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Archive for the ‘Desserts’ Category

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I’ve done posts on making Christmas cookies ever since I started writing this blog. Most have been about various favorite recipes that I’ve made for many years. Since I try to write about dishes that will interest my readers, I know I shouldn’t feature the same cookies every year, no matter how beloved they are. (In that respect, writing about food is different from making it.) So this year’s cookie post is about two kinds I’ve never made before, along with a to-me-irresistible celebration of two of the kinds without which it wouldn’t be Christmas at our house.

Candied Orange Peel Cookies

These are based on a recipe called Cherry Cookies that I found in the Cookies & Crackers volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. I just substituted candied orange peel for the recipe’s candied cherries. The original was a pre-war English recipe by Florence White, who in 1928 founded the English Folk Cookery Association “to capture the charm of England’s cookery before it is completely crushed out of existence.”

The age of the recipe is evident from the absence of any kitchen machines in its instructions – which I tried to follow as written. So I rubbed the butter into the flour by hand, then stirred in sugar and the minced candied peel. Next, I was to “bind the mixture with beaten egg to form a cohesive dough” using a knife. Odd as that sounded, I tried it, but a knife is really not the tool for that job. Surely there were spoons in those days! I reverted to completing the dough by hand.

The rolling, cutting, and baking were the standard procedures, and the cookies came out quite well. Firm and crunchy, with a little chewiness and pleasant flavor from the orange peel, they have a certain charm as an old-fashioned holiday treat. They’ll also be very nice, I think, alongside a not-too-sweet dessert wine.
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Spice Sablés

I found this recipe for a sort of modern variation on spice cookies in Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts. It’s attributed to the pastry chef of the ultra-fashionable, now long-closed Barefoot Contessa food shop in ultra-fashionable East Hampton. Despite the glamorous pedigree, it’s a good, sturdy cookie.

To sablés’ basic shortbread mix of butter, sugar, and flour, the recipe adds ground almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and Grand Marnier. These, and the use of brown sugar rather than white, struck me as intriguing flavors for a cookie.

I almost got in trouble over my long-kept brown sugar, which had solidified in the annoying way it does, and had to be pulverized. Unlike fresh brown sugar, it had no moisture, and I didn’t take that into account in mixing my dough. Accordingly, it was very dry and refused to hold together, even after overnight refrigeration. The next day I realized the cause of the problem and was able to correct the texture by kneading some water into the dough. That held it together for rolling out and cutting in Christmas tree shapes.

The cookies are very good. The texture isn’t as “sandy” as sablés typically are, but just a little rough in the way shortbread is. The flavor is unusual, subtle, and interesting. Though very plain looking, they’re rich and satisfying, and will make a nice addition to my Christmas repertory..
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Peanut Butter Cookies

Is there anything more quintessentially American than peanut butter cookies at Christmas time? I’ve made them every year-end holiday season for as long as I can remember, and my mother made them all through my childhood. This batch came out exceptionally well, a little crisper and more tender than some in past years. I feel awfully sorry for people with peanut allergies, who can’t enjoy these little delights.
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Ruggelach

Cream cheese in the dough for these tiny rolls makes for a smooth, soft pastry, which happily encloses fruit and nut fillings. I make them as my mother did, way back in my childhood. This year I did half the batch with walnuts, hazelnuts, cinnamon, and sugar, the other half with the two nuts and strawberry jam. They’re festive flavors, and both kinds came out very well. It may be a bit of a struggle to keep Beloved Spouse from eating them all before Christmas gets here.

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If at first you don’t succeed . . . you may not do much better the second time, either! That was my fate when following a recipe for coffee panettone sent to me by my friend Jennifer with a note saying “I have made this – delicious.” With the Christmas season already thundering down on us like a runaway herd of reindeer, I thought it would be interesting to give it a try.

It was clear from the first that “panettone” was purely a courtesy title for this confection. True panettone is rich in butter and eggs; this recipe uses no eggs and only a dollop of vegetable shortening. It doesn’t even call for kneading the dough; just mixing it. It also must be quite an old recipe, because it calls for “seedless” raisins. How long has it been since that had to be specified?!  Nonetheless, I figured that, even if this was only a sweet tea bread, it could be good. I was feeling experimental, and this is the season for fruit-and-nut breads.

So I made a batch. I began by chopping walnuts and candied orange peel – proper seasonal ingredients – to accompany the raisins.
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For the dough I first had to dissolve yeast in warm water and a cup of “strong warm coffee”; add soft shortening, salt, sugar, and baking soda; and stir in enough flour to make a batter. I confess to using melted butter for the shortening and very strong instant espresso for the coffee.
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Then the remaining flour went in, along with the fruits, nuts, and vanilla extract. Even though the recipe didn’t say to, I kneaded it for a few minutes. It made a very sticky dough, which was reluctant to rise. After three hours it still wasn’t doubled in bulk, but I moved on anyway and transferred it to two bread pans. (The recipe preferred to form the traditional panettone shape in cylindrical coffee cans, but I didn’t have any.)
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After another two hours, when the loaves had grudgingly risen as much as they evidently intended to, I baked them at 350° for 40 minutes. The dratted things didn’t rise any more in the oven either – in fact, they sank somewhat. That made for heavy, dense, chewy bread.

