Reality check

As many of you know, the macarons sold out extremely quickly this week. I was distressed to hear that some unlucky people were rude to Liaison staff and to some successful purchasers. Macarons are just a type of biscuit, you know. They’re not a ticket out of a war-zone, or the last flight out of Sydney, or the latest iPhone.

I’ve never been at the “hot” end of a baked good before, and I’m flattered by the attention my macarons have received but it was quite a shock to know that people could get so unpleasant because of a delicate biscuit.

Liaison is a small, special place with a great, friendly atmosphere, excellent coffee, tea, chai, marvellous canelés (Thursdays) and other food, and countless loyal regulars. The behaviour of a few visitors spoilt that atmosphere. (Apologies to Siâny and Danny at Liaison wouldn’t go astray.)

We are discussing ways to make the sale of macarons work without queues out the door or unfriendliness, but there won’t be any updates about availability and flavours until a working solution has been found. 🙁

Macarons by Duncan at Liaison

I’ve hinted, there have been rumours, and the cat almost got out of the bag through a lucky coincidence of a flatmate of a blogger being in the right place at the right time…

Meanwhile, Twitterer @essjayeff, better known as Suzanne of, has already tweeted visual evidence! (Suzanne seems to visit Liaison five times a day, always there for the latest news!)

Macarons by Duncan are now available at Liaison café at 22 Ridgway Place, off Little Collins St near Parliament. (Read Claire’s review here.)

In dot points:

  • Tuesdays and Fridays only
  • available on those days from approx. 10.30am until sold out
  • limited stock and flavours per day

And announcing tomorrow’s flavours (which were in anonymous preview at Liaison last Friday):

DARCY white: combines white chocolate ganache with a strong dose of vanilla and lovely little pieces of cocoa bean, better known as cocoa nibs. The end result tastes a bit like chocolate ice cream!

BETH milk: that favourite (for some) combination of orange and milk chocolate. I’ll admit the atractive mixed shell appearance is the result of a shortage of orange shells, rather than artistic flair;)

Hoarding food novelties from my travels

The lure of supermarkets and convenience stores is irresistible when I travel. The novelty of different packaging, mysterious powders, new chocolate brands (mostly disappointing), and the cornucopia of snackfoods can keep me entranced for ages. I have enough trouble escaping from Tatsing (Newmarket) or Minh Phat (Richmond) and neither of those are new to me! But it’s the extra weight in my luggage when I fly my way home that really shows the lure of new things.

Before recent travel I thought it time to examine my Shelf of Travel Food Mementoes. The intention of the shelf was originally to encourage me to sample and continue to eat my way through the collected bounty, but I seem to have failed, as many years’ travel appears to have accumulated without sufficient attention from me.

You might notice, for instance, an abundance of Ricola lollies. There’s aux Plantes, Verveine citronée, AlpinFresh, Argousier, CitronMélisse, Fleur de sureau, OrangeMenthe, Spearmint Fresh Pearls and LemonMint. The Frenchie ones were acquired in France (2009) when I was on the wave of Ricola discovery (I didn’t use to like hard sugary lollies, but times changed and long-ignored products suddenly caught my attention). Little did I know that what I thought was a very narrow range of Ricola in Australia (thank you, Coles), was nothing of the sort. I returned from travels to find the Reject Shop selling most of the above flavours in English 😉 for half the price! Of greater embarrassment than this, however, is the fact that most of the packets were unopened when I took this photo, despite having been bought over a year earlier. Tsk tsk. At least the Spearmint Fresh Pearls were only about eight months old (Kuala Lumpur in October)… still unopened.

Meanwhile, from Sweden (also 2009) are Läkerol, a few flavours of which are found at IKEA in Australia. But mine, collected in the “home” country are the rather tasty Yuzo Citrus (yes, opened that one), and the as-yet-untasted Eucalyptus, Pitaya (dragonfruit) and Licorice-Watermelon. Actually, I just opened the Pitaya and discovered that it comes “with strawberry pieces” and tastes, um, sweet and acidic and lightly perfumed. It’s lucky that chewy lolly connoisseurism isn’t a big thing, or Läkerol would have to try a little bit harder (and who would try to seriously capture the flavour of dragonfruit??).

