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Archive for the ‘Desserts’ Category

Lemon Chiffon Pie

My recipe this week comes with a big backstory. This pie came about because I’d finally persuaded Beloved Spouse that our apartment absolutely had to be painted, before flakes of the cracked 10-year-old paint job began falling off the walls. He hated the disruptions it would cause (we’d be living there the whole time), but he capitulated. Shortly before we descended into the abyss, I laid in a supply of calming medications.

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Each evening when the painters had gone, we’d creep out of whichever room they’d left for us to inhabit that day, pick our way through heaps of clumsy equipment and masses of shrouded furniture, and take our daily dose.
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Life went on like this for three. whole. weeks. But eventually the work came to an end, and we found ourselves – livers intact but psyches slightly dented – in a bright, cheerful apartment with smooth walls of a lovely lemon chiffon color. I decided to celebrate our survival by making a lemon chiffon pie.
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I’d never made a lemon chiffon pie, so I turned to the recipe in Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Pastry. It gave lots of advice on handling gelatin fillings and offered a choice of three kinds of pastry crust. The easiest one was said to be crumb crust – which I’d also never made before – so I bought a box of graham crackers and set to work. Having done so, I can’t say I agree about the easiness.

Turning those grahams into “1½ cups (6 ounces) fine crumbs” was a piece of work, especially because my weighed-out 6 ounces of crackers came nowhere near 1½ cups of crumbs. What to do – go with the weight or go with the volume? I chose volume and kept feeding crackers into the processor until I achieved it.
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I mixed the crumbs with ½ cup of sugar and ½ cup of melted butter, poured them into a pie dish, and shaped the crust. That wasn’t so easy either. Grumbling to myself that I’d have had a normal short pastry crust all done by now, I pushed and pressed those slithery crumbs around and around until they finally looked like a bottom pie crust.

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Into the refrigerator it went while I made the lemon custard. I softened an envelope of unflavored gelatin in ¼ cup of water. I grated a teaspoonful of lemon rind and squeezed two big lemons to obtain ½ cup of juice. I separated three eggs. I mixed the yolks in ½ cup of sugar in the top of a double boiler and cooked until it thickened a bit.
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Then I had to stir in the gelatin, lemon juice, and rind, and put the mixture into the refrigerator “until slightly thickened.” There I made my big mistake. With all Clayton’s warnings about working with gelatin, he neglected at this point to say Don’t let it firm up too much. Duh! I left it too long.

As a result, when I’d whipped the egg whites and tried to fold them in, they wouldn’t. The semi-solid gelatin wanted nothing to do with the whites. I had to practically cut the gelatin part into little pieces, smush them against the sides of the bowl with a spoon to soften them, and even go right in with my (very clean) fingers and squeeze the lumps to break them up.
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When I gave up, the filling still wasn’t fully smooth but it was the best I could do. I put it into the crumb crust and chilled it again. The recipe also called for a topping of sweetened whipped cream, but from finger-licking samples of crust and filling that I’d taken, I knew the pie was going to be plenty sweet enough for us, so I skipped that. (The filling looks white below, but that’s a peculiarity of the light at the time. It was pale yellow.)
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When sliced, the pie still looked awfully messy – crumbly crust and bumpy filling – but you know what? It tasted just fine! On the tongue, the texture defects were unnoticeable. The filling was very sweet, very lemony, and exactly the color of our newly painted walls.
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This was not what I’d call a pie to be proud of, but as a family dessert to commemorate the end of our painterly tribulations, it was a worthwhile experiment. And it was one more episode in my ongoing culinary education.

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The culinary world must contain an infinite number of cheesecake recipes. The cheese component of any one version may consist of only cream cheese, only cottage cheese, only ricotta, or some combination of those, in widely differing proportions. Similarly variable are the indicated quantities of eggs, sugar, sour cream (if any), and flour vs. cornstarch.

