Entries from May 29th, 2006

Blueberry Tarts with Meyer Lemon Cream

May 29th, 2006 · 35 Comments · Books, Fruit, Recipes, Tarts

edited to add recipe on request!


This is one of the desserts that I’ve had on my to-make list for a very long time. When I first saw this recipe in Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course, I remember feeling awe at her skills in creating a sophisticated twist on a dessert classic, and astonishment at the beauty of the accompanying photo. An elegant row of tarts stretching down a mirrored platter, showcasing her creation perfectly: the fine, ruler-straight edge of her tart shells, the plushy cream filling, the ripe berries. It was one of those moments where I realized exactly how great good pastry can be. (The photo must have been one her favorite shots too, since it shows up on the cover of the book!)

For many years I was afraid to tackle the recipe, not because any of the individual components was impossible, but because I didn’t think my results would come anywhere close to that wonderful photo. There’s a part in the foreword by Tom Colicchio, chef/owner of Gramercy Tavern where Fleming worked:

"What I most appreciate about Claudia’s desserts is that in the smallest ways, each and every component is that much finer than everything else out there. Compare Claudia’s shortcrust to anyone else’s in New York – it’s that much thinner, and, again…finer. These are small distinctions, but in the world of pastry, they are everything."

I didn’t want to make her dessert with a ragged, too-thick, tart shell, or clunky, lumpy pastry cream – so I didn’t do it at all.

But after pastry school, many hours of home baking, and many a burned pie crust and separated ganache under my belt, I felt it was finally time. I knew it was a sign when I saw the organic blueberries at the farmers’ market.  They were so big and round and plump, they made me cry for all their sad shrunken cousins at the grocery store. And when I also spotted the perfect tart tins at the cooking store, it knew it was going to happen.


The tart shell is a graham cracker crust, redolent of honey and cinnamon. If you’ve never made your own graham crackers, you should – so different from the grocery store version! The dough is quite supple and workable, and bakes up into a sweet crispy delight.

Here I must confess to a twist of my own. With all the beautiful Meyer lemons at the farmers’ market, I couldn’t not use them. So instead of the cream cheese filling Fleming calls for, I used the Meyer lemons and made Pierre Hermé’s famous lemon cream, thinking it would pair nicely with the blueberries. Hopefully Fleming won’t mind!

Did you see just how perfectly big and round all the blueberries were in the photo? They hardly needed any refinement at all, just a dip in a little glaze made from cooking some sacrificial berries with some sugar.


So how do I feel about the results? Pretty happy. In comparing my pictures with the one in the book, I think her tart shells are still a little thinner – drat!  But tastewise, I think it’s good – the crust is crisp and buttery and snaps easily, the cream is lemony unctuous pleasure, and plays off those blueberries quite well.

There’s always a higher pinnacle to aspire to (hey, I went to Paris – I know exactly how far away I am from perfection!) But sometimes it’s also nice to look back and see how far you’ve come.

Graham Cracker Tart Shells

adapted from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course

makes about 16 3-in round tart shells or 24 2×4 in rectangular tart shells

1 cup butter, room temperature

1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup honey

2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Cream the butter in an electric mixer until smooth.  Add the sugars and continue mixing until the mixture is fluffy and light colored. Add the honey and beat until combined.

Combine the flours, salt, and cinnamon together in a bowl, and add to the butter mixture in two batches, scraping down the sides of the bowl between additions. Mix until the dough is well combined. Wrap the dough in plastic and form into a disk – the flatter the better. Chill until firm, at least an hour and up to two days.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. On a lightly floured surface roll out the dough to be 1/8 inch thick. Use either a 3 inch round cookie cutter to cut out circles of dough, or cut out rectangles of dough to fit your desired tins. A tip: try to cut out pieces of dough that are as similar in size and shape to the pan as possible (this applies to full-size tarts as well) so that they are easier to maneuver and fit in, and are less likely to warp and tear as you’re moving them around.

Press the dough gently into the tins, prick dough with a fork all over, and let chill for 5-10 minutes or until the dough is firm enough to trim off the excess easily. Buttery doughs like this one always need to be chilled before baking so they bake up evenly, and I also find that it’s easier to trim off the dough cleanly when the dough is firmed up. Chill longer if necessary.  When I trim off the excess dough, I usually use an offset spatula and run it flat against the top of the tart tin. Scraps can be re-rolled and re-used.

Bake tart shells until golden brown, about 18 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. You can store them in an airtight container for about a day or freeze them for up to 3 months.

Blueberry Topping

adapted from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course

2 1/2 cups blueberries

1 tablespoon sugar

In a medium saucepan combine 1 cup of the blueberries with the sugar. Cook over low heat until all the berries have popped and the juices come out (You can smoosh some of the berries if they won’t pop).

