Entries from December 22nd, 2007

And a Partridge in a Pear Tree

December 22nd, 2007 · 34 Comments · Cookies, Recipes


To all my dear readers,

I love all Christmas songs, from the gorgeously melancholic "We Three Kings" to the wistfully optimistic "Have Yourself a Merry Christmas". Very few songs make me want to sing them out loud, but play a Christmas carol and I’ll start humming the words, whether I’m in a department store elevator or in a restaurant. And believe me, I have been getting a lot of Christmas music over here in Hong Kong – it is very nearly ubiquitous, from funky synthy versions in the shopping malls to unobtrusively classical piped-in versions in the posh casinos on Macau, to loungey languorous versions played by a jazz trio in a sumptuous hotel restaurant. The last version, of course, can be the worst kind of sentimental if you’re not in the mood, or the very loveliest sort of yuletide dreaminess, especially if the restaurant you’re sitting in is on the mezzanine of a hotel overlooking a ceiling-scraping Christmas tree limned in white and blue and silver, with equally ceiling-scraping windows on the other side overlooking the Hong Kong skyline glowing in rainbow of lights. A setting like this; a view like that; well, you’d have to be a grinch not to succumb to the tinkling of "The Christmas Song" in the background.

So what better way to show my love for Christmas carols than through food? My last Christmas gift to you readers – a partridge in a pear tree, or a pear, at least. Alas that I didn’t have time to recreate the rest of the twelve days of Christmas, but, well, it’s the partridge that everyone always remembers, right?

The recipe is adapted from Kate Zuckerman’s take on the classic linzer cookie in The Sweet Life, and it’s a keeper: light, crisp, richly redolent of hazelnuts and just barely warmed with a hint of cardamom and cinnamon. I find many linzer cookies overly sweet, especially with the added powdered sugar; this version has a more restrained, adult flavor that sets off a filling of raspberry or apricot jam perfectly.

Although I prefer raspberry jam for the dramatic coloring it provides, it seemed apricot jam was more appropriate here since I was going for a pear shape. If you have a pear jam, by all means try it as well.  This cookie tastes wonderful regardless of what form it takes or what filling it contains, but if you do go for the partridge-and-pear shape, I hope you and your guests enjoy this most elegant of visual puns. I have to say the cookies still make me smile and sing the refrain to the song in my head every time I see them.

Well, I’m ready to finish counting down the days to Christmas…I hope all of you are enjoying your holiday baking! You’ll probably hear from me again after I’ve returned back to the states at the end of December, so I’d like to wish all of you and your loved ones a very happy holidays, and best wishes for a sweet new year!


P.S. The hotel with the jazz trio would be the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, that bastion of refined luxury. Last night I had the pleasure of listening to them play while indulging in the Tiffin Room’s famous Dessert Buffet, a spread composed almost entirely of sweets, from petit fours to grand gateaux to ice cream to chocolates to souffles to confections. How could this pastrygirl not recommend a place where you can have dessert first, last, and all places in between?


Grand Hyatt Hong Kong

1 Harbour Road

Hong Kong

+852 2588 1234

Dessert buffet from 8 pm onwards


P.P.S. Menu for Hope has been extended through the weekend – so you have a last chance to get in your bids for the prize of your choice! My prize has been tipped as a long shot – thank you so much for all your support! You still have a chance to win it or any of the other wonderful prizes, so take a last look!


Linzer Cookies

adapted from Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life

makes about 12 large 3 1/2 in cookies

5 ounces hazelnuts

2 1/2 cups (350 g) flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cardamom

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

8 ounces (226 g) butter, room temperature

3/4 cup (156 g) sugar

1 egg, room temperature

1/2 cup apricot jam

powdered sugar for dusting

Place the hazelnuts and about half of the flour in a food processor. Process until the nuts are ground into a fine powder.

Combine the rest of the flour, the salt, cinnamon, cardamom, and baking powder in a bowl.

Pour the ground nut mixture into the bowl and whisk together to combine.

Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium speed for about a minute.

Add in the sugar and beat for several minutes until the mixture is very light colored and fluffy.

Add in the egg and beat until combined, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides as necessary.

Add in the flour mixture and beat on low speed until combined. Scrape down the sides as necessary. Continue beating for a couple minutes until the dough starts coming together into a ball.

Scrape out the dough onto a clean surface. Flatten the dough out into a rough rectangle about an inch thick, wrap in plastic, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. You can store this dough in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line baking sheets with parchment or Silpats.

Take the dough out of the refrigerator and let it sit for about 10 minutes to soften a bit. Do not let it get too soft, though, or it will become too sticky to work with.

