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Archive for the ‘Desserts’ Category

A great pleasure of opening any of Martin Walker’s “Mysteries of the French Countryside” books is anticipation of the dishes that Bruno Courrèges, his police-chief detective, will be making for dinner guests in the intervals of solving crimes. Bruno’s kitchen work is described so fully, I’ve been able to recreate several of his recipes for myself – about which I’ve done posts, here and here.

This time Tom and I and the friend who shared those earlier occasions gathered to make a dinner based on two of Bruno’s recipes from The Shooting at Chateau Rock: a main course of chicken and a dessert of cherries. Earlier, I’d written up the book’s information on each dish, so we could make notes on scaling down and quantifying. This we did while having kirs, the aperitif that Bruno served.
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For our appetizer at the dinner table, we couldn’t match Bruno’s homemade pâté de foie gras, but we had a hearty chunk of peppercorn-crusted pâté de campagne, served with cornichons and mustard.
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Our main course was this dish of chicken thighs, which, owing to a peculiar omission in the book, might well have been called a “mystery of the French countryside” itself.
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For all the book’s detailed narrative of chopping shallots, garlic, and tarragon, softening them in butter in a casserole dish, adding wine and stock, bringing it to a simmer, covering and putting it in the oven for 45 minutes, it never said to put the chicken thighs in the pot.

I kid you not. All three of us had read and reread the book’s pages, and once the raw chicken thighs are salted and peppered on the kitchen counter, the next we hear of them is when they come out of the casserole to wait while the sauce is being finished.

Needless to say, we needed an intervention. When would Bruno have put the chicken in the casserole? We opted to brown ours quickly in butter at the beginning, took them out of the pan to wait while we softened the vegetables, and returned them in time for the addition of wine and stock. From there, we were able to return to the book’s “instructions.”

Finally, the pan juices were reduced, and the sauce was finished with crème fraiche and lemon zest. We served the chicken with a very plain rice pilaf, as Bruno did (plus green beans, which he didn’t). The whole dish was excellent, with just a touch of spicy-sweet tarragon in the creamy sauce.
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Bruno’s dessert was cherries (picked from his own tree, of course) lightly stewed with honey and topped with a custard made from crème fraiche and heavy cream. It sounded luscious. Alas, our version didn’t entirely succeed.
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We did take extreme care in the time and temperature for heating the two creams and in the continuous vigorous whisking, both when beating them into the eggs and when finishing the cooking. But our custard first refused to thicken, and then – slowly but inexorably – curdled. Too much heat, I fear. I’ve found custards made with milk much easier to work with, and baked custards are easiest of all. Wish we’d used a double boiler here!

Our dessert wasn’t quite ruined: The cherries were fine, and you could think of the topping as a kind of furry, sweetened ricotta. But it didn’t have the silky texture you expect in a custard. Still, well chilled, and with cherry juice drizzled over the top, it was a pleasant enough ending to the meal.

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And finally: Tom produced three white wines for us to drink in the course of the dinner. A Mâcon-Villages for the kirs, a Condrieu with the pâté, and an older Savennières with the chicken. He’s done a post about them on his blog.
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A cobbler can be a great fruit pastry for an ease-loving home baker. You do have to make and roll out dough but, unlike making a pie, you don’t have to fit a round of dough into the baking dish, fit another round over the fruit filling, trim and seal the two together, and shape an attractive rim.

The cobbler section of Lee Bailey’s book Country Desserts opens with a two-page spread showing a rustic blackberry cobbler, made with dough merely partially folded over the berry filling, leaving large (artistically placed?) gaps.
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In the recipe headnote, the author declares this to be his favorite kind of cobbler. I’ve made and enjoyed his peach cobbler, so the prospect of an even tastier one was very tempting. And berries are easier to work with than other fruits: no peeling or slicing needed.

There were no fresh blackberries in my Greenmarket yet, so I bought a commercial pack. Happily, it contained three cups of berries, which was exactly right for a half recipe’s worth.

