Macarons and Failure

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As of last year I decided to make homemade macarons a Christmas tradition. If you don’t already know, macarons are French cookies composed of two crunchy-chewy almond flour cookies with a filling sandwiched in between.

They’re finicky cookies to make, despite being the French equivalent of an Oreo. Egg whites must be aged then whipped; almond flour and superfine sugar blended together and sifted; ingredients combined just so with a technique called macaronage; shelled piped, left to sit, and then baked for just the right amount of time; cookies allowed to sit in the freezer to ripen and achieve that signature texture.

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I learned how to make them at a workshop at The French Pastry School in Chicago a few years ago, but didn’t actually attempt making them on my own until about a year later with a coworker’s help. Then I made them again for the last two Christmases. So I’ve made them a total of four times, two with help. Not much experience.

Here’s what I’m struggling with today: the macarons I just made are far from perfect. I should have used gel food coloring instead of liquid. I should have remembered that egg whites evaporate as they age because I didn’t have enough. I should have baked one batch longer and one for less time. I should have traced circles on the parchment so that the cookies would be perfectly round. I should have let them set on a more even surface than my bed so the shapes didn’t get messed up. I could go on. I know all the mistakes I made.

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Burnt.

If you’re anything like me, this kind of thing eats you up inside. But I’ve begun to practice sitting back and watching my emotional state unfold when I do something less than perfectly. It’s frightening. I place so much of my worth in my ability to not make foreseeable mistakes.

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Underbaked AND misshapen. 

As family and friends can tell you, in the past this would have triggered a giant meltdown and I probably would have thrown the macarons away. Failure is absolutely something I am not comfortable with. But this time I’m trying something different.

I wrote out a list of notes for next year’s Christmas macarons so I can learn from what I did. This year, I’m going to serve the imperfect macarons and refuse the urge to apologize for them to people who probably don’t know better anyway. And instead of letting these feelings of inadequacy and frustration rule my day, I’m going to observe them and then ignore them.

Maybe this seems like a ridiculous amount of contemplation to give to cookies. Maybe so. But if you struggle with perfectionism yourself, you know how seemingly unimportant things can eat away at you in a major way.

Life, and especially Christmas time, presents so many opportunities to either listen to perfectionism and let it steal from me or choose to ignore it and enjoy the messiness of real life.

Also, reality check: this is what I posted on Instagram today. I picked the prettiest mac, blurred out the background, chose a flattering filter, and sat back and waited for approbation to flood in and quiet my failure feelings. Social media can be such a lie and a crutch!

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Cinnamon Rolls + A Little Baking Philosophy

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I made cinnamon rolls today for breakfast tomorrow before we head to northern Wisconsin to celebrate Christmas with extended family. I’ve been making this cinnamon roll recipe since my first job at seventeen, when I was asked to develop a signature roll for the cafe where I worked. The cafe closed after three months in business, but I’ve continued baking these since then because they’re so damn good.

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They’re a pretty irresponsible way to start the day (sugar/carb coma, anyone?) but their extravagance is part of their charm. There have been days where I’ve eaten only cinnamon rolls, grabbing an edge every time I walked by the pan in the kitchen. Bad life choice.

The best time to bake, in my opinion, is at night. It’s okay to drink a little bit; since the events of the day have passed, it’s easier to focus completely on the project at hand; and no one is coming into the kitchen to bother you since all the meals have been eaten. My family, who’s dealt with clunking pans, whirring mixers, and beeping timers at 10:30 PM might disagree with me. Too bad.

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The one “down side”, as a blogger, is that the lighting is not ideal for photography at night. I use “” because I actually don’t think it’s a real down side. The whole home baking blog scene has become a little food porn-y for me these days. It seems like a big ridiculous competition to see who can make the most picture-perfect sweets. Who can capture the realest drip of melting chocolate, who can create the best bokeh, who can include the most salt, bacon, pretzels, sprinkles, and dulce de leche.

