Category Archives: dessert

Buckeyes, Schmuckeyes, or if you prefer, Peanut Butter Bon-bons

When I first set out to make these chocolate-covered peanut-butter balls, I intended not to refer to them by their traditional Midwestern moniker. Surely, I thought, neither the State of Ohio nor its flagship public university can claim any special relationship to sweetened peanut butter in a chocolate shell. There’s no reason I have to invoke tOSU’s mascot in the middle of football season in Michigan. But then I found some pictures of actual buckeyes nuts, and I’ll be damned if they don’t look uncannily like their namesake.

shown here popping out of the big spiny, smelly balls that grow on the treesand here, looking almost unmistakable from the chocolate variety

 

really, the only difference is that the candy version has a flat edge

and yes, I posed these specifically to mimic the above picture

I'll eat YOUR eyes! Whitetail buck from flickr user key lime pie yumyum

Real buckeyes are the seeds of trees in the genus Aesculus, which includes between 13 and 19 species (depending on how you count) that grow all across the Northern Hemisphere. The name “buckeye” is generally attributed to an American Indian word for the seeds and the nutritious mash they made from them after roasting—“hetuck,” which means “eye of a buck.” One species in particular, Aesculus glabra, became commonly known as the “Ohio buckeye,” even though it grows throughout the American Midwest and Great Plains regions, ranging from southern Ontario to northern Texas, apparently because the botanist who gave the tree its English name first encountered it on the banks of the Ohio River.

However, there’s also a California buckeye and a Texas buckeye and even a Japanese buckeye. And the seeds of all the trees in the genus—including Aesculus glabra—are also commonly known as horse chestnuts, after the larger family they belong to (Hippocastanaceae). So there doesn’t seem to be any simple botanical or taxonomical reason why the “buckeye” became so firmly associated with the state of Ohio.

How the Buckeye Became Ohioan and Ohioans Became Buckeyes

According to one story, it all goes back the spectacularly-named Ebenezer Sproat (or Sprout), who was a Colonel of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. After an unsuccessful post-war stint as a merchant, he became a surveyor for the state of Rhode Island and bought stock in the Ohio Company of Associates, which sent him west with the group led by Rufus Putnam that founded Marietta, Ohio, the first permanent American settlement in the Northwest Territory. There, Sproat became the first sheriff in the NW Territory. And aside from being a relatively prominent citizen, he also happened to be quite tall and, “of perfect proportions,” according to Wikipedia, whatever that’s supposed to mean. The Indians in Ohio were impressed with his height and/or his importance, and thus came to refer to him as “Hetuck” or “Big Buckeye.” A similar account suggests that it was mostly his height—claiming he was 6’4” (which would have been tall indeed in the 18th C.) and that he earned the sobriquet on September 2, 1788 when he was leading a procession of judges to the Marietta courthouse. Indians watching the giant of a man walk by began calling out “Hetuck, hetuck.” 

E. G. Booz's Log Cabin whiskey bottle, c. 1860-1890 from Cornell University LibraryBut it’s not entirely clear why that nickname would have ever been generalized to the shorter residents of the region. The more commonly-accepted theory is that the association between buckeyes and Ohio(ans) has something to do with William Henry Harrison.

Harrison was a resident of Ohio in 1840 when he made his first, successful presidential run. According to the Wikipedia article about him, he had already acquired the nickname “Buckeye,” as a “term of affection” when he served in the U.S. Congress, first as a representative of the Northwest Territory and then as one of Ohio’s Senators—presumably because of the prevalence of the tree in the regions he represented. However, the general consensus elsewhere is that Harrison and his presidential campaign advisors carefully cultivated the buckeye mascot and nickname to bolster Harrison’s image as a “man of the people.” Particularly in Ohio, log cabins were frequently made from the wood of buckeye trees and people in rural areas used to string up the nuts that would accumulate wherever the trees grew, so the buckeye was a useful symbol of the kind of rustic frontier populism that Harrison was trying to project.

Meanwhile, they portrayed the Democratic incumbent, Martin Van Buren, as an elitist, or even as a royalist intent on the restoration of the British crown, largely by publicizing the fact that he had hired a French chef for the White House and purportedly enjoyed French wine.Van Buren was actually the son of small upstate New York farmers and educated in rural schoolhouses, whereas Harrison was the son of wealthy Virginia slaveholders and educated in elite New England academies—he even studied medicine with the renowned Dr. Benjamin Rush before deciding he didn’t want to be a doctor. But Harrison successfully managed to convince people he was one of them with the help of bottles of whiskey shaped like log cabins and campaign propaganda like this pull card:

From The Granger Collection Marvin Van Buren smiles when drinking “A Beautiful Goblet of White House Champagne”
pull the string, and he frowns with “An Ugly Mug of Log-Cabin Hard Cider”

Shortly after that, popular songs and texts start to show up that refer to “Buckeye it's not even really "anthropomorphic" because that would be a nut with arms and legs...this one has a separate torsoboys” and “Buckeye girls” and to Ohio as “the Buckeye State.” In the 1850s, Samuel Sullivan Cox wrote a series of letters based on his travels to Europe and the Ottoman Empire, which he published under the title “A Buckeye Abroad.” It obviously continued to the point that now, there are probably almost as many drycleaners, diners, and car repair shops named Buckeye Blank in Ohio as there are Empire Blanks in New York City.

Brutus the Buckeye, the bizarre nut-headed mascot that dances on the sidelines at football and basketball games wasn’t invented until 1965. But students, alumnus, and athletes from the Ohio State University [awkward definite article sic] were always called “Buckeyes.” The name is older than the University itself, which was founded in 1870, and was seemingly applied to sports teams from the very beginning. The short-lived AA professional baseball team that existed in Columbus from 1883-4 was also named the Buckeyes. And Jessie Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, while he was a student at OSU, was  sometimes called “the Buckeye Bullet.”

But What a Stupid Reason That Would Be Not to Make Them

So even though it probably originated with a dishonest political campaign (is there any other kind?), I still feel like I have to cede the name “buckeye” to Ohio—after all, it’s older than the UM v. tOSU rivalry itself. And it just seems foolish to deny the resemblance. But it would be a real shame to let the apparent legitimacy of a name that happens to be associated with any state or school bias you against the salt-studded awesomeness of homemade chocolate-covered, sweetened balls of nut butter. Sure, they’re basically just Reese’s peanut butter cups, but you shouldn’t underestimate the difference that good chocolate, flaky salt, and having personal control over the level of sweetness can make.

the toothpicks make for easier dipping, and it's easy enough to smooth away the holesI probably wouldn’t normally bother with something so…I don’t know, cliché? Pedestrian? It’s not that I don’t like simple foods or classic flavor combinations, but somehow anything consisting primarily of peanut butter and chocolate just seems like cheating. Just like it seems like cheating whenever the contestants on Chopped use bacon if it’s not one of the secret ingredients, and like a petty perversion of justice that the bacon-cheater almost always wins. 

However, this recipe popped up on Serious Eats just as I was musing about how maybe I should throw together some sort of sweet nibble in case we happened to have people over this weekend—something I could make in advance and that would keep relatively well in case we didn’t have people over. These seemed to fit the bill because like most cookies, you can make them well in advance of serving, but like most candies, they won’t get stale. But what really sold me was the description of the crunchy flakes of salt in the peanut butter mixture—“like little mouth-fireworks,” the author said.

If they seem too boring as is, you could mix up the nut butter/chocolate coating combination or add a third or fourth flavor element. You could make Thai coconut version with a little chili pepper, powdered ginger, and dried coconut. Or mix in bits of toffee, puffed rice, or crumbled cookies for a different flavor or texture. You could use cashew butter or almond butter instead of peanut butter, powdered honey for some of the powdered sugar, and white or milk chocolate if any of those is more to your liking. You could even freeze little drops of fruit preserves or caramel and roll the nut butter around them so at room temperature, they’d melt into a sweet, gooey center. Now I’m dreaming of white chocolate-covered sunflower butter balls with vanilla caramel centers. You could even make a whole buffet of different buckeyes…and if you really can’t get past the name, just call them bon-bons or shmuckeyes instead. If you cede them to tOSU, I think that’s just another victory for “tWorst State Ever.”

Recipe: Peanut Butter Bon-Bons (from Serious Eats)
halved from the original, to make approximately 3 dozen

Ingredients:

  • 12 T. salted butter (or coconut oil)
  • 1 1/2 c. unsalted, unsweetened peanut butter (or any other nut or seed butter)
  • 3 c. confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 1/2 t. kosher salt (or more to taste)
  • 1 bag chocolate chips (or ~2 cups chopped bar chocolate, I used a 70% cacao)

1. Leave the butters at room temperature to soften.

2. Beat them together with a spatula or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer until completely smooth and well-combined.

the butters alone will be pretty liquidy first addition of powdered sugar but by the last addition it will be fairly stiff and should be able to be handled

3. Add the powdered sugar 1 cup at a time, mixing until it forms a thick, malleable dough.

4. Stir in the kosher salt just until evenly distributed—you want to add the salt at the end so it doesn’t dissolve into the butter. Put the bowl in the freezer for about 10 minutes.

5. Roll heaping tablespoons of the peanut butter mixture into balls about the size of walnuts (or buckeyes) and place on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper or parchment paper. Place a toothpick in each ball and return to the freezer for 30 minutes.

september 066

6. Meanwhile, reserve a few pieces of chocolate and melt the rest in 15-second bursts in a microwave or a double-boiler just until it’s about 75% molten. You don’t want the chocolate to get too warm or it will burn.

7. Remove from the heat and stir occasionally until it’s entirely melted and slightly cooled, and then stir in the reserved pieces.  Wrap the pot in a kitchen towel—you want to keep the chocolate around 88F—I didn’t bother pulling out a candy thermometer, because that’s right around body temperature, so it should feel just barely warm to the touch. Otherwise, it won’t temper correctly, and will set slightly soft and greasy to the touch and may develop a white “bloom” on the surface. The reserved chips  “seed” the melted chocolate with the right crystalline structure to make it harden.

8. Dip each ball in the chocolate to coat and place on waxed paper or parchment paper until firm. Remove the toothpicks and gently smooth over the hole. Store in an air-tight container in a cool place or refrigerate until ready to serve.

The Case for Tomatoes as Dessert and Four Recipes: Fresh Tomato Juice, Tomato Curd, Shortbread Squares, and Candied Basil

not quite enough basil to go around, but that way the squares were basil-optional

The Legal Exception: Green Tomato Pie

When the Supreme Court decided in Nix v. Hedden that tomatoes couldn’t be legally considered a fruit because  they weren’t customarily eaten for dessert, there was only one real exception: green tomato pie.Paula Deen's green tomato pie, which includes raisins; click for the recipe The green tomatoes left on the vine at the end of the growing season aren’t especially palatable, at least when they’re raw. They’re hard, and contain substantially less of the sugar, acids, and aromatic compounds that give ripe tomatoes their distinctive flavor. Thanks in part to the 1991 Academy Award-nominated film based on Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes and the Whistle Stop Cafe, many people are familiar with the idea that green tomatoes can be eaten breaded and fried. Fewer people know that green tomatoes are such a blank slate that they can just as easily be used in sweet preparations. Sliced or minced and cooked in a pastry crust with lots sugar and some cinnamon or other spices, tomatoes make a sweet-tart fruit filling reminiscent of apples. The dessert was common in the American South by the mid-19th C.

However, it specifically relies on tomatoes that don’t taste like tomatoes. While it might seem like ripe tomatoes would be the more obvious choice for desserts because they’re so much sweeter, the savory meatiness imparted by the high glutamate content makes the flavor seem inappropriate for sweet applications.

At Least It’s Not Raw Trout

Still, if there’s anything the age of salted caramel and bacon chocolate should have taught us, it’s the fact that sugar plays well with salty, meaty flavors traditionally confined primarily to savory appetizers and main dishes. Indeed, dessert ice cream made with traditionally-savory flavors has become one of the hallmarks of avant-garde cuisine. Smoked bacon and egg ice cream is one of Heston Blumenthal’s most celebrated creations—and, notably, served with a sweet tomato jam as part of the breakfast-themed dessert that’s a fixture on the menu of his three-Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck. A San Francisco ice creamery named Humphry Slocombe recently profiled in The New York Times offers many savory-sweet flavors including foie gras, “government cheese,” and salted licorice. And the competitors on Iron Chef America have presented the judges with ice cream desserts using secret ingredients ranging from abalone to the infamous raw trout.

a tomato ice cream written about a couple of years ago in the NYTimes, click for the recipe Tomato ice cream may sound like just another novelty or oddball flavor, but in fact, it may have preceded all this recent nouveau frippery, possibly even dating back to the very origins of ice cream in America. In the 18th C., when ice cream was still a relatively new invention and hadn’t yet become common in England or America, Benjamin Franklin got his first taste of the churned, frozen custard while visiting Paris. He liked it so much that he wrote in a letter home: “I am making an effort to acquire the formula so we may sample this lovely fare upon my return to Philadelphia.” French and American cookbooks from the era suggest that the most popular flavors back then were apricot, raspberry, rose, chocolate, and cinnamon, but it has been rumored that the flavor Ben Franklin liked best was tomato.

Given the lack of documentary evidence for the existence of tomato ice cream in the 18th C. and in light of the Nix v. Hedden decision, the Franklin rumor is improbable. However, after making something very akin to tomato ice cream last year for Battle Tomato, I feel like it’s not entirely impossible. Prepared with enough sugar, tomato is a perfectly plausible dessert flavor—like strawberry’s slightly funky cousin or a less-tart gooseberry. It’s a tiny bit peculiar, perhaps, but also really alluring, a savory-sweet combination reminiscent of salt-water taffy or yogurt-covered pretzels or anything else that simultaneously hits sour, salty, and sweet tastes. It can be really delicious.

Tomato Squares

When I was trying to figure out what kind of dessert to make for the housewarming party—something I hadn’t made in a while, something I’d only make for company—Brian suggested lemon squares. I’d just been thinking that basically any dessert you can make with lemons should also work with tomato, so I decided to put that to the test. Tomato juice may not be quite as acidic as lemon juice, but I thought it would be tart enough to set off the buttery richness of a shortbread crust and eggy curd filling, but I also hoped the bars might get a little extra something from the savory-ness of the tomato.

I started by making some fresh tomato juice using heirlooms from the garden, which turned out insanely good—perhaps the purest, richest tomato flavor I’ve ever tasted. I used about a cup of that in place of most of the lemon juice in my standard lemon curd recipe, which uses a basic cake-mixing technique to obviate the need for straining by coating the egg proteins in fat before adding the acid. That also turned out totally delicious—the first time I tasted it to see if I needed to adjust the level of sugar or acidity, I just kept going back for more. Just as I had hoped, the tomato added a totally new dimension to the curd, giving it a little oomph and intrigue. I put most of it in the refrigerator and then licked the pan clean. I used the curd to top the shortbread crust that Rose Levy Beranbaum recommends for lemon bars, which I like because it stays crisp even after being topped with a wet filling, cooked it until the curd was just barely set. The curd was more of a golden color, but as it cooked, the red pigments started to come through more. And voila: tomato squares!

although I hadn't thought of it before, you could probably make bar cookies like this with any fruit or vegetable flavor...guava squares, mango squares, ginger-lime squares, cranberry squares, etc.

Candied Basil Leaves

Thinking they looked a little plain on their own, I decided to garnish them with some candied basil leaves—like a sweet take on caprese salad. First, I tried the method suggested by a cookbook called Wine Mondays, which involved poaching the leaves in a sugar syrup with a high ratio of sugar : water and then baking them at a low temperature until they crystallize. Unfortunately, they discolored, probably because there was a hot baking stone still in the oven and I’m an idiot.

So I improvised a second batch by simply poaching the leaves in a 1:1 simple syrup, dredging them in some extra sugar to crystallize them, and drying them at room temperature on wax paper. That worked pretty well, although once I put them on the bars, they absorbed a little moisture from them and ended up soggier than I would have liked. If I ever decide to candy leaves again, I’ll probably use another method I’ve read about that involves brushing the leaves with raw egg white, dredging them in sugar, and then baking them at a very low temp (~150F) until they’re hard and dry.

Very similar to candied mint leaves—intensely sweet and herbal.

first, unsuccessful attempt--not only did they discolor, they didn't get anything approximating crisp. maybe another 15-20 min. would have crystalized them?

second, better attempt; still not as crisp as I'd like

Please, Try This At Home

I’ve included all the recipes I used below, separated in case all you’re looking for is a good recipe for fresh tomato juice. If you want to try making tomato bars but this seems intimidating or tedious, there are lots of ways to simplify the process. You could use store-bought tomato juice instead of making your own, and probably should if you can’t get vine-ripened tomatoes from a garden or farmer’s market because at least canned and bottled tomato products are made with vine-ripened tomatoes at their peak, unlike the tomatoes you get at most supermarkets. If you don’t want to bother with a cooked tomato curd, I’ve included a recipe for an uncooked bar cookie filling below which you could use fresh or store-bought tomato juice in. Obviously, the candied basil leaves are optional. This doesn’t have to be a major undertaking.

You could also use tomato juice in place of citrus juice or fresh, ripe tomatoes in place of fresh fruit in any other dessert recipe. If using fresh tomatoes, you probably want to peel and seed them first to prevent them from watering down the recipe too much. I can imagine fresh tomatoes in place of peaches or cherries in a pie, or sweet cherry tomatoes caramelized on top of a tarte tatin. You could whisk tomato sauce or tomato paste into a standard cake, custard, or icing recipe or use slightly cooked-down tomato puree in place of applesauce or pumpkin puree in a muffin or spice cake. If you think the people you’re serving might be wary of tomatoes for dessert, you can always use the strategy Campbell’s used to sell its Tomato Soup Cake recipe to thousands of housewives during the Great Depression: call it “Mystery Cake” (or pie, or ice cream or whatever) and make people guess at the key ingredient. They’ll come to the realization that it’s delicious before they ever figure out that it’s tomato. 

it separates a little after sitting, but stir or shake before serving and just see if it doesn't beat out every tomato juice you've ever triedRecipe: Fresh Tomato Juice (from Simply Recipes)
(makes about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of juice)

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 lbs tomatoes
  • 2 T. sugar
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 2 T. lemon juice

Method:

1. Core and chop the tomatoes roughly.

2. Place in a medium saucepan with as much of juice as you can get off the cutting board, and the rest of the ingredients.

3. Simmer for 25-30 minutes, or until the flesh is mostly broken down and very liquid.

4. Force through a fine mesh sieve or several layers of cheesecloth and discard the solids.

Recipe: Tomato Curd (adapted from Fine Cooking
(makes about 4 cups, more than enough to fill a 6-layer cake, two 9” pies, or a 9×13 pan of bar cookies; halve to thickened just enough to coat a spoon so that your finger leaves a trailfill a two-layer cake, one 9” pie, or an 8×8 pan of bar cookies)

Ingredients:

  • 6 oz. (12 Tbs.) butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup tomato juice
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice

Method

1. Using a stand or hand mixer or food processor, cream together the butter and sugar for at least 1 min or until the mixture is smooth and begins to lighten in color.

butter and sugar creamed together eggs beaten in well

2. Add the eggs and egg yolks one at a time, beating after each addition and for 2 minutes after all the eggs have been added.

3. Add the tomato juice and lemon juice and beat until smooth. Mixture will likely look curdled or uneven.

4. Pour the mixture into a medium saucepan and place over low heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to look smooth.

5. Raise the heat to medium and cook, still stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens just enough to coat a spoon or spatula thickly enough that you can run your finger through it and see a trail. 170F on a candy thermometer—the mixture should not boil, but may begin to bubble gently at the edges and steam a little bit.

6. Chill until ready to use.

Recipe: Shortbread Squares (adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum)
(fills a 9×13 pan; halve for 8×8)

butter cut, wrapped, and ready to chillIngredients:

For the crust:

  • 20 T. (12 oz) butter
  • 4 T. powdered sugar
  • 4 T. granulated sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour or 3 cups cake/pastry flour
  • 1/2 t. salt

For the filling:

  • approximately 4 cups of fruit curd, pastry cream, or cheesecake batter

OR

  • 8 large eggs
  • 2 c. sugar
  • 1 t. baking powder
  • 2/3 c. fresh lemon juice (or substitute 1/3 cup of any other juice, like guava or cranberry)
  • 2 t. lemon zest
  • 2 cups fresh or thawed frozen fruit (optional; omit for lemon bars; however, blueberries and lemon make a great combination)
  • powdered sugar for dusting

Method:

For the crust:

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. Cut butter into 1-inch cubes and chill.

3. In a food processor, process the granulated sugar for 1 minute or until very fine—sugar dust will probably rise from the food processor like smoke, that’s normal. Add the flour, powdered sugar, and salt and pulse to combine. If you don’t have a food processor, just whisk the dry ingredients together.

sugar "smoke" You should be able to press the crumbs against the side of the bowl and have them stay.

4. Add the chilled pieces of butter and pulse until it’s just a lot of moist, crumbly pieces and no dry flour particles remain.

If you don’t have a food processor, cut the butter into the dry ingredients with a pastry cutter or two crisscrossing knives.

5. Dump the crumbs directly into an ungreased 9×13 pan and gently press all over to make it a solid layer of shortbread dough.

Beranbaum suggests kneading it together before pressing into a pan; I think pressing it against the bottom works just as well gently pricked with a fork, it's fine if that pulls a few crumbs up--they'll melt back in as it bakes

6. Prick the dough all over with a fork—the dough may want to come away with the tines, I just use two fingers to hold the dough down on either side of the fork tines as I quickly pierce the crust.

7. Bake 30-40 min or just until barely browning at the edges.

flaky and delicate, melt-in-your-mouth buttery shortbread

For the filling:

If using a prepared filling, simply spread it over the top of the crust and then return to the oven for 25-35 minutes or until the filling just barely jiggles in the center when the pan is shaken.

If using the filling recipe above:

1. Whisk together the sugar and baking powder and then combine with the eggs and whisk until they are beaten well and the mixture is smooth.

2. Whisk in the lemon juice and zest.

3. Stir in the fruit, if using and pour the egg mixture over the shortbread crust.

4. Return to the oven and bake until the filling is just firm and does not move when the pan is gently nudged, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven and dust with powdered sugar.

fresh basil leaves, just picked from the garden, washed and dried wellRecipe: Candied Basil

  • whole basil leaves (about 20 large or 40 small)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup sugar, divided

1. Combine 1/4 cup water and 1/4 cup sugar in a small saucepan over low heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

2. Remove the syrup from the heat and let cool to lukewarm (the bottom of the pan should be cool enough to touch).

3. Place clean, dry basil leaves in the syrup and let sit for 5-10 minutes.

poached in simple syrup tossed in sugar

4. Spread the remaining 1/4 cup sugar on a baking sheet. Toss the leaves in the sugar.

5. Place the leaves on wax paper and let them dry overnight or for at least 4 hrs.

the finished product, at a slightly different, but no less wonky angle. whee.

Taffy Apple Cream Dip

I really only took like one picture of the table after everything was finished, so many of these are just zoomed-in parts of the full spread. Not the best angle--you can't even see how prettily Brian arranged all the peaches.

I really should have put a toothpick in that bowl with a flag on it explaining what it was because now and then when I’d stop by the table and drag a wedge of peach or a few blueberries skewered on a toothpick through it, someone would look at me, horrified, and say something like, “Blueberries with hummus? Really?” No, not really, but in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised that people didn’t immediately recognize it, even if the plates of fruit surrounding it were meant to be a clue.

“Taffy apple dip” (aka “caramel apple dip”) is usually just a combination of softened cream cheese, brown sugar, and vanilla. The first time I had it was at a pumpkin carving party last autumn. My friend Sara brought it, and said it was something her mother had made every autumn for years. As soon as I tasted it, I understood why. The molasses in the brown sugar has many of the same flavor compounds as caramelized sugar, and combined with the vanilla and buttery cream cheese, it evokes toffee or milk caramels.Michigan blueberries are so great right now, this is kind of gilding the lily. But what tasting gilding. It’s the perfect accompaniment for  crisp, tart apples, and so much simpler to make and eat than a whole apple on a stick dipped in caramel.

I knew I wanted to serve fruit at the party, but somehow just cutting up fruit didn’t seem festive enough. Since it’s not quite apple season—although I did find some honeycrisps at the farmer’s market—and the real stars of the late summer in Michigan are peaches and blueberries, I thought I needed to tweak it a little bit. I just wasn’t sure softer fruits would hold up to the original recipe. So I decided to combine it with some whipped cream. And just to be sure the cream wouldn’t start to melt or weep, I stabilized it with some cornstarch and powdered sugar, following Rose Levy Beranbaum’s instructions in The Cake Bible.

The resulting dip was exactly what I was looking for— rich, but light, like a caramelly cream cheese cloud. It was sort of reminiscent of marshmallow fluff, but not quite as sticky and way more delicious. I think the fat in the cream cheese also helped further stabilize the cream because even after three days in the refrigerator, the leftovers stayed perfectly light and creamy and didn’t seep any whey at all. So you could totally make this 24-48 hours before serving, and you could probably even skip the stabilizing step. Also, I bet it would make an amazing cake filling or icing, especially for a spice cake. 

Recipe: Taffy Apple Cream (adapted from Sara J. and Rose Levy Beranbaum)

  • 8 oz cream cheese at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 T. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream, divided
  • 2 T. powdered sugar
  • 1 t. cornstarch
  • pinch of cinnamon (optional)

1. Refrigerate your mixing bowl and whisk attachment(s).

2. Combine the powdered sugar and cornstarch in a small saucepan. Gradually add 1/4 cup of the heavy cream, stirring constantly until all the lumps are dissolved and the mixture is completely smooth.

3. Cook the mixture over low heat until it simmers, and keep cooking it for 30 seconds to a minute at that temperature until it thickens to about the consistency of corn syrup.

4. Scrape the mixture into a small bowl and let it cool to room temperature.

5. Once the mixture is cool, beat the cream in the chilled bowl just until it’s just thickened enough that the tines of the beater leave distinct trails. 

6. Add the cooled cornstarch mixture, beating constantly if possible or in several small additions, beating well after each addition. Continue beating just until stiff peaks form when the beaters are raised. Do not overbeat.

7. In a separate bowl, beat the cream cheese until it’s smooth and creamy, and then add the brown sugar and vanilla and beat until the sugar is dissolved. stabilized whipped cream and traditional whipped-cream-less taffy apple dip waiting to be merged

8. Gently fold the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture just until combined.

Jell-O Jiggler Shots Part II: Star-spangled Photo-tutorial

This is how you say "America, Fuck Yeah!" in Jell-O shots

For this year’s patriotic, alcoholic Jell-O Jigglers, I decided to cut stars out of the bottom layer of Jell-O, fill the holes with a white gelatin mixture, and then replace the stars on the top layer and pour white gelatin around them. So the top and bottom layers both have blue and white stars and they sandwich a layer of red. Here’s the bottom, before I inverted it:

it was actually a little prettier this way--I accidentally dissolved it a little too much in the process of unmolding.

By the numbers:

  • 2 small (3 oz) or 1 large (6 oz) box Berry Blue Jell-Othe lime Jell-O ended up in a separate pan, infused with limoncello
  • 2 small (3 oz) or 1 large (6 oz) box red Jell-O (I used Strawberry)
  • 8 packages (7 g each, about 2 oz total) plain gelatin
  • 14 oz. (1 can) sweetened condensed milk
  • 4 2/3 cups water (about 37 oz)
  • 2 2/3 cups vodka (about 21 oz or 630 ml)
  • 1 cup (8 oz) blue curacao
  • 1 cup (8 oz) raspberry pucker
  • 2/3 cup (5.3 oz) triple sec

That means it’s 11-12% alcohol or ~23 proof (107.3 oz total, 12.4 oz of which are alcohol—21 oz vodka @ 40% + 16 oz liqueur @ 15% + 5.3 oz liqueur @ 30%). So it’s roughly comparable to most wine or mixed drinks and approximately 18-27 servings of alcohol.

Layer #1: BLUE

Jell-O and gelatin combined like a blue, boozy reflecting pool: behold my kitchen shelves!

Whisk together the first color of Jell-O (6 oz.) with 2 packages of plain gelatin. Add 2 cups boiling water and stir to dissolve. Cool slightly (10-15 min) and add 1 cup vodka and 1 cup clear or matching liqueur up to 40-proof (I only had 2/3 cup blue curacao so I added a little of the red pucker, which gave it a slightly midnight hue, and some triple sec). Chill until set—at least 30 minutes.

If your refrigerator isn’t level—mine isn’t, you can stick flat things under the corners to try to get the Jell-O to set in an even layer. I used pieces of individually-wrapped American cheese. 

i know, it's "fake" cheese or "plastic" cheese or what have you; I still think it melts better than anything else I've found

Layer #2: WHITE

 gelatin mixed with cold water after a few minutes, "bloomed" meaning the gelatin has absorbed the water and softened

Empty two packages of plain gelatin into a bowl and add 6 Tablespoons of cold water. Let it “bloom” for 5 minutes.

Then add 2/3 cup boiling water, 1/3 cup vodka, 1/3 cup triple sec (or other clear liqueur), and 6-7 oz. sweetened condensed milk (about 1/2 a can). Let it cool.

Meanwhile, cut shapes out of the first layer and return them to cold storage.

I used a cookie cutter dipped in water to make the shapes and then lifted them out gently by easing each corner out one by one with a butter knife

Pour the white gelatin into the star-holes and then in a thin layer across the top of the entire blue layer. Chill until set, at least 30 min.

or just fill the stars i wanted a thin white layer separating the blue from the red

Layer #3: RED

Repeat step one with the second color. This time it really has to be cool so it doesn’t melt the other layers when you pour it on top. So, combine 6oz. Jell-O mix with 2 packages gelatin, add 2 cups boiling water, let cool 25-30 min, add 1 cup vodka and 1 cup liqueur.

Pour gently (I pour over the back of a spoon to distribute the impact a little more) over the set layers. Chill until set—at least 30 min.

red Jell-O and gelatin dissolved in water I thought about making the red into 2 thinner layers separated by white layers...y'know, like stripes on a flag. but that seemed like too much fuss, even for me.

Layer #4: WHITE

Repeat step two: “bloom” 2 packages gelatin in 6 T. cool water for 5 min, add 2/3 cup boiling water, add 1/3 cup vodka and 1/3 cup triple sec or other clear liqueur. If you want a thin white layer separating the colors, pour 4-6 oz of the white mixture over the set layers, tilting to get it to cover the surface of the colored layer, and chill that until set before preceding.

you can still see the red through the white the return of the stars

Then, place the cut pieces on top of the set layers and gently pour the rest of the white mixture around them. Chill until set.

I am completely unenthused about how Jell-O tastes, but I really love how it looks. I suppose I could improve the flavor by making my own with fruit purees or juices and gelatin, but I haven't gotten that ambitious yet. 

Cut and serve directly from the pan. Or, to invert and see the opposite side, immerse the pan in warm water for a few seconds (5-10 should be plenty). Not too hot or too long, because it will start to melt quickly—10 seconds in near-boiling water was too much. Place a serving platter upside down over the pan and flip. Immediately return to the refrigerator to re-firm.

Dipping the knife in hot water before cutting helps make cleaner cuts, but ultimately it’s still Jell-O. It wants to be wiggly and a little uneven, clearly “homemade” even if it comes from a box.  happy birthday, america, bottoms up!

Apple-Berry Crumble with Pouring Custard: Baking with neglected, non-baking apples

for reasons that may suggest themselves to you, in the U.S. pouring custard is more commonly known by the French name "Creme Anglaise" even though that just means "English cream," which, as you'd expect, the English have a perfectly good English name for

I’m apparently sort of an expert at letting fruit go bad—not meaning rotten, just completely unappetizing when raw. With pears, that’s easy to do because they’re usually harvested when they’re mature but still green and you have to babysit their ripening. Not all fruits are like that—citrus fruits and most melons and berries are as sweet as they’re ever going to be when they’re harvested. But pears are climacteric ripeners, which means they store some of their sugars as starch and even after you pick them and they can’t suck any more sugar out of the tree, they will get sweeter as their enzymes will break some of those starches into sugars. However, they also contain enzymes that weaken their cell walls, so you have to catch them at just the perfect moment when they’re optimally sweet but haven’t yet turned to mush. Depending on when they were picked and how fast the different enzymes are working, there might not even be a perfect moment—they might dissolve structurally before getting very sweet.

You can sort of control the ripening of climacteric fruits a little by storing them in paper bags with something that emits ethylene gas, like a banana. That’s basically a DIY version of the synthetic industrial process used to ripen almost all tomatoes destined for grocery stores and lots of bananas and pears too. And according to the wikipedia article on ethylene, the ancient Chinese used to ripen pears by storing them in closed rooms and burning incense, presumably containing ethylene or something like it. But this is what I’m talking about with the babysitting—they demand attention and inspire elaborate ritual.

I’m working on ways to turn this into a superhero costume for next Halloween.Apples are significantly less fussy even though they’re also technically climacteric ripeners. They’re usually sweet enough to eat when they’re harvested and best when crisp and they’ll stay that way for weeks in cold storage. It takes a special dedication to fruit neglect to let perfectly lovely apples get so mealy and bruised and wrinkled that they can’t be enjoyed raw. Given how many great uses there are for cooked apples, that wouldn’t seem like much of a problem, but the kinds of apples I like to eat are not the kind of apples I’d normally choose to cook with. So over the last few months, I had gradually relegated nearly 3 lbs of Galas, Honeycrisps, and Red Delicious apples to what I began to think of as the Forgotten Apple Drawer, all of them totally unsuited to either eating or baking.

I could have made a sort of lackluster applesauce and just hidden it in some muffins or a quick bread, but I got to thinking that the main difference between tart baking apples and sweeter eating apples is acid. Perhaps, I thought, I could make something tasty and apple-centric even with suboptimal apples just by adding a little extra lemon juice. And perhaps some tart berries. And then, in the spirit of the kind of laziness and inattention that leads to having a refrigerator drawer full of 3 lbs of neglected apples, I decided to make the simplest of apple desserts: a crumble. Crumbles are in the same baked-fruit-with-topping genus as cobblers and crisps, but is its own species…I guess meaning it can’t reproduce with any of the others.

I know the terms vary by region and tradition, but as I understand them, a cobbler is topped with a layer of biscuit dough dropped on by spoonfuls that bake into something that might resemble a cobblestone road, a crisp is topped with a thin layer of a rich streusel or butter crumb topping, and a crumble is has a thicker crumb topping that usually includes oatmeal. Put a rolled pastry crust on top either in pieces or with some holes poked in it so the juices can seep through and it’s a pandowdy; use buttered bread crumbs and brown sugar and it’s a brown betty. I’m sure there are others, too. The beautiful thing about all of them is that you don’t really need a recipe—you just fill a baking dish most of the way with fruit, top it with whatever combination of sugar and fat you can throw together—starch optional—and bake it until the fruit is done and the topping is brown. 

April 2010 Part I 008I actually had too many neglected apples for the large souffle dish I decided to use, so I threw about 1 lb of the cut pieces in a saucepan pot with a cinnamon stick, 1 T. brown sugar, and some water and simmered them until they were tender, adding more water now and then to prevent them from burning. I’ll probably use them sometime soon as a filling for buckwheat crepes, possibly with some homemade ricotta, as I’ve been meaning to try that.

For the crumble, since it’s not quite berry season, I used a dried berry mix I had picked up at Trader Joe’s with the intent of using it for polenta porridge. Normally when I bake with dried berries, I soak them in some juice or liquor first, but this time I didn’t bother. I just threw them in the dish with the peeled and diced apples, sprinkled them with a few tablespoons of sugar and the juice and zest of a lemon. And then I looked up a few recipes for crisps and crumbles and used those as general guidelines for the topping.

While it was in the oven, smelling lovely, I decided it what would truly compensate for any deficiencies on the part of the apples was something like ice cream. You can make ice cream without an ice cream maker if you break up the ice crystals by hand periodically, but that is kind of a pain. Given that what I wanted was a sweet, creamy substance to pool all around the hot apple crumble the way ice cream does as it melts, the freezing seemed like an unnecessary intermediary stop. If what you want is melted ice cream, why freeze it in the first place, right? So I made a simple pouring custard, which is the sort of thing you can turn into ice cream if you want to, but is a great dessert sauce on its own.

And it worked. Utterly redeemed. Tart and applicious with the occasional pop of berry and the rich perfume of the vanilla bean custard. You’d never know it started off as a drawer full of wrinkled, bruised Galas and Honeycrisps.

any ideas for turning my fruit neglecting powers into a superpower costume for next Halloween?

Recipe: Apple-Berry Crumblethey call it the "golden berry blend" as it also contains golden raisins (adapted from Joy of Baking)

Filling:

  • 4-7 apples or enough to fill a large baking dish (I used ~1 1/2 lbs, peeled and cored)
  • 1/2 cup dried tart berries (cherries, cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, or a combination)
  • 3 T. sugar
  • zest and juice of one medium lemon

Topping:

  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 t. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 t. ground nutmeg
  • pinch of salt
  • 7 T. butter, cut into 1/4” pieces
  • 1/3 cup rolled oats

1. Butter the baking dish and preheat the oven to 375F.

2. Peel and core the apples and cut into 1/2”-1” pieces. Toss in baking dish with sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest.

3. Throw all the topping ingredients in a food processor and give it a few pulses to just combine. Or, whisk everything but the butter together and then cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or two crisscrossing knives until the it’s crumbly and the largest pieces of butter are the size of small peas.

 topping mixture a few pulses later

4. Sprinkle topping over fruit evenly.

5. Bake for 30 minutes to an hour, or until you can see the juices bubbling under the topping and the top is golden brown.

ready to go in the oven just out of the oven--juices bubbling at the edges, topping golden brown

Recipe: Pouring Custard (adapted from Food & Wine and Joy of Baking)

  • 4 or 5 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 cups milk, half and half, or whipping cream
  • 1 vanilla bean or 2 t. vanilla extract

1. Place a mesh strainer in metal bowl set inside another bowl filled with ice water. When the custard is ready, you will want to stop the cooking process immediately and strain out any clumps, so it’s good to have this ready before you even start.

the second bowl doesn't need to be metal. doesn't even need to be a bowl--a stock pot or 9x13 baking pan would work just as well for the icewater Curdling Stops Here!

2. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until they begin to aerate—they should become a pale, lemony color (I know some sad battery hen eggs start that way but even those should lighten a little) and will increase slightly in volume.

I separate the whites directly into freezer-safe storage, always forget how many whites there are, and eventually have a vaguely nerve-wreaking meringue or angel-food cake experiment where I don't really know if I'm following the recipe. a smarter person would label the tupperware to tell her future self how many egg whites there are. paler an increased in volume

3. Put the milk in a saucepan, scrape the vanilla bean seeds into the milk, and heat just until steaming and there are little bubbles around the edges of the pan (about 5 min over medium heat). Turn off the burner—you don’t have to immediately remove it from the heat, you just don’t want it to get any hotter for the moment.

4. Temper the yolks by adding about half of the hot milk to them in a thin stream while whisking constantly. Another pair of hands or a stand mixer might be useful for this part. I managed by whisking with one hand while using the other to slowly adding milk with a soup ladle and focusing very, very intently on being ambidextrous. Basically what you’re doing in this step is warming the eggs gently so they cook without scrambling, so the key is to keep them moving as they come into contact with the hot milk.For obvious reasons, I have no pictures of this process in action. 

here's the set up after I've added about half of the milk

4. Pour the tempered egg mixture into the pot with the remaining milk, whisking constantly.

5. Turn the heat back on low or medium and cook for 5-7 minutes, whisking constantly, until the mixture just begins to thicken. You want it to be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon—but that’s not very thick, it will not be like a starch-thickened pudding or baked custard. As soon as it begins to thicken, pull it off the heat, still whisking constantly and immediately strain into the cold bowl to stop it from cooking any more. If using vanilla extract (or another extract or liqueur), add it now.

If it starts to look curdled you still have a minute to save it. Pull it from the heat immediately, whisking vigorously and immediately strain it into the cold bowl.

 no matter how vigorous your whisking, there will always be a few clumps it will thicken a little more as it cools, but will definitely still be a sauce, not something like a starch-thickened pudding

Tofu Clafoutis with Spiced Plums

or should I say "tofutis"? 

I discovered clafoutis a few years ago while looking for dessert ideas for Iron Chef IV: Battle Chickpea. The floofy name is a little misleading—it’s nothing fancy or elaborate, just a sweetened batter of egg, milk, and flour poured over a few handfuls of fruit and baked. I suspect only the reason that the French name has survived (although sometimes Anglophone menus and recipes drop the silent “s”) is that it doesn’t really have an exact analog in English. It’s somewhere between a custard and a cake, but usually has more flour than the former and more egg than the latter. The closest thing I’ve had is the puffy “Dutch oven pancake” or pannekoek sometimes filled with spiced apples. I’ve also seen it described as a “crustless pie” or “batter pudding.”

and given that it's substantially tofu and fruit and chick peas, you can totally justify eating it for breakfastClafoutis differs from pannekoek in that fruit isn’t just an optional addition, it’s the raison d’etre, the star of the show. The traditional version that hails from the Limousin region of France calls for un-pitted cherries, which supposedly impart a distinctive almond-like flavor, probably due to the same chemical found in peach and apricot pits, the source of “natural” almond flavor. They also all contain trace amounts of cyanide, which is Eric Schlosser’s primary example of why “natural” flavors are not necessarily superior—especially in terms of health—to “artificial ones.” According to wikipedia, the name “clafoutis” actually derives from the Occitan verb “clafir, meaning to fill’ (implied: ‘the batter with cherries’).” Apparently in France, when fruits other than cherries are used, it’s called a “flaugnarde” (which comes from an Old French word that means “soft”). But I’m sticking with “clafoutis” 1) because it’s more common in English regardless of the fruit involved, 2) because the etymology isn’t specific to cherries anyhow so as long as you’re filling it with something it’s no less clafir-ed and, 3) because if anything sounds more egregiously French than clafoutis, it’s flaugnarde.

Savvy readers may be wondering what any of this has to do with chick peas, perhaps imagining some sort of horrible pancake studded with whole chickpeas. The reigning Iron Chef I was competing against did actually make a dessert that basically consisted of a chocolate custard studded with whole chickpeas, so maybe that’s not so crazy. But I doubt he’s done that again since the competition. Also, he lost.

I'm not going to write all three variations every time, but of course chick peas also go by the name "garbanzo beans" and the flour is often sold as "gram flour" What I made—and liked enough to make again—was a clafoutis recipe that substitutes silken tofu and some chickpea flour for the eggs. I got the idea from the now-sadly-defunct blog Hezbollah Tofu, which was devoted to veganizing recipes by Anthony Bourdain to spite him for various incendiary slurs he’s made about vegans and vegetarians (the title is a reference to the quote from Kitchen Confidential: “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn.”). Sadly, I didn’t save that recipe and none of the other, similar versions I found used chickpea flour, which was the genius of the Hezbollah Tofu version, and not just because it was the secret ingredient I had to use. Chickpea flour is awesome—it’s the basis of the gorgeous crepes called socca or farinata and an addictive crispy-creamy pan-fried polenta-type stuff called panelle. In this recipe, it adds color, flavor and protein to help make up for the absent eggs.

But using the basic proportions in the other recipes and substituting chickpea flour for the regular flour and then throwing in 1/4 cup regular flour when I remembered that there was something preventing the original from being gluten-free, I managed to reconstruct something similar. I’ve never made or tasted an egg-based clafoutis, so I can’t vouch for its verisimilitude. I suspect that the batter is grainier and the final product less fluffy. It does have a faint soya-like nuttiness/bitterness. However, it’s still pretty delicious.  The fruit and flavor extracts mask the tofu flavor pretty well and the texture seems pretty much exactly like the descriptions of traditional clafoutis—thick and custardy, but with more structural integrity than most custards. A bit like French toast or bread pudding or a crust-less quiche.

they were pretty. i was taken in.You can use any kind of tree fruit or berry, although if the fruit is very firm or under-ripe you might want to cook it a little first. For the Iron Chef battle, I used Bosc pears, peeled, halved, and poached in white wine until just fork-tender. If you want to make the traditional version but don’t relish the idea of spitting cherry pits out of your dessert or pitting a bunch of cherries, you could use thawed frozen cherries and a little almond extract (either synthetic or cyanide-laced). For this version, my inspiration for was a bunch of little plums I had purchased, which turned out to be sort of unpleasant to eat raw. They were sort of bland and sour and instead of getting sweeter over time, they just started to develop mold spots and become grainy. I figured cooking them would be one way to add some sweetness and coax a little more flavor out of them.

I found a recipe for spiced plums roasted in orange juice and adapted that basic technique using white wine and a few different spices. The result was gorgeous—richly perfumed with the wine and a vanilla bean and just a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon. After spooning the plums out of the wine, I reduced the remaining liquid to syrup, which was way more plummy than the plums themselves and I’ve been drizzling that over the clafoutis before serving it. I know every recipe for every tofu-based dessert ever makes this claim, and it’s only sometimes true, but for real: you will not believe this dessert is made substantially from tofu.

they turned more golden as they roasted, and the sauce turned pink, like it leached that pigment out  "rustic" I think is the word 

Recipe: Tofu Clafoutis (adapted from Vegan Visitor and Nom! Nom! Nom! Blog

Fills one 10” pie pan and three 4-oz baking dishes; can be halved for a thinner clafoutis tofu and sugar in the food processor

  • one package silken tofu
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 2 cups milk (soy, nut, dairy, whatever)
  • 1 cup garbanzo bean flour (chickpea flour or gram flour) (I may reduce this to 3/4 cup next time since I remembered belatedly that there was also regular flour and it was a little firmer than it needed to be)
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour + more for coating baking dish
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 t. vanilla or almond extract
  • 1 1/2-2 cups fruit (whole berries or cut up apples or pears)
  • cooking spray, shortening, lard, or butter for greasing baking dish
  • powdered sugar for dusting

1. Preheat oven to 415F. Grease and flour the baking dish(es).

2. Place the fruit in the prepared baking dish. 

3. In a blender or food processor, blend the tofu and sugar until smooth.

4. Add 1 cup of milk and the remaining ingredients and blend until smooth. Then add the remaining cup of milk and blend.

fruit in the pie panbatter clafir-ed with plums!

5. Pour the batter over the fruit and place in the oven.

6. Bake for 15 minutes at 415 and then reduce the oven temperature to 350 and bake another 20-30 minutes or until the top is beginning to brown and the center only wiggles slightly when you shake the pan.

7. Let cool for 10-15 minutes, dust with powdered sugar, and serve. Garnish with a dollop of whipped cream or crème fraiche if desired.

poofed

Recipe: Spiced Plums enameled cast iron works well for this because you can transfer it directly to the stovetop, but any oven-safe dish will do(adapted from AllRecipes)

  • a dozen or so small plums, or half-dozen larger ones 
  • 2 T. sugar
  • 3/4-1 cup white wine
  • one vanilla bean (or 1 t. vanilla extract)
  • zest of one small lemon or orange
  • dash of ground nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, and/or cayenne

1. Preheat oven to 400F. Halve and pit the plums and place them cut-side up in an oven-safe pot or baking dish.

2. Sprinkle the sugar over them evenly and add the wine.

I use the back of a knife to scrape the seeds outand put the bean in a jar full of sugar to make vanilla sugar, which is great for homemade hot cocoa

3. Cut the vanilla bean in half and scrape the seeds into the pot (save bean for another use). Grate the citrus zest, nutmeg and cinnamon directly into the pot or add pre-ground spices.

  microplanes are so awesome. I don't even remember how I zested lemons before I had one.this nutmeg was whole when I started, so that's about how much I used.

4. Bake for 20-40 minutes or until the plums are the desired texture—less time if you want them to retain their structure, more if you want to turn them into something like a compote or sauce. If desired, you can remove the plums and boil the liquid to reduce it further.

these would be great on their own with ice cream or creme anglaise or in a cobbler, too  I reduced it until it was thick enough that a path remained for a few seconds when I dragged a spoon through it

Neglected Pear Bread or When Pears go Pear Shaped–ha! I kill me! or Okay, so it’s not that funny but the bread was nice

just a bit past their prime...

“Pears are just so stinkin’ elegant.” –Half-Assed Kitchen

There are few things I love more than a perfectly-ripe pear—just soft enough that you could cut through the flesh with a spoon but not yet grainy or worse, mushy. But that moment seems to come and go so quickly. They sit there on the counter for a week after I buy them, flesh completely unyielding. If I dare to cut into one, it’s inevitably crisp as a good apple, but not nearly as sweet, not at all what I’m looking for in a pear. But then I  look away for a minute—check my e-mail, perhaps, or dare to fall asleep. And that’s it, I miss their few perfect hours. Next thing I know, I have three pears dissolving in my fruit bowl, just barely held together by their increasingly bruised skin.

Usually, at that point, I cut them up and throw them in a basic muffin batter with some powdered ginger. The bits of pear give the muffins an almost custardy consistency, like little pear and ginger-flavored bread puddings. But I got a little busy this week and ended up leaving them to degrade beyond the point where I could even dice them up.

feeling less neglected now, it seems!So I realized that if I was going to get any use out of them at all, it was most likely going to be as part of the moist ingredients, more like the mashed banana in banana bread than the blueberries in a muffin. But most of the recipes I found for baked goods using pears asked for them grated or chopped or shredded, all of which would have required a starting structural integrity far beyond what these pears had. I thought about just substituting them in a recipe for applesauce bread until I came across this recipe which called for canned pears, but involved pureeing them in a blender or food processor. It also called for almond meal, which reminded me of the traditional French tart with thin slices of pear layered over a frangipane base. And although I’m sometimes a little skeptical about advice and recipes I find on About.com, the ultimate selling point was the note about how the recipe had been improved by the addition of baking soda to promote browning and off-set the acidity of the lemon juice. What can I say, I’m a sucker for science.

Which is not to say that I think baking is an exact science. I didn’t have quite enough almonds, so I substituted some ground flax meal. IMG_0166Even after I’d cored and peeled my three sad pears and pared away some of the worst bruising, I had a lot more pear than the recipe called for, so I left out some of the lemon juice. I added a little almond extract, in part to compensate for using less almond meal and in part because I just really like almond extract. And I added just a little cinnamon and nutmeg—not as much as I would have wanted in an applesauce bread, but just enough to give it a hint of spice. I only had one 4×8 loaf pan, so I used a 9×13 for the second loaf and had to leave that one in a little longer. Next time, I’ll probably substitute brown sugar for some or all of the white sugar.

It turned out lovely—the delicate flavors of pear and almond melding with a little brightness from the lemon and warmth from the spices. It’s moist and tender, not too sweet for breakfast or afternoon tea, and definitely better the  second (and third and fourth) day. Not, perhaps, quite as sublime or as elegant as a perfectly ripe pear, but not a bad result at all for pears so badly neglected.

Recipe, including explanations for some modifications in the method which are applicable to all quick breads and butter cakes, and pictures below the jump.

Recipe: Neglected Pear Bread (adapted from Linda Larsen)

  • IMG_01563/4 c. butter, softened
  • 1 1/4 c. sugar (white or brown or a combination) 
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1 t. kosher salt
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 t. ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 cup ground almonds
  • 3 large overripe pears, cored, peeled, and pureed (~20 oz.)
  • 2 T. lemon juice
  • 1 t. almond extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350 and butter and flour two loaf pans, ideally 8”x4”. Or whatever pan you plan on baking it in—you could use bigger loaf pans or make something more like a cake in one or two round, square, or rectangular pans, or use muffin tins.

2. Cream the butter and sugar until smooth and fluffy. Then, add the eggs one at a time.

The original recipe called for creaming the butter, sugar, and eggs together all at once, and you would probably get a decent result that way. Creaming the butter with the sugar first cuts through the fat and aerates it, making sure there aren’t any lumps of fat in the batter, which would melt and create large holes rather than an even crumb. The reason I suggest adding the eggs one at a time is that the goal is to create an emulsion, and just like in mayonnaise the emulsifier is the egg yolk. If you add all the eggs at once, you’ll have to beat the mixture longer to make it smooth, and there’s a greater danger of beating the egg whites into a partial meringue. Over-aerated egg whites will tend to migrate towards the top of the batter and create a slightly tougher, cracked crust that might have a tendency to break away from the rest of the cake. So, just like it’s better to add the fat to the egg yolks gradually in a mayonnaise, it’s better to add the egg to the fat gradually in a cake batter.

 action shot! let this go too long and you'll have almond butter, which you might want to add to the moist ingredients rather than the dry

not quite 3/4 cup sliced almonds: about 1/2 cup ground almonds, so I used about 1/4 cup ground flax seed3. Grind the almonds. Once I realized I didn’t have enough sliced almonds (never mind ground), I just topped the measuring cup off with flax meal and threw it all in the food processor bowl.

4. Whisk the ground almonds (or any nut or seed meal substitutions) with the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

5. Core, peel, and puree the pears. Add the lemon juice (will prevent oxidation/browning) and almond extract.

 yes, they're gross, that's the whole point of the entry another thing to do with far gone pears: cook them until this happens and have pearsauce

6. Add about a third of the flour to the creamed butter and sugar and mix until just combined, and then mix in about a third of the pear puree. Repeat until all of the fat, flour, and liquid are combined, mixing just until the batter is smooth and even.

The reason for alternating is to prevent the creation of gluten. Gluten forms the proteins in wheat flour combine with water. Mixing the flour with the butter mixture first coats the proteins in fat, which prevents gluten from forming. Doing as little mixing as possible also helps prevent gluten from forming (the whole purpose of kneading bread is to promote the formation of gluten), while still getting the batter evenly blended. If you added all the dry first, the batter would be too stiff and lumpy and you’d have to mix it so much, you would likely get gluten formation. If you added the liquid first, you wouldn’t get the protein coated in fat and would lose the smoothness and aeration in the emulsion. Alternating gives you the smoothest batter with the least gluten and most even leavening.

7. Pour into prepared pan(s) and bake until the bread is browning and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. In 4”x8” pans, the bread should take 45-55 minutes. In the 9×13 it took an additional 10 minutes. I’d start checking muffins at 25 minutes, and a cake pan at 35.

 not clean! clean!

8. Cool in the pan(s) on wire racks for about 10 minutes, loosen from the edges with a knife and turn onto racks to cool completely. Nice warm, but better the next day. If you want to freeze it, wait until it’s entirely cooled and then triple-wrap in plastic. 

NYE 2010 Part II: Admiral’s Punch and Festive Sweets

cocktail in a bowl!

At past New Year’s Eve parties, we’ve mixed cocktails to order, and we never draw such a crowd that that’s a problem. However, I did find the Bon Appetit Foodist article about punch that would be less fizzy –spiked-pineapple-juice and more cocktail-in-a-bowl pretty compelling, both for ease of serving and because it enables you to make a drink that benefits from muddling and sitting and melding and chilling, all of which are either annoying or impossible to do on demand and to order. Also, I thought the recipe that called for little more than cognac, lemon juice, sugar, and sherry with a little nutmeg grated in sounded pretty delicious.

And it was. If I’d mixed three batches, it might…might have lasted until midnight. Of course, then we might all have been in too bad of shape to have any champagne.

As for sweets, I could have just relied on the candies I’d made for Christmas. Candies are useful for catering because they’re, by nature, practically non-perishable, sugar being a preservative and all. Additionally, they’re generally best served at room temperature, can be made weeks in advance, and rarely require flatware or cutlery. But candy just never seems totally satisfying as a dessert to me.

So the challenge was to find sweet fingerfoods that were elegant—most cookies don’t quite say “cocktail party” to me—but wouldn’t degrade too much sitting out for hours. I decided on a flourless chocolate-orange cake, cut into two-bite squares, and shortbread fingers filled with three different flavors of preserves. As a bonus for party-planning, both are best eaten the day after they’re made, so you can make them in advance, albeit not as far in advance as candy.

Flourless Chocolate-Orange Cake

instructions for candied orange zest curls also below

 Shortbread Fingers

these are strawberry-raspberry, blueberry on the plate behind, and out of sight my favorite: apricot-peach

Recipes and more pictures below.

Recipe: Admiral Russell’s Christmas Punch a lot of the nutmeg stuck to the ice, but that was fine because it perfumed the drinks without having a lot of grit in the glasses(from the BA Foodist)

  • 5 lemons
  • 1 cup raw sugar
  • 1 750-ml bottle Cognac, VSOP-grade
  • 1 cup amontillado Sherry (apparently “lightly sweet oloroso” also works)
  • Nutmeg, freshly grated

1. Fill a 4-cup metal bowl with water and freeze overnight. That will keep the punch cold without diluting it too much.

2. Peel 4 of the lemons with a vegetable peeler and muddle with the sugar. Let sit 30 minutes and then muddle again.

3. Microwave the peeled lemons, individually, for about 45 seconds each. Juice them—you need about 1 cup.

4. Bring 1 cup water to a boil, pour it over the lemon peels and sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Strain into a pitcher and discard the peels. Mix in the sugar, cognac, sherry, and 4 cups cold water.

5. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 6 hours before serving. To serve, run the ice mold under hot water to release and place in a punch bowl. Pour the punch over and grate nutmeg over the surface. Slice the last lemon into thin slices to float in the punch

Recipe: Flourless Chocolate-Orange Cake (from Epicurious)

  • 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, plus extra to grease the pan
  • flour for dusting the pan (~2 T.)
  • 6 oz. bittersweet chocolate
  • 1 cup plus 2 T. sugar
  • zest of one large orange
  • 4 eggs plus 2 yolks
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • powdered sugar, for dusting (~4 T.)
  • candied orange zest, for serving (recipe below)

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a 10” round cake pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, and butter and flour the pan—including the parchment.

2. Melt the chocolate over a double boiler. Stir the butter into the chocolate until it melts, and stir until smooth.

3. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar and orange zest. Add the eggs and egg yolks and stir well.

4. Sift the cocoa powder over the batter to remove any lumps, and whisk batter until totally smooth. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes, or until the top has developed a smooth, cracked crust.

5. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Then, invert the cake onto a serving plate. Wrap and refrigerate overnight. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.

Candied Orange Zest 

  • 2 oranges
  • 1/3 cup sugar, plus more for dredging strips
  • 1/3 cup water, plus more for poaching

1. Wash the oranges and peel the into long, wide strips with a vegetable peeler, and scrape any white pith away with a knife. Cut the strips into long, thin pieces.

2. Put the orange zest in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a simmer and simmer at least five minutes, then drain.

3. Return the strips to the saucepan and add the 1/3 cup water and 1/3 cup sugar. Bring to a simmer and cook 10-15 min or until the strips are translucent and the sugar and water have become a thick syrup.

4. Remove the strips to a sheet of wax paper and spread them out. When slightly cooled, roll in sugar to coat and shape, if desired.

If you’re really crafty and patient, you can cut shapes in the zest with a knife or special hole punch. They’re still pretty if you just let them dry how they will, but if you want to curl them, you have to shape them while they’re still warm and pliable.

I started off by wrapping them around chopsticks, but those tended to unravel too much before they could cool and stiffen. Also, I don’t have nearly enough chopsticks to shape a whole batch before they’re cool. So toothpicks are the way to go.

you might be dextrous enough to get multiple curls on a single chopstick without having them all fall off. I am not.

Recipe: Austrian Shortbread (from Smitten Kitchen)

The peculiar thing about this recipe is that you make the shortbread dough, and then grate it like cheese, and layer the gratings over and under preserves. I’m not sure precisely what difference the grating makes—perhaps it’s less dense? The only other shortbread I’ve made has been quite thin, so I’m not sure how a traditional recipe compares to this—which produces bars almost as tall as my 9×13 pan will hold.

In fact, this recipe makes so much (obviously, right? 1 lb butter, 4 cups flour, 2 cups sugar) that if you’re not trying to feed a crowd, you should probably halve the recipe. You could either use a 9×13 pan and just make thinner bars or use an 8×8 pan.

One benefit to using a 9×13 pan is that you can make several varieties in the same pan, using different kinds of preserves, like so:

front to back: blueberry, apricot-peach, and strawberry-raspberry

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. butter, softened (4 sticks)
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 cups flour
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1 t. vanilla or 1 t. lemon zest (I opted for the latter, as I’m fond of the perkiness citrus adds to fruit desserts)
  • 1 cup preserves—raspberry is the classic, but I’m crazy about Harry & David’s Oregold Peach preserves and just about anything would be great here
  • 1/4 cup. powdered sugar, for dusting

1. Cream the butter in a stand mixer until soft and slightly aerated (should be smooth, and is often described in recipes at this point as “fluffy” though I’ve never quite gotten that). Add the egg yolks and mix until fully combined.

2. Whisk the sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt together and then add to the butter-egg mixture and mix just until incorporated. You don’t want gluten to develop—treat this like a biscuit or pie crust. You want the dough to just begin to come together.

3. Spread two large pieces of plastic wrap on a table or counter and dump the contents of the mixing bowl out onto it. Separate the crumbs into two roughly equal piles. Press them into two balls or disks, using the plastic wrap to help gather and compress the dough. Freeze at least 2 hrs, or up to a month.

4. Preheat the oven to 350F. Remove one ball of dough and grate it with a medium cheese grater (a food processor makes this so much easier, but if you’re grating by hand you can grate directly into the pan). Spread the shreds of dough evenly in a 9×13 pan.

5. Put the preserves in a piping back or a zip-top bag with the corner snipped off, and squeeze it over the surface in thin strips. Spread gently to cover the surface evenly, leaving a 1/2” border around the edges.

6. Remove the remaining dough from the freezer, grate, and sprinkle evenly over the top.

7. Bake 50-60 minutes, or until the center no longer wiggles and the surface is turning a pale golden brown. Dust with powdered sugar as soon as it comes out of the oven.

8. Cool on a wire rack and cut in the pan. If you chill it before cutting, the cuts will be cleaner. Dust again with powdered sugar before serving.

Ground cherry galette and no-churn vanilla bean soft serve

this "ice cream" melts so fast it's only by the grace of autofocus it survived plating and posing

I’ve never made a galette before, but it seemed like a good idea because pies are one of the primary traditional applications for ground cherries, and I didn’t have nearly enough to make a traditional double-crust pie filling. Since galettes are free-formed around their fillings, they can be as big or little as you want to make them. And so much easier than pies—there’s no delicate procedure to get the crust into a pie pan without cracking, no par-baking and hoping the sides don’t droop or shrink. No crimping or lattice.

But I was wary of just following a normal ground cherry pie recipe and changing the shape, because the lack of shaping and par-baking means the crust can get soggy if the filling is too wet, which is why fruit galette recipes often call for a layer of crushed cookies or cubes of pound cake or a frangipane to help soak up the juices. Rose Levy Beranbaum’s suggestion to let cut fruit sit with sugar for 30 min and then drain off and reduce the syrup sounded like a good idea, but unnecessarily fussy. Instead of going to the trouble of draining off the juice, I just simmered the halved ground cherries with some brown sugar and limoncello (a desperation substitution when I realized I didn’t have any lemons) until the liquid had reduced a bit, basically making a quick ground cherry jam. And then I entirely forgot to add the butter most of the pie recipes called for. C’est la vie.

It turned out like a big ground cherry pop tart, basically. Just a simple buttery pastry crust filled with a thin layer of rich, sweet ground cherry preserves. Lovely with ice cream, perfect for breakfast. I may still try to pick up enough at the market this weekend to do a proper pie, but this galette definitely sated my somewhat-batty obsession with the fruit, which is good in case the two pints from last week are all I get for the summer. It probably goes without saying you could do this with any other kind of berry, and most stone fruits too, but there. I said it anyway.

simultaneously rustic and bejeweled

Recipe: Ground cherry galette

(crust adapted from Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for More Food, filling adapted from Allrecipes and Vesey’s)according to The Yuppie Handbook (published 1984), I get 4 points for owning a marble rolling pin

For the crust: 

  • 8 T. butter (Alton uses 6 T. butter and 2T. lard, I don’t usually have lard around and didn’t feel like digging out the shortening)
  • 1 1/4 c. (6 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 2 T. sugar (optional—leave out for a savory galette)
  • 2-3 T. ice water

For the filling:

  • 1 1/2 cups ground cherries, husked and halved
  • 2 T. brown sugar
  • 2 t. tapioca
  • 1 T. limoncello or the juice of 1 lemon
  • a pinch of grated nutmeg
  • 2 T. butter (also optional, apparently)

Cut the butter into 16 or so chunks and freeze while you get the other ingredients together. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor bowl and pulse (or just whisk together). Add the butter and pulse 10 or so times (or cut in with a pastry blender or two crisscrossing knives) until the biggest lumps are the size of small peas.

 also a reason why forgetting to add butter to the filling wasn't a big deal though not quite the *shape* of peas

I decided to try Alton’s recommendation of using a spray bottle to distribute the ice water evenly, but it also misted the sides of the bowl (and I can’t imagine how that could be avoided entirely), so when I hit "pulse" again, the mist attracted flour and formed a thin layer of moist paste on the side of the bowl, which is about as awesome as most things you describe as "moist paste." So I gave up on that and just fed the ice water through the opening in the top, pulsing until the dough just barely started to come together.

 thumbs down  thumbs up!moist paste. say it quickly and it starts to sound like "myspace" with a slight brogue: "moispace"

Then, dump the contents of the food processor onto a piece of plastic wrap (or into a large zip-top bag). Use the plastic to help you press it into a disk about 5" in diameter and 1" tall. Chill for 30 min.

Meanwhile, husk the cherries and slice them in half into a sauce pan, setting aside any that are still tinged with green. Sprinkle with brown sugar, tapioca, and lemon juice or limoncello. Grate in a pinch of nutmeg. Stir over medium heat until the cherries release their juices and the juice thickens into a glaze.

filling3 filling1

Preheat the oven to 400.

Roll out the pastry on a piece of parchment paper—leaving the plastic wrap on top helps. Doesn’t have to be a perfect circle because the whole idea here is a rustic, uneven sort of charm, but the best way I’ve found to get a roughly even circle-like object is to roll from the center of the dough directly away from your body, or up towards 12 o’clock. Then, turn the parchment about 30 degrees and do it again, and repeat, turning it in a circle and always rolling in the same direction with roughly the same amount of pressure.

Spread the filling in the center, leaving at least a 2" border or up to 4". Then, fold the edges up, letting them pleat naturally or attempting to bend them to your will or some combination of the two.

galette3 galette4

Bake for 35-40 min.

A few minutes after I’d put it in the oven, I remembered that I’d seen Thank God It’s Pie Day sugar her galettes before baking, which gave them sparkle and a little crunch. So I pulled it out of the oven and did that. Bonus for being forgetful: I didn’t having to brush the pastry with water to get the sugar to stick.

Recipe for the no-churn, no-whisk, ice-cream-or-semifreddo-like dessert object will have to wait. I’m tired.