I usually make pastry in my heavy-duty mixer, but this recipe requires a food processor, because it calls for frozen butter and frozen vegetable shortening. That’s certainly a way to keep the dough cool, but I’ve never had trouble using just chilled fats and very cold water.  This should have been my first clue that Bailey’s favorite cobbler might require a bit more effort and complication than other, less special, ones.
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The processor noisily and laboriously turned the frozen fats, flour, and salt into a rough crumble. Then I had to trickle in more ice water than called for, in order to make it gather into a mass. Good thing the fat was frozen: in the process, the machine had thrown a lot of heat.
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The dough, shaped by hand into a ball, had to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. I used the time to clean the dough residue from the processor parts, which was harder than cleaning my stainless steel mixer bowl. Another clue? Hmpf!

When it was time to roll out the dough, I faced a mathematical question. If a whole recipe needs a circle of dough 15 inches in diameter, how big should the circle be for half a recipe? It was obvious that a half-sized circle – 7½ inches – would be too small, so I resorted to my trusty A = π r² formula and rolled the dough to 11 inches.
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Probably unnecessary precision, as I realized later. I could just have eyeballed the job. I think I was already a little spooked. Anyway, I draped the dough over a small pie dish and heaped the berries in the middle, adding sugar and dots of butter.
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Here I diverged from the recipe. For three cups of berries, it would have wanted six tablespoons of sugar – much too much, I thought. I gave it three tablespoons. Then, just before closing over the dough, I chickened out to the extent of one more tablespoon. In the upshot, that was unnecessary: Those berries were plenty sweet already.

Back to following directions, I folded the overhanging dough around the filling (it wasn’t supposed to cover completely), and sprinkled a little more sugar over the crust.
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The cobbler baked at 425° for 45 minutes, to come out lightly browned and bubbling – and with a large puddle of breakthrough juices. Hmpf again!
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Inartistically messy as it looked, my blackberry cobbler was delicious. Perhaps a bit too sweet for us, but richly berryish and with a firm, tasty crust. Well worth the amount of unexpected effort it took. (Though next time I might try making the crust with unfrozen fats.)
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The half of it that we couldn’t finish for dessert that evening made a sinfully good breakfast the next morning. That none of it lasted longer than that is a testimony to how much we enjoyed it.

 

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Santa Claus did all right on the cookie front at our house this year. Tom, serving as Santa’s personal representative, negotiated successfully for three batches of traditional favorites, while I stipulated for the addition of one new-to-me kind.

 

The new one I made is Spritzgebäck, a hazelnut cookie, from a recipe in the Cooking of Germany volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. We love hazelnuts, and I found excellent imported Piedmontese nuts in a local specialty store. Making the dough was easy: butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, flour, and ground hazelnuts. But shaping the cookies was awful.

The dough was to go into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip and be pressed out into crescents. My dough was so thick it utterly refused to emerge. Substitutions of three increasingly large-hole tips were to no avail. I had to settle for squeezing it out, messily, from the bag alone. The best shapes I could achieve that way were clumsy semicircles.

They tasted good, though: crunchy, sweet, and nutty. Still, I don’t think this recipe will enter my holiday cookie repertoire. Happily, the traditional cookies I made later were much better behaved.

 

Peanut butter cookies have been part of my Christmases for as long as I can remember. I used to make them exactly as my mother did, but over the years I’ve experimented with various recipes. You can’t really go far wrong with a peanut butter cookie.

The recipe I like most, one I clipped from Saveur magazine many years ago, calls for chunky peanut butter. In all other respects we’re a smooth peanut-butter household, so usually I buy a jar of the chunky just for Christmas. This year I used the smooth I had in the pantry, and chopped some of those excellent hazelnuts into the dough. As always, the cookies came out fine: happy throwbacks to the Christmases of my youth.

 

For this year’s batch of Toll House cookies, I even considered putting in more of those hazelnuts. (I’d bought a lot of them!) But there were chopped walnuts in my freezer that needed to be used, so I decided to stick with them, as usual.

For these cookies I always use the recipe on the Toll House morsels bag, but I noticed that the morsels themselves weren’t quite the same this year. They’re called “dark” now, not “semisweet,” and they’re bigger. The recipe still doesn’t specify light or dark brown sugar, so I tried light brown for a change.