I rarely use chewing gum, but new flavours always catch my eye. Fond memories of a Wrigley’s sage and lemon chewing gum linger from a trip to, um, the Czech Republic I think (I found the almost empty package in the bottom of a laptop bag the other day… too gory to reveal to you here). In the picture below, however, you see Green Tea Mint chewy (foul) and Lemongrass (obscured at the top) which was new in Malaysia last year (and rather difficult to find once I was addicted).

On the top right we have the rather awful pseudo-macarons made of fruit-flavoured chocolate from the otherwise excellent Michel Cluizel. They were awful when I bought them, and over a year later they were downright spit-out-able (I know, should have chucked them out a year ago). In complete contrast, the neighbour in the photo are tasty little cinnamon flavoured Pastiglie Leone. I have a few half-eaten packets of other flavours from previous years lying around the house. I emphatically do not recommend the green tea “Tuareg” flavour, astringent enough to shrivel your tastebuds for a day unless you’re a hardened green tea lover! Putting that flavour to one side, I was delighted to discover that you can find these pastilles in Australia — on a visit to Liaison café in Melbourne I saw an artfully arranged pile of boxes.

The coloured tins with heart-shaped figures are OralFixation Mints from the US (but bought in Malaysia). I’m a sucker for small tins, and US sweet and gum manufacturers are great at feeding my fetish. (Come to think of it, a star in the tin world is Altoids, actually British, but better known in the US.) Anyway, these OralFixation thingies in cinnamon (yum, but not steroid-strength like Altoids) and green tea (meh) are very stylish.

Almost finished, and we have three favourites at the bottom left. Starting with the childhood nostalgic disappointment is the Jacobs orange Club biscuit. Knowing that, as a child, I loved the greasy chocolate and the gritty biscuit just didn’t save them from disdain. Having bought a six-pack with glee at Tesco, most of them lay unloved at the back of the shelf, with good reason. Then there’s the Fazer Viol licorice chewy lollies. Lovely. Clear violet flavour. A pleasant suck. And finally, childhood hit and enduring favourite, violet flavoured Anis de Flavigny — hard, lightly fragranced sugar balls with a smooth exterior and a tiny aniseed in the middle.

I know of many others who hoard tasty treats (flavoured KitKats seem to be a recurring theme among bloggers), but most do manage to devour their bounty within a brief time. What do you hoard from your travels and then find months or years later?

Salted caramel for quick readers, plus the usual tales of macarons


I need to learn the lesson that when things are going well, one should stop experimenting (at least at critical times). You see, I made a ganache today that I was quite proud of. Homemade seville orange marmelade in a white chocolate ganache. Carefully bitter, a touch of vanilla. Then I made a beautifully orange macaron batter. Then I tweaked the mix. Tsk tsk. But things still weren’t all bad. Then I put the piped shells in the oven. And then I played with a function on the oven. Tsk tsk tsk tsk. I should know better. Seriously ugly shells and, I hate to say, crunchy too (this will mellow with a few days maturation).

Meanwhile, I’ve been battling with the torments of caramel. If it’s easily pipeable, it’s too runny on the shell. If it’s kinda thick enough, it’s a pain to pipe. And, foolishly, I stacked quite a few finished macarons on top of each other for transportation this afternoon… Caramel is rather heavy dense (unlike the shells), so the top layer of macarons did a good job of squeezing the caramel out of the bottom layer of macarons. Sigh.

