maine in the summer, remembered in the winter ::::
My family’s summers in Maine started when I was twelve. And it was here that really sparked my love for cooking, the flint on the stone. My PhD father worked in biological research and teaching, the summers bringing in a motley assortment of students. We spent the summers in a uninsulated cottage that my parents rented from the lab, complete with plywood walls between the bedrooms, and the sound of every creak and squeak of the floorboards as we walked across them. The cottage we spent the most time in (before it burned to the ground years later, unoccupied), was Wilde Cottage. It was nestled into the woods next to Hamilton Pond, trees keeping the cottage relatively cool in the summers. There was a front screened-in porch with an ever-present layer of dirt, sometimes freckled with raccoon prints indicating attempted raids of the garbage bags left out overnight to take to the dumpster down the road. On warmer nights, we were cocooned by din of crickets and peeper frogs, cicadas joining in. The condensation on the windows in the early morning was often thick and beaded, as if we were sleeping in tents. And then there were the carpenter ants. They cast a quiet hum over the cottage, punctuated with squeals of disgust and the hard smack of a shoe. I tried to willfully ignore the ants skittering across the ceiling, and turned away at the squiggle of black creeping underneath a coat lapel or crumpled sock. Engrossed in a book, I would suddenly realize a small pile of sawdust developing at the foot of my bed, my eyes slowing traveling up the rafters to see if the gnawer was visible, reachable, and, therefore, squishable.
After being creeped out by the one-centimeter long ants sometimes veering off their destructive course and crawling on me numerous times in one sitting, I would eventually bolt downstairs to a well-lit area, away from walls where ants could climb and be seen. Usually this refuge was the kitchen. Often, I would cook or bake, or just eat, and then settle at the kitchen table sometimes reading or taking off for a run outside down Norway Drive, into the cleavage of road through farm fields, cows, and a stone barn. This was ant-free territory. The snapping turtles would hoist their heavy bodies from the surrounding lake, attempting to cross the road before a car could crush them. Helping them across wasn’t worth the sacrifice. In one instance, I tried to pick up a small turtle from the back so as to avoid a bite, and it still tried to take off my thumb with a swift hook of its neck. I grabbed a large stick to prod a mother turtle back to her newly-laid eggs at the road’s sandy edge, only to find the harder I pushed against her, the harder she pushed back, making it impossible to move her an inch.
Down the road away from the pond, I would run past the farms and modest homes of Mount Desert Island. I would also I run the other direction down the same road, to the sea. The clank, clank of sailboat sail ropes, the cool wisp of breeze, and the occasional snap of a loose sail in the wind drew me to the low tide. I collected sea glass, empty periwinkle shells, smooth rocks. The seaweed smelled of decay. It was here that I would think of stupid boyfriends and stare into the bay, cold Atlantic breeze.
And this is where I began menu planning, when I started my summer stint at a local restaurant, learning tricks of the trade. Certainly my dilettante start in cooking was shaped there, in that misogynistic restaurant kitchen, tempered by my mother’s good sense at home. I would walk five miles home (because I wanted to) and make gnocchi under the broiler. I could bake some crusty bread. I loved making calzones. I had the knowledge, I had the confidence to do it. Most importantly, I had the desire to do it, to practice, and try to make it my own. Those summers provided a practice ground, one that involved forcing my mother out of the kitchen and forcing my practicing, my pastries and breads, some cookies and a couple of cheesecakes, to be sampled by the family. We ate many loaves of bread. Perhaps dozens of calzones. And lots of desserts. Old habits die hard.
Today’s dessert is not something I ever made in Maine. This was too far-reaching for me as a teenager back then to try, and I didn’t even know they existed until adulthood. The colors remind me of the sagey, dry pines, the prolific summer wild blueberries, the sometimes brilliant blue sky on sunny days, and the whitecaps of the sea. I liked the idea of swirling together different colors from the memory on the canvas of a macaron shell.
My parents and two siblings and connected children will spend the holidays this year in Maine, covered in snow without the glut of tourists. Enjoy your Hot Toddies and I will enjoy the warm memories. And no carpenter ants!
One year ago: rose tea
Two years ago: beer bread (non-yeasted)
Three years ago: giant ginger cookies
Four years ago: homemade sugar cubes
- 4 ounces (113 g) cornstarch-free powdered sugar
- 7 ounces (200 g) almond flour
- 4 ounces egg whites, aged and at room temperature (1 large egg white = 1 ounce = 30g)
- pinch of cream of tartar (optional - it helps the egg whites whip, but not necessary)
- 3½ ounces (100 g) granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon orange extract
- Colors: Americolor Juniper Green, McCormick blue, Wilton purple (which has a blue undertone)
- FOR BLUEBERRY GANACHE : 100 g good quality white chocolate, chopped (don't use those crappy "candy melting chips" – they are NOT white chocolate!)