They were good cookies too, though a little different from my standard. More crumbly and less chewy – possibly from the lighter brown sugar? The morsels seemed more intensely chocolaty, which tended to mask the walnuts’ flavor. Next year back to the drawing board, to recover the old style.

 

My third Christmas cookie classic was Ruggelach. Though I make these tiny cream-cheese pastries almost every year, from a recipe of my mother’s, I often vary the filling ingredients. This year I decided to try dates and – guess what! – hazelnuts. They were delicious, as always. Beautifully nutty, with rich little centers of fruit sweetness from the dates.

 

I’d started my cookie making fairly early in the month this year, so it required a certain amount of self-control every day, as we passed them sitting in their decorative tins, to be sure there’d be some left for Santa. Happily, there were.

 

 

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Basque Cornmeal Cake

I’m getting fond of making simple, lightly sweet cakes that can serve both as a dinner dessert (e.g., with fruit and/or whipped cream) and for breakfast the next morning (toasted and buttered or just plain). I found an interesting one this week in Bernard Clayton’s book The Breads of France. His Gâteau au Maïs is a curious little country cake, something like a cross between cornbread and pound cake, that’s baked in a charlotte tin.
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Clayton always has interesting things to say about his recipes. Here, he tells us that corn entered Basque cooking with Christopher Columbus, who brought back corn to the Old World as a curiosity. His Basque crew took the foreign grain home to their families, and it became an important part of the local culture.

To make my cake, I brought three eggs to room temperature and melted a stick of butter and let it cool. In a large bowl I mixed ½ cup of cornmeal with ½ cup of sugar and a dash of salt. I separated the eggs and added the yolks to the bowl.
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Very gradually, I drizzled the melted butter into the bowl and whisked everything together.
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I stirred in another ½ cup of cornmeal, making a thick paste, then beat the egg whites to stiff peaks and folded them into the corn mixture.
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The recipe said this would make a thin batter. Not mine: it remained very thick. But it looked good. I buttered my smallest charlotte mold and scraped the cheerful daffodil-yellow mixture into it.
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When the cake had had 30 minutes in a 375° oven, I checked it, as directed, and it was rising and browning, as it should. (The recipe didn’t say what to do if it wasn’t!)
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Another 15 minutes and the cake was done and ready to be unmolded onto a rack. Actually, it needed some persuasion to loosen from the pan, but it conceded in the end. I left it to cool on the rack, as you saw in the first photo above.

Clayton’s headnote says the cake is excellent with fresh fruit, and he especially recommends pineapple. So that’s how we had our first slices of it.
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The cake was indeed very good, all by itself. It had a nice light corn sweetness and a pleasant graininess: both flavor and textural interest. It was also quite nice with the pineapple, though that’s not one of our favorite dessert combinations. Next time I make it, I’ll choose something softer, like a compote of peaches or plums, or a strawberry sauce.

And how was it for breakfast? Just fine. Lightly toasted, it bonded with butter in a shameless love affair.

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Thanksgiving dinner was a two-person affair for Tom and me this year. Sadly, Covid concern kept us away from our traditional holiday meal at the home of friends. To console ourselves, we tried putting together a minimalist celebratory feast.