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I don’t mean to sound so disenchanted. Sometimes I love the aesthetics of it all. I’m as guilty of scrolling through pins and blogs and salivating as the next baking enthusiast. However, at a certain point it ceases to agree with my baking philosophy. Maybe a baking philosophy is a stupid thing to have, but I’ve been thinking about the subject long enough that I’ve inevitably come to some conclusions.

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Food should be pretty. It’s what makes us want to eat it. But I find myself drawn to vintage cookbooks, classic cooking shows (original Martha Stewart, Julia Child, etc.), and actual functioning home kitchens, where the food looks more real. I think the flawlessness of today’s home baking blogs belies the humble beauty of home baking. The flour on the floor, the inconsistencies between cupcakes, the cookies frosted by enthusiastic kids, the piles of dishes in the sink – this is the appeal of home baking to me.

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The internet can set me up to have very unrealistic expectations of real life. It should – everything there is staged and color-corrected and hand-picked to look perfect. The best comparison I can think of is women in movies. In movies made even 15-20years ago (some of Meg Ryan’s and Andy McDowell’s work comes to mind) I’m often struck at how much less perfect the women looked. Their hair was a little frizzy. They wore lighter makeup and less form-fitting clothes. Their bodies were a little softer. And they looked gorgeous. Now, most women in movies have perfectly muscular bodies and precisely shaded eyebrows.

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The crispy, caramelized underside of the roll is my favorite part. 

Baking has followed the same trajectory to me. While I’m all for creativity and  beautiful photography, at a certain point I begin to crave the simplicity and messiness of the home kitchen atmosphere where I first learned to bake. Maybe that just means I need to get off the internet. Why not just not blog? I guess I want to inspire people to embrace the reality of their kitchens without feeling like they are failing if things are imperfect.

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So here is my favorite cinnamon roll recipe, and the photos in this post were unapologetically shot under florescent lighting and in my messy kitchen without props or mini spoons or repurposed wood or napkins from Etsy. Also, unedited. I don’t have any shots of frosted rolls because I’m going to wait to frost them until right before we eat them tomorrow.

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Cinnamon Rolls

Makes 9

Dough:

-2 cups whole milk

-1/2 cup vegetable oil

-1/2 cup granulated sugar

-2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast

-5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

-3/4 tsp. baking powder

-1/2 tsp. baking soda

-1 1/2 tsp. salt

Filling:

-1/2 cup salted butter, softened

-1/2 cup brown sugar

-1/2 cup white sugar

-2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

Buttercream:

-1 cup salted butter, softened

-2 cups confectioner’s sugar

-Vanilla extract and salt, to taste

1. For the dough, heat oil, sugar, and milk in a medium saucepan until sugar dissolves (do not boil). Cool to 110 F, then stir in yeast. Measure 5 cups of flour into a large mixing bowl. Stir in milk mixture to create a loose dough. Spray surface of dough with cooking spray, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and leave dough in a warm place for an hour to rise.

2. In the meantime, combine the remaining 1/2 cup flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. Measure the filling sugars and cinnamon into another small bowl and stir to combine. Grab your rolling pin and a little flour to keep the dough from sticking.

3. You can also make the buttercream while you’re waiting. Beat the butter in a stand mixture for a couple minutes until it’s very fluffy. Add the sugar a little at a time and continue beating until frosting is light and shiny. Add vanilla and salt to taste.

4. Once the dough is risen, punch it down and stir in the flour/leavener mixture. Dust your work surface with flour and then roll the dough out into a large rectangle. Don’t make it too thin. Spread with softened butter (I like to use my hands) and then with sugar mixture. Carefully roll the dough up from the bottom of the long edge, keeping it as tight as possible. Pinch the roll to seal and then flip the roll so that the seam is on the bottom.

5. Cut 9 2″ wide rolls using a serrated bread knife. Butter two sheet pans and transfer rolls to pans, spacing them evenly. Preheat oven to 375 F and allow rolls to raise while oven preheats. Once hot, bake the rolls for about 12 minutes, or until set and lightly browned. Cool slightly and then spread with frosting. Eat warm!

Notes:

I’ve also made these with glaze or cream cheese frosting. Equally delicious.

They freeze surprisingly well after baking. You can also freeze them raw prior to second rise.

