Nothing Up My Sleeve (Oops! Wrong sleeve…)

Coconut Macaroons

The can is purely ceremonial...

I’m beginning to feel self conscious: I’ve been boiling so much sugar lately that I’m afraid my neighbors must be thinking I’ve started a rum factory in my kitchen. The true explanation is quite innocent: I just happen to be baking things that require boiled sugar as part of their magic.

Let me tell you a little story. (Have a seat.) Many years ago I worked with a talented sleight-of-hand artist. While that sounds like the opening salvo of a very old-fashioned dirty joke, it is the truth. Sleight-of-hand artists differ from regular magicians in that everything they do is designed to be witnessed from very close range. While you watch an illusionist pull a rabbit out of a hat, part of your mind is usually doing the work to reverse engineer how the illusionist may have made this happen. At the very least you  know there’s bound to be something special about that hat—some way of hiding the rabbit.

With a sleight-of-hand artist all you see is a few coins, and a couple of pairs of hands, one pair of which likely belongs to you. My usual startled reaction to my co-worker’s tricks (and I use that word with a great deal of guilt) was, “How did you do that?” The answer was always, “It’s magic.” I could never figure out a better explanation.

I get the same zing when I boil sugar to 238 degrees: It never fails to amaze me that a saucepan of clear, dangerously hot, boiling syrup can magically transform into so many different things. Magic.

Sugar boiled to 238 degrees is commonly referred to as being at “soft ball stage.” It is called that because if you put a drop or two of the sugar syrup into a glass of cold water it should form a soft or malleable ball shape. This is cooking chemistry at its simplest. Boil the sugar to a hotter temperature and you get “hard ball stage.” You guessed it: a few drops in a glass of cold water would be hard to the touch.

If you’ve ever had Salt Water Taffy then you’ve had something that didn’t stray that far from soft ball stage sugar syrup. They cool the hot syrup on a marble slab, add a few drops of flavoring and coloring, then stretch and pull the mixture (usually by machine) until enough air has been incorporated that it has the soft milky quality that has pulled us in from the Boardwalk for so many years.

Remember the Scooter Pies I made a few weeks ago? The marshmallow I made to fill them is simply soft ball syrup whipped into gelatin. The frozen soufflé I made for Valentine’s Day had an Italian Meringue base made with egg whites and the very same soft ball syrup. The silky but rich buttercream on your cousin Debbie’s wedding cake likely started life boiling in a sauce pan (cousin Debbie may have her own dark secrets.)

Naturally if I didn’t have a Kitchen Aid-type stand mixer these things would not be in my repertoire. So it is only natural that I should find myself in front of the bubbling sauce pan again, this time so that I can resolve some unfinished business from last year.

A year ago in preparation for Passover, I decided to make Coconut Macaroons. I have an aversion to the kind they sell in the little cans. When I eat those I taste nothing but sugar and the can. I used a recipe I found that employed a generous dollop of coconut milk, a couple of egg whites, and some confectioner’s sugar. On paper it all sounded delicious. On the cookie sheet it was a loose, runny mess. I kept adding things to firm up the mixture: more confectioner’s sugar, a bit of Passover potato starch, even a touch of almond flour. Nevertheless the liquid from the cookies ran, dripped and burned onto the bottom of the oven. Have I ever told you about my fool-proof trick for ridding your kitchen of smoke? That’s because I don’t have one.

I tried that recipe a couple of times. While the resulting macaroons tasted okay they were also a bit greasy from the coconut milk. They were moist, but had no texture because the coconut was so wet it never got a chance to toast while the cookies baked. They were also far too rich for Passover dessert.

Back to the drawing board. This year it occurred to me to follow the k.i.s.s. rule: keep it simple, stupid (the latter referring to yours truly.) One package of sweetened coconut. One small batch of Italian meringue. Done. The result is a cross between a classical French Coconut Meringue (the crunchy kind) and the inside of a Mounds bar. The bonus is that they are relatively very light (as light as anything with coconut can be), and they are painless to make in quantity (you can easily double my recipe.)

Yes, by all means feel free to dip these in chocolate.

If you miss the can, you can supply your own as I did in the picture above.

It is part of the ceremony, right?


Click here for the recipe for Coconut Macaroons.


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