Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Desserts’ Category

Earlier this month Tom came home from a sojourn in Naples with a palate primed for ricotta. He’d been there for “Campania Stories,” an annual five-day event showcasing the wines of the region. Several of the meals provided for the attending journalists had included luscious fresh buffalo- or sheep-milk ricotta, and he longed for more of it.

I was happy to indulge him. Fortunately, we can get good fresh ricotta here now, and though it’s usually from cows’ milk, it’s vastly better than commercial brands filled with stabilizers and preservatives. I promptly acquired some.
.

.

While the ricotta was at its freshest, we had it first in an antipasto: on each plate a big scoop of ricotta, paper-thin slices of felino salame, halved grape tomatoes dressed with salt, pepper, oregano, and olive oil, and a few fennel-flavored taralli. This reproduced what had been the ubiquitous Neapolitan antipasto during Tom’s trip, and we both reveled in its flavors – an appetizer in the truest sense.
.

.

Our second use of the ricotta was in a pasta recipe from our own cookbook La Tavola Italiana: Maccheroni with Ricotta and Tomato Sauce. It’s a breeze to make – the simplicity highlights the ricotta itself, so the freshest, most flavorful ricotta is essential.

I opened a jar of my homemade tomato sauce and heated it up. I cooked the pasta, dressed it lightly with the sauce, then tossed in ricotta (brought to room temperature) and mixed all together well. Contrary to what one might expect, the ricotta lightened the dish and made it surprisingly fresh – not the effect that cheese usually has on pasta.
.

.

There was still enough ricotta left to use in a dessert on another day. Also in La Tavola Italiana is a recipe for a Ricotta and Strawberry Parfait. The ricotta is whipped or beaten until smooth and flavored with sugar, egg yolk, and amaretto liqueur. The cream is heaped on berries that have been hulled, rinsed, and tossed with lemon juice. Slivered almonds go on top.

This day the stores’ strawberries didn’t look very good, so I bought big juicy blackberries instead. And for the liqueur, since I didn’t have any amaretto, I used kirsch. The dish was fine with those substitutions. Once again, the ricotta created a sense of lightness, beautifully complementing the berries and making the dessert a pleasing grace note to the meal that preceded it.
.

.

Neapolitans, says Tom, know a thing or two about dining.

Read Full Post »

Caramelized Torrijas

All of three years ago, on my return from a trip to Spain, a post that I wrote here about many of the foods I enjoyed there mentioned a dessert called a torrija. Entirely new to me, it seemed to be a sort of structured-chunk-of-bread pudding with a crunchy crème brûlée topping – quite delicious. Here’s the picture I took of it:

.
Eager to try making it at home, I began looking for recipes. There were two in my Spanish cookbooks, and I found others on the internet, but they were all essentially French toast: bread slices dipped in a thin custard, some also in beaten egg, and fried to thorough brownness in oil or butter. It was clear from my photo that the one I had in Spain hadn’t been done that way.

The soft white sides of that torrija made me think it couldn’t have been fried at all, so when I attempted to recreate the dish I baked it and ran it under the broiler with a brown sugar topping. Never mind the details; it didn’t work. I never got around to trying again.

But I couldn’t get that torrija out of my mind. Recently I had an idea about it: I searched for the name on Google Images. Among the hundreds of photos that came up, a few looked something like the one I had in Spain. Pursuing those to their sources, I learned that there are two kinds of torrijas. “Mine” was the kind called caramelezada, and it’s cooked in a way different from the French-toast type. Eureka!

But not so fast: the underlying recipes were all in Spanish. The little of that language that I know wasn’t enough to fully grasp the techniques, and Google’s translations were ludicrous. So I had to improvise somewhat. Here, by the way, is the recipe I relied on, to the extent that I could, for my experiment.

Making just a fraction of the recipe’s quantities, I stirred together milk, heavy cream, beaten egg and sugar. I put two thick slabs of my own white bread into this uncooked batter and left them to absorb it, which turned out not to be as simple as it sounds.

.
The recipe said they’d need 45 minutes on each side. That seemed like a lot, but fortunately I’d started early enough in the day, because it did take that long, even with occasional pour-overs to expedite the process.

Then came the actual cooking. This was where the Spanish instructions weren’t clear to me. Here’s exactly how Google translated the final words of the recipe:

We go with the marking of the French toast. We light the pan with butter. We pour plenty of sugar on the top and put them in the pan for a while until the sugar is roasted (but be careful not to burn). We do the same for the other side and put them on the plates.

Was I supposed to put the sugar on top of the butter, which was just referred to, or on “them,” the breads? How much sugar is “plenty”? It would also have helped to know how high a heat to use and how long it might take for the sugar to “roast.” ¿Quién sabe?

