Saturday, 23 June 2012

Dear Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986),

Your book "The Second Sex" is required reading for every young feminist. You wrote, at the exact right moment in 1949, that "it is not women's inferiority that has determined their historical insignificance: it is their historical insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority." For your work, I and many other women, through many generations, am and should be grateful.

However, this is a food blog. 

So as much as your work might interest me in other capacities, right now, I want to know what a young woman such as yourself, growing up in Paris in the 1910s and 20s, liked to eat.

In my mind, Paris in the 20s is a land of baguettes and brie; mille feuilles and madeleines; crepes and candied chestnuts. Possibly this is based on a recent viewing of "Midnight in Paris," and possibly Woody Allen should not be my source on period Parisian cuisine. 

Woody and his futuristic 10-foot banana from "Sleeper". Subtext anyone?

So Simone, I turn to you for inspiration. Your “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter” contains all sorts of youthful impressions of food; an early sense of repulsion with the textures of porridge and fish, transitioning into a girlish delight at fruit candies, and fond memories of Mama’s powdered sugared almond creams. (Powdered almonds... sugar... cream... getting inspired...)

Indeed you even consider it your duty to control the universe by eating it:

"I was never attracted to paradises flowing with milk and honey, but I envied Hansel and Gretel their gingerbread house: if only the universe we inhabit were completely edible, I used to think, what power we would have over it! When I was grown-up I wanted to crunch flowering almond trees, and take bites out of the rainbow nougat of the sunset... Eating was not only an exploration and an act of conquest - an acquired taste in the real sense of the phrase - but also my most solemn duty."

Mine too, Simone, mine too. It is my duty, today, to take the fruit of almond trees, powder it down with sugars, and form a delicate Parisian biscuit worthy of your youthful tastebuds. It is then my further duty to stuff those biscuits with American volumes of buttercream, and temper the American excesses with a French combination of pear and chocolate (a combination known as ‘Belle Helene’). Since your sister was named Helene, this is almost relevant to your memoirs! My final, most solemn duty, will be to eat the resulting macarons, with maximum greed and licking of bowls, as an act of feminist imperialism. I eat the fruits of my kitchen to dominate my kitchen, and to transform it from a feminine prison to a centre of pleasure! With this double-stuffed Belle Helene macaron, I say booyah to the patriarchal tradition!

OK, maybe I just want to eat macarons. But still, I thank you and your fellow feminist pioneers for allowing me to cook only when greedy, and never by gender-obligation.

Double-Stuffed Belle Helene Macarons


Macaron shells: 
2 cups icing sugar
1 cup ground almonds
6 tablespoons high-quality cocoa powder
4 egg whites (room temperature, preferably 2 days old)
2/3 cup caster sugar

50g butter (softened)
100g dark chocolate
1 cup icing sugar

Caramelised pears:
1 can pears
1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup brown sugar

To finish:
1/2 cup slivered almonds


To make the macaron shells, load the icing sugar, ground almonds, and cocoa powder into a food processor and blend until they are all combined. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites until thick and foamy, then add the caster sugar slowly and keep beating until the mixture reaches the consistency of shaving foam - all thick and glossy. Once you have a nice stiff meringue-y mix, stop beating. Slowly sift in the powdered dry ingredients, in four batches, stirring minimally to combine. Rule of thumb with macarons: you want to stick to a maximum of 40 strokes to combine wet and dry ingredients. Gently does it! Once you have a batter, load it into a pastry bag (I use a large zip-lock bag with a corner cut off.) Pipe small (2-3cm diameter) rounds onto lined baking trays, spacing them slightly apart. Give the trays a firm whack on the counter to eliminate any air bubbles. Leave the macaron batter rounds to dry out for an hour.

Meanwhile, make the buttercream by melting the dark chocolate, then beating in the softened butter and icing sugar. Using an electric beater, mix the buttercream until it's glossy and firm. You are shooting for a texture that's creamy but structually sound enough to hold up a macaron shell - tinker with the amount of icing sugar if your buttercream is too thin, or add a dash of milk if it's too thick. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Time to make the caramelised pears: in a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Slice the tinned pears into slivers small enough to be sandwiched in a macaron - I got three slivers per pear half. Throw these into the melted butter and cook until slightly browned. Add the brown sugar and cook until caramelised. (Don't leave them in there forever though, otherwise you get toffee... which is also yummy... but not delicate enough for a macaron.) Remove the pear slivers and set aside.

Crush the slivered almonds into even smaller slivers, and toast them in a dry pan until golden and fragrant. Set those aside too.

By now, your oven should be hot. Cook the macaron shells, one sheet at a time, for 15 minutes on the middle rack. Since ovens are variable, you might want to use the first sheet as a test batch. They should come out crispy on the outside, and marshmallowy on the inside. If they are still gooey, increase your cooking time; if they are too crunchy, decrease it.

Once all your macaron shells are cooked and cooled, it's time to sandwich them up. For each shell, dollop a bit of buttercream on the underside. Rest a piece of caramelised pear on the buttercream. Sandwich with another buttercreamed shell to form a full macaron. Roll through the crushed toasted almond slivers so that some stick to the filling. Eat and thank me in the comments!

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