I acquired a turkey thigh and leg (bought, not grown, Tom hastens to clarify), which together weighed in at a bit over two pounds. Wrinkly creatures, they were.
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I’d only ever roasted whole turkeys before, so I had to do some recipe research for these parts. I found a simple preparation for roasting turkey parts in Julia Child’s The Way to Cook. Per Julia, parts take half the time of a whole bird, which for my two would mean two hours at 325°, for an internal temperature of 165°. Mindful of turkey’s tendency to be dry, I spread softened butter all over the two parts and basted them every 30 minutes with their own juices and hot water.
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Meanwhile, to approximate the traditional Thanksgiving bounty of multiple vegetable dishes, in my hotter oven I roasted a pan of winter vegetables, using ones I had on hand: a white sweet potato, a carrot, some chunks of Spanish onion, the end of a fennel bulb, and a few Brussels sprouts.
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And I made a very small batch of cranberry-orange relish: one cup of cranberries and half of a clementine, rind and all.
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A special treat for our first course was oeufs au cheval. I’ve written here about this appetizer of white bread fried in butter; spread with foie gras, topped with a butter-fried egg; sprinkled with grated parmigiano and paprika, and finished under a broiler. The eggs were unusually uncooperative this day, apparently adapting perfectly to the ambience of 2020, so our plates weren’t as pretty as earlier ones I’d made, but they tasted just as good.
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Then it was time for the turkey. When two hours in the oven were up, the thigh and leg were a crisp rich brown, quite handsome to look at, but they’d also reached 180° on an instant-read thermometer. That was not good. I pulled them out of the oven, gave them a good rest, and hoped for the best.
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I didn’t get it. The meat was dry and chewy, the skin all leathery. Alas, that’s only too common in Thanksgiving turkeys, and a perfect example of why people often dislike the traditional dinner. (The vegetables were somewhat over-roasted too. Maybe my oven is running too hot?)

Well, it was what it was, and we ate what we could of it. A hastily made pan gravy and the cranberry relish helped it a bit.
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The nice 12-year-old Morey-Saint Denis from Drouhin that we drank with it by no means hurt. One wonders how many dry turkeys have, over the years, been lubricated by a good wine.
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What helped the dinner most, actually, was its dessert – again in the great American holiday tradition. Just for the two of us I made the whole pumpkin chiffon pie that I’d intended to bring to our friends’ dinner party. It’s one of Tom’s favorite pies, and it came out exactly as it should: feather-light on the palate, moist, spicy, and only slightly sweet – a lovely ending to a slightly flawed dinner.

Let’s hope it’s an omen for what’s left of this very flawed year.
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This week, I decided it was time to use up the ageing reconstituted remnants of puff pastry dough in my freezer. Similarly, a jar of the not-very-successful apple jam I made a year ago still sat on a shelf in my pantry. Out of idle curiosity, I’d see if they could make decent apple turnovers.

I can make simple apple turnovers, but I thought a recipe might suggest ways to nudge these sow’s ears in the direction of silk purses. Found a promising one in Bernard Clayton’s The Complete Book of Pastry. Of course, it wanted the puff pastry to be made from scratch (via a separate recipe eight pages long) and the filling to be prepared from fresh apples. Just ignore those steps, Diane!
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Years ago, I used to make my own puff pastry à la Julia Child: repeatedly rolling, folding, and chilling thickly buttered dough to produce 216 layers of butter between 217 layers of dough. It took almost all day, and my pastries never rose as dramatically as they should have, so I eventually stopped trying. But now, local stores are carrying packaged sheets of classic puff pastry, which I’ve used successfully for special-occasion dishes; e.g., here and here.

When you’ve cut fresh puff pastry to the desired shapes, you’re left with scraps of dough that you can’t just ball up to reuse, as you can short-crust dough. You have to align the scraps in their original positions, overlap and paste them together with water or butter, and fold them again several times. My leftovers had been heavily worked that way.

I defrosted the densely folded dough, rolled it out, and – picking up on Clayton’s instructions – persuaded it into three rough five-inch squares.
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The next step was the filling. The recipe wanted apples to be grated and sautéed in butter with sugar, salt, pepper, and vanilla. My apple jam tasted pleasant enough; the problem was its consistency, which was more like dense applesauce than jam. For that very reason, I thought it might do all right here.

I brushed egg wash all over the pastry squares and put a tablespoon of jam in the middle of each. It seemed pretty skimpy, but the recipe insisted on limiting the filling to a level tablespoon per turnover. I obeyed.
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I folded the dough into triangles, sealed the edges with the tines of a fork, set them on a parchment-covered baking pan, brushed the tops again with egg wash, and refrigerated them for half an hour..

