I learn to make MACARONS

October 16, 2015 at 11:55 am | Posted in cooking | 2 Comments
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Lynne arrived with two bags full of gear and a shiny chromed food-mixer under her arm. She’s a self-taught macaronier – ‘I just thought, they’re not going to beat me’ – and Medici Macarons specialises in weddings, creating bespoke towers delicately flavoured and coloured with all-natural ingredients. Her macarons are the most unfathomably delicious things I’ve ever tasted, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my chum: I’ve eaten many others, and none are a patch on Lynne’s. Now she’s offering one-to-one macaron tuition. I couldn’t have been more excited to have her in my kitchen. If Paul Hollywood had shown up, I’d’ve been all, ‘Sorry, but I’m just a bit busy; could you come back?’

She’d sent me a list of instructions in advance, so I’d stocked up on ingredients and dug out bits of equipment. She was delighted that I had a milk pan (‘You’d be surprised how many people haven’t’) and declared my ancient, chipped, scratched Mason & Cash mixing bowl ‘perfect’ (‘You can’t do it a in plastic bowl’).

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Making sugar syrup

Oh, you can’t be making macarons with any old tat. These exquisite, otherworldy mouthfuls demand precision and perfection at every step. Of course, like the divas they are, they have their contradictions: old eggs are better than fresh ones, and the finished macarons like to snooze in the fridge for a couple of days to mature before you eat them. But still. It’s not a job for those who like checking twitter while they’re cooking.

We got settled in my kitchen. Lynne teaches people in their homes, because ovens are unpredictable beasts, and what works in one may fail in another. We had a cup of tea, and I wondered if my oven would be up to the task. Then it was on with the weighing and mixing and heating and beating.

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Lynne demonstrates expert piping

I’d love to give you a detailed breakdown of everything we did, but, well, this is why I’m not a cookery blogger. Despite macarons having only three main ingredients, there are an AWFUL lot of stages. Mostly, this is because eggs are Nature’s multitool; the whites go into the macaron shells in two different states, while the yolks make the lemon curd for the filling. If you’re the geeky type of baker, making macarons is DEFINITELY for you. The oven must be EXACTLY the right temperature. The sugar syrup can’t overheat by a SINGLE degree. The batter has to have PRECISELY the right consistency. Lynne is the perfect teacher, jolly and strict in equal measure; even flighty types like me know they’re in good hands.

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Action shot of macarons about to hit the work surface

There were some unexpectedly fun bits in amongst the worrying about whether the sugar syrup was crystallising and whether the batter was over-whipped and whether the shells were going to come out hollow. I really enjoyed piping the macarons onto the sheets, following the printed guide underneath. There’s also a great bit where you drop the tray of newly-piped lovelies onto the work surface with a CRASH, to encourage any trapped air to come to the surface. Then you get a cocktail stick and prick the tiny bubbles before the macarons go in the oven, a process which can become completely obsessive (Lynne likened it to picking spots, which brought me back to reality with a thud).

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Every… little… bubble…

I’m immensely proud to say my oven proved itself worthy, turning out two trays of really-not-at-all-bad macaron shells. We washed up and had another cup of tea, and Lynne told me how to make lemon curd, which I later piped into the middle of a tiny ring of buttercream for her trademark ‘secret centres’. About half of the finished product disappeared into my family’s gullets before they’d had a SNIFF of the fridge. Boyf: They are SUBLIME. 7yo [mournfully]: I wish I could have another one.

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The take-home message from the day is that macarons require a) precision b) concentration c) practice. My approach to cooking is generally fairly slapdash: I’m not used to weighing things out to the gram, or putting them back in the oven for another thirty seconds. But I just might be hooked. I’m off to google food mixers. Stay out of the fridge while I’m gone, okay?

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The finished product [proud face]

  • Personalised tuition costs £120 for a 3-4 hour one-to-one session or £180 for 2 people for a 4-5 hour session, excluding travel costs. Contact Lynne through her website or Facebook page to book.
  • Full disclosure: Lynne is my friend, and she offered me this session for free.

I go to a MASTERCLASS

March 20, 2015 at 11:05 pm | Posted in music, reviews | 2 Comments
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Ha! No, not to participate. My singing progress over the last few months may have been METEORIC [cough] but, sadly, I still don’t warrant the attention of Sarah Connolly and Julius Drake.

Peak eclipse selfie

Peak eclipse selfie

Going along to watch them coaching people who DO know what they’re doing, though, was VERY appealing. I saw Sarah in the Barbican’s Poppea last year and was instantly smitten with her voice and her terrific stage presence. She was lovely in person – gracious and funny – and I was intrigued to see how she’d work with student singers. Plus, a bit of a jolly to Manchester on a Friday morning? What’s not to like?

Excitement only mounted further on the train, where we crafted pinhole cameras from business cards and projected the eclipsing sun onto the carpet. COSMIC. (This was only slightly dampened by a conversation about exactly how old we were all going to be for the next one in 2026.)

A trot down Oxford Road noting what has survived the twelve years since I worked at the University (On the Eighth Day), what is sadly no more (Amigos) and what is moribund (the Cornerhouse and the pub where I used to go salsa-ing), delivered us to the Royal Northern College of Music. I love the RNCM: you can sit in the café playing Trombone? Or Uzi? while gifted types waft around buying coffees for their ‘cellos. It feels like there’ll be a sudden blast of music and everyone will leap onto the tables and break into Hot Lunch.*

I, for one, welcome our robot overlords

We took our seats in the cosy concert hall. The audience was small but keen. Everyone moved down a bit, so Sarah didn’t have to shout. The masterclass participants were four student mezzo-sopranos and their accompanists. One by one, they sang a song (or songs) they’d chosen, then had around twenty minutes of detailed critique.

Gosh, this was fascinating. I mean, really. Sarah and Julius quickly homed in on improvements for each musician. Everyone came out of the experience sounding different. The singers (and pianists) had very different qualities, but themes emerged. Do exactly what the composer’s written on the music. Keep to the tempo. (Sarah [pointing at score]: What was going on here? Singer: Um. I was fiddling around with it. Sarah [with a smile]: DON’T.) The music is moving along, even if it’s slow; work out where it’s going, and make sure you are heading there. Don’t predict the song’s ideas for the audience; present it in such a way that they work them out for themselves.

There were some surprisingly simple adjustments. Pianists, make sure you can see the singer. Singers, stand with your feet far enough apart to form a steady base. There was a lot of emphasis on posture and good physical support for singing, and even on facial expression – one singer was told to ‘smell the roses’ for the high notes, to make them gleam.

Some points were very subtle, like the difference in feel between 6/4 and 6/8 time, and how the pianist can ‘allow herself some space’ while still keeping to the tempo. There was a lot of fine-tuning of French and German pronunciation (Sarah: Whose recording have you been listening to? Singer: Yours.).

And there were some things to try at home. Declaim the text dramatically, in time, before you sing it. Start consonants on the note, not below the note. (Sarah: I don’t THINK I do that. I probably do. Haha! Now I’ll go and check.) Add a subtle /h/ when the first word in a phrase starts with a vowel, to avoid starting on a glottal stop.

WP_004872Demonstrations from Julius and Sarah were stunning; you realised what stars were in the room with you. I was in awe of all the students. It’s one thing to perform; another to perform in front of people of stature; yet another to subject yourself to their critique in public. It felt like a tremendous privilege to be there watching these learning processes unfold. Sarah and Julius expected a lot from them, and got it; that they did this leaving everyone grinning is testament to their thoughtfulness and skill.

I left wanting to burst into SONG, but knew I’d be swiftly frogmarched from the premises by the GMP (Genuine Musicians’ Police) if I dared open my mouth. Instead, I headed for Johnny Roadhouse Music where I bought a capo for my guitar and fell in love with a drumset sized perfectly for a six-year-old. And when I got home, there was an email waiting for me with a sheaf of barbershop music attached, in time for next week’s rehearsal. As International Happiness Days go, this was pretty much up there.

* So far this has never happened, but I live in hope.

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