This week’s obsession: A Lesson in Humidity
What is your response when someone tells you that you can’t do something?
Typically, I let it roll right off me with the internal thought combo of “this guy/gal doesn’t even know what I’m capable of” and “I don’t really care enough about this to even bother” and that’s usually why I don’t rise to the occasion when someone tells me that I can’t.
I was once in my twenties and had a very different response to someone telling me that I couldn’t do it. My response was generally a snort of derision and a “we’ll see about that,” (usually I thought that phrase, but sometimes it came out of my mouth).
I can recall one very specific time when that attitude served me extremely well. It was when I was a student in pastry school and we were learning how to make (and correctly pronounce) macarons. As the finicky nature of this confection was being explained in excruciating detail, my chef explained that sometimes he left the dry ingredients out on a sheet pan for several hours so they would “dry out”. I must have looked REALLY appalled (you would never leave something out to dry in the south) because he asked where I was from. When I replied with “New Orleans” - which is known to have typical humidity percentages in the high 90’s - he dismissively said, “you’ll never be able to make macarons there.”
We’ll see about that.
I found a way to do it. And I did it really well, thank you very much.
That was all good and well until I got comfortable making macarons in my fancy kitchen with my sweet convection oven and all was right in my little baking world. Until this week. Ohhhhhhh, this week.
This week, I ruined FOUR BATCHES of macarons.
I can’t even begin to tell you how horrible that feels. It’s like the pastry version of the shanks.
You don’t know what you’re doing wrong, your friends are looking at you all weird because you literally can’t get it together, and the more you try and fail, the angrier and more flustered you get which does not help you do the thing you’re trying to do correctly.
For example, I was so excited to try making cookies and cream macarons for the very first time (in spite of the 3 batches of other macarons that failed this week). I mixed the batter and piped them, then let them rest/dry out for more than 2 hours (usually they rest for about 20 - 30 minutes), but they just never set. I couldn’t figure it out, so I actually set my kitchen torch on them to dry them out a bit, which worked in setting the tops but didn’t help in the long run because the batter was just too moist throughout.
As I was staring at my batch of fluffy, lumpy, and entirely botched macarons, mentally beating myself up, you can imagine how grateful I was to hear news reports with headlines like “Rain is Back in SF this week” and news that the city had been covered in fog and mist the entire time I was mixing, piping, resting, and baking my macarons.
What a relief!! I wasn’t being plagued by the pastry shanks or being haunted by some pastry demons after all! It was just some rain and high humidity! (I probably would have known about it if I didn’t wear my hair in a knot all the time. My hair gets large and in charge whenever it’s really humid.)
Later on in the day, the sun came out and it was bright and beautiful outside. I decided to try another half batch of macarons now that the fog had burned off in the sunshine. I worked my magic and made a gorgeous batch of cookies and cream macaron cookies, piped them, and set them out to rest. They were so smooth and shiny (but losing their shininess as they set/dried - which is exactly what was supposed to happen) and I was so proud of myself for FINALLY getting it right this week.
As the macaron shells were waiting just a few minutes more to pop into the oven, dinner time was approaching and pasta was on the menu. And the first thing you do to make pasta at home is boil a large pot of water. So as the pot started coming up to a boil, I popped the macarons into the oven. Here’s my tip of the week: for macarons, I bake them for the first 4 minutes with the oven door completely shut. This allows the tops of the shells to fully harden. Then I rotate them 180* and bake them for 7 more minutes with the oven door partially open. This helps the cookies to rise, which creates those gorgeous “feet” that macarons are so well known for.
However, that pot of water that I mentioned earlier was now boiling, and steam was rolling off of it and creating a nice humid environment with the heat that was pouring out of the cracked open oven. And if we’ve learned anything today, it’s that steam/humidity do not mix with macarons.
So those beautiful shells that had rested so perfectly and I had such high hopes for… yeah, they cracked.
I guess some days just aren’t your days. This one was not mine. There were probably 4 or 5 shells that came out nicely, but if this had been for a client I would have started over entirely. Since it was just for me, I called it a day and filled them, took photos, and cleaned up the kitchen as soon as possible so I could get my mind off of them.
The best news though is that they still tasted pretty great! I fed them to a few marathoners and they totally agree with me on this!
Happy eating, y’all!
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