While I’ve never had a cheesecake I didn’t like, I’m not a frequent baker of the things. For many years, if I felt like making a cheesecake, or Beloved Spouse asked for one, I’d go straight to the recipe on the back of the Argo cornstarch box. (Yes, Virginia, Argo once came in a modest cardboard box with a cheesecake recipe on the back. Now it’s in a bulky plastic bin, and the recipes on it are for generic gravy and play clay for kids. O tempora, o mores!)
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Fortunately, I copied out the Argo cheesecake recipe for myself long ago. It calls for a pound each of cottage cheese, cream cheese, and sour cream; plus sugar, cornstarch, eggs, melted butter, lemon juice, and vanilla. I generally make a half recipe’s worth and skip its graham cracker crust entirely.

My refrigerator never normally contains sour cream, cream cheese, and cottage cheese or ricotta at the same time, though at times it has at least some of one or two of them – usually left over from other uses. So I got into the habit of varying the half recipe’s proportions of those three according to what I had on hand, and buying the remaining item or two. For example, some of the variations I’ve made notes on are:

  • 1 pound ricotta, 1 cup sour cream, 2 ounces cream cheese
  • ½ pound ricotta, ½ cup sour cream, 5 ounces cream cheese

I’d adjust the other dry and wet ingredients to achieve a reasonable looking batter and proceed to bake the combination according to the recipe. Every one of my mongrel combinations turned into an actual cheesecake, with a decent texture and a pleasant flavor.

Thus encouraged, this latest baking day, I went way out on a limb. Clockwise from the sour cream in the picture below (the only thing I had to buy) are 6 ounces of cream cheese, 4½ ounces of sheep’s milk ricotta salata, and 2½ ounces of regular ricotta from buffalo milk.
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Now, ricotta salata is a fine addition to many good dishes, but it’s not used in desserts. This salted and pressed variety of ricotta is dense, crumbly, and lightly salty. I chose to use it in part from an urge to clear my refrigerator of small leftovers and in part out of curiosity, to see what I’d get by blending this firm, dry, sharpish cheese with my remnant of soft, sweet, creamy buffalo ricotta, which was just about swimming in its own whey.

I whomped the ricottas together in my heavy-duty mixer, then worked in the cream cheese, 2 beaten eggs, and ⅔ cup of sugar. When that was well mixed I added 2½ tablespoons of cornstarch, ½ teaspoon of vanilla, and 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice. That gave me just a quart of not-very-thick batter. I’d have liked to bake it in a deep dish, but the only suitable sizes I had were shallow pie dishes. One of those would have to do.
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The dish went into a 325° oven for one hour, then sat in the turned-off oven for two more hours. The cheesecake firmed and puffed up nicely.
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It was a really quirky tasting cheesecake – not unpleasant, but only slightly dessert-sweet. It seemed to be approaching a savory baked custard, like a crustless quiche. I must admit the texture was a bit grainy. I really should have pushed the ricotta salata through a fine sieve before beating it into the fresh ricotta. Not sieving is a shortcut I often take with my cheesecakes. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter; this time it did.
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The cheesecake was as usual quite rich. Its savoriness made it go well with a glass of white wine. There was enough of it to last us for several days, and its texture seemed to smooth out somewhat with time. Still, it’s not an experiment I’m likely to repeat.

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We’re having a great summer for peaches. While a few months ago, newspapers were predicting a peachless year because of devastating winter crop losses in Georgia and South Carolina, that’s not the case here in the northeast. Peaches from southern New Jersey are plump, plentiful, fragrant, and sweet. Here’s a recent batch at my favorite greenmarket peach purveyor, Kernan Farms.
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I can’t pass by the stand without picking up a few. And since some of these beauties weigh three quarters of a pound, I find myself with a lot of rapidly ripening fruit that needs to be done something with.
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This is far from a problem from Beloved Spouse’s point of view: He happily consumes the peach pie, peach cake, peach cobbler, peach bread pudding, baked peaches, and peach jam that I make for him.

Browsing my cookbooks for another “peach something” to add to my tool kit, I came upon a recipe called Rustic Fruit Focaccia in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Now, focaccia is usually a savory bread (such as I wrote about here) but, as Michele explains, in Tuscany in autumn they make this flat bread with a topping of ripe wine grapes. She also says it’s good with other fruits too, such as peaches. Well, just the thing!

The dough for this focaccia isn’t kneaded at all: You simply stir together flour, sugar, salt, yeast, olive oil, and water until it becomes a rough ball. I suppose that’s what makes it “rustic.”