Roll the dough out to about 1/16" thick. Use desired cutters to cut out shapes from the dough. Place the shapes on the baking sheets. You can reroll the scraps and cut out more shapes. Chill the dough if it becomes too soft to work with.

Chill the baking sheets for about 10 minutes in the refrigerator before baking.

Bake cookies in the oven for about 10-14 minutes, depending on the size of the cookies. Rotate the cookies halfway through baking. The cookies should turn darker golden but should not become dark brown, and should smell like toasted hazelnuts.

Let the cookies cool on wire racks before removing from the sheets.

When you are ready to serve the cookies, spread half of the cookies with the apricot jam, and place the other cookies on top to make sandwiches. Sift confectioner’s sugar over the sandwiches (if you are making cutout cookies, sift the sugar over the top cookies before you make the sandwiches).

Because the jam will soften the cookies, assemble them shortly before you will serve them.

Tagged with: + + +

Bite This!

Read more →


Honey and Sea Salt Caramels

December 17th, 2007 · 29 Comments · Candy, Recipes


Hello all,

I’ve been in Hong Kong for a couple of days and it has been a complete whirlwind – but of course you don’t make a trip to the true city that never sleeps expecting a leisurely vacation!

Every time I return to Hong Kong there appear to be about fifty new high rises, sprouting magic beanstalk-like out of the cityscape; about a million more people navigating the streets, subways, and stores with a speed and efficiency rivaling the human circulatory system; and oh, I don’t know, about several million more feet of neon everywhere.

I do love it here, and the fact that Hong Kong celebrates the holidays with such visual panache and culinary gusto almost makes up for my abbreviated Christmas baking season this year. It’s hard to feel pastry-deprived when the streets are almost literally lined with bakeries and gourmet stores selling everything from French pâtisserie to traditional Chinese sweets to European chocolates.

One thing I haven’t seen yet, though, are fresh, honey-sweet, buttery-fragrant caramels like the ones that have been sweeping through the blogosphere this year, and that I made before I left on vacation. Cut into individual pieces, sprinkled with Hawaiian sea salt in a festive red, and wrapped in wax paper, they are the perfect treat to scatter across the holiday party table.

These caramels are adapted from Alice Medrich’s recipe for honey caramels in Pure Dessert, which makes more than enough for you to squirrel a few away for personal indulging after giving out the rest. Although the recipe calls for corn syrup, this is mainly to help keep the caramels soft and pliable instead of turning hard and brittle, and you can eliminate it if you wish. Medrich suggests trying different honeys with this recipe; I like lavender or wildflower. If you are using a light, sweet honey, you can reduce the sugar by a third of a cup – I like to let the honey flavor come through without being overwhelmingly sweet. Also, be sure you get the caramel to at least 250 degrees, which is hard ball stage – otherwise, the resulting caramels may not set up and will be too soft to cut properly. If you find your caramel is still too soft after letting it set up, you can dump it back into the pot and heat it up again – a great little save. Try cooking it to a few degrees higher to make sure it sets up firmer.

I hope all of you are enjoying the holidays – even though my oven isn’t on, I’m still enjoying myself!


Honey Butter Caramels with Sea Salt

adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert

makes about 80 caramels

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1/2 cup honey

1 cup (200 g) sugar

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

2 cups heavy cream

3 Tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces, room temperature

Line the bottom and sides of an 8 or 9 in baking pan with foil or parchment paper. Let the sides of the foil or parchment hang over the sides of the pan; this will make it easier to remove the caramels.

In a large saucepan (use at least a 3 quart saucepan, as the boiling caramel will increase in volume), combine the corn syrup, honey, sugar, and sea salt, and bring to a boil. Let the mixture continue cooking until it reaches 305 degrees F.

Meanwhile, place the cream in a small saucepan and warm on the stove until it is just at a simmer. Turn off the heat and cover the saucepan to keep the cream warm (you do not want to add cold cream to the hot caramel or it will seize up and harden.)

When the caramel is at the right temperature, take it off the heat and add in the butter, stirring until it is melted and combined.

Add in the cream slowly – when you pour it in it will bubble up violently, so don’t add the cream all at once or it might overflow. When you have added all the cream, stir the mixture until combined.

Return the saucepan to the stove and cook on medium heat until it reaches 250 degrees F.

Pour the caramel into the prepared pan. Let it set overnight before removing and cutting into individual pieces.

Tagged with: + +

Bite This!

