Two years of Syrup & Tang… it’s an anniversary!

Who’d have thunk it would come to this: hundreds of hits for the word “macaron” (and many nice comments)? When I started Syrup & Tang two years ago, I set the scene with the things I love: books (a review of Fast Food Nation), a quirky travel-related item (Eurostar), a moan about yet another overrated café, and comments about the un-camp, un-crazed, un-wonderful Iron Chef America. Somehow readers had to wait until April 2007 before they hit baking (Swedish easter buns – “semlor”).

Little did I know that my own baking nightmare back then, macarons, would prove so attractive! (Seriously, I wasn’t paying attention to the pretty blogs; I was too busy crying over spoilt macaron batches. Thankfully I don’t need to cry much nowadays!) Now, if I could generate as much attention for reviews of foodbooks, life would be just peachy, given the extraordinary amount of time and technical indigestion that has gone into my recent baby, The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf!

What else has happened? Rather a lot of baking, often following my rather obsessive approach to cooking projects (Portuguese custard tarts/pastéis de nata). To celebrate this anniversary, I baked minimum-effort little thingies, Tante Kremer’s Walnut Egg White Kisses, which I found over at Culinary Types. Lovely. No hassle. No tears. A bit of washing up.

The last two years have seen me visiting restaurants far less often. I’m tired of the take-the-punter-for-a-ride thing. I’m sick of deafeningly noisy high- and low-priced eateries. I’m disappointed by technically competent, unmemorable food. I need deliciousness in my life (and I thank Robin Wickens’s Interlude (now closed), some tapas bars in Seville, the meat roasters and chip fryers and cheesemakers of Portugal, and some funky French bacteria for the highlights). I find myself happier eating well prepared “budget” food (e.g., at some decent southeast Asian eateries popping up in Carlton/Parkville) than chucking dollars at dining with attitude.

It has been great getting to know many of the really warm, fun people who form part of the online food world. I think it’s a pity more non-bloggers don’t participate, often because they don’t feel they “belong” to the community. I hope to meet many more as time passes. Just need to keep my motivation to maintain Syrup & Tang going! Thanks to all my pleasant visitors, readers, commenters.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen… in the works is a new baking obsession. Let me summarise with a photo. Note that these are a failed batch. Continued burnt bulgey bottoms are not an option!

In the next months you’ll be able to read more about these, plus stuff about pretzels, oven temperatures, food issues, and a big trip to Europe!

Three flavours of macaron

Many of my readers know of my macaronic obsessions (eg, here, or here, or here). As the latest batch, made for the foodblogger get-together in March, was well received I thought I’d publish some pretty photos of them and tell you more about the flavours.

Chocolate-passionfruit: now a classic flavour made famous by Pierre Hermé, this combines a milk chocolate ganache with passionfruit juice. You need flavoursome passionfruit in order to capture the real fruit flavour, otherwise all you get is acidity. I decorated the white shells with a bright yellow dot. You can’t just paint liquid colouring onto piped shells, as it creates a weak point in the shell from which mixture can erupt during baking. Instead, colour a few teaspoons of the macaron batter in a small bowl, then apply to freshly piped shells.

Violet: one of my favourite flavours, it’s difficult to capture it in a clean, strong form. I’ve tried a few methods and have been happiest with a light buttercream. In this case, I used a white chocolate ganache instead, but the flavour of the chocolate dominated. The ganache was pepped up with violet syrup and violet liqueur, but even then the ganache was only faintly violetty. It was also very soft and I used very fine almond meal to stiffen it a little. A number of macaron fillings use almond meal in this way, but they aren’t often written about. Most eaters wouldn’t notice the slight texture of the almond.

Cinnamon-peach: for these, I roasted thin slices of peach in a slow oven until they were quite leathery but not hard. I cut the slices into fine slivers. I then made a white chocolate ganache, simmering cream with a piece of cinnamon stick before adding the cream to the chocolate. The ganache develops a delicious fruity note of cinnamon. Many people don’t immediately identify the flavour but know there’s something fragrant there. The peach slivers are added to the chocolate and cream. This was a delightful, brightly flavoured ganache that I would happily make again. It seemed to be the most popular.

This batch of macarons was one of the most attractive large batches I’ve made. The feet were consistently quite high (something my oven doesn’t always give me) and the shells were just the right texture. If you want to make macarons, it’s worth reading my guide to macarons, La Macaronicité, and if you’d like to see an English-language review of Pierre Hermé’s book Macaron, we published one a few days ago on The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf!

By the way, for those of you who sometimes end up with a too-stiff mixture and are afraid of mixing further, I recommend adding a teaspoon or two of eggwhite (normal, not whipped) and mixing in quickly and gently. It seems to be a very effective repair — much more attractive than thick, lumpy macarons with piping nipples. 🙂

Olive masterclass

Olive lovers might be interested in the olive masterclass being run by The Princess and the Providore on March 26th in Melbourne (you need to book). Simon Field is the olive man and I’ve been to one of his classes before. Very enjoyable and informative. I also buy olives from him cos they’re delicious.

When? THURSDAY 26 March 6.30pm to 9.00pm
What? MINERAL water, glass of wine, yummy antipasti and recipes

Latest reviews on The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf

A quick post to tell you that The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf has added a number of reviews in the last six weeks.

We hope you enjoy them! If you have a book you love (or loathe) why not join in by writing a review? (Click here for more info)

Sow stalls in Australia

I don’t think most Australians have any particularly awareness of the conditions for livestock animals in Australia. We hear occasional stories from overseas and can, of course, read books such as Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore’s Dilemma to get even more of an idea. We know that chickens lead an awful life in battery farms, but I imagine many people think “barn laid” and many other opaque terms indicate markedly better welfare for the chickens. Scepticism is, justifiably, growing.

But what of the cattle and pigs? The Guardian (one of very few traditional newspaper to have nurtured an intelligent food section into the digital age) had an article, The price of bacon, on January 6th describing the conditions of pigs in some European pig farms. The blurb for the article summarises the unpleasant content:

Pigs kept on slatted, concrete floors; pregnant sows in cages so small they can’t move; piglets castrated without pain relief; tails routinely docked to prevent animals attacking each other. This is the truth behind the European pig industry – and so behind most of the pork we eat.

It piqued my curiosity regarding the situation in Australia. It turns out, for instance, that sow stalls are in use here, and not only is there an RSPCA campaign against their use, but there’s also one of those de rigueur marketing propaganda sites,, to explain why Australia should still use them. I love Issue Spin 101 paragraphs like

While several countries have moved to ban sow stalls or restrict their use, all Australians would agree that this country should make its own independent assessment based on sound scientific research, which meets our unique environment, cultural and geographical situation. (Link)

The site is completely silent about its authorship or affiliation, but a whois search reveals the owner as Australian Pork Limited. No surprise.

Now let’s just see how The Guardian describes sowstalls:

A sow stall is a narrow metal cage, on a bare concrete and slatted floor, in which pregnant sows spend all three months, three weeks and three days of their gestation. They can move a few inches back and forwards, but not turn around. Lying down and getting up is difficult, too.

I’m not particularly sentimental about animals which we eat, but I do get grumpy when people use weasel words to justify the mistreatment of those animals. I understand the economic imperatives of farming and food production. I know that there must be compromises where vast numbers of humans need food. I don’t think the final cents-per-unit should justify this sort of treatment.

I wonder if there are readers in Australia with close-hand knowledge of the treatment of food/farm animals in Australia? Is it generally better than some of the worst aspects of European or USAmerican farming described in books and the media?