This batch easily doubles if you need more. Just roll two logs instead of one.

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Christmas Fudge

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I try to make some food-related gift every year for extended family members and this year I decided to make fudge (the easier “cheater” kind because I have a five-week-old and limited time to fiddle with cooked sugar mixtures). Plus, Zach’s family (who we’ll be celebrating with this year) likes their desserts sweet.

While I do have a sweet tooth, I prefer dark to milk chocolate and can’t stomach things like cotton candy and white chocolate. Or fudge, often. All the better that I’ll be less tempted to eat it.

We’re going up north to celebrate with Zach’s mom’s family this Saturday so I made a big batch of Buckeye Fudge today. It was reasonably easy – I made a double-batch in a quarter sheet pan and that was enough to fill a dozen of the little gift boxes I ordered here.

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I wrapped the boxes with elastic ribbon from Hobby Lobby (bought at 50% off) and tags from World Market that were actually cheap. The boxes are lined with parchment to prevent grease spots on the outside. And since this fudge contains 2 cups of butter and 2 cups of peanut butter, that was definitely a very real concern.

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Christmas baking is in full swing around here as the day approaches all too rapidly. I remember when I was a kid it seemed like Christmas would never come. Now it always sneaks up on me. Last night I baked cookies with friends, I’m also making cinnamon rolls for our trip Saturday, and I’ve begun prepping the macarons I make for Christmas Eve. I’m making raspberry this year – last year was chocolate mint.

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I decided after I got married that I would try to add a new tradition or two to Zach’s and my Christmas celebration every year. Last year it was macarons (which Zach LOVES – plus they’re gluten-free, and fiddly enough to be really special) and cinnamon rolls for breakfast before our trip up north. This year I want us all to have Christmas pajamas for Christmas Eve (and take a family photo) and I’m going to make something special for us for Christmas Day breakfast.

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Do you have any yummy food gift ideas (homemade or otherwise)?

Gluten-Free + Low(er) Carb Breakfast Ideas Part 2: Mini Raspberry Cheesecakes

Check out the first post in this series here:

Gluten-Free + Low(er) Carb Breakfast Ideas Part 1: Protein Pancakes

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My quest to eat a high-fat and/or high-protein, low-carb, gluten-free breakfast (whew, that’s a lot of qualifiers) every day continues. These cheesecakes have been a favorite grab-and-go option. They’re also great for people like me who prefer sweet over savory in the morning.

#2: Mini Raspberry Cheesecakes

Cheesecake for breakfast is weird – but you won’t catch me arguing. These are easy to make, easy to grab out of the fridge, they’re gluten- and sugar-free, and the ingredients list includes eggs, berries, and nuts. If fat is an issue for you, you can substitute reduced-fat cream cheese and sour cream. Adapted from this recipe.

Makes 24 mini cheesecakes

Crust:

  • 1 1/4 cups almond flour
  • 1 1/4 cups finely chopped pecans
  • 5 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons Pyure stevia (I buy this at Wal-Mart – it’s 2X sweeter than sugar)

Filling:

  • Four 8 ounce blocks of cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup Pyure stevia
  • 1 cup raspberries, frozen or fresh
  • Sugar-free whipped cream (optional)

Preheat oven to 300 F and put cupcake liners in two cupcake pans. Combine all crust ingredients in a medium bowl (I like to use my hands). Measure 1 tablespoon of crust mixture into each cupcake well, pressing down with fingertips to form crusts.

In a stand mixer, beat together all filling ingredients except raspberries until smooth, scraping bowl with a spatula as necessary. Stir in raspberries. Divide filling among crusts, filling cheesecakes to the top of liners. If you have any extra filling left over, spray a couple ramekins with nonstick spray and bake the extra filling in those. They can be enjoyed as crustless cheesecakes.