Read more →


A Little Gift for My Readers

December 11th, 2007 · 6 Comments · Chocolate


The suitcase is packed, the oven is shut off, the lights are dimmed, and I’m off to Hong Kong! It’s been quite a flurry of Christmas card writing and holiday baking, and I’m looking forward to a little rest and relaxation halfway across the world.

I’ve got a few posts tucked away, though, so do check back here in the next week or so for some more of my holiday treats. And in the meantime, I’ve got an early holiday gift for all my wonderful Dessert First readers: 15% off your purchase from Charles Chocolates!

Some of my favorite items from Charles Chocolates:

Hazelnutbar_2 The Candied Hazelnut Bar, which combines sweet candied hazelnuts in a 65% bittersweet chocolate – crunchy, smooth, and delectable.

Tea_box The Tea Collection, truffles infused with Asian teas ranging from robust to floral to fruity – some of the best infused chocolates I’ve encountered.

Winepatefruit The Wine Infused Pâte de Fruit – I am seriously addicted to these sweet little hemispheres of wine. With Gewurtraminer, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Champagne, they’re a heady, delightful treat.

And they’ve unveiled several luscious new items for the holidays:

Holiday_collection The Holiday Collection – Charles Chocolates’ signature edible chocolate box with a cute holiday design. What better gift than one where the box can be eaten?

Rec_4 Mini Chocolate Squares – For your chocolate fix on the go, convenient little five gram squares of indulgence.

Marmalade188 Artisan Marmalades – The blood orange and Meyer lemon marmalades made in-house for Charles’ filled truffles became so popular that now they’re canned and sold on their own! Perfect for breakfast or teatime.

Be sure to visit Charles Chocolates’ site to see the rest of their lineup.

To take advantage of this offer, simply go to Charles Chocolates’ site to place your order. Then type in the promo code DESSERTFIRST when you check out. This offer is good through December 17th.

Don’t forget, you also have a chance to win one of Charles Chocolates fabulous new Boxed Assortments, filled with caramels, truffles, and chocolates, in the Menu for Hope campaign. Check it out here.

Happy holidays to all my dear readers – I hope you enjoy this little gift!

Tagged with:

Bite This!

Read more →


Menu for Hope IV

December 9th, 2007 · 3 Comments · Events


I’m happy to announce that Dessert First is participating in the 4th annual Menu for Hope, a global fundraising effort to support the UN World Food Programme. Hosted by the marvelous Pim of Chez Pim, Menu for Hope has grown into a hugely successful yearly event on the blogosphere – last year the effort raised over $62,000.

How does it work? Simply put, you (all you readers out there!) can purchase $10 raffle tickets to bid on a fantastic array of food-related prizes. Each ticket gives you one chance to win a prize of your choice. The money from the purchase of the tickets is processed through Firstgiving, a third party online fundraising company, and goes on to the UN WFP. So not only can you win some really great prizes, like dinners at renowned restaurants or signed cookbooks or stellar wine, but you’re helping a very worthy cause.


I’m proud to present Dessert First’s contribution to the raffle, which is a Deluxe Boxed Assortment of chocolates from Charles Chocolates. Those of you who have followed my blog know that I’ve already written about this stellar Bay Area chocolatier, both here and for Edible East Bay. Charles Siegel, the founder of Charles Chocolates, has been in the Bay Area chocolate scene for over 20 years, and his confections are wonderfully original and wholly delectable. This boxed assortment is a fantastic introduction to his creations, and includes some of my favorites, including the Mojito Heart, Lavender Honey Truffle, and Fleur de Sel Caramels.

If you win this Deluxe Boxed Assortment, you will get in an elegant blue box

-The Classic Collection Assortment, which has two layers of Charles’ filled chocolates

-The Handmade Truffle Assortment, which has two layers of truffles in a range of familiar and exotic flavors

-The Fleur de Sel Caramel Assortment, which contains ten plain Fleur de Sel caramels and ten bittersweet chocolate Fleur de Sel caramels.

A truly sweet prize, if you know what I mean.

Please note that all chocolates are made at Charles Chocolates in small batches and shipped out within three days of creation, ensuring that the customer is enjoying these creations at their peak. Because of this, Charles Chocolates has asked that the prize be shipped to an address in the United States only.

The code for this prize is UW09. If you would like to bid on this prize, simply click here to go the Menu for Hope page on Firstgiving, enter in the number of tickets you’d like to purchase, and note the prize code in the comment area.

You can also go to the US West Coast roundup to see the list of prizes for this region, or to Chez Pim for the entire prize listing.

Menu for Hope runs from Dec 10-21, after which the raffle winners will be announced on Pim’s blog on January 9, 2008. So happy bidding, and good luck – and do bid on my prize!!