Which brings me to the thing many of you were waiting for today. A few weeks ago I quietly announced a giveaway of mandarin/cinnamon macarons to my email and Twitter subscribers, with much success and some lovely blush-inducing praise. Now I can offer a small number of 4-packs of YANNIC, my salted caramel macaron which lots of people have liked in the past. I had hoped to have rather a lot more available, but, well, macawrongs are part of the, um, adventure.

[UPDATE: NONE LEFT OF YANNIC!] If you want one of these 4-packs of YANNIC, they are available for $5 and would need to be picked up tomorrow (Thursday 8th July) in the Melbourne CBD between 3.00pm and 5.00pm only. First in best dressed, so email me before 12noon Thursday using the contact page to reserve yours.

I’ll also throw in one of the sad orange ones — remember beauty is only skin deep, but tastiness is divine. Ehem.

If anyone really loves the idea of the orange ones, I’ll do some packs of three for a meagre $1. [UPDATE: NONE LEFT!] You need to like the bitter orange character of marmelade (it’s definitely not over the top, but I know that marmelade is often a love-it-or-hate-it thing for people).

And hopefully, hopefully, this’ll be the last of the test runs! At present I’m looking at packaging and also how to make the macarons available, as supplying wholesale to retailers is too time-consuming at the moment and rarely rewarding. My focus is on small production to make this manageable, to keep the joy in it, and to have the emphasis on a tight, varying range of interesting flavours. There are still many steps to be negotiated, so stay tuned.

PS: And edible glitter is a real pain to deposit as a Macarons by Duncan trademark dot on the shells. Won’t try that again!

Where there’s smoke there’s crème brûlée

Is Paris burning?

No, it’s just Harry making crème brûlée again…

[My Parisian correspondent, Harry de Paris, has been wanting to write about these lovely custards for Syrup & Tang, so here you are… my first guest writer. Duncan.]

Inspired by the film Julie and Julia, I recently decided I would embark on a similar undertaking to cook all the recipes in a single cookbook. Armed with my beloved copy of Family Circle Dinner Parties (circa 1990), I determined every weekend to cook each of the recipes the book contains which, as it happens, are neatly organised into three and four-course meals.

The first meal consisted of an entrée of tomato garlic mussels, followed by veal with wine and mustard sauce for the main meal, and finally, crème brûlée as dessert. I must admit I was somewhat surprised to find a recipe for crème brûlée in an Australian cookbook from twenty years ago. I’d certainly never made it before, and had only tried it a few times in restaurants in the ten years I’ve been living here in Paris. They are delicious, really, but I’m just not that mad on desserts.

The first two courses of the meal went fine, both in the preparation and the eating. But when it came to the dessert recipe, I’m afraid I have to use the F-words: Fundamentally Flawed. I followed the instructions and doses to the letter, but the end product was a grainy, sometimes lumpy, tasteless custard with caramel on top.

If you haven’t enjoyed the pleasure of eating a crème brûlée, you should know that it is in fact supposed to be a smooth and light vanilla custard (thick, not runny, and certainly not lumpy or grainy). It is served chilled, but with a thin layer of burnt sugar on top.

Despite the initial hurdle, my resolve to pursue my endeavour was strong and I was determined to cook the following week’s dinner party meal. After all, I was on a mission. But sadly, my determination was no match for my desire to get those doggedly difficult crème brûlées right. Family Circle would have to wait!

Disappointed with the recipe I had followed, I delved into my cookbooks and browsed through a forest of websites and online cooking forums, only to discover that there are as many recipes for crème brûlée as there are budding chefs. In the multitude of recipes I found, the proportions of egg yolk to cream and the amount of sugar used varied as much as the cooking temperatures.

My research also revealed that crème brûlée is a dessert whose origins the French, English and Spanish all lay claim to. The Spanish (well, Catalonian) variety is known as crema catalana and, among other distinguishing features, it contains cornflour (unlike the French version). Burnt cream, on the other hand, originates from Cambridge, and is made mainly on the stovetop and can also include cornflour to thicken it. Finally, the French crème brûlée can be traced back as far as 1691 when the then royal chef, François Massiolet, wrote a recipe for it in his book of recipes, Nouveau cuisinier royal et bourgeois. In more recent times, the crème brûlée was popularised during the 1980s by chef Paul Bocuse, and has been a hit in French restaurants ever since.