Strain the mixture into a bowl and discard the solids. Add the rest of the blueberries into the syrup and toss to combine.

Lemon Cream

adapted from Pierre Hermé’s Desserts

makes about 1 1/2 to 2 cups

1/2 cup sugar

zest from 2 lemons

2 eggs

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

5 ounces butter, cut into 1 inch pieces, softened but not melting

Create a water bath by placing a saucepan of water over heat to simmer and placing a metal bowl unto the pan so its bottom does not touch the water. Combine the sugar and lemon zest together with your fingers and add to the metal bowl. Whisk in the eggs and lemon juice.

Cook the mixture over the simmering water, whisking constantly, until the cream reaches 180 degrees and thickens. Keep whisking while the mixture is heating up to prevent the eggs from cooking.

Once the cream is thickened – you should be able to make tracks in the mixture with your whisk – take the cream off the heat and strain it into the bowl of a food processor or blender. Let the cream rest for a bit until it cools to about 140 degrees.

Add in the butter pieces a few at the time and combine on high speed. Once all of the butter has been added, let the mixture combine for a few minutes longer to ensure the mixture is perfectly smooth. It is the addition of butter that changes this recipe from a simple lemon curd to a rich, satiny-smooth cream.

Once the cream is finished pour it into a container and let it chill in the refrigerator for about half an hour before assembly.

To assemble the tarts, spoon some of the lemon cream into the shells and then place about 2 tablespoons of the blueberries on top. Serve soon after assembly.


Blueberries – Triple Delight, Fresno

Lemons – Hamada Farms, Kingsburg

Butter – Clover Farms, Marin County

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Cherry Trio

May 26th, 2006 · 7 Comments · Books, Cakes, Ice Cream, Recipes


It’s the beginning of cherry season – when I went to the farmers’ market this week, there were boxes of the red and gold-colored fruits beckoning from the stalls.  The deep ruby Bing cherries were already sweet enough to eat out of hand, while the yellow ones were still a little on the tart side – but perfect for working into dessert.

I picked a trio of recipes from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course; what I like about her cookbook is that every recipe will suggest accompaniments to complement or contrast with the dish. It shows how easy it is to combine a variety of flavors and textures and make the jump from one dessert to a restaurant-worthy composition. Her suggestions are creative and inspired as well; I never would have thought of candied fennel as a partner to cherry cheesecake!

I used Fleming’s recipe for Cherry Cheesecake Tart with Red Wine Glaze but made it in individual portions so it wouldn’t overwhelm the other components of the dessert. The cheesecake, made with cream cheese and sour cream on a graham cracker crust, has a sweet creamy flavor and a wonderfully light, fluffy texture. It  makes a nice base for the cherries, which take on a rich, slightly spicy notes from the red wine and star anise glaze. Fleming’s suggestions for accompaniments are the cherry sorbet and candied fennel.

The second item is based off of her recipe for Cherry Napoleons with Almond Pastry Cream, but because I was so pleased with how my Apple Phyllo Napoleons turned out and I wanted to keep the dessert light, I substituted almond-scented whipped cream for the filling and sprinkled the tops of the phyllo napoleons with crushed almonds and sugar. This variation was just as delectable: the combination of cherries and almonds is perfect and I loved the contrast between the crispy napoleons, billowy cream, and sweet fruit. Fleming’s suggestions for this dish were candied almonds and an almond milk granité.


The final part of the trio is a cool, sweet cherry sorbet.  It’s important to use red cherries for this (Fleming’s recipe actually specifies sour cherries, which are always scarlet), as otherwise you won’t get the appetizing bright red in the result. For this dish, Fleming suggested candied almonds, fresh cherries, and a chocolate biscotti with pistachio.  Even though I didn’t make all of these suggested dishes, it’s really fun to see just how many different ways you can combine dessert ideas and bring out different aspects of the dishes.

And there we are! Three cherry desserts, just in time for Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start of summer!


Cherries – Hamada Farms, Kingsburg

Butter, cream – Clover Farms, Marin County

Sour cream – Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes

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Food Photography Workshop

May 23rd, 2006 · 20 Comments · Photography

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Last weekend I went up to Sonoma, not for the wine but for a food photography workshop being held at VIVA, the Culinary Institute of Florence and Italian Cultural Center in Sebastopol. Surprised that such a place was out in wine country? So was I, but it is a beautiful little building designed in that sleek, cool, modern aesthetic Italy is so good at, offering an intriguing array of classes in Italian culture, from language to food to wine.

The two-afternoon workshop was taught by Cosimo Bargellini, an experienced photographer whose work has appeared in many publications, including cookbooks, and who teaches food photography in Florence. He was funny, charming, eager to share his knowledge but also just as eager to have us students find our own vision. While he imparted some basic technical and compositional concepts about photographing food, he emphasized that the most important thing was for us to not be afraid to experiment and learn what looks good and what does not.

Because of the limited time and small class size, he kept the class quite informal and more of a workshop than a class.  The first afternoon consisted of critique and analysis of slides showing his former students’ work, and some discussion on what makes a good picture. But the second day he basically let us loose in front of his setup and had us just start taking pictures. Although we were all rather nervous at first, probably hoping he would give us some more instruction, he told us with a smile that if he set everything up for us "we would just be taking his pictures."

And after we overcame our stage fright and started taking pictures (although some people with fancier equipment used their own cameras, Cosimo let us use his camera – what a chance to use some high-end equipment!) he would step in making observations, giving us pointers on where to focus, what type of lighting would bring out the texture of the food, how using reflectors would improve the lighting, etc.


The teacher at work. The setup is not that elaborate, mostly because he was traveling from Italy to Montreal for a conference and therefore did not bring much of his equipment. Normally his camera (a Fuji Finepix, I think) would be hooked up to a computer so the picture could be viewed more easily; here we had to rely on the viewfinder. There are two standing lights, one with a diffuser, off the side, and also a third light being used for strong side lighting of the subject. There is also a gold reflector being used to give a warmer cast to the food.

Is it surprising that we were still able to achieve quite good pictures with the simple, impromptu setup? Cosimo believed that while better cameras will produce better pictures in general, it is not necessary to get the most expensive camera or tons of equipment. With a couple of lights and reflectors, and interesting papers from the art store for backdrops, you can get some nice results! Here are some of my favorites from my shooting session:


A chocolate mousse dessert (another student brought the food, but I did the plating!:) ) I liked how the red plate and green background matched elements of the dish.  Also notice the off-center placement and cropping.  Cosimo is a big proponent of "not centered", as he calls it, because having the subject smack dab in the center of the picture is usually much less exciting and dynamic.  At one point I jokingly asked him if there were any straight lines in his house:)


French onion soup.  We used a wood board to enhance the rustic feel, and strong side lighting to show off the texture of the cheese. Of course now I also notice the wet spot on the board; these pictures have not been finetuned in Photoshop!


A simple pasta dish.  The point of this exercise is that the wonderful golden color of the pasta is from putting some saffron in the boiling water; without it, the cooked pasta looks rather anemic and unappealing. Do the experiment yourself – it’s amazing!  This was just one of the little tricks that Cosimo showed us. In the world of food photography, there are many techniques used to help  make food look more appealing for shooting, but which usually render the food inedible. While Cosimo admitted that sometimes it is unavoidable, he prefers to work with the actual food as much as possible and not use fake ice cream or chemical sprays because afterwards no one can eat the food – he is a true gourmand!


Brown sugar pecan cheesecakes and a study in depth of field. I am very fond of the "endless rows of food" shots. The gold reflector was used here to make the cheesecakes look even more golden and luscious.


Crème brûlée. I liked the reflection of the ramekin on the black dish. See the picture above of Cosimo for what the whole dish looked like. This was actually part of a set brought in by another student; I have to say one of the best parts was having so many fun props to work with.  I need to hit the markets more and build up my collection!


Another cheesecake shot. I really like the colors here, plus they did such a beautiful job with the fruit!

A word on all the food in the shots: with the exception of the pasta, all of it was brought in by students on their own initiative! We were told that all the food would be provided, yet some students decided to contribute their own creations – I am only sorry I didn’t bring anything of mine to see how it could look when photographed professionally!  We were very lucky to have Susan, who has been making and selling cheesecakes for 20 years, and Roger, chef/owner of La Gare, a beautiful French restaurant voted "Most Romantic" in Sonoma Country, bringing in so many of their creations for us to play with!

In all, I was very impressed with VIVA and the class.  I wish the workshop could have been a longer-running class so we could have had more time to learn about technique and refine our photographers’ eyes, but those two days were wonderful creative sessions that opened my mind to how we can capture the beautiful food we make, to remember long after it has been consumed.


7160 Keating Ave

Sebastopol, CA 95472


Note: There do not appear to be any photography courses in the near future, but I was told Cosimo does fly in from time to time to teach.  There are also many food and wine classes being offered on their calendar. The VIVA staff is exceptionally friendly and gracious and will happily answer all your questions.

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{SF} Charles Chocolates

May 22nd, 2006 · 3 Comments · Chocolate, San Francisco, Sweet Spots


What could be better than chocolate? How about free chocolate?