Tagged with: +

Bite This!

Read more →


'Tis the Season

December 5th, 2007 · 32 Comments · Chocolate, Cookies, Recipes


I love December, the gentle melancholy as we tiptoe to the end of the year, juxtaposed with the swirling joyousness of the holidays. I always smile when I realize the approach of things that suffuse me with the warm, fuzzy holiday spirit: gaily colored Christmas cards in the mail; children running about in puffy, scarf and coat-plumped bundles; store windows aglitter with all things gleaming and sparkly (I love sparkly things); the murmur of Christmas songs in the air, songs I’ve never learned but somehow to which I always remember the words; and, of course, the prospect of baking batches of Christmas cookies and filling my kitchen with scents of vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate, peppermint, cloves – the very perfume of yuletide.

My very first attempt at making a Christmas themed cookie was to take a chocolate chip cookie recipe and add in red and green M&M's (Coincidentally, this brainstorm occurred right when bags of only red and green M&Ms starting showing up in stores). Emboldened by the happy response, I started doing holiday riffs on my favorite cookie recipes every year – there's something about taking a familiar cookie and cutting it out in the shape of snowflakes or presents, or sprinkling it over with red and green sprinkles, that never fails to elicit a delighted reception.


This year, I'm eschewing the M&M cookies for a few bolder experiments – ones I think have turned out just as well, and that I'm happily tucking away into gift boxes, along with diplomatic suggestions to enjoy as soon as possible. (What can I say? I'm an ardent supporter of enjoying cookies while they're fresh, and I'm terrible at waiting until Christmas Day to open presents). Over the next couple weeks, I'm excited to share with you my cookie cache – starting with that most elegant and party-ready of cookies, the macaron itself.

With its infinite adaptability, the macaron is a natural for customization to the occasion at hand, be it refined or outré. I must admit I'm bedazzled by the visions of M. Hermé, who has included among his macarons de Noël this year a macaron with balsamic vinegar cream, one with black truffles, and a chocolate one with foie gras – oh, the lucky recipients of that box! I'm afraid I can't afford to be that generous and luxurious with my ingredients, but I did fancy making a chocolate macaron, since my Christmas cookie collection always includes something rich and chocolatey. And what more seasonal a touch than to add a bit of peppermint to the ganache filling?

This recipe is adapted from Tartelette's excellent macarons made via the Italian meringue method, creating perfectly smooth and shiny, crackly and chewy little discs ready to be filled and sandwiched. Do you imagine that Santa might enjoy a plate of these waiting for him by the chimney?

Next week – Menu for Hope – and caramels!


Chocolate Macarons with Peppermint Ganache

makes about 40 macarons

150 g sugar

50 g water

120 g egg whites

35 g sugar

150 g ground almonds

150 g confectioners' sugar

25 g cocoa powder

100 g bittersweet chocolate, chopped in pieces

100 g cream

3/4 tsp peppermint extract

Combine the 150 g sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Let it cook until it reaches 230 degrees F.

Meanwhile, combine 60 g of the egg whites and the other 35 g of sugar in a stand mixer and whip with the whisk attachment until soft peaks form.

When the syrup has reached 230 degrees F, remove from heat and pour in a slow, steady stream into the mixer bowl while the whisk is still going. Let the whisk keep going until the mixture cools down, about 10 to 15 minutes. The mixture should look shiny and fluffy.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

While the mixture is going, sift the ground almonds, confectioners' sugar, and cocoa powder together into a bowl. If you want your macarons to have the smoothest tops possible, blend the mixture in a food processor and then sift it.

Add in the remaining 60 g egg whites and mix together until it forms together into a moist ball.

Take the cooled meringue from the mixture and fold it carefully into the almond mixture. You may want to add about 1/3 of the meringue first and fold it in to lighten the almond mixture before adding the rest. Do not overfold and deflate the meringue or the batter will turn runny.

Line baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.

Scrape the batter into a piping bag fitted with a 1/2" round tip. Pipe out 2 inches rounds about 1 1/2" apart on the sheets.

Bake the macarons for about 15 minutes in the oven. Let them cool on wire racks before trying to remove them.

To make the ganache, place the chocolate in a medium bowl.

Bring cream to a boil on the stove, then pour over the chocolate. Let it sit for a couple minutes and then stir to melt and combine the chocolate with the cream.

Add in the peppermint extract.

Let the ganache cool and firm up; when it is solid enough you can spread it on the macarons as a filling. If it becomes too firm, you can warm it carefully over a pot of simmering water.

Tagged with: +

Bite This!

Read more →