Through much trial and error, I managed to learn that the French version of crème brûlée is best cooked in the oven at a very low temperature of around 100°C. After all, crème brûlée is a kind of custard, so if the internal temperature manages to get anywhere near that high, you’ll make it curdle. Trust me, on my second attempt, I did! You see, my French oven is powered by gas, and it has only two possible temperatures: a minimum of 160°C, and a maximum which exceeds that of a kiln.

Trying to navigate this French eccentricity, I discovered a further point of discord among recipes: to bain-marie or not to bain-marie. In my case, achieving such a low temperature could only be possible by putting the custard-filled ramequins in a tray of water. As my learned friend Duncan explained to me, the water surrounding the ramequins boils at 100°C. Any hotter and it turns into steam, so the submerged walls of the ramequins (and therefore the edges of the custard) can’t get any hotter than the temperature of the surrounding water. This turned out to be a key factor in getting the custard to set without it curdling. It takes an eternity in the oven, but it seems to work.

A further hint I found on the internet was using a small amount of egg white. This suggestion tends to make waves among purists, who claim that only the yolks should be used, but it doesn’t hurt and it also appears to help the custard to set.

Now that I had finally managed to make palatable crème, I had to “brûler” (burn) them. When making crème brûlée, it really is worth doing the burnt sugar at the last minute, just before you serve them, because the contrast between the chilled custard and the hot, crispy layer of sugar is what makes it so delicious. Nowadays in most restaurants in Paris, chefs tend to use a gas torch, and incinerate a thin layer of sugar sprinkled across the surface of the chilled custard. I had no such torch to begin with, and somewhat precariously held the custards on their side over the flame of one of my gas stove burners. Miraculously, the custard never ended up sliding out of the ramequin and onto the stovetop, but I knew that disaster was nigh and this makeshift solution would never do in the long run.

That was when I discovered the crème brûlée iron (fer à brûler or fer à caraméliser in French) – a round metal disc with a long handle on it, which you heat over the flame. When the metal is searingly hot and about to turn red, you brand the custard with the iron, burning the sugar and turning it to a delicately thin, crisp layer of caramel. This is apparently the way crèmes brûlées were originally made, and it’s loads of fun to do. The smoke generated by this method, however, is a little worrying for the neighbours, who at this point were looking across the street and into my kitchen to make sure I hadn’t started a fire!

Recipe (makes four individual crèmes brûlées)

4 egg yolks (plus a little of one egg white)
65 g white sugar
460 ml cream (30-35% fat)
Several drops of vanilla essence
Brown sugar (demerera or dry crystal brown sugar; normal sugar can also be used)

1. Preheat the oven at 100°C if possible, or at its lowest temperature if not.
2. Slowly heat the cream and the vanilla together in a saucepan until it reaches a simmer.
3. In a separate, large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the white sugar.
4. While the cream is still hot, gradually pour it into the egg and sugar mixture, whisking all the while.
5. Let the mixture stand so that the bubbles that formed from the whisking break. It depends how much you whisked, but leave it at least 30 min.
6. Once the mixture has settled, pour equal amounts into each crème brûlée dish.
7. Place the filled dishes in a bain-marie (use a large oven tray placed in the oven) and fill the tray with water so that the tops of the crème dishes are slightly above the level of the water.
8. Cook the crèmes in the bain-marie (in the oven) for 60-90 min, until they are just set (the middle may still seem runny). Remove them from the oven and cool on the benchtop before placing them in the refrigerator for long enough to chill.
9. While the crèmes are still cold, sprinkle with the sugar and caramelise using the heated crème brûlée iron, a blow torch, or under the grill.

Thanks for reading!