Bake cheesecakes for 15 minutes, or until set in the center. Cool completely on cooling racks, then store in the fridge until enjoying. You can also freeze cheesecakes and simply thaw them overnight in the fridge when ready to eat. Top with sugar-free whipped cream for extra fun 🙂 

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Gluten-Free Cookies and Cream Tart

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If you don’t already know this, Trader Joe’s is awesome. There wasn’t one where I grew up but since I moved to Wisconsin I have access to a TJ’s and I love it. When I was there the other day buying the cookies for this recipe, the employee offered me a list of all their gluten-free items. And he asked me about my day in the genuine sort of way that seems almost uncomfortably intimate until you realize how much you miss it in everyday interactions.

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This tart is simple, pretty, and delicious. It’s a sandwich cookie in tart form….because that needed to happen. I wanted to make a traditional cookie crumb crust, but opted to add cookie crumbs to an almond-flour crust because I didn’t want the crust to crumble when I un-molded the tart.  It worked perfectly! The tart is filled with sweet and creamy vanilla pudding, which then gets covered with more cookie crumbs.

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Here’s a tip for un-molding a tart from a pan with a removable bottom…..set the pan on a bowl or cake pan that is smaller than the base of the tart pan. The tart (with the removable bottom of the pan) can then sit suspended on the bowl/cake pan while you carefully remove the outside edge of the tart pan.  This picture should help that make more sense…

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GLUTEN-FREE COOKIES AND CREAM TART 

Crust ingredients:

1 box Trader Joe’s Gluten-Free Joe Joe Cookies

2 cups almond flour or almond meal

2 tablespoons coconut oil

1 egg

Pudding ingredients:

1 cup cold milk

½ cup cornstarch

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. vanilla

3 egg yolks

3 cups milk

1 tablespoon butter

¾ cup sugar

Make the crust:

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Place all the cookies in a blender or food processor and blend until crushed into fine crumbs. Dump into a bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix the almond flour, coconut oil, egg, and 1 cup of crushed cookies until mixture forms a ball (I like to use my hands, but a large spoon would work too).

Press this crust mixture evenly into a 10” tart pan, using a knife to level off the top edge. Place the tart pan on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes, until set. Let cool.

Make the pudding filling:

Whisk the 1 cup milk, cornstarch, salt, and vanilla together in a bowl. Set aside. Combine the egg yolks, 3 cups milk, butter, and sugar in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves.

Whisk in the cornstarch mixture and continue whisking as the mixture thickens to the consistency of pudding. Remove from heat, allow to cool briefly, and then pour into crust, spreading with a spatula if necessary.

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Place the tart in the refrigerator until ready to serve (three hours is ideal).

Before serving, sprinkle remaining cookie crumbs over pudding filling and remove tart from pan. Slice and enjoy!

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DSC_0562^ Poorly-lit photo of my late-night tart slice ^

Gluten-Free Quinoa Granola

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This is the healthiest granola I’ve ever made. Usually when I eat granola I have this foreboding in the back of my mind that I’m just eating junky boxed cereal with a better PR profile. Probably over-dramatic. But we all need to admit that granola is so good because of that wonderful trifecta: fat, sugar, and carbs. This recipe is an improvement! And it’s really delicious.  I’ve eaten it everyday this week. It’s also gluten-free and a 1/2 cup serving has 4 grams fiber and 5 grams of protein.

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Make it. It will make your kitchen smell wonderful and your meals more tasty.

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GLUTEN-FREE QUINOA GRANOLA

 *Adapted from this recipe*

Dry:

2 cups quick-cooking gluten-free oats (Not instant! You can use old-fashioned oats, but I like the extra crunchy/clumpy texture quick-cooking oats bring to this granola)

½ cup chopped nuts (I used pecans)

½ cup uncooked quinoa

3 Tbsp. ground flax

½ tsp. sea salt

½ tsp. cinnamon

Wet:

¼ cup applesauce

¼ cup maple syrup

3 Tbsp. nut butter

½ tsp. almond extract

Stir dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Stir wet ingredients together in a small, microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for about 2 minutes, or until nut butter is melted. Whisk wet ingredients together to combine, then stir into dry ingredients until mixture is clumpy and well-combined.

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Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet at 325 F for about 25 minutes, stirring if necessary to prevent excessive browning (stir less if you want chunkier granola). Let cool on pan and then store in an airtight container or plastic bag.

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