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When the oven was preheated, I took the baking pan out of the refrigerator, brushed the turnovers again with egg wash, picked each one up and quickly turned it over onto a plate of granulated sugar. Actually, I wondered about that additional handling: Why not just sprinkle sugar on the tops of the turnovers? But, again, I did as directed.
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The turnovers baked for 45 minutes, half the time at 400°, the rest at 350°. To my amazement, that old, long-worked pastry had risen to glorious heights. The shapes were a little clumsy, but they smelled marvelous.
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They tasted marvelous too, with all the crisp, sweet, buttery richness of puff pastry from a good artisan bakery. The egg-sugar topping had given it a little crunchy glaze. The apple filling was bright and fruity, not overly sweet, and its quantity seemed just right. I was totally surprised, and very pleased. Maybe I should make that apple jam again this year, just for use in tarts and turnovers...
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Fresh Peach Cobbler

Where did the summer go? One of the farm stands at my Greenmarket just announced it was their last week for peaches. The end of local peaches – oh, no! I hadn’t even made my peach jam for the year yet. And hardly any of my usual summer peach desserts. Time to play catch-up before it’s too late.

The first thing I made was a cobbler, using four large ripe peaches.
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Cobblers have almost all the virtues of pies and are easier to make. You can:

  • Simply put prepared fruit in a baking dish and top it with dollops of sweet biscuit dough (so the baked dish looks paved in cobblestones – possibly hence the name).
  • Or lay an extra-large sheet of rolled out pastry dough on a large baking pan, put the fruit in the center, and fold the dough roughly over the filling, for a casual, rustic look. (Here’s one I’ve done that way. )
  • Or put the fruit in a buttered dish, lay on a sheet of pastry rolled and cut to fit it, and bake it like a pot pie.
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That last is the version I just made, working with a recipe from the Fruits volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. The recipe is attributed to The Old-Fashioned Cookbook, an unknown-to-me 1975 anthology of popular American folk dishes. I’d been meaning to try the recipe for some time because of its unusual approach to slightly sweetened short-crust pastry.

As pie makers all “know,” the butter that’s cut into flour when making a pastry dough has to be hard and cold. This recipe wants its butter to be soft. Moreover, it wants you to mush the butter together with a beaten egg, using your fingers, before combining it with the dry ingredients. The gooeyness of that didn’t appeal to me, so I gave my Kitchen-Aid mixer the task.
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Which it did very neatly, producing an even, crumbly texture . . .
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. . . that needed only the tiniest bit of water to gather itself into a smooth dough, ready to be wrapped and rested in the refrigerator.

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While the dough chilled, I peeled, halved, pitted, and sliced the peaches.
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I gently mixed the slices in a bowl with lemon juice, sugar, flour, salt, and cinnamon. The peaches were so sweet, I cut the recipe’s full cup of sugar to ¾ cup. And they were already juicing up so much, I slightly increased the recipe’s 3 tablespoons of flour, to encourage thickening when baked.
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Into a baking dish went the fruit, to be dotted with a tablespoon of butter bits.
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My dish was deep rather than broad, with relatively little surface on which to lay the sheet of dough. Very curious about the unusual crust, I’d cut the piece quite large, so there’d be a generous amount to taste, and tucked up the edges all around. As directed, I brushed the surface with cream. Not as directed, I forgot to cut steam vents in it. Tsk!
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The recipe expected the dish to need 25 minutes of baking at 425° to firm and lightly brown the crust. Mine took all of 45 minutes. Perhaps I hadn’t rolled the dough thin enough. Again, tsk!
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The peaches didn’t mind, though. And aside from being a little lopsided, the cobbler looked all right. Very folksy. When we tasted it, the pastry was fine: the texture was a bit like soft shortbread.
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The peaches were meltingly sweet and luscious. So much so that I could have reduced the sugar even more – but that’s hard to judge with a first-time recipe, and it also depends on the particular fruits’ natural sweetness. Still, it was a nice, simple, down-home summer treat, a creditable late celebration of the season’s fruit.

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Early June brings two important dates for Tom and me, snugged around each side of D-Day. The 5th is my birthday, and the 7th is our wedding anniversary. Last year we celebrated them with a splendid week in Venice; this year, of course, we were confined to home. Accordingly, we indulged ourselves with two elegant dinners for those days.