Though it was fairly ugly, it didn’t taste too bad: sort of like a panforte or a not-very-sweet fruitcake. Lightly toasted and slathered with butter, I thought it was edible. Beloved Spouse, my personal Grinch, did not.
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Now, as it happened, Jennifer – the donator of the recipe – came for a visit a few days later. I hauled out one of my bricks of panettone and showed it to her. “Did yours come out like this?” “No, it didn’t.” I gave her a taste. She said kind things. I gnashed my teeth.

Obviously, I’d done something wrong. I thought it most likely that the coffee had been too hot, and maybe too strong, so it killed or crippled the yeast. I’d give it another try.

I went through the whole procedure again, making a half recipe. This time my espresso was freshly brewed, not unusually strong, and only just warm. I used Crisco, not butter, and did no actual kneading, only vigorous mixing. The dough looked and felt better than the first batch, and it rose much more in the bowl, even though it still took nearly three hours to get there.
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It rose better in the pan too, so I was hopeful. But wouldn’t you know it, the same thing happened in the oven – it sank again! This time I have no idea why. This loaf looked more respectable than the first ones, at least: It was a whole two inches high, instead of only one inch.
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Also, it was lighter in weight, softer in texture, and altogether more pleasant tasting. I, at least, thought so. Beloved Spouse was not persuaded.
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More attractive, yes, but it still isn’t what it should be, and it definitely isn’t panettone. Will I try a third time? I doubt it. If I want a panettone for Christmas, I’ll buy a good one.

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Johnny Apple (R.W. Apple, Jr) was a distinguished journalist and legendary personality who wrote for more than 40 years, mostly for The New York Times, about international affairs, wars, politics, business – and food and drink. Back in 1997, he contributed a raisin pie recipe to Saveur’s Thanksgiving issue. Never having heard of raisin pie before, I was intrigued. I clipped the recipe, kept it for 20 years, and – patient soul that I am – finally made it for this year’s holiday dinner.

Here’s the magazine’s picture of the pie.

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The crust is a lightly sweetened pâte brisée, easy to make and fairly easy to work with. I made up the dough a day in advance and put it in the refrigerator overnight.

I also made the filling that day. To begin, I simmered orange juice, orange zest, and golden raisins over low heat for five minutes. I stirred in allspice and nutmeg, some cornstarch dissolved in water, and a whole heap of granulated sugar. That was to be cooked, stirred constantly, until the mixture thickened, which the recipe said would take about five minutes.
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Not mine: I stirred and stirred for nearly ten minutes, and the liquid part looked about as it had at the beginning. I was afraid to cook it any longer, lest it scorch, so I took it off the stove and stirred in the final ingredients: lemon juice and chopped walnuts. The mixture did thicken a little as it cooled, and a little more after its night in the refrigerator.
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Early on Thanksgiving morning I put together the pie. I rolled out half the dough for a bottom crust, fitted it into my pie dish, and poured in the filling. I rolled out the remaining dough and cut it into strips for a lattice. The recipe said not to try to weave the lattice because the dough was too tender, so I just laid half the strips across the filling horizontally and the other half on top vertically.
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A little trimming and fussing to smooth the rim of the crust, and the pie looked quite nice when it was ready for the oven.
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The recipe said to bake at 350° for about 30 minutes, until the crust was golden and the filling bubbly. Now, I’m a pretty experienced pie maker, and that seemed like a very low temperature and a very short time. But this was not my usual kind of pie, so I proceeded as directed.

After half an hour the crust was still quite pale and there was nary a bubble in sight. I kept setting the timer for additional five minuteses, to almost no effect. At 50 minutes, I raised the temperature to 375° and after one more five-minute session finally saw bubbling and some browning around the edges of the crust. I called it done.
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Looks very different from Saveur’s pie, doesn’t it? Of course, you have to expect food stylists to burnish magazines’ dishes. But between the non-thickening of my filling and the non-browning of my pastry, I was beginning to worry about my pie. Well, it was what it was.

In the afternoon I packed it in a carrier and trundled it along to the home of the friends with whom we always spend Thanksgiving. There it took its place in the finale of a sumptuous holiday dinner.
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It was good. (Whew!) Very sweet, something like a mincemeat pie, but lighter; very fruity and nutty. The pastry was a little heavier than I’d have liked, but it served well enough. Some of the diners thought it reminiscent of a pecan pie, and it did seem to have a bit of southern sweet accent. But mostly it was sui generis – very different from any holiday pie I’d made before. A little strange at first, but its flavor grew on you as you nibbled along. So, here’s Thanksgiving thanks to Saveur’s “Author Apple” for an interesting finish to a holiday feast.

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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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