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The dough rises once in the bowl, then is spread out thinly over a shallow rectangular baking pan and rises again. While it was doing that, I was peeling and slicing peaches.
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The illustration in the book shows a focaccia topped with nectarines and blueberries. That looked good, but I had some raspberries in the refrigerator, so I dotted them on the dough along with the peaches, sprinkled a little sugar over it all, and baked it in a moderate oven for about half an hour.
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The edges of my focaccia crisped and browned just as they ought, but my fruit was so juicy that the central bread part of the crust didn’t. Still, it was fully baked and had risen about as much as expected. So I took it out of the oven, let it partially cool on a rack, and cut pieces for a week-night dinner dessert.
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This is definitely not a very sweet confection. Michele says she likes it mostly for breakfast or afternoon tea. We were happy enough with it in the evening, especially with a veil of powdered sugar. It made a nice, light, crunchy fruit dessert. But I agree that its true destiny is as a breakfast or midday treat, which is how we promptly devoured the whole rest of the focaccia. By midwinter, we’ll be longing for fresh fruit flavors like this.

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I just spent a week of bright sunny days cruising the wild, scenic, unspoiled river Loire on the MS Loire Princesse. This handsome paddle-wheel barge-type ship is French-owned, and its 90 passengers were about 60% French, 20% Spanish, and 20% British and Antipodean. Tom and I were the only Americans.

We’d been greatly looking forward to the food on the voyage. As this was a moderately priced cruise, providing good value but not extravagance, only a single three-course menu was available for each lunch and dinner. There was no particular emphasis on the cuisine of the Loire Valley. That was a bit disappointing for us, but the cooking was generally good. Every day several pleasant, simple wines were liberally poured at no cost, and there was a small list of better wines for purchase. (Tom’s blog has more to say about the wines.)
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Lunches

The lunches onboard were far larger than what we’re used to. A few times we’d have been just as happy with only a sandwich or a hamburger. But the chef prepared these menus, and we were on vacation, so we had to try them, didn’t we? Somehow, we managed to get through midday meals like these. (Wine helped, and often a little nap too.)
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Fresh pickled herring, roast veal with chanterelles, tortoni
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Mozzarella and tomato salad, filet of pork with duchesse potatoes, tiramisu
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Black Forest ham, hake filet grenobloise, raspberry cake

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Dinners

Dinners were equally elaborate and varied, with occasionally a small fourth course included. The chef had a real talent with meat and potatoes but offered few fresh seasonal vegetables other than salad greens.
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Duck terrine with sauce gribiche, stuffed filet of chicken with tagliatelle, raspberry torte
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Veal-filled beggar’s purse pasta with cream sauce, confit duck leg, crepes suzette
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Scallop salad, duck breast with port sauce, baked apple on brioche French toast

 

 

Cappuccino of cèpes, vegetables à la grecque, blanquette de veau à l’ancienne, peach melba

 

A word of explanation about the “cappuccino” just above. That’s what it looked like, but it was actually a trompe l’oeil creation: a rich soup of wild mushrooms topped with a veil of cream and a sprinkle of minced mushrooms as faux cinnamon. Quite a delicious frivolity.

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Overall, the cruise’s food was a little too elaborated, too heavily decorated, for our taste. Rather than the panoply of flavors present in most dishes, we’d have preferred having the simple quality of the main ingredients left to shine forth on their own. Also, we really regretted the dearth of local specialties. To be in the Loire Valley and not be offered rillettes or beurre blanc seemed wrong! Likewise, to be in the agricultural heart of France in mid-June and be fed carrots and brussels sprouts. But many individual dishes were excellent.  For instance, the herring in the first lunch above was as sparkling, fresh, and delicious as any I’ve ever had. The many mushroom varieties the chef seemed to love using tasted fine indeed, and he had the best hand with pasta of any French cook we’ve encountered.

After the cruise, we had a few days in the Touraine and the Orléanais on our own, where we took the opportunity to make up some of the deficit of regional dishes – e.g., fabulous white asparagus. And I’ve purchased a little French book of recipes of the châteaux of the Loire, to encourage myself to make them at home.