 

The Birthday Dinner

The main dish at this meal was based on a long-time favorite recipe for casserole-roasted pheasant – Fagiano ai sapori veneziani – from our book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It has done great things for guinea hen, as well as for pheasant, so I thought I’d see what it would do for a chicken. The “Venetian flavors” here are celery, carrot, onion, pancetta, prosciutto, sage, rosemary, and white wine. The savory combination contributed an intriguing hint of wildness to half an excellent free-range chicken.
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Our first course was two little parmesan cheese custards, sformati di parmigiano. It’s a clipped recipe I’ve had for years and keep forgetting about, then happily rediscovering. It’s rich, easy, and good. Essentially just eggs, grated cheese, and heavy cream, baked briefly in a bain marie, unmolded and served with optional tomato sauce on the side. Makes a lovely light appetizer for company, if one could only have company again!
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The Anniversary Dinner

All through May, the season for fresh morel mushrooms, we searched markets for them, with no success. At last we acquired a single batch of big, beautiful ones.
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After cooking them all and eating half immediately, we froze the rest to save for this celebratory first course: feuilletés aux morilles à la crème. The puff pastry dough was not homemade, but I did cut and shape it into bouchée cases, which became crisp, buttery, flaky containers for the morels.
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Our main course – extravagant, elegant, and utterly simple – was one big, rare, rib of beef, cooked in an open pan on top of the stove in a way that makes it taste like a classic standing rib roast. I’ve written here about this recipe from Roger Vergé’s Cuisine of the South of France. We chose it for this evening specifically to partner with a very special bottle of red wine, which it did to perfection. (See below.) This is a fabulous preparation for the very best beef.
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The Dessert

I saw a luscious-looking raspberry ricotta cake on someone else’s blog and fell in love with it. Google found the recipe for me on the Bon Appétit website, and I made the cake to serve for both our festive dinners. The 1½ cups of fresh ricotta that went into the rich, sweet batter produced a cake as light and cushiony as a cloud. In the mix I substituted fresh raspberries for frozen, which wasn’t entirely wise: fewer fresh berries fill a measuring cup than frozen ones. Fortunately, I had extra berries to serve alongside, with big dollops of whipped crème fraiche. Heavenly! The cake held up perfectly for the second dinner, as well.
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And to Drink . . .

Both days, we started with glasses of Champagne, of course. For my birthday, even though the food was Italianate, it went beautifully with a French wine: a 1990 Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin. The anniversary meal, as I mentioned above, was chosen deliberately to match a wine: one long-cherished bottle of the extraordinary 2006 Ridge California Montebello, which we’d been waiting for just the right special occasion to drink. And, for digestifs both days, snifters of a fine Spanish brandy called 1866.
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Tom has written about the wines in his own blog, for those who’d like to know more about them.

 

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The favorite everyday desserts in our house are cakes with baked-in toppings or additions of fruit. The batter is usually quick and easy to put together – not even any separating of egg yolks and whites. The gentle contrasts of moisture, texture, and flavor are comforting and pleasing without being overly rich or sweet. I’ve written about several desserts of this kind in previous posts, such as these:
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Clockwise from top left: plum cake Cockayne, from Joy of Cooking; peach cake from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen; blueberry grunt, with a sweet biscuit dough; cherry clafoutis, with a sweet pancake dough; 1917 cake, with raisins and applesauce; polenta cake with raspberries and blueberries

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Now I have another one to add to my repertoire: Torta di Bernardone, an apple and pear cake from The Tuscan Cookbook by Wilma Pezzini. This is the third of three excellent recipes from that book that I’ve made recently. (You can find my posts on the first two here and here.)

The recipe is credited to a trattoria run by three sisters in a country town near Pezzini’s home in 1977. Today, according to Google, there’s still a restaurant and inn called Bernardone in that town. I’d love to visit it one day, when transatlantic travel is possible again!

