A tumble in the hay, a fumble in the dark, a bit of how’s your father, or, as my little brother so eloquently puts it, schtupping – it’s all the same when The Mother-in-Law walks in. Apparently, she needed to find the lead for her 1970s laptop. Well, should I ever need to figure out how to turn up the temperature on the AGA in the middle of night, I would probably KNOCK FIRST; perish the thought of catching her and The Psychotherapist having a Freudian moment.
Dear Husband, apologies for you having to relive this moment; stick your fingers in your ears, hum a little ditty, and reassure yourself that all the The Mother-in-Law and The Psychotherapist do is talk. (Pah!)
Well, the stewed rhubarb wasn’t the only thing blushing round the breakfast table the following morning and, in my nervous state-of-mind, I ill-advisedly decided to try to make light of the situation by announcing that it could have been worse if she’d walked in five minutes earlier. WHAT. WAS. I. THINKING. I should just keep my mouth shut and bake cookies. Or in this case, macaroons.
Wouldn’t you agree, there’s nothing better than a baked peace offering? Should your disputant be thoroughly riled there’s not much they can do with a face-full of crumble. And I knew just what to bake The Mother-in-Law, with her unrelenting sweet tooth and perpetual botheration about cholesterol: my pear, cardamom and almond macaroons with a dark chocolate drizzle. (Yes, both almonds and dark chocolate can help improve both LDL and HDL cholesterol levels, and lower blood sugar, even when cooked.) And after all, I do have to get through the 75-odd bags of ground almonds that are propping up the basement ceiling, thanks to The Bubbe who found them on special offer in Morrisons.
Gluten- and dairy-free, and free-from saturated fats and refined sugars (if you don’t drizzle with the choc), these indulgent little morsels are so easy to make and look pretty ‘patisserie’ without any effort at all. In fact, if there were a biscuit that could personify (biscuitify?) the naive, bohemian, shaky-handedness of the Yiddish folk art aesthetic, it would be the almond macaroon. Marc Chagall would most definitely have enjoyed one with a lemon tea.
Beloved of and made by Jewish mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers for generations, this chewy biscuit is forgiving of quivery hands and bad measurements because of its simplicity and deliciousness. Traditionally made using only three ingredients in unforgettable amounts – 200g ground almonds, 200g sugar and 2 egg whites – it has for centuries been the staple festive biscuit of Pessach (when Jews abstain from eating wheat), thanks to the Jews of Italy. As My Hero, Claudia Roden – whom I recently met – points out: “cakes with ground nuts and almonds developed as a result of the prohibitions of leaven and flour“. I mean, who’s going to let a little forbearance stand between a Jew and his pudding.
My pear, cardamom and almond macaroons were inspired by a recent trip to the wonderful Ethicurean restaurant, surrounded by the most beautiful walled kitchen garden in the countryside on the outskirts of Bristol, where we drank excellent coffee and scoffed pear, cardamom and chocolate cake. The flavour combinations in the cake were heavenly and are ever-more elevated by the addition of almonds in my recipe. As always, I am replacing the sugar: this time with a little honey and pears, which are poached with the cardamom, then mashed and added to the macaroon mix to add sweetness and a spiced earthiness.
Oh, and did I tell you that I met Claudia Roden? She KISSED MY SON and he is never going to be washed again.
(How EXCITED am I!!!!!!!!!)
Makes around 20 macaroons
Preparation time 15 minutes
Cooking time 15 minutes
Decorating time 5 minutes
Eating time 10 seconds
2 ripe pears, peeled and chopped
60ml or 1/4 cup of runny honey
250g ground almonds
The finely ground-up seeds of 6 cardamom pods (equivalent to 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom)
2 egg whites (keep your yolks to make mayonnaise or custard, which are both a cinch)
Pinch of salt
30 almonds, blanched and halved
Half a bar (around 55g) bar of excellent quality, dark fairtrade chocolate (I use 85%)
Preheat your oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3. Line a baking sheet or two (depending on their size) with some parchment.
Put your peeled and chopped pears in a saucepan and add a tablespoon of water and the ground cardamom seeds.
Cover and cook over a gentle heat for around 5 minutes until the pear begins to soften. Remove from the heat and mash until smoothish with either a fork or potato masher. Add the honey, stir and then set aside to cool.
Now blanch your almonds. Put the nuts into a heat-proof dish and pour over boiling water. Leave for a few minutes and then remove into a clean tea-towel.
Rub the skins to “remove their jackets”, as I like to tell Zippy. Try to split the almonds in half lengthways – most should do this naturally.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg whites. If you are using an electric mixer/hand mixer, start on a slow setting for 1 minute and then add a pinch of salt. Work up to a high speed for another 2 minutes, as the egg whites firm up. As soft peaks form add the pear, cardamom and honey mixture, slowly at first, until thoroughly mixed in. Continue until glossy peaks form (around 5 minutes) but be careful not to over-beat the mixture.
Now gently fold in the ground almonds using a large metal spoon, adding slowly and making sure you don’t beat out the air from the eggs – you do this by using a sort of cutting motion. Again, don’t over-mix.
Drop half-tablespoon dollops of the mixture onto a baking sheet and lightly press a half-slither of almond into the top of each macaroon.
Bake for around 12-15 minutes or until just turning golden. Remove from the oven and place onto a wire rack to cool.
Whilst the macaroons cool you can make your chocolate drizzle. Melt half a broken-up bar of dark chocolate in a bain-marie (a heat-proof bowl that sits over a saucepan of boiling water but NOT IN the water) or in the microwave for a minute or so, stirring half-way through. Once melted, use a fork to pick up the molten chocolate and drizzle in a haphazard, Jackson Pollock sort of way across your macaroons whilst they sit on their rack. And if you have any left over, you can also dip the underside of each macaroon so that it has a chocolate bottom.
If you can resist, leave to completely cool and then devour.