Macaron update for early 2011

I hope all my 2010 macaron devourers had a lovely summer, relaxing and eating (but not too many substandard, crunchy, flavourless macarons, please!). I know many of you have been curious about what’s happening with Macarons by Duncan in 2011.

As you might know, the macarons are a second business for me alongside an almost full-time job. Being a one-man-production-macaron-maestro is not easy (the biscuits take a looong time to prepare, especially if you want something better than average!).

Lots of things going on in life away from the macarons have made it difficult to restart manufacture, leaving me with the unenviable decision of whether to (1) stop completely or (2) ramp things up by employing helpers and finding better production premises. The first option would be very relaxing (assuming I’m not stalked by macaron-lovers-in-withdrawal). The second option would require time and a more commercial enterprise.

I’m deferring the final decision until the non-macaron life has settled down a bit, but there won’t be any Macarons by Duncan for normal sale in the next few months. There is a chance I’ll accept occasional requests for special orders (not wedding size!), but I can’t promise.

For those of you who subscribe to my updates via Twitter, I will start using that account for more general discussion, and updates about Syrup & Tang (my main food site). I’m not a big Tweeter at all, but if you don’t want that non-macaron stuff in your Twitter stream, I won’t be offended if you unfollow;)

If you subscribe by email, that list will simply be unused until there’s any further news.

If you’d like to stay informed about things on Syrup & Tang, follow this link to see the other subscription options.

My Kitchen Rules: I can see burnt bits

When I was a kid there were crackers called Fish Shapes (I think they were among the early Arnott’s Shapes). They were foul. But if you were at a party you just had to have some, finding it hard to stop at the first handful. Despite their revoltingness, they were compulsive eating.

In a similar vein, My Kitchen Rules 2011 is compulsive viewing. I sat on the train home last night wishing I wasn’t going to be home in time for another dose of this distasteful, mediocre circus of the nice, naïve, ‘noying and nasty. Alas, Metro trains were running on time.

A columnist for Crikey.com asked on Monday “Why does this program remind me of Big Brother and all its negativity?” Nicely put.

Of course, it’s not just the producers’ deliberate choice of some distinctly unsympathetic personalities that keeps viewers simultaneously horrified and fascinated, but also the stunningly awful abilities of many of the contestants to (a) organise themselves, (b) work as a team, (c) cook.

I gather that the contestants submitted a number of menus for their dinner parties and were only told on the day which menu they would cook. Wouldn’t you, in their position, have practised most of the menu items? Perhaps have worked out how to tea-smoke duck? Checked whether deep-fried chocolate-risotto-encased ice-cream balls was a tasty idea? Googled “blue fin tuna” to work out whether ecological shame should be on the menu?

I know a few very competent cooking bloggers who wouldn’t have wanted to attempt many of those menus in a mere three hours, but hey, maybe that’s why we didn’t audition for the show!

I can’t see why My Kitchen Rules is such a ratings winner for Channel Seven. Last year’s run was novelty and horror. This year’s is the same, but with extra tiresome bitchiness and incompetence. And hosts Manu Feildel and Pete Evans, as charming as they are, are now so scripted, re-shot and dramatically paused that their presence is just wooden.

So I’m thinking… if one of the contestants could just go beserk with the kitchen implements, the show could end happily (for viewers) and prematurely. What an elimination!

Does anyone even remember who was in it – or won – last year? Didn’t think so.


Postscript: I wrote the above just after the episode finished. Alas that meant the telly was still on when Conviction Kitchen started. I didn’t see the first episode, but my first impressions were of a distasteful, exploitative piece of reality TV. Other shows manage shameless prejudiced overtones (the xenophobic Border Security) or manipulative tempting and shaming (Biggest Loser), but do we need to combine prejudice, tempt-n-shame and a lottery-for-freedom for Conviction Kitchen’s participants? That makes a mockery of the transformative intentions of the learn-to-cook exercise.

Isn’t it morally reprehensible to pour a drink for people subject to a no-alcohol restriction and then see if they’ll drink? Is it mere coincidence that a camera happens to be focused on a participant who suddenly admits to a legal problem to the chef, while another camera just happens to be trained on the chef’s face? Why do the promos and pre-advertisement previews emphasise drama and failures? It wins the voyeurs’ votes. At least chef Ian Curley seems to have had the best intentions with the participants and series.

NOTE: This is not the place for discussion of rehabilitation/crime/etc, so comments along those lines won’t be published.

Duncan’s Degustations – Betty Crocker Super Moist Devil’s Food Cake

ATTN: Ms Betty Crocker, c/- General Mills
SUBJECT: Betty Crocker Super Moist Devil’s Food Cake vs me, Mittens and Mum

Dear Betty,

I’ve long been in awe of your ability to sell buckets of ready-to-use frosting to the masses. I can remember how Australians called it icing, too, before you (or cupcakes) arrived.

The idea of tubs of icing fascinated me. It seemed naughty, perverse, and maybe a bit like dipping into a pot of yumminess. But I never tried it.

I’m writing to you, Ms Crocker, as part of the opening episode of a new occasional article series on Syrup & Tang, called Duncan’s Dégustations. As a public service (or personal torment) I’ll be exposing myself to foods I would normally be sceptical about for one reason or another, just to see if my prejudices are unfounded. I’ve chosen one of your products as my first subject.

I haven’t made a packet cake since, oh, about 1986, and even back then I could tell that my Mum and White Wings had rather different concepts of “cake”. For one thing, there was that signature artificial taste and smell, slightly metallic, and a little reminiscent of some plastics. There’s been seemingly no decline in the popularity of packet cake mixes, and the daredevil in me decided I just had to try one in 2011. Surely, surely, the intervening years would have seen such a rise in food technology skill and knowledge that a packet cake could, in fact, achieve some deliciousness, Betty?

Now, I noticed you have three types of chocolate cake: Super Moist Chocolate Fudge Cake, Super Moist Devil’s Food Cake, and Decadent Chocolate Mud. I can’t say that your boxes were at all informative about the difference between these, and the ingredients lists were so similar (apart from chocolate chips in the mud cake, if I recall correctly) that any product differentiation seemed to lie largely in the names. I chose the Devil’s Food Cake.

The ingredients list: Sugar, wheat flour, cocoa (8%), vegetable oil, raising agents (500, 341 [a sodium carbonate and a calcium phosphate]), dextrose, thickeners (1422, 466 [acetylated distarch adipate and carboxymethyl cellulose]), emulsifier (471 [glyceryl mono-/di-stearate]), wheat starch, whey powder, salt, flavour, antioxidants (306, 320 [tocopherols and butylated hydroxyanisole]). And the consumer must add water, oil and eggs. None of the additives are problematic, to my knowledge.

Now, Betty, I know you’re a figment of someone’s imagination, and your real-life minions at General Mills aren’t likely to be letter-readers, so permit me to cut to the chase. My co-eater Mittens and I made your cake. It was, indeed, very pleasantly “moist” in the mouth (though to be technical, moist relates to moisture, not the soft, oily nature of your cake).

I tried it out on my Mum, without telling her that it was cake mix cake. She was very polite about the texture. That’s all. Then she asked me if it was a packet cake.

Ms Crocker, we found your cake bitter, undersweet, not particularly chocolatey, and a touch metallic. In fact, in most regards it was very much the same as the packet cake I made in 1986. What’s more, the stingy portion of frosting you included (that sachet doesn’t stretch very far now, does it!) did nothing to make things better. It’s disappointing enough that the frosting only stretched to the thinnest of coatings, but why did it have to taste salty and (again) a touch metallic? Is this the foul substance people buy in those tubs, for reasons that now entirely escape me?

Mittens wonders what differentiates your cakes from the likes of, say, this:

I would be ashamed to serve this sorry excuse for cake. Your website says its “Made in Australia from the best quality ingredients we can find in Australia and around the world to deliver a superior product”. Try harder, Betty.

The biscuits have left the building

And so six months of squeezing piping bags, banging trays, swearing at ovens and buying plastic boxes every time they’re on special has come to an end. Joys, travails and trivia of the adventure:

  • The mini-riot in the first week of sales at Liaison.
  • Overhearing someone complaining that my macarons had too much filling.
  • Watching someone yesterday taste one of every flavour before buying multiples of each.
  • Discovering that people are scared of nutmeg (it was the only flavour that didn’t sell fast), but unfazed by the woody unfamiliarity of licorice root.
  • Having customers carefully eat around my dot, mistakenly believing it to be a blemish of some sort.
  • Meeting some of the lovely regulars at Liaison.
  • Putting dots on macarons is almost as hard as making macarons.
  • Oh, and this:

Thanks for all your enthusiasm! Special thanks are due to Suzanne, Claire, Matt, Mark, Siâny and Danny. I wish everyone a great Christmas and a wonderful 2011. Perhaps I’ll see you next year.

Wave goodbye to my 2010 babies (the Octomum has nothing on me!)

ALEX dried cherry JULIETTE rose
ANTON pandan+coconut LUCA lemon (white, extradark, pepper)
BETH orange (white, dark) LUCILLE rose+lemon
BIANCA pure licorice root LUCY mandarin
CINDY nutmeg MATEUS durian
CLANCY fingerlime NUNO coffee
DARCY cocoa nibs (vanilla, orange) PERNILLA blackcurrant
DAVID raspberry (dark, white) RASA coconut
DIEGO cinnamon SHAREE cherry
GUSTAV Christmas spice STEFAN pistachio (white, salted)
HERBERT peppermint VIOLA violet+aniseed
JOANNA date+orange blossom YANNIC salted caramel
JUDY ginger ZARA passionfruit (white, effervescent)
JULIE mandarin+rose

Christmas week: ending my macaron season with a bang!