But back to the cake. The recipe expects you to be making the batter by hand, with a wooden spoon. I chose the lazy route – my heavy-duty mixer. It quickly beat together ¾ cup of sugar and a jumbo egg, then incorporated a cup of flour, a teaspoon of baking powder, 3 tablespoons of melted butter, a heavy ¼ cup of kirsch, and just a drop of vanilla extract.
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The batter waited while I peeled, cored, quartered, and cut into fairly thick slices an apple and a pear.
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With the batter spread into a buttered 9-inch cake pan, I arranged apple and pear slices alternately in a pinwheel pattern over the surface – entirely covering it with fruit, as the recipe instructed.
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The cake baked in a 350° oven for about 45 minutes, until the batter had risen around the fruit and the center of the cake tested done. It surprised me a bit to see that, while the apple slices stayed pale, the pear slices had browned. In retrospect, I think it was because the pear was very ripe. They made a nice color contrast, though, giving the recipe a bit more visual appeal than I had expected.
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Really, this little cake is a classic of its kind: a simple, old-fashioned, light, homey dessert. Like similar fruity cakes, it’s good warm or cold, and also lovely for breakfast for the next few days – if it lasts that long!
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According to Pezzini, the apples and pears make this the Bernardone sisters’ winter version of the cake. In summer they do it with peaches or cherries. I look forward to trying it with those fruits too, when they come into season.

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1917 Applesauce Cake

I’m not much of a cake baker. When I was growing up, any cake my mother made came from a commercial cake mix box, so I never acquired any of the skills. (She was a good pie maker, though, so I did learn that from her.) The few cakes I do make tend to be things like this one, which I wrote about here a few years ago: a very basic batter topped with fresh fruit before baking.

About two years ago, intending to expand my baking repertoire, I bought a copy of Anne Byrn’s American Cake. I couldn’t resist its subtitle: “From colonial gingerbread to classic layer, the stories and recipes behind more than 125 of our best-loved cakes.” Ever since, alas, I’ve mainly used it as a dream book: turning pages to admire the gorgeous big color photographs and reading about cake making history and techniques; but hardly ever venturing to make something from it.

Now I’ve stepped up to the (cake) plate – albeit with one of the book’s simpler recipes. Byrn’s 1917 Applesauce Cake is a model of wartime frugality. It has very little butter, no eggs, and not too much sugar, relying on the natural sweetness of apples and raisins. Nevertheless, it makes a hearty, moist cake with plenty of flavor. Frugality should always taste this good.
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The first step in the instructions was to cream the butter and sugar. Beating a mere two tablespoons of softened butter into a cup of sugar produced something more like a feathery fluff than a cream, but I hoped that would be all right. It was.
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The dry ingredients are two cups of flour and small quantities of salt, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. The raisins you see here have been tossed with a little flour, which the recipe footnote informed me keeps them from sinking as the cake bakes. The applesauce, totally unsweetened, I made from two big Winesap apples.
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I was a bit surprised to see baking soda alone as the leavening agent. I make scones, muffins, and quick breads fairly often, and whenever a recipe calls for baking soda rather than baking powder, there’s always buttermilk or yogurt for acidity. I guess the applesauce serves that purpose here.

I let my heavy-duty mixer stir the applesauce into the sugar-butter fluff, then the dry ingredients, last the raisins. The thick batter went into a buttered baking pan.
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The cake was to bake at 350° for 30 to 35 minutes. Mine took a little longer than that. It came out with a slight depression in the center. That was probably because the test for doneness was whether the top springs back when lightly pressed in the middle, and I had to do that three times, maybe with too much pressure. I usually test baked things with a skewer. No real harm done, though.
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This is the kind of cake I can manage: no layers, no icing, no decoration – just slice and serve. And it was fine: nothing that’s going to revolutionize my life, but just plain good. I want to call it a friendly cake. Not too sweet, not too spicy, nicely moist and gently fruity from the apple and raisin. It loved being served with a topping of crème fraiche, and I’m sure it would like whipped cream too, but it was just as pleasant on its own. It even went well with the white Rioja we’d been drinking with our dinner. You can’t ask for much more than that from an austerity-rations, wartime dessert.
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