First I tried putting the sugar in the pan and laying the bread slice on top of the sugar.

.
The butter bubbled along merrily, but when I tilted up the bread to see how it was browning, I couldn’t see any effect from the sugar. So just before turning the bread, I put some sugar on top of it.
.

.
The butter was getting pretty dark, and I worried that it, not the sugar, might burn. When the first chunk of bread was well browned, I took it out of the pan. No sugar had caramelized on it, but it was clearly cooked enough. For the second chunk, I added more fresh butter and put sugar both in the pan and on each side of the bread.
.

.
I got basically the same result: The sugar just dissolved, and the bread simply browned in the sweetened butter. I gave up and called them done.
.

.
They weren’t a disaster. Their texture and flavor were very like the torrija I had in Spain. But I’m really sorry I couldn’t get the crunchy topping. Not just for the pleasant mouthfeel: Caramelizing sugar cuts some of its sweetness, and the amounts of sugar each torrija absorbed in my futile attempts to caramelize it gave it a far more intense sweetness than I’d have liked.
.

.
A little blowtorch would probably have done the job, but I don’t own one. Beloved Spouse is voting for a few minutes under the broiler, but that didn’t work when I made my first torrija try. If anyone who reads this post has had success with torrijas caramelezadas, I’d be grateful for any tips you’d care to provide. In English, please: My Spanish is clearly inadequate for this dish.

Read Full Post »

When it comes to making desserts, I’m usually a minimalist. Oldies but goodies are fine for me, and the easier, the better. So when the occasional urge to make something chocolaty comes over me I’m more likely to turn to a simple mousse than a multilayered torte or lushly frosted cake. Chocolate mousse seems to have fallen out of fashion, but it’s still a fine, light chocolate dessert – which, these days, is almost an oxymoron.

For the prospective mousse maker, there are lots of recipes to choose among. Every general French or American cookbook has one, often more than one. They’re all over the Internet too. Some are fairly elaborate, with many ingredients, cooking steps, and flavorings; others promise to be simple and easy. I’m sure they’d all be good, but I’ve never found a recipe that’s as minimal as the one I usually make. It has only two ingredients: semisweet chocolate and eggs.

I think I invented this, one day when I wanted a mousse but didn’t have any cream on hand – heavy cream being an almost ubiquitous ingredient in mousse recipes. For each portion I use an ounce of chocolate and one egg. Here are the components for four servings, with the eggs separated.
.

.
I start by melting the chocolate in a double boiler. Most other recipes I’ve seen add cream or butter or water to the chocolate at this point. On its own it melts slowly and stays very thick, but that’s not a problem. I’m also not obsessive about the type of chocolate. I use what’s in the pantry, and if it’s plain Baker’s chocolate, that’ll do. (And if all I have is unsweetened, I just add a tablespoon of sugar per ounce of chocolate.)
.

.
While the chocolate is melting I beat the egg yolks with a hand mixer until they’re thick and pale. Well, sort of thick – I don’t make a big deal of that step, either. Some recipes cook the egg yolks with cream and sugar, rather than mixing cream with the melting chocolate. Again, not I.
.

.
I beat the melted chocolate into the yolks a little at a time, so they don’t get so much heat as to scramble them.
.

.
I beat the egg whites to peaks in my big Kitchen-Aid mixer and fold them into the chocolate mixture. This time I overbeat the whites a bit, stiffening them so much that they needed a lot of folding and lost some of their volume as a result. But that’s not a problem, either: the mousse is still good that way. I’m not sure you can hurt a chocolate mousse.
.

.
When my mixture was all combined I realized the custard cups I had set out were too small. The filled cups would have to be chilled in the refrigerator for at least several hours, some for a day or two. (Tom and I try not to eat more than one portion apiece on the first day.) So they had to be in containers large enough that foil or film coverings wouldn’t touch the mousse itself. I switched to larger cups, just for the refrigeration.
.

.
At serving time, I transferred each portion to a smaller, more attractive dish.
.

.
This is a very ordinary looking dessert, but it’s chocolate, and it tastes just fine. It could be dressed up – say, decorating it with rosettes of whipped cream, or a scatter of raspberries, or a few candied violets. But since the whole point of my mousse making is to have an easy family dessert, all I usually serve it with is a spoon.

Read Full Post »

.
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.
.

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..
.

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.
.

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.

Read Full Post »

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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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.)
.

.
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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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.
.

.
Also, it was lighter in weight, softer in texture, and altogether more pleasant tasting. I, at least, thought so. Beloved Spouse was not persuaded.
.

.
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.

Read Full Post »

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.

.

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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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.

Read Full Post »

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.

.
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.
.

 

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.
.

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.
.

.
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.

.
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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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.)
.

.
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.
.

.
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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »