Macaroon Madness

Pessah sweets from Israel's culinary queen.

Judging from the display of macaroons at the market during this season, you'd think that eating macaroons for Pessah was a commandment from Mount Sinai. We always had macaroons for Pessah when I was growing up, but even though my mother was a wonderful baker, they invariably came in cans. I didn't think much of macaroons until I learned from my friend, mentor and former employer, Ruth Sirkis, how delicious homemade macaroons can be. During Pessah, for over three decades, Sirkis's "coconut kisses" have been a standard not only in my own kitchen, but in countless Israeli homes. The importance of Ruth Sirkis's cookbooks to Israeli culinary literature is described by Emanuela Calo in her thesis, "Change of Taste in Israeli Food," written for her master's degree in cultural studies at Tel Aviv University: "In 1975 Ruth Sirkis published her book, Cooking with Love. With its publication, as today, the book is considered, along with Ruth Sirkis's other books, not just a great success but as the canonical works among cookbooks, and it is sometimes called the 'Tanach of Israeli cooking.'" This cookbook was indeed produced with love; the dishes for the photos were cooked by Ruth and fondly photographed by her husband Rafi Sirkis. I had a part in this exciting project - I typed the manuscript for this classic Hebrew cookbook. The opportunity to type that manuscript, which introduced me to Sirkis's many tasty dishes, was to me almost like the experience of a religious person transcribing a sacred text. I was absolutely thrilled to have the first job in my culinary career and I learned from every sentence. Every recipe I tried came out delicious. At that time, I didn't expect to write cookbooks of my own, but when I did, Sirkis's recipes served as models of what good recipes are. Naturally there were other dishes from the manuscript that became Pessah favorites of mine. I love the chocolate meringues, which are light textured but rich in chocolate and almonds and, unlike many meringues, need only 10 minutes to bake. Sirkis's coconut kisses are also perfect for Pessah but, she notes, are so delicious that they are worth enjoying all year. Richer than meringues yet lighter than macaroons, they strike a pleasing balance of texture, a blend of "the crunchiness of baked meringues and the juiciness of coconut." Another reason to bake them often-with only four ingredients and a brief baking time, they are very easy to make. Always a teacher, Sirkis explains that you can form them with two teaspoons or with a cookie press with a star tip, which gives them an attractive pointed star shape. RUTH SIRKIS'S COCONUT KISSES From Cooking with Love The color of these cookies is ivory outside and white inside, and they are good to sink your teeth into at any occasion. Makes 30 cookies 2 egg whites pinch of salt 3⁄4 cup sugar 150 gr. ground coconut 1. Heat the oven to medium (175º). Thoroughly grease a baking sheet. 2. Use an electric mixer to make the batter. Put the egg whites and the salt in the mixer bowl and whip until they form a light froth. Add the sugar - two tablespoons at a time - and beat well after each addition. After adding all the sugar beat for 5 full minutes until the egg whites form stiff shiny peaks. 3. Add the coconut and fold it gently into the egg white mixture. 4. To shape the cookies, use two teaspoons. With one teaspoon measure the dough and with the other, push it onto the baking sheet. Another method is to use a cookie press or a pastry bag with a large star tip. Put the batter inside and press out cookies of 3 cm. diameter onto the baking sheet. 5. Bake in the oven that has been heated to medium for 15 minutes, until the cookies turn a light ivory color. 6. Remove them immediately from the baking sheet, using a metal spatula. Place them on a wire rack to cool. The cookies will become crunchy on the outside after they have cooled. Keep them in a closed container. PINE NUT ROCKS From The Book of Desserts by Faye Levy (Hebrew), published by Ruth Sirkis The name of these French sweets, rochers or rocks, refers only to their round form. Made of meringues, they are very light in texture. Makes 30 cookies 4 egg whites 1 cup sugar 5 Tbsp. (50 gr.) coarsely chopped pine nuts A few whole pine nuts for sprinkling 1. Cover two baking sheets with parchment paper or foil. Grease the foil, and flour it (using matza meal on Pessah). Heat the oven to very low (135º). 2. Whip the egg whites until stiff. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and continue whipping on high speed for 1/2 minute, or until the egg whites form very stiff, shiny peaks. 3. Fold in the remaining sugar, quickly and lightly. Last fold in the chopped pine nuts. 4. Take a heaping tablespoon of batter, and use a second tablespoon to push the batter onto the baking sheet in a mound. There is no need to give them uniform shapes but they should be more or less similar in size. Sprinkle them with whole pine nuts. 5. Bake them for about 1 hour or until they are firm; if they start to brown, reduce the oven temperature slightly. 6. Let them cool completely. You can keep them for a week in a closed container. ALMOND MACAROONS You can flavor these cookies with vanilla sugar or grated lemon or orange zest. 2 1⁄4 cups blanched almonds 1 1⁄2 cups sugar 3 large egg whites 1 packet vanilla sugar (optional) 1. Position rack in upper third of oven and preheat to 175º. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or waxed paper; grease paper lightly with margarine. 2. Grind almonds with 4 tablespoons sugar in food processor until mixture forms fine, even crumbs. Add egg whites and vanilla sugar and process until smooth, about 20 seconds. Add remaining sugar in two additions and process about 10 seconds after each or until smooth. 3. With moistened hands, roll about 1 tablespoon mixture between your palms to a smooth ball. Put on prepared baking sheet. Continue shaping macaroons, spacing them 2.5 cm. apart. 4. Press each macaroon to flatten it slightly so it is about 1 cm. high. Brush entire surface of each macaroon with water. If both baking sheets don't fit on rack, bake them one at a time. Bake macaroons until very lightly but evenly browned, 18 to 20 minutes; centers should still be soft. Remove from oven. 5. Lift one end of paper and pour about 2 tablespoons water under it, onto baking sheet; water will boil on contact with hot baking sheet. Lift other end of paper and pour about 2 tablespoons water under it. When water stops boiling, remove macaroons carefully from paper. Transfer to a rack to cool. Keep them in airtight containers. Makes about 30 macaroons. Faye Levy's latest book, Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home, was published last month by Morrow.