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Regifting can be an iffy proposition, but Beloved Spouse and I benefited from a multiple regifting not long ago. Some dear friends had themselves been not-too-thoughtfully regifted with two things they couldn’t use: a cookbook and four bricks of fancy “chocolate for wine.” Knowing our proclivities very well, they gingerly asked if they might re-regift them to us.
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Although Spouse snorted at the pretentious prose on the chocolate box about pairing different wines with different strengths of chocolate, I can find plenty of cooking uses for good chocolate. And I’m always interested in new cookbooks. So we accepted with pleasure, and as an acknowledgment, the next time we had those friends to dinner I made a dessert from their book, using some of their chocolate.

The Italian budino, like its cousin the French pot de crème, is a rich chocolate custard. The photo in the book looked luscious, and I set to the recipe with enthusiasm, the day before the scheduled dinner.

The first step was to finely chop 5½ ounces of the darkest bittersweet chocolate in the box – 70% cacao – and put it in a large bowl. That took a bit of work: Chocolate is none too cooperative about allowing itself to be finely chopped. When I make a chocolate spoon dessert it’s usually a mousse, for which the chocolate is merely melted on the stove; much easier to do.

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That task finally finished, I next brought a mixture of heavy cream, milk, sugar, and salt to a boil, poured it into the bowl, and whisked to melt the chocolate. The recipe is very particular about this, saying “Whisk to combine and then whisk some more. Walk away for five minutes and then whisk again.” I got the message and whisked madly.

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Then I whisked four egg yolks together in another bowl, slowly poured the chocolate mixture on them, whisking constantly again, and added vanilla, still whisking. Finally, I put the whole custard mixture through a fine sieve and poured it into six half-cup ramekins.
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These went into a 275° oven, in a large baking pan half filled with water and covered with foil. They were to be baked until the custard was “just set but still has a slight jiggle in the center, 40 to 50 minutes.” The recipe cautioned to check them frequently to avoid overbaking.

Well, after 50 minutes, my custards were still totally fluid. I kept testing them with a knife blade, but once through the slightly firm surface, it kept coming out covered with wet custard. After 90 minutes I decided they must be done, so I took them out of the oven.
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I put them in the refrigerator overnight, hoping they’d firm up more as they chilled. Fortunately, they weren’t meant to be unmolded, so at the dinner party I could serve them right in their ramekins, covering the knife blade scars with dollops of whipped cream.

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They had indeed set, very delicately, and they made a perfect ending to the meal – light and tender on the tongue but intensely rich in flavor – the essence of darkest chocolate. (And yes, we drank red wine with them, but not the wine pairing recommended for that chocolate.)

I look forward to further exploration of the gastronomical possibilities in these re-regifted gifts.

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The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather hasn’t been fully cooperative. What do you do on an unseasonably raw, dark, damp day? Easy: Have friends over for a bollito misto dinner.

In English, a “mixed boil” doesn’t sound overly attractive, but this northern Italian meat extravaganza is truly marvelous. I remember a long-ago winter day in Ferrara when Beloved Spouse and I lurched out of the icy blasts and into the warmth of a restaurant where all the lunchtime patrons were comforting themselves with bollito misto, served from a steaming silver cart that a waiter rolled around to each table. That was our first taste of this now-indispensable bad-weather balm.

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For this occasion, I embellished the bollito with a multi-course menu of dishes from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. We started with an antipasto of grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella.

Several red-leaved members of the chicory family are known as radicchio. This dish wants the long, slender Treviso variety. The radicchio heads are halved and pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; then placed in a baking pan, topped with smoked scamorza or mozzarella (scamorza is better, if you can find it), and baked until the cheese melts. The combination of smoky-lush cheese and savory-bitter radicchio makes a bracing wake-up call to the appetite.

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Next came a first course of passatelli in brodo.

Long, gentle boiling of several kinds of meat – on this day eye of chuck, chicken thighs, and veal tongue – produces a wonderfully rich broth. A bowl of it is purely ambrosial with passatelli. To make these tiny shreds of dumpling, you mix breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into a soft paste. Dip out a quantity of broth into a separate pot; bring it to a boil; set a food mill over the pot; and mill the passatelli mixture directly into it. Cook two minutes, let rest two minutes, and serve. This is the soul’s plasma, so be prepared to offer seconds.

