during the processing. Many celiacs and people who are avoiding gluten for other health reasons often stay clear of oats because the equipment used to harvest and process the cereal is also used for wheat, barley and rye, all of which are full of gluten. So, it is important to buy oats that are labeled “gluten-free,” even though they don’t themselves contain any of the wheat protein that would make them dangerous to celiacs. (Best to check with your Dr. if you are unsure about what grains you can eat.) I used “Gluten-Free Chex Oatmeal,” as in the little, square breakfast cereal brand we all ate as kids, but this product is just pure whole grain oats, nothing else.

These cookies happen to be gluten-free, but you’ll never know it. No one in my family is gluten intolerant, so anything I bake without wheat has to pass their discerning (read critical) palate. My boys are very free with their opinions and my 13-year-old said “these are perfect! Soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside, just how I like them.”  The flavor is all about the maple and oats.

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Paleo Stuffed Apples

Paleo Stuffed Apple | ZoeBakes 07

This is the perfect dessert for the week after Thanksgiving. I’ve personally vowed not to eat pie this week, although leftovers don’t seem to count. I doubt I’m alone in feeling like I may have overdone it a bit last week and my body is craving lighter fare. This feeling doesn’t hit me often; I often think my appetite for decadence is insatiable. So, I figure my body is telling me something and for once I’m eager to listen.

I have a wonderful mentor in all things Paleo. My friend and neighbor, Stephanie Meyer, of FreshTart, has been inspiring us all with her Autoimmune Protocol Diet for months. When she first went on this mind-bogglingly-restrictive diet I wept for her. She loves food and cooking more than just about anyone I know, and this diet seemed a cruel end to that love affair. Well, I was dead wrong. I found myself lusting after all of her AIP postings on Instagram and wishing I was eating that way too.  I am incredibly fortunate to be able to eat just about anything I want, although I had a bout of dairy intolerance, which has thankfully mostly passed. Giving up cheese, yogurt, ice cream and all things custardy was no easy task for me, but I managed and felt better for it. You don’t have to be on a Paleo diet to love these honey sweetened stuffed apples. I made them to bring to a dinner at Stephanie’s house and didn’t feel as if I was giving anything up. In fact, who cares that they happen to be Paleo, they’re freakin’ awesome and perfect for a week of eating cleaner.

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Black Velvet Apricot Upside-down Cake (Gluten Full and Gluten-Free Versions)

Black Velvet Apricot Cake | ZoeBakes

Recently I stopped at Whole Foods to pick up some stinky cheese and taste-test all their gluten-free crackers, for research. On the way to the cheese counter these velvety little apricots shouted across the room at me and I was powerless over their beauty. I am a little embarrasses to say that I wasn’t familiar with Black Velvet Apricots, which have the deep color of plums, the lusciously soft skin of a peach and the glorious flavor or an apricot. What will nature think of next? I have seen them in other stores recently, but none are as deep in color or as juicy as the ones that Whole Foods is sourcing. These came from California, because nothing this gorgeous, ripe and flavorful is being grown locally, yet. The growing season here in Minnesota is just in its first days. Maybe come August we’ll be plucking fruit from trees.

I am not gluten-free, as you may have guessed from the content of this blog, but I am doing more and more g-f baking. I have several friends who are celiac or have gluten sensitivities, so I’ve been experimenting with making tasty treats for them. I dove into the mysterious world of g-f baking when we decided to add gluten-free breads to our books. As a baker it was like being blind folded and set into a pantry of products I ‘d never used before. Just the kind of challenge I love. Once the terror subsided I realized that this stuff can be just as easy and tasty as baking with wheat. I have been passing off breads, cakes, cookies and more to my family, none of whom need to eat a gluten-free diet. If they can’t tell the difference, then I know I’ve got this down, because they are super critical of everything I make. I’ve spoiled them.

The cake is inspired by one of my favorite pastry chefs, Karen DeMasco. The upside-down cake is a classic for good reason, but she has made it even richer with almond flour and lots of brown sugar. I’ve made some changes to her recipe, but the essence is still hers. This is one of the few recipes I’ve made, so far, that is an easy switch from gluten full to gluten-free, in fact it is exactly the same recipe. I used the Thomas Keller product Cup 4 Cup All-purpose Flour for this cake. I really like this product for this cake, but find it doesn’t work so well in many of my bread recipes. The only problem with this flour is the price, but it is worth it for something so delicious and you could never buy this cake for so little money. This is how I justify it to myself.

Black Velvet Apricots | ZoeBakes (more…)

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Minty Macarons for St. Patrick’s Day!

Everything about a macaron says France. They are sophisticated, gorgeous, delicious and have a romance to them; a certain je ne sais quoi? (That was gratuitous, but I couldn’t help throwing in one of the few French phrases I can actually pronounce.) But, it is true, they have a mystique to them that is both alluring and intimidating, like a really gorgeous woman; think Catherine Deneuve and Brigit Bardot. When you bite into them they are just as beautiful on the inside, and inviting, even seductive. I can eat my entire body weight in these nut-meringue cookies and still want for more. What on Earth does all of this have to do with St. Patrick’s day you might ask? I admit it is a stretch, but I really wanted to make them and they are adorable in green. I added a bit of mint to the ganache and voila, you have a St. Patrick’s day macaron! (more…)

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