- 50 g fresh blueberries, pureed (if frozen, thaw them)
- 20 g cream
- squeeze of lemon juice
- Prepare your parchment paper macaron templates and line baking sheet. (You may draw circles on the parchment paper, or use a paper with circles drawn on it underneath the diaphanous parchment, removing the template before baking.)
- Pulse about ⅓ of the powdered sugar and all the almond flour in a food processor to form a fine powder. (NOTE: After making numerous batches of macarons, I find a spice grinder does a better job to finely grind the nut (or seed) flour. Food processors still work, but the macaron shell will not have such a smooth sheen.) In a medium mixing bowl, combine remaining powdered sugar and almond flour and sift 3 to 4 times. If there are large particles left over, discard them or save for another use. Set aside.
- In a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a wire-whip attachment, both scrupulously clean, whisk egg whites and cream of tartar (if using) on medium speed until foamy. Gradually add granulated sugar. once all sugar is incorporated, scrape down sides of bowl, and increase speed to high, whisking until stiff, firm, glossy peaks form. To check this, take your whisk attachment off and flip it over. Are the whites holding up? Or do they bend a little? Bending means the egg whites are not stiff enough. Scrape the bottom of the bowl also, as the egg whites in the bowl's bottom may need more beating.
- When egg whites are stiff, REALLY stiff, add the vanilla extract.
- Sift the almond flour mixture ⅓ at a time over the egg white mixture, and fold using a large silicon spatula until mixture is smooth and shiny. The first addition is usually the hardest. Fold the mixture carefully: don't smash it. Lift!
- Once the almond flour mixture is incorporated, check to see the batter is nicely firm and drips slowly from the spatula (Remember my notes from my peppermint macaron post? Like lava, slow, controlled, you get the idea.)
- FOR THE TRICOLOR PIPING PREP: Divide the batter evenly into three bowls. Tint one bowl with Americolor Juniper Green, another bowl with blue and purple, and leave the last bowl untinted.
- Transfer each color of batter into a separate piping bag, tip cut to about ¾ cm, then transfer these three bags to a larger pastry bag fitting with a large hole, and pipe rounds on parchment-lined baking sheets (your templates may be ¾-inch rounds, 1-1/3-inch rounds, even an 8-inch pan for a crazy macaron cake!). Don't put the macarons too close together because they will stick together when baking. Need some lessons on piping? You Tube has scads of them. The trick is to be gentle and consistent, without twirling the piping tip around like you are decorating a cake - NO! Don't drink caffeine beforehand; you don't want to be jittery. Think of it like the archers in the Olympics. Aim, focus, gentle, and release! (Videos really are better than my description). If you have some minor peaks, you can gently rub them down with a lightly damp fingertip. Another important note: Each macaron shell will be very different from the next. Some will be bicolor, some tricolor. Revel in the differences! *
- When piping is completed for one sheet, rap it hard on the counter to release trapped air. Turn it 90 degrees and do it again. This is also important to help form the pied, or the foot, of the macaron.
- Sprinkle some leftover blueberry dust on the tops of drying macarons, if desired.
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees F, racks positioned in the middle.
- Let stand at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes. Macarons are ready to bake when they no longer stick to a finger when lightly touched.
- Remember to stack your baking sheet on an empty baking sheet and remove the templates from underneath the parchment (if using). Bake one sheet at time (may do two sheets if they fit in the oven), rotating pan halfway through, until macarons are crisp and firm. This is the trick: check at 7 minutes and rotate pan. If there is browning (Ahhhh! Nooooo!), then turn down the oven to 275 degrees F. Check the macarons at 12 minutes: touching them gently with a fingertip should give no wiggle and they're done. If a wiggle, put them back in the oven for 2 minutes and check again.
- Let macarons cool on baking sheets for 2 to 3 minutes, and transfer to wire rack to cool completely before filling.
- FOR THE FILLING: While your macarons are drying before baking or cooling after baking, make the ganache. Place white chocolate in a heat-proof bowl and set over double boiler to melt. Stir to melt evenly. Keep stirring until smooth. Add pureed blueberries and cream and stir well. Add lemon juice and stir to combine.
- Allow to set in fridge for 10 to 20 minutes, so that it is not too hard but firm enough to pipe or spoon onto shells.
- ASSEMBLY: When the macaron shells are totally cool, spoon the filling over one shell and close with a matching size shell. The filled macarons need to age for 48 hours in the refrigerator to soften the shell and meld the flavors. Before serving, allow to come to room temperature in a closed container (to avoid condensation). These store in the freezer well wrapped for months.