Every day in the week before Christmas there’ll be macarons at Liaison Café. And there’ll be quite a lot. And there’ll be pretty Christmas ones. I’ve been baking my buns off to get enough stock ready for this special week. [ALL GONE!]

[UPDATED ON: Thursday]

The macarons will usually be available from approximately 10am and should last until at least early afternoon. The café closes around 3pm. Please check back for any changes or notes (I’ll update this announcement when necessary).

Monday 20th:

  • SHAREE white (delicate cherry) / HERBERT dark (subtle peppermint) / GUSTAV milk (Christmas spice) / ANON1 (mystery flavour)

Tuesday 21st:

  • SHAREE white (delicate cherry), GUSTAV milk (Christmas spice), ANON1 (mystery flavour), ZARA white (passionfruit), HERBERT dark (subtle peppermint), and maybe JUDY dark (ginger)

Wednesday 22nd:

  • It’s MACAWRONG DAY! Most of the macarons on sale will be macawrongs, sold at two for $3. If you don’t know my macawrongs, read the announcement for my previous macawrong day here.

Thursday 23rd:

  • SHAREE white (delicate cherry), ZARA fizz (effervescent passionfruit), ZARA white (passionfruit), VIOLA white (violet + aniseed), ANON2/3/4 (mystery flavours)


Friday 24th:

  • None left, sorry!

This is the season finale for Macarons by Duncan! These will be the last macarons for a few months (returning at the earliest in March).

Where are the good kitchen scales?

How hard is it to make a set of consumer digital kitchen scales that are reliable? Too hard, it seems.

Exhibit A, below, is the most reliable, moderately priced (A$40) set I’ve found in recent years. The IKEA Ordning kitchen scale is simple, reasonably robust, and fairly reliable. I’ve had two in the last six years. The first broke because I have a habit of knocking things onto the floor. My parents inherited it because my father is nifty with drills and glue and stuff;) The second Ordning scale isn’t quite as good. No design changes, but the displayed weight seems to creep up or down a little sometimes. A pity, because the first one was really, really reliable.

Exhibit B, below, was a piece of junk I bought at BigW. I liked the idea of a solid flat glass surface, and bright display. Junk. It wasn’t enough that weighing something at different spots on the surface yielded different outcomes, but watching the display settle on a weight, then slowly tick upwards gram by gram over a period of about 30 seconds, then (if lucky) slowly tick downwards to (approximately) the original weight, was excruciatingly frustrating.

The design was clean and the display was bright, but that couldn’t compensate for the flaws. This device is sold under many brands both here in Australia and overseas. I don’t know if the one I bought was a one-off faulty unit. There are other scales that are of the same basic design but have a slightly different base or display, and these might behave differently.

Exhibit C (which I’m not exhibiting) was another type of scale (raised glass disc over a plastic housing) at a similar price point. It refused to register the addition of any amount under about three grams, so if you had 100gm of something already on the scales and slowly sprinkled on small amounts of extra ingredient, it wouldn’t notice. Dumb.

What’s a gram or two between friends?

If baking is your thing, and especially if you spend quite some time developing recipes, every gram can matter. For general use, it’s not so big a drama unless you’re adding small quantities of very potent ingredients (e.g. certain flavours, chemicals in avantgarde cooking, leavening agents, etc), or making a very small batch of something where the balance of ingredients is crucial (e.g. a ganache).

I began to wonder if the expensive digital scales sold in most cookware shops and department stores were, in fact, justifiably pricey. A quick look at the reviews on various Amazons left me sceptical, and the fact that the typical consumer probably trusts their scales without testing them for accuracy/reliablity certainly distorts the reviews.

So I wonder what my readers use and have found to be truly reliable?

A decent set of scales should, in my opinion, manage at least to:

  • measure up to at least 3 kg, preferably more
  • measure as little as 2 gm
  • measure in increments of no larger than 1 gm (there are cheap scales out there that only measure in 2 gm or 5 gm increments)
  • be zeroed/tared
  • measure reliably, without the figure creeping up or down, or the baseline changing
  • (added later:) perhaps measure lb/oz as well.

Reliability of scales is difficult to assess if you don’t have access to more than one set of scales. However, smallish weights can be checked by using multiple coins, as the weights of coins are meant to be reliable (e.g. an Australian 50c coin should weigh 15.55 gm; Wikipedia has useful reference lists for many different currencies).