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Finally, the main event of the evening: the meats and their condiments.

In addition to the beef, chicken, and tongue, I separately cooked a large, unctuous cotechino sausage. Alongside we had potatoes mashed with parmigiano; salsa rossa (a thick, nubbly sauce that I make from roasted sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine vinegar), and mostarda di Cremona – fruits preserved in a strong mustard syrup (jars of which I bring back from every trip to Italy). All in all, they made richly satisfying platefuls, with the sweet/sharp flavors of the two condiments playing beautifully off the lushness of the meats.

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And to finish the meal, a pizza dolce, or ricotta torte.

The pastry for this looking-toward-Easter dessert is a tender pasta frolla. The ricotta filling is flavored with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chopped almonds, and chopped candied citron and orange peel. For this evening’s torte I diverged a bit from my published recipe: I used very fresh sheep’s milk ricotta; orange peel alone, and a combination of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Came out just fine!

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byrn-american-cakeI’ve just acquired an intriguing new cookbook, devoted entirely to cakes. Anne Byrn’s American Cake tells the story of cake making in this country from colonial days forward, illustrating changing trends and fashions in baking with well-documented classic recipes and gorgeous photography. I’ve never been much of a cake maker, relying more on pies and tarts for dessert-making occasions, but this book looked like a good opportunity to try new things.

As soon as the book arrived, Beloved Spouse – who has developed more of a sweet tooth than he had when we were young – fell on it joyfully and put in an immediate request for its Boston cream pie, a kind of cake I’d never made before and could only vaguely remember even having tasted:
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books-cake

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This picture made it look almost cloyingly rich, oozing with custard between the layers of cake and dripping with a thick chocolate glaze. I was sure the two of us wouldn’t be able to consume a whole cake that size before it went stale.

Then I had my Great Idea: Make half of it! Instead of baking two layers of cake, bake only one, slice it in half, and put the halves together with half batches of the custard and the glaze.  What simplicity! What genius!

It was easy enough to reduce the quantities of the ingredients, but it’s still an elaborate process to follow. I had to start early in the day, because the custard had to be made and chilled for at least five hours before being used.

First I whisked together milk, sugar, gelatin, and salt in a saucepan and simmered it until the sugar and gelatin were dissolved. Next I whisked together an egg yolk, cornstarch, and a little more milk, and gradually combined the two mixtures. It all went back into the saucepan, to be cooked and whisked continually until it thickened. It did, very properly. So far, so good.

I strained that mixture into a bowl, stirred in butter and vanilla, and whisked, yet again, until the custard was smooth. Covered the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing it right down onto the surface of the custard, and set it in the refrigerator.
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custard

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Then it was on to the cake. I creamed butter, sugar, and vanilla in the heavy-duty mixer, beat in an egg, then added flour, baking powder, and salt, alternately with milk, to make a smooth batter. The batter baked in a greased 8-inch round pan for about 20 minutes, until the cake was golden. Unmolded, it had to cool completely on a rack.
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I sliced the cake in half, put one piece on a plate, spread the custard filling over it, topped it with the other cake piece, and put the plate in the refrigerator while I made the glaze. That was easier to do than I expected. In a saucepan I melted semisweet chocolate, heavy cream, and a little syrup. (It should have been corn syrup but I didn’t have any and didn’t want to buy a whole bottle for one tablespoon’s worth, so I just made up a bit of simple sugar syrup.) Off heat, I added vanilla and stirred until the glaze was smooth.

The last step was to pour that glaze over the cake and let it drip artistically down the sides, as shown in the book’s photo above. That was not as easy as it sounds, as you can see from my results. There must be an art to manipulating glaze that I never learned.
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my-cake

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And if you think that looks terrible, have a peek at the cut side of the cake.
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back-side

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Not a thing of beauty, and not one I’d dare set before anyone other than ourselves. But you know what? – It was great. The textures and flavors of cake, custard, and glaze made a marvelous combination. Not as overly sweet as I’d feared it was going to be, either. I now see why Boston cream pie is such a classic American dessert.

And, when sliced and served, it was almost decent looking.
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cake-slice

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Beloved Spouse would like another.

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