Charles Chocolates, which has been providing fine chocolate to San Francisco since 1987, opened their first retail store for a test run in the city. As if the limited duration of the store (through the end of May) was not energizing enough, the mention of chocolate tastings cemented my desire to see this place before it closed down.


So on Saturday afternoon I scampered into the compact little space on California Street to find welcoming stacks of chocolate and candies everywhere and  – yes – a tasting tray of chocolate covered caramels! Apparently I had missed the truffles last week (I believe they are doing their peanut butter butterflies this week). But I was quite pleased to sample their fleur de sel caramels, one with a pure buttery caramel center, the other with a chocolate-caramel ganache. Both were covered with a bittersweet chocolate coating that set off the rich, creamy fillings nicely. I would have bought a box, but they had already sold out!


Most of the rest of their product line was still available for buying (if not tasting): their signature collection of chocolates; some vibrant pate de fruit in raspberry, blood orange, grapefruit, white peach and passionfruit; chocolate bars; and chocolate-covered almonds.


It’s too bad the store is only temporary or I would certainly be making return trips to this sweet little place!


P.S. Their website also offers a "PMS Assortment" – 12 pieces of dark chocolate which may be purchased in multiple-month "prescriptions".:)

Charles Chocolates

3527 California Street (cross street Locust)

San Francisco, CA

through the end of May

Charles Chocolates are also available at other places in San Francisco and worldwide.

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Preserve Net Neutrality

May 16th, 2006 · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

Save the Internet: Click here

While today was meant to be posting about St. Honoré Day, it is also the day for taking action to preserve Net Neutrality, so we can continue to visit all of our favorite sites in the same way we can now.

Read Pim’s post

Go to Save the Internet and read about this issue

Sign the petition

Without access to all of the Internet, I would not have been able to do research on St. Honoré, find new desserts to inspire me, or meet all of the other wonderful food bloggers around the world.  I hope you join in to preserve the net for everyone to enjoy equally.

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Happy St. Honoré Day!

May 16th, 2006 · 11 Comments · Cakes, Pastry, Recipes


Did you know today is St. Honoré Day, in honor of the patron saint of bakers and pâtissiers everywhere! And what more appropriate way to celebrate than with a Gâteau St. Honoré?

Who was this mysterious figure to whom I really should be praying more often to have my breads rise properly, chocolate tempered perfectly, and buttercream frost smoothly?  History has few facts about Honoré, but I did find out that he lived in the sixth century and was a bishop in Amiens, in northern France. During his reign several miracles were purported to have occurred, which led to his sainthood. He eventually became the patron saint of bakers, and is often shown holding the long baker’s peel.


Picture from Saint Honoré Bakery’s website – they’ve got a bit about the saint there as well!

Honoré died on May 16th in 600 AD, and that day is still celebrated by bakers in France.

So what about this Gâteau St. Honoré? It was supposed to have been created in 1846 by the pâtissier Chiboust, in honor of the saint and also because his own shop was on Rue St. Honoré in Paris.  No stranger to the importance of names and legacy he – he created and named the famous Chiboust cream as well, to be used in the Gâteau St. Honoré!

The recipes and construction for this cake has changed greatly over the years, with various doughs and fillings being used, but today the Gâteau St. Honoré typically has a base of puff pastry with a top ring of choux pastry, garnished with cream puffs around the border and filled with Chiboust or pastry cream. It is meant to showcase all of these wonderful inventions of French pâtissiere that endure to this day and give sweet pleasure to so many.

The first time I made a Gâteau St. Honoré was in pastry school; the miraculous thing was watching how a base of puff pastry with a ring of choux paste on top would bake up perfectly in the same amount of time! Then there was the assembly of the cream puffs, dipping them in caramel, and attaching them to the base. Finally, filling the center with pastry cream and decorating with whipped cream. This was a real project; something that took the better part of an afternoon, multitudes of bowls and tools, and made you feel at the end like you’d really accomplished something.

For this year’s Gâteau St. Honoré, I decided to use a recipe from Pierre Hermé’s Chocolate Desserts, which showcases his enviable ability to take the classics and put his own intimitable spin on them. Instead of the traditional vanilla pastry cream filling for the cream puffs, he uses chocolate pastry cream.  Hermé calls for a layer of pears and chocolate whipped cream in the center of the base in lieu of regular pastry cream, but I went for his all-chocolate variation and filled the center with a deep chocolate cream, topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.


The result, is, of course, rich, chocolately, crunchy, sweet – a true celebration of all the sweet things in life. Happy St. Honoré Day!

Credit: Much of the historical information for this post came from Meryle Evan’s article Saint Honoré – Patron Saint of Bakers and Pastry Chefs and the Evolution of the Cake Created in his Honor.

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